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June 6, 2015

Thinking clearly about challenging problems

Deconstructing a complex problem using issue trees can infuse a new sense of clarity and lead to efficient solutions.

Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.” 
― A.A. Milne, Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh

The social sector wrestles with some of the most complex issues in some of the most complicated environments, with limited resources. But getting to the heart of a complex issue, and discovering the factors that drive it can be a challenge in and of itself. We often get swept up in analysis and debate only to ‘not quite know what [we are] thinking about’.

So where to begin?

Introducing issue trees

An issue tree is one tool which can help you through the complexity by graphically breaking down the issue or problem into smaller logically-connected components. Splitting an issue into more manageable parts makes it easier to think through and analyse. This approach is the first building block in mapping out the pathway towards an effective solution.

A problem can be expressed as a central question or as a statement of the core issue – the ‘What?’. The issue can then be dissected into groups of drivers that contribute to the problem – the ‘Why?’ does the problem exist. As illustrated in Figure 1, the drivers form the Level 1 nodes branching out to the right from the problem statement.

Figure 1: An issue tree structure
Figure 1: An issue tree structure.

The next level of branches continues to break the drivers down into even smaller sub-sets of drivers. Essentially, every subsequent level (Level 2) of the tree should describe the previous level (Level 1) in more detail, adding value by deconstructing the branches into smaller components until a sufficient level of detail has been covered.

Why use an issue tree?

As a visual tool, an issue tree can provide much needed clarity around the problem you are trying to solve by disaggregating complex issues into clear, inter-related parts. A key benefit of graphically breaking down the issue is the ability to capture new insight into a previously inscrutable challenge. Beyond discovering insights, issue trees can also be used by teams as an excellent problem-solving and communication device.

Inscrutable challenge solved

Take the example of a social enterprise operating a printing department to create employment opportunities for people in the community with an intellectual disability.

After breaking up the problem of shrinking profits and analysing all the components, the enterprise was surprised to find that a steady decline in its profits was not driven by a shrinking market but in fact caused by a gradual fall in the number of marketing activities it undertook.

At the start of a project, creating an issue tree as a team and/or involving stakeholders not only ensures that you do not overlook any key pieces of the puzzle but also creates a shared understanding of what drives the problem. From a shared understanding comes a shared vision of how to begin tackling it.

At the next stage of the problem-solving process, issue trees facilitate proper scoping and prioritisation of drivers. This helps the team focus on the components and sub-components that will have the greatest impact on the issue and subsequently pave the way to an effective solution.

Issue trees in action

Tackling the issue of youth disengagement within the education system is not straightforward, especially because an essential part of the solution is aligning different stakeholders, whether they are departments in an organisation or service providers. So when a client approached SVA Consulting to identify the key drivers of disengagement in a specific region, one tool we used was an issue tree to:

  • Clearly disaggregate the drivers of the complex problem
  • Efficiently communicate these to multiple stakeholders
  • Gather stakeholders’ perspectives, and
  • Structure and share the work plan to investigate each driver in detail.

Starting with the right question

It is important to concisely articulate the issue or problem because it focuses and guides the work to follow. The more specific the articulation of the problem the more actionable the findings can be.

The project tackling youth disengagement needed a specific problem that the client could overcome if change was to occur.

A vague or broad articulation of youth disengagement would have too many contributing factors for an effective and meaningful project to be developed.

The problem was defined as: ‘Young people aged 15 and over are increasingly disengaged from school’.

Identifying high level drivers

Through consultation with stakeholders, SVA Consulting identified four broad drivers leading to disengagement: disjointed learning, low aspirations, low stimulation and reward at school, and at risk individuals missing out on support (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Key drivers of youth disengagement with school in a specific region.
Figure 2: Key drivers of youth disengagement from school in a specific region.

It is important to note that each driver needs to be defined tightly so that it can stand alone without any overlap with other drivers. It is equally important to consider all possible drivers that are relevant to the issue so that there are no blind spots in the emerging solutions.

Soft issues like conflict between stakeholders or lack of capability are often overlooked leading to an incomplete breakdown of the issue and therefore, a sub-optimal solution.

Focusing in on drivers with the most impact

To better understand which drivers had the most impact on youth disengagement, SVA Consulting used qualitative evidence gathered from interviews with stakeholders, and quantitative analysis of school completion rates, support service usage, career development programs and community profiles to develop the second level drivers.

As a second step, SVA Consulting analysed the impact each Level 2 driver had on Level 1 drivers. The analysis demonstrated that the disconnect between the schools and employers and the limited availability of case management support for high needs or at risk young people ranked high as drivers of disengagement. These two drivers then informed the next steps in exploring the solution. (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: Isolating drivers with the most impact on youth disengagement
Figure 3: Isolating drivers with the most impact on youth disengagement.

Advice for using issue trees

As with all tools, there are guidelines for getting the most out of an issue tree:

Over-invest in clearly defining the issue to be solved

  • Lack of clarity on the key issue can lead to wasted time in reworking the issue tree or, worse still, solving the wrong problem.
  • If you are having trouble framing the key issue it may be useful to work in the opposite direction, starting from observations, grouping them into similar categories and capturing the true essence of the issue for that group.
  • If you cannot articulate the right issue definition, share your work with others to get input.

Be aware of gaps and overlaps in and amongst branches

  • Often, it takes a few drafts to get to a final version of the issue tree. Get a first draft down on paper and involve others to ensure your tree is not missing important drivers. For example, soft drivers like conflict and apathy can be legitimate drivers of an issue and are worth recording appropriately.
  • Ask yourself if you can independently explore a particular branch or are there overlaps with other branches that may lead to duplicate effort. If you find overlaps, either return to the parent issue in the previous level and explore other ways of breaking it down or move the overlapping issue to a sub-set level. For example, a profit tree with revenue and price as two separate branches at the same level would lead to an overlap (see Figure 4). You should go back to the profit level and break it down into revenue only by moving the price to a sub-set branch of revenue.
Figure 4
Figure 4: Price and revenue overlap when structured in the same level (left). Revenue is a function of price and quantity of units sold (right).

Ensure all branches are actionable

  • Ideally every branch of the issue tree neatly translates to an analysis or a work plan that helps you reach a solution more efficiently.
  • A secondary benefit of actionable branches is their ability to lay out the way forward on issues that may have lost momentum.
  • If the branches are actionable it is easier to share the next steps with others as what needs to be analysed or explored is clear.

Powerful tool for bringing clarity

An issue tree is a powerful tool for creating clarity around a well-defined but complex problem. By following this simple approach to building issue trees you can create a framework for solving the issue, communicate it to others and almost always learn something unexpected along the way.


To find out more, talk with Darya on dboukata@socialventures.com.au

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