As we move into the New Year, and an era of increasing public engagement efforts by organizations and governments, a tool that was created originally for biodiversity conservation project planning, to break down complex problems, becomes more and more applicable.
Problem flow diagrams, or simply logic diagrams, help unpack a large issue or ‘wicked problem’ into smaller, causal factors that contribute to the main focal issue. Problem flow diagrams empower those impacted directly by a problem, by helping them better understand the interlocking factors that make up a larger problem, as well as identify ways in which they, as well as the decision maker, can take steps towards solving the problem or aspects of it.
Problem flow diagrams work well to simplify a complex problem into manageable components where opportunities for positive change can be identified more easily.
When to use this technique
Problem flow diagrams are best undertaken early on in the engagement planning process. They are particularly useful when a decision maker knows there is a problem that needs to be addressed and/or a decision that needs to be made, but they aren’t exactly sure what it is, or would like to empower their stakeholders to determine what aspects of the problem have priority.
Problem flow diagrams are a technique applicable to a wide range of engagements – from larger societal challenges to localized community issues.
How does this technique work?
In a face-to-face setting, it works best to have between six and 15 people work on one focal issue. If you have a larger group, you can break into smaller groups and have all groups workshop the same focal issue, and then compare the results for similarities and differences afterwards; alternatively, in a separate, previous exercise, you can identify multiple priority focal issues and assign different ones to each sub-group.
Step 1: Write the focal issue in the form of a problem, on a blue recipe card.
Example: High rate of cycling accidents
Step 2: Have the group brainstorm together all of the factors that contribute to the larger focal issue. These contributing factors should be written on yellow recipe cards, and they do not need to be organized in any particular order at this time. Continue until all of the key contributing factors have been listed.
Examples: Few bike paths; no regulation; low government funding; speeding drivers, etc.
Step 3: On a large sheet of roll paper (or many flip chart sheets taped together), tape the focal issue on the far right side. Have the group discuss and arrange each of the contributing factors to the left of the focal issue, placing them as they impact each other – creating causal chains that lead to and explain the larger focal issue. (Tip: Don’t tape anything down until the final order has been determined.)
Step 4: Have the group draw lines or arrows along the causal chains towards the focal issue; sometimes, these chains divide and/or converge.
Step 5: For the factors directly beside the focal issue – what the group has determined are the direct factors – re-write and replace the blue recipe cards with pink cards. This is to identify clearly the direct factors.
Step 6: Now that the problem flow diagram is laid out in full, based on group consensus, have the group identify three to four opportunities or priorities for improvement. Write these on white recipe cards. If you have multiple groups, this step also can work well when you rotate the groups and have them identify opportunities on another group’s problem flow diagram. (Tip: Contributing factors that have multiple arrows entering or leaving them are often good places to identify opportunities.)
Example: Prioritize bike-lane financing
Step 7: If you’ve been working in sub-groups, return to the whole group and have each group present their problem flow diagram and discuss the opportunities. These opportunities can become, or help inform, your problem or decision statement.
What is required to pull this off?
- A representative group of stakeholders
- An established focal issue(s) or a preceding technique that identifies the focal issue(s)
- Blue, yellow, pink and white recipe cards
- Flip chart paper or a large roll of paper
- Large tables
A problem flow diagram is an exciting technique that works well for the ever-increasing need to engage your stakeholders. It works particularly well in situations where a decision maker has a mandate to engage, but isn’t quite sure on what to engage. It can be scaled up to address large societal problems, or be scaled down to address community or neighbourhood issues. This technique can even be used to start breaking down tough, complex issues with your corporate team or family.
For further information and guidance, the original technique toolkit is available at The Open Standard’s website here.