Common Cause Analysis vs. Appreciative Inquiry

It’s no secret I’ve favored Common Cause Analysis as a quick and easy tool for identifying key, recurring problems in a project management system. The methodology is simple:

  1. List a number of recent problematic projects (typically 10–15)
  2. For each project, list the causes that contributed to the projects’ problems
  3. Prioritize the contributory causes, in terms of frequency and cost
  4. Focus on the most common, highest cost problems in order to have the greatest impact on the system

Historically, much of change management theory has been based on Frederick Taylor’s teachings that organizations are like machines and that their systems can be optimized by creating efficient processes that are executed precisely and without variation. Common Cause Analysis is consistent with this view.

While explaining the Common Cause Analysis approach to a colleague in the healthcare field, she brought an article to my attention that made me reconsider my approach to systems change.

The article, A Promising New Approach to Creating Change, by Anthony Suchman, David Sluyter and Penelope Williamson was in the Hospitals and Health Networks Daily. It touched on some of the ideas in their new book Leading Change in Healthcare: Transforming Organizations Using Complexity, Positive Psychology and Relationship-Centered Care.

The authors suggest that organizations are made up of patterns of meaning that are content related (e.g., work methods, knowledge, processes, etc.) and patterns of culture that are context related (e.g., relationships and behaviors). Change comes from upset to one, or both, of those pattern groups.

The article explains an alternative approach—Appreciative Inquiry—that is much more effective at causing long-term organizational change. Based on positive psychology, Appreciative Inquiry turns Common Cause Analysis on its ear. It assumes that there are underlying competencies rather than deficiencies. As a result, it looks for causes of successes, not problems. Positive deviance is used to focus on innovative solutions and best (or at least better) practices.

As business leaders and advisors, we will gain by looking to other industries and other thought leaders for ideas that can be adapted to improve our practices. In this instance, Appreciative Inquiry added balance and versatility to my process analysis toolbox.