To fundamentally solve a problem, we must understand its cause. In that I mean the chain of actions or circumstances that led to the problem—rather than only the immediate cause, which serves only to place blame. – Charlie Herrick
In a well-known folk tale, six blind men are gathered around an elephant. Each feels a part of the elephant body and states what he thinks the object is. Individually, their assessments make no sense. But when each man’s perspective is combined, the elephant is revealed.
Understanding the problem begins with the discovery process. Collecting and analyzing data while getting to know your community is at the foundation. Numbers and stories reveal a great deal about how the current system works (or doesn’t). Data also helps the community see resource gaps, opportunities for change, and other system building needs. Discovery helps us slow down and avoid jumping to a conclusion quickly.
Good problem solving is based in three elements: 1) a strong vision for the future; 2) engaging multiple perspectives, including those with lived experience, to inform the current reality; and 3) a deep dive, or root cause analysis, to move analysis beyond symptoms.
Together, a balance of quantitative (numbers) and qualitative (stories) data creates a well-rounded picture of the community, and can help the group plan a better solution.
A strong vision sets the path forward to where your community wants to go. What is the vision you want to see for children and families in your community? When used with data, a strong vision can guide your collaboration to think about disparities in the community, particularly for its most vulnerable members. Looking forward also helps communities assess gaps and see opportunities for system transformation. Together, a combination of vision and data will help you engage local stakeholders in a problem-solving conversation. Here are some sample questions to guide the discussion:
- What do we want the early childhood system to look like in our community?
- Is our current system achieving our desired outcomes for children and families (i.e. more children screened, more children enrolled, more quality programs for families, etc.)?
- What do we want to have?
- How easy is it for fragile families to access services, supports, and opportunities?
- Do programs effectively reach children with highest needs?
- Which vulnerable populations are less likely to access services? Why?
- Where are there gaps in available services, supports, and opportunities in the community?
- Do available services match the unique needs of our population (linguistic, socioeconomic)?
- If no, what are the barriers?
- If no, what is the resulting harm to the interests, goals, and desired outcomes for our target population?
In trying to understand a community’s issues, it’s crucial that a collaboration engage diverse perspectives. Conversations with diverse members of the community add richness and strengthen the data collection process. Consider including diverse voices such as those experiencing the problem, workers providing direct service to very high need families, and leaders who are making decisions for change. Also, consider the unique context of the community. Do you need to broaden your collaboration membership to bring more diverse voices to the conversation? Quantitative data collected in needs assessments can be useful, but it only shows part of the story. Many families, especially those at-risk, are simply missed by data collection efforts. The U.S. Census may undercount homeless families, for example. Families may also choose to keep crucial information private when asked. A caseworker serving children and families from the child welfare system might see the system differently than the director of a childcare resource and referral agency, and that perspective will differ from the parent’s view. The cascading logic model provides an excellent view of the different perspectives within the early childhood system. Who is involved in planning will help your community better understand how families really experience the system. Diverse perspectives will continue to provide valuable information as you take a deep dive into root causes.
We have a tendency to jump right in, ready to create change for families without exploring root causes. Solutions are often designed based on assumptions, or symptoms. Over time, the program or effort proves ineffective. Funders wonder why they invested in an unsuccessful project. When we look beyond symptoms and identify issues below the surface, we can get to the root. Think of a dandelion. If you pull out the top, the root of the weed remains in the ground. Likewise, warning signs of a heart attack—arm pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath—might be diagnosed as a cold or flu. Treatment would be wrong, and potentially fatal. A root-cause analysis goes deeper on data collection, providing more understanding of the current state of the world. A root cause asks “Why?” more than once to get beyond symptoms. The root cause is the basic reason why the problem is occurring. Understanding the root will influence strategies identified to solve the problem, and a solution that matches the root cause will be more successful.