Strategic Causality

Delving beneath the surface

In my reflective practice work with mentees from a wide variety of organisations, a good deal of our time is spent exploring ‘beneath the surface’ of events and circumstances. Our aim is to better understand the underlying drivers and factors at work, to inform the shaping of considered responses, and avoid ‘automatic’ reactions wherever possible.

Such reflection could be about an advocacy position, a business case, a governance issue, a management problem, a possible career change, or a thousand other matters. Whatever the focus, the reasons why a situation exists, or why energy should be invested in addressing a proposed goal both involve going deeper than a ‘surface’ analysis.

Causality is the study of how things influence one other, how causes lead to effects. We rely on our personal theory of causality whenever we analyse events and circumstances, and whenever we develop an intention to adopt a course of action.

Causality in Risk and Strategy

Our organisational strategies focus on a set of change initiatives (causes), for a set of outcomes and impacts (effects), that we believe are important for the achievement of our purpose/s. When the goals for those initiatives are set, we seek to frame them in a way that allows us to know when they have been achieved. One or more indicators are identified for each goal, along with criteria by which to evaluate the extent of the success achieved.

When conducting a root cause analysis following an incident the sequence used in consideration of the relationship between cause and effect is reversed, with the effects (symptoms) usually visible first, followed by the identification of the underlying causes and factors.

The 5 Why’s can be used for both strategic alignment when setting goals, and for root cause analysis following an incident. The chart below is an expanded detail from the header image above, which suggests a mirror effect at the interface between a need and our response – between the problem/issue/opportunity and the goal, expressed as a strategic initiative. That mirror is also inferred in my chart illustrating the exploration of problem and solution ‘spaces’, in an earlier post Problems ‘for’ and ‘of’ Governance.

Evaluation and Causal Attribution

Different forms of evaluation need to be applied at different stages of strategy and risk deliberations, and some of these are highlighted in the header image above. As noted in my earlier post Are we there yet? Evaluating NFP Outputs, Outtakes, Outcomes, and Impact, the various types of evaluation include Developmental, Formative, Impact, Performance, and Summative Evaluations.

Impact evaluation strategies

To focus on just one of those types, impact evaluation, UNICEF’s Methodological Briefs, Impact Evaluation No. 6, Overview: Strategies for Causal Attribution, by Patricia Rogers (2014) advises that “there are three broad strategies for causal attribution in impact evaluations:
• estimating the counterfactual (i.e., what would have happened in the absence of the intervention, compared to the observed situation)
• checking the consistency of evidence for the causal relationships made explicit in the theory of change
• ruling out alternative explanations, through a logical, evidence-based process

Evaluation Professional Development

Directors and managers wanting to improve their organisation’s performance by more effective use of evaluation strategies will benefit from the many professional development programs and resources offered by bodies such as the Australian Evaluation Society and Better Evaluation.

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