Root Causes

Most of us are familiar with Root Cause Analysis, sometimes known as "the five whys."  If you aren't familiar with the technique, it is definitely worth learning as it can be used to figure out the underlying causes and effects involving systemic failures of physical objects or processes.

I've also found the technique quite useful in analyzing political behavior.  By digging into the underlying cause and effect relationships between the actions taken by allies or enemies, and their impacts, you can discern a great deal about the political environment, and where people stand on particular power plays or hotly debated issues.  In high stakes games, it can even give you an insight into what may happen if you press a particular issue or person.

Political Root Cause Analysis is most useful when applied to a seemingly mystifying situation.  For example:  Why did Sally turn on me when I needed her support on my proposal for project "X?"  There may be several possible explanations for this -- perhaps Sally decided pandering to another manager's agenda was more valuable than supporting yours, perhaps Sally truly believes project "X" to be a bad idea, perhaps Sally has been working to gain your trust all along for the express purpose of undermining you on this project (the kind of thing a power player might do). 

These possibilities must each be examined by itself, looking for both supporting and contradicting evidence.  Ultimately, you must make a judgement as to why Sally acted the way she did.  In some cases, you may also need to test certain aspects of your theory by either talking to others, or even setting a "trap" to see how Sally behaves under a controlled set of circumstances. 

One possibility you can't afford to ignore for anyone in almost any politically charged situation is -- perhaps Sally doesn't have a clue as to what is actually happening at the political level.  Just don't be too quick to settle on this explanation as it quickly ascribes innocence to actions that may be more sinister in nature. 

Let's suppose Sally simply believed project "X" is a bad idea.  Then you take the next step in root cause analysis -- asking why she believed this to be the case.  Maybe you failed to sell her on the benefits.  Or maybe someone else sold her on the risks to her interests.  It might be that she has a particular insight into how project "X" might fail.   Or maybe she's right.

Settle on an explanation, and then repeat the process again.  Do this until you reach either an immovable object -- a basic principle or premise of the organization -- or something that you could have handled differently that would have changed the outcome.  Then you have your root cause, the basic thing that caused the situation to unfold as it did.  In the process, you will also gain much better understanding of the politics surrounding the event/issue. 

Sometimes I've been pretty skilled at employing this technique, while other times I wished I'd done better. 

In one example, I confided my displeasure in a decision my boss had made (actually, in this case he "unmade" one that was already well behind us) to a peer.  Trouble was, the peer betrayed my trust and repeated my diatribe to the boss a short time later.  Why did he do that?  Because I hadn't established our relationship sufficiently for him to think he was giving up anything of value by betraying me.  Why had that happened?  Because he saw me as a competitor for the boss's job.  Why did he see me that way?  He had been told that by both the boss and a board member. 

If I'd reasoned this out ahead of time, I would have easily seen I was heading for trouble with this conversation and avoided it altogether.  When I worked through the causes and effects after the fact, I knew that I couldn't trust this peer again under any circumstances.

In another example, I was in a battle with a peer over the pricing of interdivisional sales.  In this case, I was able to ask the "why's" necessary to see exactly how I needed to set things up to win.  Why was he demanding a price increase?  Because he felt like he'd been unjustly forced into a sweetheart deal by his former boss.  Why was he forced into the deal?  Because that was what the boss had wanted, and he overrode my peer's objections.  Why didn't he take this to his new boss?  The new boss hated conflict, and would have simply dodged the issue.  Why did the new boss hate conflict?  Unknown (an immovable object), but it was a clear fact. 

By reasoning through the situation, I was able to figure out that I could win the contest if either my opponent was the one to demand arbitration by our mutual (new) boss, or if he appeared so unreasonable in his behavior that it was easy to side against him.  I choose to work the latter approach, practically inviting my opponent to make an ass of himself in a series of emails on the subject.  Predictably, our boss delegated the decision to another executive, who sided with me once all the "evidence" was out. 

While a little trickier to employ to political situations, root cause analysis can be a useful tool to both understand motivations of political opponents, and once understood, predict how they will act.  Take the time to be thorough and make sure you get it right, particularly when the stakes are high.  17.3

Other Recent Posts:

If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.  

Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time for $2.99.  



Mark Carson is a runner -- away from his marriage, his problems, his career.  In Leverage, we see if he can run away from murder. 

Mark Carson is a runner -- away from his marriage, his problems, his career.  In Leverage, we see if he can run away from murder. 

 To the right is the cover of LEVERAGE.   This novel explores the theft of sensitive DOD designs from a Minneapolis Tech Company, and the dangers associated with digging too deeply into the surrounding mystery.

My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.