Getting To the Root of a Problem

In my limited experience, at least three factors make it difficult for people to determine the root cause of an issue.


1. It’s too complicated

Getting to the root of a social issue is a complicated task. As we discussed in class, symptoms and core problems can be difficult to map. We may think it looks like this:

When in reality it looks more like this:

We may not know where to go to discover root causes to a problem, and it may be complicated for use to map out all the parts.


2. It’s difficult to garner support

Politicians, investors and donors want to support programs that show quick dramatic results. Politicians want to champion solutions to win constituent votes, investors want quick returns, and donors want to know their dollars are being used effectively. If your organization is invested in getting to the root of the problem, it will be difficult to garner support from key stakeholders who are looking for quick results.


3. It may challenge our ideologies and emotional attachments

What happens if you get to the root cause and you don’t like what you find? What if it’s more exciting to you to treat the symptoms?

Take Ashoka Fellow Fabio Rosa, for example.  From David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, we learn that Rosa initially set out to improve the lives of rural farmers in Brazil so they wouldn’t have to lose their farms and move to the city slums.

As Rosa searched for a solution, he found that mass migration to the slums was just a symptom of a myriad of other issues: poor irrigation practices, expensive water, overgrazing, lack of electricity, corporate monopolies, government corruption, and more.

Rosa was determined to help the people, so he tried a host of methods to bring electricity to the farmers in order to raise their yields and income levels. Over a period of two decades, he pioneered dramatic changes in the country’s most rural areas.

What if Rosa had stopped investigating the root cause after he found that irrigation practices were contributing to the low yields of Brazilian farmers? If he had been so emotionally attached to improving irrigation systems and not to the concept of helping farmers get out of poverty, Rosa wouldn’t have had near the impact that he did.

We must be willing to change our assumptions and let go of our emotional attachments if we want to make a real impact and create lasting change in the world.