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Causes of the problem

Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

Your task is to find all the contributing factors that contribute to the problem.

Start with the behavior of the system.

Once you have found the obvious or direct contibuting factors, find the factors that contribute to these:

  • Use the 5 whys to find causes.
  • Ask questions such as why do the people involved do what they do?
  • Continue to add child nodes until you can no longer think of more contributing causes.

Your task is to find these contributing factors and prove the causal relations. Is there actually a causal relation or is it just correlation? Is the direction of the causality correct? Uncover direct and indirect causes. In the case of indirect causes find the intermediate causes.

Acknowledge that a single effect can be the result of multiple causes and that a single cause can have multiple effects.

Example areas to look for causes: motivations, beliefs, power, communication, resources, processes, nature, monitoring, methods, tech, policies, economy, products, skills, suppliers, surroundings, systems, management etc.

Find causal relations by analysing the events and looking at the forces that act upon them:

  • Situation: all the non-human forces acting upon an event (i.e. weather, money, resources, location)
  • Flow: the trend and continuity of all forces as they interact with one another.
  • People: all the active and passive participants involved in the event (i.e. users, customers, employees, managers, vendors)
  • Decision makers: persons trying to influence the event’s outcome in a particular direction (i.e. manager, individual, small team)

Watch out for

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A contributing factor is something that is partly responsible for a development or phenomenon.

Together the contributing factors answer the question of why the problem is happening.

In this section you will be able to add a list of contributing factors.

Keep in mind that this sub section will only display the contributing factors in a list or as a hierarchal tree if you organize the contributing factors in a hierarchy. Real world contributing factors are circular and networked so this representation is not complete. It does however provide a good way to systematically work through the contributing factors and describe them. In the next few sub sections you will be able to describe how these factors interact in a causal loop diagram.

Suggested reading

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What are the different factors that contribute to the problem?


Loss of accountability

The political system’s capacity for self-organization has weakened. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers—political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees—that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. [1]

Demonization of politicians

For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick. [1]

Privatization of news media

Media omissions, distortion, inaccuracy and bias in the US is something acknowledged by many outside the USA, and is slowly realized more and more inside the US. However, those problems have made it very difficult for the average American citizen to obtain an open, objective view of many of the issues that involve the United States.

A free press is crucial for a functioning democracy, but if not truly free, paves the way for manipulation and concentration of views, thus undermining democracy itself. The US has seen a dismantling of unbiased public news media being replaced by news as entertainment with the sole purpose of bringing in economic profits for its investors. As a prime example, many would argue that Fox News is a right-wing propaganda outlet.

With media concerned with viewer numbers and advertisement revenue they will focus on stories that bring the most views. Trumps circus delivers. Privately owned News outlets have no choice but to cover the Trump circus. The media’s wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's every word during the presidential election powered Trumps victory to the White house. 

The rise of social media

Social media has excaserbated the issues of news media privatization. Whereas before you would get exposed to multiple aspects of an issue from mulitiple perspectives you now choose what sources to follow through social media. This leads to a situation whre you simply strengthen your prior beliefs and avoid being exposed to new insights.

Self-reinforcing chaos

Like many disorders, chaos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction. 

Alternative facts

Think tanks and other entities consciously use alternative facts or sow doubts about facts on various political issues to create confusion in order to sway opinion. This leads to a situation where trust erodes. Who can you really trust when one day you hear one thing and the other day you hear the complete opposite and both sides claim the other side is lying. People are less enlightended than they otherwise could be. This fact vs alternative-fact bickering makes people less trustworthy of mainstream media which again re-inforces the use of alternative channels for news and information. 




Add new contributing factors

  1. Root items should be observable behaviors.
  2. Beneath the root item add an item for EACH contributing factor that may explain the cause above it.
  3. Add deeper child items until you feel the causal factors are sufficiently covered.

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Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

  • Get to the bottom of the contributing factors.
  • What are causing the imbalance or lack of harmony?
  • Consider using the 5 whys.

How to tell if you found the root cause

This may be used as a checklist
  • It is clearly a major cause of the problem symptoms.
  • It has no productive deeper cause. The word “productive” allows you to stop asking why at some appropriate point in root cause analysis.
  • It can be resolved. Sometimes it’s useful to include unchangeable root causes in your model for greater understanding. These have only the first two characteristics.
  • Its resolution will not create bigger problems. Side effects must be considered.
  • There is no better root cause. All alternatives have been considered.

Watch out for

  • Don't jump to conclusions. Finding the real root causes is difficult and will require some research.

