David Caulfield

Beyond Root Cause Analysis

Using root cause analysis for people problems

Let's say James (a manager) pulls me aside for a talk.

"David, my teams just don't collaborate. They work by themselves and only talk together in their morning standups. Even their planning sessions and retrospectives are silent. Because of this, the team is duplicating their work. People find out they are working on the same code as their teammate. Instead of helping each other out, they wait for the other person to finish before starting their own task. I'd like to have a workshop on collaboration - that should fix things I think."

I've had a lot of these conversations and they can be difficult requests to navigate. When I was an engineer, I could look at a bug and trace the logs to create a story of what's breaking. I could use root cause analysis to find the underlying problem. Usually, it was a problem underneath a problem underneath a problem. The beginning is tiring, but as you get good at root cause analysis, it becomes quite enjoyable. It's a mental challenge to figure out quickly what all the different causes could be.

This is how I've treated my L&D conversations until now. If I'm talking to James about his problem, I would open with a couple of questions like:

  • Why do you think this is happening?
  • Have the team ever collaborated together?
  • Has anything changed to worsen that collaboration?

Usually, the answer is something along the lines of "They have been under a lot of stress lately". In my tradition root-cause style, the next step is to figure out the cause of stress.

  • Where is the stress coming from?
  • Why did they overcommit in the first place?
  • Is their project manager supporting their workload?

I've asked 100 probing questions to build a full picture, and he's exhausted.

And the problem is rarely unqiue. It's usually along the lines of overcommitting, scope creep, bad management or something similar.

So let's say we identified that James' team overcommitted and are stressed as a result. As a reuslt, the team have shut down communications and blame each other when work isn't done on time.

So what's next??

We can't undo the root cause of overcommitting, only prevent future occurrences. James is looking for an answer now, not in three months time.

No matter what the outcome of the above situation is, James probably hasn't come out of our conversation with high hopes. He's just spent the last 10 minutes tirelessly digging into the teams problems. I've asked 100 probing questions to build a full picture, and he's exhausted. What happens next time he has a problem? He will think back to this conversation and remember the pain of talking to me. He'll leave it for another day and potentially leave me out of his future issues altogether.

This is the challenge with using the root cause analysis as the only tool to diagnose people problems. It's annoying to be asked "And why do you think that happened" 10 times over to find the root cause. I've always found the 5 Why's to be an irritating exercise.

Other conversational types

We've established that a single conversational tool in our toolkit is not enough. What other types of conversational tools can bring more insights and value?

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry focused on what's working in an individual, team or organisation. Rather than using a problem-solving approach to conversations, it looks at the individual's or group's core strengths to identify improvements. Once the person identifies their strengths, they are encouraged to dream about a vision of the future.

  • What does the perfect future look like?
  • What could happen if we felt like this all the time?
  • What else could we do if we allowed this to happen indefinitely?

Woody Zuill took this approach in his "Turn up the good" method of team improvement. At the end of each day, he gathered his team together to ask "What went well today?" and "How do we turn it up to 10 tomorrow?" For example, if the team enjoyed programming together as a team for the two hours today, they could ask themselves "How can we do more of that tomorrow?". They might decide to program together for 4 hours the next day to see how it goes. As the team build on their strengths, they bring a new kind of energy to the day. The team is no longer concerned with the most stressful problem on the table. Now they have something to get excited about!

The Appreciative Inquiry model looks like this:

  • Discover: What are the things we do best?
  • Dream: What would happen if we did more of this?
  • Design: What's the outcome we'd like to see next?
  • Deliver: What should we try?

In Woody's case, his team's daily retro probably looked something like this:

  • Discover: What did we do really well today? (eg. Our 2 hour team programming session was great!)
  • Dream: What could happen if we did more of this tomorrow? (eg. We might be tired, but we also might figure out that difficult ticket we've delayed)
  • Design: What would we like to see as an outcome? (eg. We would like to see our most difficult ticket resolved)
  • Deliver: What experiment will we try tomorrow? (eg. We will try team programming for 4 hours tomorrow)

The team analysed their strengths and picked an experiment for the following day.

Powerful questions

Powerful questions is a coaching technique used to engage the other person with open-ended questions. Instead of directing the conversation down a specific path, we can use powerful questions to take advantage of the other person's expertise.

Powerful questions generate curiosity, encourage reflection, invite creativity and generate energy. A constant focus on the problem becomes tiring and stressful. When we ask "Why did this happen?...and why did that happen?...and why??..." to get to the root cause, this can sound urgent and stressful. Furthermore, looking at the negative problem stifles creative solutions. Powerful questions bring some energy and excitement to the conversation while keeping it solution focused:

  • What opportunities do you foresee for our team to expand our skill sets and take on new responsibilities in the future?
  • I'm hearing you would score your team a 2/10 in collaboration. What would 10/10 look like to you?
  • What are your team's strengths? How can we use those strengths to solve this issue?
  • How can we reframe this problem as an opportunity for learning?

Coaching techniques

Coaching techniques capitalise on the other person's knowledge and strengths, facilitating them to solve their own problems. Instead of giving advice, the coach guides the conversation through questions, encouraging the other person to brainstorm and test their own ideas. There are various coaching techniques:

  • Active listening: Get comfortable with the silence and repeat back to the other person your understanding of what they have said.
  • Goal setting: Establish clear goals together using something like the SMART framework.
  • Accountability: Help the other person stay accountable to actions by checking-in frequently. This encourages them to take ownership of their development.

When practiced, these tools transform the L&D practitioner into a skilled conversationalist. They come across as clear communicators and, most importantly, creative problem solvers. The difficult problems in any industry are people problems. Therefore, having a single tool (such as root cause analysis) to solve every problem is like using only a hammer to build a chair.

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