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Draw a problem tree

Page history last edited by Cristina Lamb Guevara 10 years, 3 months ago

Step 1: Draw a problem tree


Participants spend most of Day 1 developing a problem tree for their project. Most people easily grasp the cause–effect logic of the problem tree, which begins with the identification of problems the project could potentially address and ends with problems that the project will directly address.




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Rationale: why develop a problem tree and what it brings to the process

A problem tree is a good way to start to surface and explain a project's rationale because it links the project goal framed in terms of a challenge or a problem (e.g. unsustainable rural livelihoods) to what the project is actually going to do (e.g. develop a new variety or build capacity).


It is particularly useful for a workshop where you have more than one project to help the different projects understand each other. It is also useful for understanding the different points of view of various stakeholder groups within one project when each group group construct its own problem tree.


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Problem trees describe the main problem, what are causing this problem, and in turn what are causing these problems. It is wrong to assume that if you solve a more immediate problem, everything falls down like a chain of dominoes--i.e., other problems before it are also solved. Any one of these problems identified is multfaceted and if you could work on some aspect of a higher order problem, it doesn't necessarily mean that all the constraints to action to improve the situation will be solved.


Problem trees focus on problems, rather than opportunities and may appear negative. So for some purposes, you can turn your problem trees into objective trees. You do this by reframing the problem into the desired state after the problem has been solved. You would do this when you want to motivate people about the positive changes that the project wants to bring about. However, objective trees are not as good as problem trees for explaining the logic.


Problem trees are good in causality--in identifying what the project is doing and what it needs to do to achieve impact. However, it is weak on identifying who needs to do what and so it good to combine problem trees with another tool such as network maps that identify who are responsible for the work that needs to be done.



Preparation for the exercise:


materials you need for the whole workshop


  • a large room where 3 groups of 6 people each can work on large tables (2m x 1.5m) with space between them. Please note, the tables should be moveable, not fixed, as we'll want to re-arrange them.
  • one PowerPoint projector and white wall or screen to project onto
  • extension cables for PowerPoint Projector and for people to work on lap-tops (4 should be sufficient)
  • assorted marker pens (preferrably water-soluble) 30 in all
  • 3 rolls of masking tape (paper tape, as used in participatory-type workshops)
  • 3 sets of cardboard cards (10cm x 20cm roughly) in assorted colours, 40 cards per set 160 cards in total)
  • a big pair of scissors (for cutting the cards if necessary)
  • 2 flip-chart stands
  • lots of flip chart paper (100 pieces)
  • poker chips for constructing influence towers



How long it takes:

15 minutes to explain the exercise

90 minutes to do the problem trees

10 to 15 minutes per problem tree constructed for presentation and discussion



How to set it up:

if project documents already exist, we reverse engineer a problem tree to fit the project document. That is, the facilitator reads the project document and takes a first stab at defining the project's problem tree. If the facilitator doesn't do it, the participants shouLd be asked to do it before they come.




  • if you are dealing with 5 or more projects doing problem trees, then combine the problem tree and vision presentations.
  • It is best to limit the problems causing a problem to 3 or 4; otherwise you could end up with a lot of boxes. About 10 boxes in total is manageable.
  • Many participants identify "lack of something" as a problem which implies a provision of something as a solution. However this is not always the case and so it is best to avoid the words "lack of something" to encourage creativity in finding solutions to problems.
  • a problem tree need to fit legibly on a powerpoint slide for presentation purposes
  • don't try to do more than 4 group presentations back to back; break it up with coffee, etc.



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How to do a problem tree?

Ask the participants to develop a problem tree that links the problems the project is directly addressing with the social, environmental and/or economic conditions it wishes to improve. The approach used for developing the problem tree is based on work by Renger and Titcombe (2003). The branch of a problem tree ends when it has identified a problem that the project will directly address. Once identified, these ‘determinant’ problems help define the outputs the project needs to develop to solve them. Outputs are defined as things the project produces that others beyond the project use.


Below is an example of a clear, focused problem tree with determinants and problems within the scope of the project and beyond.




click here to see a powerpoint slide on a problem tree exercise


Frequently asked questions

1. What direction should the arrows face in problem trees?

It should go in the direction of causality, that is, if there are other problems causing one problem the arrows should face the previous problem.


2. Where should the problem tree begin and where should it end?

It should begin with a problem statement related to the project's goal. If the project is part of a program, you might just want to go a step further to show how achieving the project's goal can help further the program's goal.


The problem tree finishes on a problem that the project is going to directly act on (the determinant).


Next step: Derive project outputs





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