I always wondered why we need to develop the Problem Tree … then the Objectives Tree … then the Alternatives Tree … and finally start developing the Logframe. Once we have identified the core problem, its causes and consequences, why not jumping to develop the Logframe?

Well… Here are some thoughts…


Regardless the amount and quality of the data and information we have collected, developing a Problem Tree is not an individual task. This tool is particularly effective when completed in a participatory manner with a team and variety of stakeholders – especially the beneficiaries’ group(s), because they know the problems and context better than anyone else and deeper than any data could be.

This collaborative process compels users to differentiate cause and an effect, seeking for a core problem. Many (most of the) times, the Problem Tree development results in more than one core problem, with complex groups of causes and effects. We can split the resulting complex diagram (tree) in different Problem Trees and select one for the next step (Objective Tree).

The other Problem Trees will help us to understand the surrounding context of the selected problem. They can also be transformed into other Objective Trees. But let us work one by one.

Problem and Solutions

As we work with our team on the problem tree development (participatory), the collective thinking is focused on the negative aspects of the current status and the issues themselves. We are thinking on the “today” and the “problem” (or problems).

Negative thinking can lead to outcomes that we do not want – we are struggled with the problem(s) and we might focus on “we don’t want this to continue,” instead of “this will get better and improve.”

We can take a break between developing the problem and the objective trees and go out with our team for a coffee or lunch. When the team comes back, we can invite them to a mental exercise, teleporting to a positive future. Now it is time to go through each of the problem tree items, turning them into achievements.

Positive thinking leads to optimism – a happier team that more likely interprets the future as a better context and situation. This change from negative to positive thinking creates the environment to work with a powerful solution driven group, instead of a negative one.

The Objective Tree is expected to be a positive (future) mirror of the Problem Tree. It is completely fine that we break the means/causes down as we apply a positive thinking on the previous Problem Tree. But, if the core problem/outcome or any of the key means/causes/effect/impact changes, we should consider giving one step back and reviewing the Problem Tree. Maybe the problem has not been completely explored or the team is still on “negative mode.”

Alternatives, intervention outline and assumptions

At this point, our team might work with the implementing partners and consider two critical strategic questions:

  • Which elements of the objectives tree will be included in the project intervention?
  • Which elements will not be included in the scope of the project?

These criteria will help the project team and stakeholders to make concrete decisions regarding where the project intervenes, the services it provides, who will be served and how the services are provided.

We can look at each “box” and think on how and if it can be addressed or if it should become an assumption. No Objective Tree items should be deleted as they are part of the means and the effects. The out-of-scope activities are assumptions that will be addressed by a different project or organization to increase chances of the project success.

As we select what are the in-scope and out-of-scope interventions, we must review the Problem and Objective trees and consult supporting teams of our organization and implementing partners. By not doing that, we will end up implementing the wrong project or a project that we do not have the resources, capacity, nor the required knowledge to implement.

The forest…

We must not be afraid of complex Problem Trees, as issues in the development sector are always complex and connected with several other community aspects. What should worry us are (too) complex projects.

By following the Problem/Objective/Alternatives tree process, we can assure that each problem becomes one project within our capacity, aligned with the community needs and priorities, and connected with the related issues and aspects.

Let’s design our project from one tree, with its inherent complexity, and give the forest the appropriate approach, tools, techniques, and methodologies: as a potential program.

By Edson Marinho
Images: https://pixabay.com

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