There is rational hope

Mariana Mirabile
3 min readMar 7, 2021

Cet article est aussi disponible en français.

In the previous article, I said that current changemakers’ strategies are doomed to fail since the current problem-solving process used lacks a root cause analysis step. The problem-solving process presented in this article, not surprisingly, adds this step, and goes as follows:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Find the root causes
  3. Find solutions to resolve the root causes
  4. Implement the solutions

The rest of the article describes each of these steps.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

1. Identify the problem: what is the problem we are trying to solve?

Firstly, we identify the main problem and divide it into key symptoms. Due to its complexity, trying to analyze the sustainability crisis as one big problem is like listening to multiple conversations at once. It is only when we listen to one at a time — i.e. when we divide the problem into key symptoms — that we get to understand what each conversation (analysis) has to say.

The problem we will be discussing in this series is the environmental crisis, which we divide into four key sub-problems:

  1. The political system blocks the environmental laws we need.
  2. Large corporations dominate the political system at the expense of the common good.
  3. The political system is unable to identify and adjust previously relevant solutions that are no longer relevant.
  4. Humans have an unsustainable impact on the biosphere.

2. Find the root causes: analysis of the system’s structure (“why”)

In complex systems, we cannot “change the system”. We need to understand concretely what to change in the system’s structure so that the system “produces” desirable results.

In this step, we will analyze the systems’ structure to find the root causes of each of the key symptoms defined in step 1, with the help of causal loop diagrams.

As a guide to navigate the system’s structure, the process suggests the following sub-steps:

2.1. Understand the systems’ structure that generates the symptoms, as to find their intermediate cause(s), low leverage points, and superficial solutions.

2.2. Look for the part of the structure containing the root cause of symptoms (or the causes of the intermediate causes). This is the part of the structure that we need to change. This is the part of the structure that fiercely counteracts change if left untouched. This is the part of the structure that we rarely target.

The steps above can be seen as a series of “why” questions that guide us to the root causes. Without having these steps in mind, we intuitively stop at step 2.1: the intermediate causes. As we will see in the analysis of the first symptom, this is a receipt for failure. We will also see that targeting root causes has the potential to make the political and economic systems “want” to solve the sustainability crisis.

And wouldn’t that be a nice world to live in…

3. Find solutions (“what”)

In this step, we try to understand what needs to change in the system structure for the system to generate — by design — more desirable results. We identify the feedback loops that should be dominant to resolve the root causes described in the previous step.

We also look for the high leverage points that need to be pushed to make those loops go dominant.

The transition from monarchies to democracies (described in this article) is a nice example of a high leverage point, of how a small change in the system structure can result in huge changes in results.

4. Implementation (“how”)

To conclude, we identify how, concretely, we can push on the high leverage points to bring about the transition from a structure generating undesired results (identified in step 2) towards a structure generating desired results (identified in step 3).

This step includes concrete ideas of actions or campaigns.

In the previous article we saw that many times, changemakers have an idea of a solution in mind and launch campaigns to push for those solutions. The added value of the process presented here is that we understand the structure of the system we aim to influence first, to only then decide upon the most efficient solutions. As you would expect your doctor does with you, we do a diagnosis before suggesting a cure.

The next article gets concrete and applies the process just described to the political system.

This article is part of a series of articles. An introduction to the series here.



Mariana Mirabile

I am an economist with a passion to improve systems. All views are my own.