Identifying Everyone’s Stake: Cause & Effect Exercises

Posted on March 19, 2019
By Natasha Pei

Last month, Cities Reducing Poverty members were introduced tocollaboration facilitating Cause and Effect exercises by Gary Vipond, CEO of United Way Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District. This blog provides an overview on what we learned as prospective facilitators.

Cause and Effect Exercises – or Fishbone Diagrams – are simple yet powerful tools that multi-sectoral collaboratives can employ to drill down and identify the root causes of complex, multi-layered challenges.

These exercises are particularly good at:

  • Identifying and displaying root causes of a complex problem, such as poverty
  • Helping to develop a common understanding of the many factors influencing the issue
  • Making transparent our implicit assumptions and biases
  • Clarifying where more data is needed
  • Accentuating whom is missing from the room

These exercises provide structure to the conversations that we are already having about key causes of social challenges, and can lay the foundations for collaboratively identifying solutions. They are useful to conduct with stakeholders, community members, and partners of the roundtable – particularly if they are multi-sectoral.

How Does it Work?

The exercise starts with an initial brainstorm (for example ‘what causes poverty?’), then drills down on those causes layer-by-layer, by continually asking the group “why?”. The goal is to have everyone in the room – bringing their different perspectives and experiences - contributing to identifying and agreeing on the root causes. This process allows people from diverse backgrounds to visualize how inter-connected the issues are, no matter what sector or field they represent; and to then start thinking about how they can contribute their own assets to the solution.

For those interested in recreating this process with your own roundtable, or using it as a tool to engage unengaged stakeholders, facilitating the conversation requires only a Word or PowerPoint document, a facilitator, a group of participants, and a space (in-person or online)!


  • Draw a long arrow dividing your page in half (horizontally). At the end of your arrow, identify your end goal (ex. poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, etc.)
  • Discuss with people in the room: What are all of the primary issues that cause (poverty)? Why do we have (poverty) in our communities? Draw each of these categories as separate branches from the main arrow. 
    • Clarify: is it a main issue or is it a sub-category of something else going on?
  • Under each of the categories, ask, ‘why’ again. What are the factors influencing that sub-category? (ex. Why do we have unemployment?)
  • Keep asking ‘Why does (this) impact (that)?’ until exhausted.
  • In the end, the chart branches, categories and sub-categories depict all of the interrelationships between the various aspects of your issue.

Considerations for Facilitators

  • The charts are flexible! You can change the positions or categories as many times as you need to as you learn more.
  • The same issue may surface multiple times as a category or sub-category. The more it pops up, the more immediate that challenge likely needs to be addressed.
  • You may end up with many categories. Don’t restrict adding new categories, but when the preliminary brainstorm is exhausted, break out into groups and assign one of the main categories to each group. The groups should break down their category and bring it back to the larger group to decide if there is redundancy and which issues should be prioritized.
  • Use the conversation to identify whose perspective or experience is missing from the room and what additional data you need to make more informed decisions.
  • The chart could look different each time you do this - depending on who is in the room at the time.
  • The chart will provide you with the direction you need to start, but it does not depict relative importance nor short vs. long-term work. That is an additional assessment that should be done with your group following the Cause & Effect exercise.

Sample Diagrams

Cause & Effect exercises are replicable in any sector, for almost any issue. The diagrams below show how they can be used to deconstruct anything from improving donut quality to reducing chronic use of social service programs, to ending poverty. [Credit: Gary Vipond]

So What: Next Steps

A simple method for acting on the information is to look for the quick-wins or low hanging fruit.


  • What can you do to get the biggest return for investment and generate quick satisfaction?
  • What are our current skill sets? What can we deal with now?

Take Your Learning Further:

  • Cause and Effect exercises are part of the analyze phase of the Lean Six Sigma methodology to problem solving (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). The full approach can help you significantly narrow your focus to a handful of priority root causes and solutions to address when you are tasked with a complex challenge. Read more about Lean Six Sigma.

Natasha Pei, Cities Reducing Poverty

Natasha Pei

By Natasha Pei

Natasha Pei brings online content to life and engages our members in the Vibrant Communities learning centre for poverty reduction. Natasha's involvement with Tamarack began with the Communities First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE) project, where she worked as a Research Assistant in the Poverty Reduction Hub, studying effective ways community-campus engagement can be undertaken to have real benefits for the community.

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