How Much Detail is Enough?

Kim Smiley


Cause Mapping

One of the most common questions we get in the Cause Mapping workshops is “How much detail is enough?”

This generally comes at a point in the workshop when the audience is starting to feel a little anxious that all cause maps are going to be massive and every incident investigation is going to go to the Nth degree, i.e. that people will take the cause maps way beyond the level of detail required for the incident. On the contrary, the majority of cause maps that we see have the exact opposite problem: they have not been taken far enough. They stop just short of the important why questions and the details that will get to specific, and therefore effective, solutions. However, the “how much detail” question is still a good one, because obviously every incident and every cause map does not require the same level of analysis.

While there is no magic formula for the answer, here are a few tips and guidelines in determining how much detail is enough:
  • Every cause map starts with the problem outline, specifically to understand the magnitude of the incident and the risk to the organization. It is a means to determine how significant is this incident, or this type of incident, to the organization’s goals, therefore how much energy and manpower should be leveraged to analyze and solve this problem.  The relative magnitude of the incident, highlighted in the outline, is the first clue to how far the analysis should be taken. For a relatively minor, simple, low-impact incident, a super detailed cause map may not be required. On the other hand, a large, complicated and potentially high-impact incident should be laid out in greater detail as the solutions will have a larger impact to mitigate risk for the organization.
  • Follow the Occam’s Razor principle for detail: add as much detail as you need, not as much detail as you can. The goal is to get to specific, actionable solutions, not to see who can build the biggest cause map! 
  • Stop adding causes on a branch when you start discussing causes that are outside your sphere of control. Adding further causes will not provide additional solution options, therefore the time spent in the additional analysis may be better spent on another branch.
  • If you have trouble coming up with specific solutions, this could be an indication that you may have not identified specific enough causes. In other words, keep going!


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