Risk root cause analysis (RCA) is the key to understanding your project risks on a fundamental level. Getting to the root cause means knowing what basic drivers may have an impact on your project and it’s likelihood of success.

The artform of RCA is then knowing how to identify the root cause and what to do about it. 

Defining Risk Root Cause Analysis

Risk RCA is a problem-solving technique used to identify the underlying reasons that risks exist in a particular project or system. It involves identifying the fundamental cause or causes of a risk, which, when appropriately addressed, can mitigate the chance of the risk event occurring.

In the context of the Australian Government, this method becomes increasingly important, as public projects often involve considerable resources, complex requirements and affect the Australian people.

Risk Root Cause Analysis Process

The process of conducting risk RCA can be scaled to your needs, the time and resourcing you have available and the complexity and scale of the project.

  1. Identify the Risk Event: Initially, identify the problem or risk event that you are going to analyse. We recommend keeping this high-level and strategic to begin, but the same process can be followed for operation based risks.
  2. Identify information sources: Next, you should focus on data collection by gathering information and talking to subject matter experts about the Risk Event’s circumstances and the sequence of events leading to it (the Causes).
  3. Identify and analyse the Root Cause(s): This is where you have a range of options and techniques to choose from. This could include methods like the ‘5 Whys’ technique, Fishbone diagrams, or Fault Tree Analysis.
  4. From here, you can move into Controls, which is an artform all on its own, so we won’t get into detail here.

Each step in this process is crucial as it ensures a thorough understanding and successful mitigation of risks.

A Detailed Look at the 5 Whys Technique

The “5 Whys” process is a simple yet effective problem-solving technique that seeks to identify the root cause of a risk by asking “why?” five times, or as many times as needed until a satisfactory answer is found.

Let’s apply this technique to the risk of ‘Failure to deliver a project on schedule and budget‘.

1. Why did the project fail to deliver on schedule and budget?

Response: There were unexpected technical issues that caused delays and extra costs.

2. Why were there unexpected technical issues?

Response: The initial technical requirements were not adequately defined or understood.

3. Why weren’t the initial technical requirements adequately defined?

Response: The project planning stage was rushed, and the technical team was not fully involved in this process.

4. Why was the project planning stage rushed, and why wasn’t the technical team fully involved?

Response: There was pressure from management to start the project quickly to meet business objectives, and the importance of technical input during the planning stage was underestimated.

5. Why was there such pressure from management, and why was the importance of technical input underestimated?

Response: The management team was not fully aware of the technical complexities involved in the project, and there was a lack of clear communication between the management and technical teams.

By repeatedly asking “why”, we were able to identify some of the root causes that led to the project failing to deliver on schedule and budget, which include pressure from management, inadequate planning, underestimation of technical input, and poor communication between teams. With these root causes identified, the next step would be to develop a plan to mitigate the risk of these causes eventuating.

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Challenges and Solutions in Risk Root Cause Analysis

RCA is powerful, but not always straight forward. There are a range of challenges that may be encountered when conducting this analysis.


  1.  Identifying the True Root Cause: It can often be difficult to determine the real underlying cause of a problem as it may be obscured by multiple layers of symptoms or consequences.
  2. Resistance from Team Members: People may be resistant to undertake root cause analysis because it can feel like blame allocation or criticism.
  3. Lack of Sufficient Data: Data gaps can hinder the root cause analysis process, as a complete and accurate picture of the issue can’t be formed without all the necessary information.
  4. Overwhelming complexity: If the analysis is occurring on a highly complex project, it can be challenging to trace back the root cause accurately.
  5. Insufficient Time or Resources: Root cause analysis can be a time-consuming process and may be rushed or overlooked if resources are tight.


  1. Use Structured Analysis Techniques: Tools like the 5 Whys, Fishbone Diagrams, or Fault Tree Analysis can help to systematically break down a problem and reveal its root cause. Collaboration tools like Miro.com can assist in running workshops and mapping risk causes.
  2. Foster a Blame-Free Culture: Promote the idea that the purpose of root cause analysis is to improve systems and processes, not to allocate blame. Encourage open communication and learning.
  3. Ensure Data Accuracy and Completeness: Try to collect as much relevant data as possible, involve subject matter experts in the process and validate the accuracy of data before starting the root cause analysis.
  4. Engage Experts: Bringing in an expert provider to facilitate the process can be a cost-effective way to conduct a high-quality Risk Bowtie and RCA. Improved risk management pays for itself.
  5. Prioritise Root Cause Analysis: Emphasise the importance of root cause analysis in preventing recurring issues and allocate sufficient time and resources for the process. This might involve gaining sponsorship support to ensure that adequate resources are invested into this critical activity.

In summary, risk RCA is a crucial aspect of risk management in Australian Government projects. Effective RCA will improve your ability to treat risks and will almost certainly save your project time and resources, while increasing the benefits you achieve.

We invite you to reach out to our team for advice or an initial consultation. We’re always happy to discuss your unique challenges and explore how our expertise can assist you in streamlining your project delivery capability. With a team of professionals who bring a unique blend of strategic thinking, strong communication skills, and a commitment to excellence, we’re well-equipped to guide you on this journey. Reach out to us today to take the next step towards mastery in managing complex projects.