Root cause analysis – OPEN

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Topic 12.10: Root cause analysis

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Data analysis is the process of converting all the fragments of information you have collected into reliable, actionable intelligence.

Yet the amount of data you have likely generated through your gathering processes might raise more questions than can possibly be solved – you could spend the rest of your life trying to analyse all of that information!

That is why it is important to go back to the original scope of your review.

Some people get way too excited by this process

At the highest level, this scope can be found in your terms of reference, which may be included in your project review template.

Beyond that, look at other ideas and themes that have emerged from your data (the surprises), and consider them in terms of how they relate to your questions and their potential implications for the performing organisation.

As mentioned earlier, too, you should always be looking for multiple points of evidence for each of your conclusions, all of which will lead to recommendations – the entire purpose of your review.

There is an old English proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost…

For want of a shoe the horse was lost…

For want of a horse the knight was lost…

For want of a knight the battle was lost…

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost…

…so a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.


You might know the same story from King Richard III famously shouting ‘A Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!’ in the Shakespeare play that bears his name.

The last English monarch to die fighting, Richard III perished at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

When his horse was killed, legend has it he wandered to find it in the battlefield for hours, killing everything coming into his way with fatalistic rage.

So does this mean building lots of nails will win us every future battle? Probably not.

Unfortunately, root cause analysis is not as simple as asking why over and over again like a six-year old until you find the ‘true’ cause of a problem.

As the proverb suggests, multiple causes will contribute to nearly every outcome.

Therefore, the question is not when to stop looking for root causes, but knowing where and when to intervene.

After all, your analysis is meant to help the performing organisation deliver better projects in the future.

It is not a scholarly essay for the benefit of as-yet unborn generations of project historians.

No-one cares this much

So even though your analysis will start by mapping all the observable causes of project issues, these should be truly considered as the potential future sources of organisational risk.

Your responsibility therefore extends to thinking critically about each of these risks.

In doing so, you should identify the most significant causes, and consider what interventions could be made by the performing organisation or other project managers to avoid, reduce or transfer these risks to others.

This will then allow you to develop a prioritised list of SMART recommendations, in other words, recommendations that are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic for the project and organisation, and time-related, in that they have a set deadline for delivery.

These recommendations are effectively your responses to these risks.

Indeed, your forensic project review will only be as good as the recommendations it arrives at; everything else is merely context and evidence for their presentation and priority.

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