How to Uncover Root Causes in Business Analysis

The genuine problem or opportunity that the business seeks to address in their analysis is the root cause problem, and it’s not always that easy to uncover. You typically have to ask a lot of questions to get down to that root cause because your stakeholders often report symptoms rather than the real cause.

A business analyst’s best question is “why?” The question “why” has an incredible capability of getting someone to talk about and expand on her problems.

If a stakeholder suggests a solution or a symptom instead of telling you her real need, asking “why” gets her to identify the reason she’s suggesting it. You get her rationale for the solution she’s proposed, or at least a hint of another problem or issue in her way.

Don’t ask just once. Ask stakeholders “Why?” a few times; you get all sorts of helpful details about their challenges. Push them to talk, and they’ll explain how they’re blocked in their ability to meet their needs. Ask a few more times, and they provide information about those blockers. Eventually — usually by the fifth time you’ve asked “why” — you get to the root cause of the problem.

Getting stakeholders to go from what they want to what they need can be tricky. One way to handle the situation is to let them know you’re happy to take care of their request, but you want to get it right for them: “Help me help you.” Let them know that you need to understand the background and surrounding situation to give them the best solution.

To help you, here are five really great questions you can ask that let you zero in on the precise need, problem, or opportunity:

  • What are you asking for? What solution do stakeholders want? You can show your interest (and get more info) by asking them to elaborate a little. Have them describe in slightly more detail what solution or resolution they think they need. Get their solution vision; understand what they’re thinking of or how they see it at the end.

  • Why are you asking? Why do they need the solution they’re asking for in the first place? What were they trying to do; what’s broken, painful, or missing? Is something impacting their ability to do an important task?

  • Why now? Have they been living with this issue for a while, or did it come up recently? What’s the impact of the problem; what damage is it causing? If they’ve been dealing with the problem for a while, what finally pushed them over the edge to ask for a solution now; has the impact been increasing over time? Is there a reason they didn’t ask earlier?

    These questions identify the business driver (the business reason why the organization approved this project) or the reason stakeholders have realized they must have a solution or pursue an opportunity: They can’t live with the situation anymore and can’t just ignore it. The driver is important to prioritization (if stakeholders make many requests) and to solution design.

  • What for, or to what end? What will you use the solution for? If you had what you’re asking for, what would the result look like? What outcome are you looking for? What’s the purpose of the solution? Asking these kinds of questions helps identify solution options.

  • What will you do next? Asking “what next” pushes the stakeholder to share her real goal or business need; it uncovers her secondary or downstream desired outcomes — the ultimate thing or success she’s trying to achieve. This question helps clarify whether the solution she’s asking for is a real need or just a stop-gap or work-around she’s come up with.

These answers give you the information that allows you to identify not only the real problem but also the real needs and goals that drive them. Now you can evaluate the problem and then solve it appropriately.

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