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No Such Thing as a Root Cause?

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of root cause analysis (RCA), then you are not alone. Many IT professionals including Rob England, the IT Skeptic, feel that it is time to put a lid on the coffin of this outdated notion, even if we have to do it one article at a time.

Air Crash Logic

In IT governance, there is seldom a single root cause, but rather an array of primary causes, each contributing in its own unique way to a system failure or similar incident (think Air Crash investigation).

A paper by systems theorist Richard Cook further elucidates why the existence of a single root cause cannot be more than a fiction. Cook argues that complex systems are never really “fixed” in the truest sense, but rather have a ‘continually breaking’ arrangement that warrants continual fixing by the operator. The big, catastrophic failures occur only when a number of disruptions are perfectly aligned (a “perfect storm”). Common wisdom continues to resist the multiple-primary-causes theory, a fact that only subverts effective attempts to rescue large systems from collapse:

We need to move away from this kind of thinking. Assigning a root cause is in fact an arbitrary choice between primary causes and we often make that choice on political grounds. For example it is expedient to blame an external supplier rather than to accept blame internally. So let’s throw away the phrase “root cause” and talk about primary causes.     

One qualifier is that we often need to prioritize our primary causes. In that sense, one might talk about a “chief cause,” but again, that is not the same thing as a root cause. What is IT governance if not a program for capturing and treating as many of the causes of systems failure (chief or minor) as possible?

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About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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