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A root cause is the deepest cause in a causal chain that can be resolved. If the deepest cause in a causal chain cannot be resolved, it's not a real problem. It's the way things are.

A root cause is that portion of a system that, at the fundamental level, explains why the system’s natural behavior produces the problem symptoms rather than some other behavior.

All real problems arise from their root causes. This leads to the fundamental principle:

The only way to solve a difficult problem is to resolve its root causes.

So how do you find the root causes? That's the hard part. It's the step that makes or breaks your entire problem solving effort. Get it right and the rest is relatively easy. Get it wrong, and no amount of hard work and cleverness will work.

To understand the fundamental system and its root causes we need to acknowledge the universal principle that all problems are the result of imbalance. Forces interact to form a dynamic system. Whenever there is an imbalance in this force you have a problem.

Proper coupling occurs when the behavior (force) of one system affects the behavior of other systems properly, using the appropriate balancing feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony.

Systems have goals, that is to say, a system has a purpose. A system has inputs and outputs. Improper coupling is when the goals of two or more systems are at odds with each other.

Example of system imbalance and improper coupling

In the global sustainability problem, the goals of the large globalized for-profit corporations are not aligned with that of the human race. The goal of corporations is short term profits. The goal of the human race might said to be wellbeing for current and future generations. At the moment corporations are the dominant systems. Corporations are dominating political decision making to their own advantage, as shown by their strenuous opposition to solving the environmental sustainability problem. Learn more at

Suggested reading

What are the root causes of the problem?


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Add new root cause

What seem to be the core or underlying factor that seem to be the strongest influencing factor responsible for the problem?

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Suggested tasks/questions for this sub section

If you are not familiar with Causal Loop Diagram's (CLD) consider other more in-depth resources such as by, Systems and us, Nathaniel Osgood, Daniel H. Kim

  1. Get pen and paper or use software such as Vensim, Visio, PowerPoint. (Insightmaker and MapSys are more advanced as they also have support for SD simulations).
  2. Start with the key indicator(s) of the problem. Draw this as a circle in the middle of a diagram.
  3. Add relevant variables (always nouns) as circles. (variables that the problem influences, or that are influenced by it)
  4. Add the contributing factors (Start with the contributing factors that have the highest probability of being real). These are also added as circles (nouns rather than verbs e.g. "Human population" rather than "Increasing human population"). Use positive variable names. E.g. "Growth" rather than "Decline".
  5. Connect the circles with arrows.
    • For each variable(circle) ask yourself: What other variables are affecting/contributing to this (inbound arrow) and what other variables are affected by this variable (outbound arrow)?
    • What are obvious arrows/loops?
    • What are the side-effect loops?
    • Add polarity (+ or -) to indicate if the affected variable increases (+) or decreases (-) through the causal relation.
    • Use two short lines crossing over arrows to indicate there is a time delay. (You may also indicate the expected delay with a number such as in months or years)
    • Don't miss the circular relations. There is often arrows pointing back to the variable you started with.
  6. Look for triggers (causes) that might have sparked self-reinforcing processes. (Tipping point phenomena)
  7. Verify each arrow. Do you have data to support this link? If not you should set off to prove/disprove the causal relation.
  8. Check if you should add intermediate causal relations. (Should you cut a line in two by adding a circle in between?)
  9. Go over the CLD many times to check for consistency.
  10. Get feedback on the CLD.
  11. Add your CLD by scanning your paper version or by uploading en image export from a diagramming tool.

Additional tips

  • Develop the model with communication in mind (it should be easy to read by others).
  • Keep the diagram as simple as possible. Model the problem, not the entire system of overlapping systems.

Example Causal Loop Diagram

Watch out for

  • Do not use a variable more than once in the same CLD.
  • For better clarity, avoid having arrows cross over other arrows.

Advanced topics

Further reading for intermediate problem solvers:

A causal loop diagram (CLD) is a diagram that aids in visualizing how interrelated variables affect one another. The diagram consists of a set of nodes representing the variables connected together. The relationships between these variables, represented by arrows, can be labelled as positive or negative.

The CLD is important for understanding why the problem is happening.

Suggested reading

What are some good models that describe the dynamics and causal relationships of the situation?


No causal loop diagrams added. Add content and receive points.


Add new causal loop diagrams

Add diagrams that represents the problem.

If the diagrams gets to big you should break it up into smaller diagrams. E.g. you can divide the diagram by topic, phenomenon, geographic or historical scope. In this case it may be useful to provide one main diagram that summarizes the different sub diagrams.

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