Finding the Root Causes: The Tree Method

In order to create meaningful, sustainable change, it is important to understand the challenge you are trying to tackle. Issues are often very complex and the actual causes of the problem are not always obvious. In most cases, you need to dig deeper than the visible problems to uncover the root problems that must be addressed. This is the purpose of the tree method.

Imagine the issue you are passionate about as a tree. The tree has leaves and branches, a trunk, and roots. Each of these parts of the tree forms part of a causal web for your issue.


Tree LeavesLeaves and BranchesVisible Problems

These are the most obvious problems that affect your issue. While these issues appear relatively straightforward and easy to address, when the leaves and branches of a tree are trimmed, they grow back quickly. Other problems – the contributing problems and root problems – must be addressed in order to sustainably tackle the visible problems with a lasting impact.

Example: Children are malnourished.


Tree TrunkTrunk – Contributing Problems

These are factors that contribute to the visible problems. They often are not as obvious and not as easy to address. When you cut down a tree, you get rid of the leaves and branches and part of the trunk, however, some of the trunk and all the roots remain. Hence, tackling the contributing problems is a fundamental component of a sustainable action plan, but is not sufficient without addressing the root problems too.

Example: Lack of understanding about dietary needs and proper nutrition.


Tree RootsRoots – Root Problems

These are the real causes of the issue. However, they are often invisible – they cannot be directly seen – and therefore are often the most difficult to tackle. Digging out the roots involves getting rid of the entire tree, and hence, is the only way to effectively tackle the issue with a sustainable and meaningful impact.

Example: Limited access to fresh, nutritious foods due to financial constraints.


When creating an action plan to address an issue, it is important to find ways to alleviate or solve the root problems, rather than just the contributing problems and the visible problems that stem from it. A sustainable solution must dig out the roots, not just trim off some branches or chop at the trunk. While the visible problems and contributing problems can often be addressed just with money or resources, the root problems involve empowering the affected community. Creating meaningful and sustainable change requires a hand-up, not a hand-out.