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The Innovation Process
Module 1.3

Root Causes and Contributing Factors

Analyse and interpret the information you have collected

What is it?

When the Starting Point Assessment is complete, you are now ready to analyse and interpret the information you have collected so that you can effectively evaluate your initial impressions, begin to determine causality and uncover contributing factors.

Interpretation requires critically examining the information that has been gathered. The purpose is to move from just seeing what is to establishing why that is. Taking the time to move through a diagnostics process will therefore help innovators to dig deeper and ensure they are fully and accurately investigating the scope, nature and consequences of the problem (and not just the symptoms of problem).

At the end of a diagnostic process, innovators should also be able to understand the size, complexity, scope, importance and urgency of the problem they are dealing with. How important is the problem to those who hold it? How complex is this situation? What are the humanitarian parameters regarding this problem? Is it urgent and/or important for anybody? If so, who?

The PlayPump is a merry-go-round which is connected to a water pump; as children play, water is pumped into a storage tank. However, early hype, including a significant pledge by the Clinton Global Initiative and trials by UNICEF, gave way to concerns about cost-effectiveness, the requirements of communities as a whole, and the potential conflation of play and work where water supplies are inadequate.

“There were various problems. First, the pump was very expensive … So there were real concerns about the cost of the pumps. And it was very clear to us that, whereas it may be an appropriate pump for a school, it is not appropriate as a community pump. It’s difficult for adults to operate, and so that meant it had severe limitations for us because we were looking for models to serve communities.”

Clarissa Brocklehurst, Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene, UNICEF
PBS (2009) Interview with Clarissa Brocklehurst.

Why should I do it?

Determining the root causes and contributing factors of a problem will ensure that any innovation you work on is focused on ‘real’ problems in a particular context. Too many innovation initiatives fail because they are addressing the wrong problem, often for the wrong people. By carrying out this process, we reduce the potential of falling into this trap.

How do I do it?

Diagnosing root causes involves three inter-related steps that you will explore in the activities that follow:

  1. Examining and prioritising relevant information by reviewing your desk research, initial conversations (in interviews), and observations and then cluster them
  2. Digging into root causes and contributing factors using diagnosis tools
  3. Defining the parameters around the problem and determining whether it is urgent and/or important.

Note: We recommend that you go through each activity sequentially, but you do not have to complete all the exercises in each activity area. There are exercises and tools in this section that will be useful to you throughout your innovation journey, and we will point back to them in different parts of the Guide.

Follow our user stories

To better understand how the activities might be applied, read our two user stories.

Hanna wants to make sure that she understands the different demands for latrines, and the reasons why some people might prefer open-air defecation, as well as the logistical and budgetary constraints that might limit the service that is provided. She reconvenes representatives from the women’s group and the health clinic with representatives from the agencies working to provide WASH services in the camp, in order to analyse the information collected and to try and answer outstanding questions.

Several issues frequently come up: the mud and dirt that surrounds the area after heavy rainfall itself seems unsanitary and increases the risks of accident and injury; there are problems with the design of the latrines which make them difficult to access for people with disabilities, and potentially dangerous for small children; and there are worries about camp security after dark and the risks of going to the latrines alone.

Using the 5 Whys, the group interrogate the root causes of open-air defecation, citing deficiencies in the design of the latrines, a lack of consultation with different groups, and a need for rapid deployment in order to adequately cater for large influxes of people. They hypothesise that contributing factors are both the camp management’s ability to rapidly understand needs and provide suitable sanitation in fast-changing environments, and being able to better predict future movements of people and requirements in the camp.

After successfully completing their rapid information gathering process, Sergio and his team get together to analyse and interpret the results and to look more deeply at the root causes. They also invite members of the local community they had visited to join the discussions.

The root cause analysis sparks a particularly valuable conversation. While members of the community accept the need to evaluate damage to buildings in order to assess needs, they point to the cause of the extensive damage done by the last hurricane as being due to poor-quality building materials, and, in turn, poorly-enforced regulations. If this was addressed, the amount of damage and the number of lives lost could be greatly reduced.

Sergio and his team are left with a dilemma. Do they try to shift their priorities to better address the problem identified by the community, or do they proceed to address the problem for which the NGO and local government are the problem holders?

After lengthy consideration and a further round of rapid information gathering and analysis, Sergio and his team decide to partner with an advocacy organisation to address the causes of the vulnerability of the community: building regulations and rights. They also want to assess how not only drones, but also remote sensors, might help tackle the symptoms of the problem if another hurricane were to hit.


1.3 A Prioritise information and identify patterns
This activity aims to help you to uncover key findings from the Starting Point Assessment, and to structure this knowledge into recognisable themes and patterns for subsequent analysis and interpretation.
1.3 B Diagnose root causes
This activity will help you get below the surface-level understanding of the problem to identify what things are causing the problem, and what things are contributing to the problem.
1.3 C Set the problem importance and parameters
This activity aims to set parameters around the 'problem space' so that you can maintain focus and understand what is urgent and what is important.