Effective project management demands robust diagnostic capabilities, especially for identifying the root cause of misunderstandings that hamper project performance. As Project Management Professionals (PMPs), understanding the root cause of a problem is crucial to resolving issues and promoting smooth project execution.

Table of Contents

Identifying the Root Cause of Misunderstandings

Definition of Misunderstanding

A misunderstanding occurs when communication does not translate as intended between parties, which results in misinterpretation and, consequently, misalignment in project execution. Misunderstanding could stem from cultural differences, human error, unclear requirements, or lacking communication.

The Process of Identifying the Root Cause

Identifying the root cause of a misunderstanding is a multi-step process:

  • Problem Identification: The foremost step is to identify that a misunderstanding exists, which usually manifests as erroneous results, delays, conflicts, or unmet project expectations.
  • Gather Information: Dig deeper into the problem by interviewing team members, reviewing meeting minutes or emails, and studying project metrics. This facilitates a thorough understanding of the issue.
  • Analyze: After gathering the required information, analyse the data to pinpoint potential sources of the misunderstanding.
  • Identify Potential Root Causes: After the analysis, identify the possible root cause or causes.
  • Confirm Root Cause: Verify the identified root cause to ensure it is indeed the root cause.
  • Implement Solutions: Apply the necessary solutions to solve the problem.

Tools for Root Cause Analysis

Several tools can help in root cause analysis of misunderstandings, including the Fishbone Diagram, The 5 Whys, and Pareto Chart.

  • Fishbone Diagram: Also known as Ishikawa or cause and effect diagram, helps visualize potential causes of a problem. Its structure resembles a fishbone, where the head represents the problem, and the bones signify possible causes.
  • The 5 Whys: A technique used to explore cause-and-effect relationships. Asking ‘why?’ five times helps dig deeper into the problem and identify the root cause.
  • Pareto Chart: It visualizes data to highlight the most significant factors. It can help identify the most common reasons for misunderstandings in a project.


Let’s apply these steps and tools to a hypothetical scenario: The delivery date for a software project has been missed.

  • Problem Identification: The project was not delivered on time.
  • Gather Information: Through interviews and document reviews, it’s known that there were frequent changes in project requirements.
  • Analyse: Analyses showed that changes were not well communicated to all team members.
  • Identify Potential Root Causes: Poor communication of changes might be the root cause.
  • Confirm Root Cause: Further analysis confirmed the root cause was indeed poor communication of changes.
  • Implement Solutions: At this point, steps were taken to improve communication within the team, such as regular status updates, proper documentation of changes, and use of communication tools.

As PMPs, our aim is not just to solve a problem but to ensure it doesn’t recur. Regular review and audit of project processes, open lines of communication, a clear understanding of project goals, and an environment of trust can go a long way in eliminating misunderstandings, thereby ensuring project success.

Practice Test

True/False: In a project management scenario, looking for the root cause of a problem is not necessary as it only involves past events which cannot be changed.

  • True
  • False

Answer: False

Explanation: Looking for the root cause of a problem is important to prevent future similar occurrences and maintain efficient project processes.

Which of the following is a technique to find the root cause of a problem?

  • a) Risk Management
  • b) SWOT Analysis
  • c) Root Cause Analysis
  • d) Deflection

Answer: c) Root Cause Analysis

Explanation: Root Cause Analysis is a focused approach used to identify the underlying reasons for a problem or failure within a project.

True/False: One of the pivotal roles of a project manager is to identify root causes of misunderstandings to aid conflict resolution.

  • True
  • False

Answer: True

Explanation: Part of the role of a project manager is to proactively handle conflicts and issues, which includes identifying root causes for effective resolution.

Single select question: Which of the following is not a step in addressing a breakdown of understanding in a project team?

  • a) Identifying the existence of a problem
  • b) Avoiding the problem
  • c) Identifying potential solutions
  • d) Evaluating the effectiveness of the chosen solution

Answer: b) Avoiding the problem

Explanation: A problem or misunderstanding should not be avoided but instead resolved quickly and efficiently to prevent further damage.

Multiple select question: Which of these would typically be used to breakdown a situation and identify the root cause of a misunderstanding?

  • a) 5 Whys
  • b) Fishbone Diagrams
  • c) Risk Matrix
  • d) Cause and Effect Analysis

Answer: a) 5 Whys, b) Fishbone Diagrams, d) Cause and Effect Analysis

Explanation: 5 Whys, Fishbone Diagrams, and Cause and Effect Analysis are often used for root cause analysis to understand why a problem has occurred.

True/False: Once you have discovered the root cause of a misunderstanding, there is no need to test the proposed solution.

