The Fallacy of a Root Cause

Why did it fail? Your project didn’t produce the expected outcome, your strategy wasn’t effectively executed, your change initiative didn’t become part of the culture … why?

As leaders we’re driven to pinpoint the root cause, the key underlying factor that led to failure. If only we had assigned an executive sponsor. If only we had allocated the right resources. If only we had spent more time communicating the rationale.

Yet it’s often impossible to find the root cause. Why? There isn’t one. There are many.

Organizations are complex systems with many dynamic and interdependent factors. It’s typically a combination of factors that contribute to failure, or to success.

At one time I led a quality team to improve customer service at a university bookstore. Our initial research showed a low-level of satisfaction with the bookstore experience. Why? It turned out there were 19 root causes related to the greeting process, design of shelving, signage, organization of the books, store hours, and the checkout process. Addressing all 19 of the root causes led to a dramatic improvement. Addressing any one alone would not have.

The same thinking applies not just to failure but to any level of performance, good or bad. The model of one cause for one effect is overly simplistic. Thinking of your organization as a complex system helps you look beyond the one so-called root cause and more deeply understand which factors drive performance and what to do about it.

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