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Section 4. Analyzing Root Causes of Problems: The "But Why?" Technique

Learn how to determine genuine solutions to a problem by identifying the root cause using the “But Why?” Technique.


  • What are "root causes"?

  • What is the "but why?" technique?

  • Why should you identify root causes?

  • When should you identify root causes?

  • How does the "but why" technique work?

What are "root causes?"

Root causes are the basic reasons behind the problem or issue you are seeing in the community. Trying to figure out why the problem has developed is an essential part of the "problem solving process" in order to guarantee the right responses and also to help citizens "own" the problems.

What is the "but why?" technique?

The "But why?" technique is one method used to identify underlying causes oft a community issue. These underlying factors are called "root causes."

The "But why?" technique examines a problem by asking questions to find out what caused it. Each time an answer is given, a follow-up "But why?" is asked.

For example, if you say that too many people in poor communities have problems with alcoholism, you should ask yourself "but why?" Once you come up with an answer to that question, probe the answer with another "but why?" question, until you reach the root of the problem, the root cause.

Why should you identify root causes?

Identifying genuine solutions to a problem means knowing what the real causes of the problem are. Taking action without identifying what factors contribute to the problem can result in misdirected efforts, and that wastes time and resources. However, by thoroughly studying the cause of the problem, you can build ownership, that is, by experiencing the problem you will understand it better, and be motivated to deal with it.

The "But why?" technique can be used to discover basic or "root" causes either in individuals or broader social systems:

  • It can be used to find which individual factors could provide targets of change for your cause, such as levels of knowledge, awareness, attitudes, and behavior.
    • Do people need more knowledge about nutrition?
    • Do children need to learn refusal skills to avoid smoking?
    • Do teenagers need to learn how to use contraceptives?
  • It can explore social causes. For example, it could help us determine why a certain neighborhood seems to have a higher rate of a specific problem. These social causes divide into three main sub-groups:
    • Cultural factors, such as customs, beliefs, and values;
    • Economic factors, such as money, land, and resources;
    • Political factors, such as decision-making power.
  • It can uncover multiple solutions for a certain problem and allow the user to see alternatives that he or she might not have seen before. It increases the chances of choosing the right solution, because many aspects of the problem are explored during the "But why?" exercise.

When should you identify root causes?

  • Whenever you are faced with addressing a challenging community problem. Of course, the "But why?" technique is not always your best bet and should not be used 100% of the time. It's extremely efficient to find a variety of solutions and is a quick and inexpensive technique that can be done by anyone, at any time, anywhere. For some issues, however, you should use more sophisticated methods, such as surveys, interviews and data collecting.
  • When there is support for a "solution" that does not seem to get at the real causes of the problem. For example, if there is hunger in community, let's distribute free turkey at Thanksgiving.
  • When there is ignorance or denial of why a community problem exists.

How does the "but why" technique work?

Technique Guide

Here's how it works. A group examines a community problem by asking what caused it. Each time someone gives an answer, the "asker" continues to probe, mostly by asking "But why?" or "How could that have been prevented."Example:

Too many (too few) people are ________.

Q: But why?
A. Because...

Q: But why?
A. Because...

Q: Could that have been prevented?
A. Yes

Q: How?

Q: But why?
A. Because...

Q. But why?
A. Because...

Q But why?
(and so forth)

  • First, invite people who are both affected by the problem and are in a position to contribute to the solution to brainstorm possible causes. The more representative the working group is, the more likely it is for the root causes to be uncovered.
  • The working group should then examine a community problem, such as substance abuse or violence, by asking what caused it. Each time someone gives an answer, the group asks, "But why?"Here's an example:

A child has an infected foot.

Q: But why?
A. She stepped on broken glass while walking.

Q: Could that have been prevented?
A. Yes.

Q: How?
She could have been wearing shoes.

Q: But why doesn't the child have shoes?
A. Because the family can't afford shoes.

Q. But why?
A. The father or mother has no job.

Q. But why?
(and so forth)

In this example, the "But why?" analysis leads to at least two very different conclusions. The criterion for choice between them is to look into the environment of each one. Many solutions may apply to your problem, so it's up to you to find the one that fits it better. The "But why?" analysis by itself doesn't lead automatically to the best solution. It just points out many paths you may take.

Christine Lopez

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Sholtes, P.R. (1988). The team handbook. Madison, WI: Joiner Associates Inc.