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What is it?

The problem tree is a graphic tool helping to structure hierarchically problems identified (the negative situation), clarifying their cause effect relationship. The objective tree is the positive interface of the problem tree, hierarchically organizing the corresponding objectives (positive situation).

What can it be used for?

By synthesizing the present negative situation and the positive future situation, the problem / objective trees inform the problem analysis. It support specifically organisational decision making in identifying potential interventions and strategies.

When can it be used?

The problems and objective trees are critical in the design (identification and formulation) phase. They are often used as a starting point to develop the intervention logic in the Logical Framework Approach.

Who can use it?
  • EU staff and relevant partners involved in intervention design
  • Can be used individually (as preparatory work) or collectively (in working groups)
What are its strengths?
  • A well performed problem/objective tree provides a complete picture of the existing negative situation and potential positive situation. They allow systematically weighting of problems and objectives against the organisational mandate and capacity of the organisation.
What are its limitations?
  • It may be difficult to develop a neutral problem or objective tree, without being influenced by the mandate and capacity of the organisation.
  • The objective tree should not be confused with the solution which may be adopted to address reach the objectives.


Key elements
  • The Problem tree: a summary of the existing negative situation

When developing a problem tree, the process can be as important as the product, offering the opportunity to brainstorm and categorise problems. Recommended steps are:

  1. Brainstorm
  2. Select a starter problem
  3. Select related problems
  4. Distinguish direct causes and direct effects
  5. Establish hierarchy of cause/effects
  6. Connect problems
  7. Review and validate the diagram
  8. Further comments/information

    Example of a Problem Tree

    Source: European Commission, 2004. Aid Delivery Methods. Volume 1. Project Cycle Management Guidelines. Page 68.

  • The Objective tree: a summary of the desired future situation

The 'negative situations' of the problem tree are converted in 'positive achievements'. These positive achievements are in fact objectives, and are presented in a diagram of objectives showing a means/ends hierarchy. In this sense, the indicative means by which ends can be achieved should be included.

  1. Reformulate all negative situations of the problems analysis into positive situations that are a) desirable and b) realistically achievable
  2. Check the means-ends relationships to ensure validity and completeness: Cause-effect relationships are turned into means-ends of the hierarchy

If necessary:

  1. revise statements
  2. add new objectives if these seem to be relevant and necessary
  3. delete objectives which do not seem suitable or necessary
Example of an Objective Tree:

Source: European Commission, 2004. Aid Delivery Methods. Volume 1. Project Cycle Management Guidelines. Page 70.


Data/information. Preliminary knowledge on the context is a key asset, as context analysis provides the strategic boundaries for the identification and assessment of problems. Response strategies are benchmarked through the analysis of lessons learned of interventions that used similar techniques, technologies, methodologies and approaches in relevant contexts.

Time. With the support of a specialist with a deep understanding of the context, and a facilitator helping to organise qualitative data collection, it can provide relevant information in a short time. The actual timing will depend on effective accessibility and participation of stakeholders.

Skills. The literature review can be performed in house, but specific competencies such as facilitation skills or technical expertise may be required to explore and assess problems identified in more depth. Local expertise can bring added value based on knowledge of local contexts.

Facilities and materials. Depend on data collection method(s) selected.

Financial costs and sources. If external expertise is required, funds should be made available to cover the costs associated with fees, travel expenses and logistics. These funds may come from the project itself or through other EC instruments such as a framework contract or a technical cooperation facility.

Tips and tricks

Ensure that all stakeholders have the same understanding of the problems, and consider their diversity when addressing objectives and potential solutions. In this perspective, the stakeholder analysis can provide you with key information.


Where to find it


Complementary guides, methodologies and tools

Methodological fiche  Stakeholder analysis

The European Commission, 2011. Reference Document Nº6. Toolkit for Capacity development.

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