  • True
  • False

Answer: False

Explanation: After discovering the root cause, solutions have to be tested for effectiveness.

Single select question: The goal of identifying the root cause of a misunderstanding is:

  • a) To assign blame
  • b) To prevent it from happening again
  • c) To complicate the problem
  • d) To change the project schedule

Answer: b) To prevent it from happening again

Explanation: The primary goal of root cause analysis is to learn from errors and prevent them from recurring.

Multiple select question: Which of the following should be considered while breaking down a misunderstanding situation in project management?

  • a) Necessary process changes
  • b) Individuals to blame
  • c) Role of overlooked details
  • d) Influence of external factors

Answer: a) Necessary process changes, c) Role of overlooked details, d) Influence of external factors

Explanation: During the root cause analysis, it’s necessary to evaluate process changes, overlooked details and external factors, not individuals to blame.

True/False: To identify the root cause of a problem, you need to stop at the first cause you find.

  • True
  • False

Answer: False

Explanation: There may be multiple causes contributing to a problem, so stopping at the first discovered cause could lead to a repeated issue.

Single select question: A systematic process used to identify the root cause of a problem is often referred to as:

  • a) Total Quality Management
  • b) Six Sigma
  • c) Root Cause Analysis
  • d) Brainstorming

Answer: c) Root Cause Analysis

Explanation: Root Cause Analysis is a method of problem solving used for identifying the root causes of problems or events.

Interview Questions

What is the root cause analysis in project management?

Root cause analysis in project management is a problem-solving method used to isolate the main cause of an issue or trend. The underlying aim is to derive preventative measures rather than implementing a simple quick fix.

What is the purpose of a root cause analysis?

The purpose of a root cause analysis is to understand the reasons why a problem has occurred. This approach not only helps solve the present problem but also anticipates and prevents future ones.

What is a common tool used in a Root Cause Analysis?

The ‘5 Whys’ is a common tool used in a root cause analysis where the question ‘why’ is asked continuously until the fundamental cause of the issue is identified.

How does ‘Cause and Effect Diagram’ assist in identifying the root cause?

A ‘Cause and Effect Diagram’, also known as a Fishbone Diagram, is a visual tool that helps in identifying, sorting, and displaying potential causes of a specific problem or quality characteristic. It categorizes potential causes into groups and presents them graphically, enhancing understanding and problem-solving.

What is the benefit of using Pareto Analysis in root cause identification?

Pareto Analysis allows teams to prioritize their workload by determining which causes have the greatest impact. It is based on the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of problems are due to 20% of causes.

How does a CATWOE analysis assist in determining the root cause of a misunderstanding?

CATWOE stands for Customers, Actors, Transformation processes, World view, Owner and Environmental constraints. It is an approach that allows project managers to look at problems from different perspectives and hence assists in better identifying the root cause of misunderstandings.

In root cause analysis, what is the significance of distinguishing between causes and symptoms?

By distinguishing between causes and symptoms, the project management team can directly address the root problem rather than focusing on the temporary relief of symptoms.

How can project managers avoid misunderstandings in their teams?

They can do so by establishing clear and open communication channels, fostering a collaborative team environment, promoting active listening, and giving timely, constructive feedback.

In what phases of project management can root cause analysis be conducted?

Root cause analysis can be conducted during the monitoring and controlling phase, and in particular during quality control and risk monitoring.

How does root cause analysis contribute to the risk management process?

Root cause analysis helps in risk identification. By understanding the root cause, project managers can determine potential risks and develop mitigation strategies.

How does root cause analysis assist in quality management within a project?

Root cause analysis enhances quality management by identifying the underlying causes of quality issues in a project, thereby enabling teams to correct existing defects and prevent future mistakes.

When performing a root cause analysis, what should project managers focus on?

When conducting a root cause analysis, project managers should focus on identifying why the problem occurred, determining how it can be fixed, and developing strategies to prevent its repeat.

Can the Ishikawa Diagram or Fishbone Diagram be used to identify the root cause of eagerness among team members?

Yes, the Ishikawa Diagram or Fishbone Diagram can be used to identify the cause of any situation or attribute, including positive ones such as eagerness, by classifying potential causes into several categories.

Why is communication vital in preventing misunderstandings that might need root cause analysis later?

Clear, concise, and open communication ensures all team members are aligned with project goals, tasks, roles, and timelines, thereby reducing the chances of misunderstandings which may complicate the project in the future.

How does root cause analysis affect project closure?

At project closure, a root cause analysis of project successes and failures can provide valuable insights that contribute to the lessons learned and can be used to improve future projects.

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