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Drawing Trees: A Participatory Approach to Addressing Challenges

byKatie Bercegeay
onApril 17, 2020

The High Atlas Foundation prioritizes participant ownership of the project identification, design, management, and monitoring processes in all of its work in Morocco. It utilizes a plethora of techniques and tools to ensure that its work is conceived of and driven by its beneficiary base, and this in turn contributes to the sustainability of projects.During this time, when most of us who are fortunate enough to have homes are forced or encouraged to stay inside of them, HAF’s team is eager to share with our friends and fans more about our work and how our tools can be applied to your everyday personal and professional lives. Afterall, we all experience challenges; we all have goals; and we all have a responsibility to make our homes, communities, and the world better places for future generations. We have coordinated among ourselves and are excited to have the opportunity to gather with you in an 8-part Facebook Live broadcast series to commemorate Earth Month and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. Though, of course, we agree with you: every day is Earth day. Please check out the broadcast schedule at the end of the post.

As a heads up, this post is meant to accompany, and even expand upon the topic of my April 16, 2020 live broadcast, “Drawing Trees: A Participatory Approach to Addressing Challenges.” It is a brief and simple, non-exhaustive introduction to tree diagramming, complete with examples and worksheets for your own home use.

Perhaps you’re already familiar with ”tree diagrams” and how they work. Maybe you aren’t. They are incredibly simple tools that can be used to uncover the complexities of real-world issues of any scale. There are several types of tree diagrams, but those that HAF works with most frequently are “Problem Trees” and “Objective Trees” which I’ve nicknamed “Challenge Trees” and “Solution Trees” respectively–it just adds a touch more optimism.

These tools are to be used within communities and with the participation of a diversity of stakeholders–civil society leaders, members of the public, women, local officials, youth, educators, health care workers, entrepreneurs, religious leaders–whoever has a stake in the community, in the challenge at hand, and in a potential project. The more voices, the better, and depending on the issue to be tackled and the number of people in the room, a tree diagramming exercise may take up to several hours.

The gist of the tree-making process is this:

  1. A particular challenge (i.e., problem) is selected to work with from a list of previously identified needs, challenges, and assets.
  2. Using a Challenge Tree diagram, stakeholders identify both a) the impact, or effects, that occur as a result of the challenge and b) the root causes of the problem. In a nutshell, it is essentially a cause-and-effect model.
  3. Using a Solution Tree diagram, stakeholders can reimagine the situation, identifying an overall goal (in place of a challenge), impact or outcomes which occur if that goal is achieved, and solutions or objectives which help the community to achieve the goal in the first place.
  4. The community can look at solutions and identify a preferred plan of intervention, acting on the identified solutions and monitoring for impact as projects are implemented.

Now, this process often takes place on the community level or higher in order to devise strategies for effective action, design projects and programs, craft proposals for funding and partnership, and create monitoring and evaluation plans. Tree diagrams, on a large-scale project level, can serve as one of the first major steps toward developing a logic model – which is essentially a framework which justifies the actions your project takes and how it will make a positive difference in the lives of the people you’re working with.

However, these tools can easily be adapted to the household or even the individual personal levels. Nobody is too old or too young or too high-ranking or too illiterate to draw trees, consider the challenges they might face (no matter how seemingly small), understanding the greater context with all of its complexities, and brainstorm solutions that can ultimately improve lives. This is an exercise you might consider doing with your family, your housemates, your co-workers, or even with any civic or religious groups you may be a part of.

Here are a few different examples of Challenge Trees and their subsequent Solution Trees at the Individual, Household, and Community Levels.


This is a first example of a Challenge Tree Diagram (i.e. Problem Tree). You’ll notice the trunk of the tree is represented by an identified challenge: ineffective time management. Then, consider the leaves, what grows from the trunk of the tree. This is the effect or impact of this challenge we might face. Some of the effects of ineffective time management, for example, might be being chronically late or procrastinating on tasks. From here, we can take a look at the root causes. Where is this challenge stemming from? Perhaps I value time differently than others, or perhaps I’m working too much or too little to maintain proper levels of stimulation and output for maximum fulfilment and efficiency.

Once we have completed the Challenge tree, we can transform it into a Solution Tree, thus transforming the challenge into a solution.

A solution tree, at its most simple, takes the negatives that made up the Challenge Tree and transforms them into positives. Your root causes become your solutions. The tree trunk, your “Challenge,” then becomes your “Goal.” And the impact made from those solutions is now reflected in the leaves growing as a result of achieving the goal.

Here, the goal was simply formed by changing “Ineffective time management,” which was the challenge, into “effective time management.” At the roots, the solution to the cause “frequent distractions / lack of boundaries” simply becomes “elimination of distractions and setting of boundaries.” Once the goal is achieved, my “chronic lateness” could become “punctuality” instead.

Now, the idea is to understand where the challenge is coming from–this lies in the roots, and in the roots is where solutions lie. This is the most effective way to address a challenge in a sustainable fashion. Thus, from a solution tree, focus on the roots. Referring to the tree above, I must “utilize, create, or implement a system for organization and accountability.” Great. Now that I know what I have to do in a general sense, how and when and with what tools will I act on this? I might start using a new online task management system or buy an old fashioned paper planner. I might ask my colleagues to hold me more accountable to deadlines or ask that they not interrupt me when I’m engaged in an important task. I might start doing this…tomorrow.


In this example, my family has found an issue with how much waste our household produces. This is our challenge. We don’t know enough about composting, don’t think we have access to a space that can be dedicated to it. We purchase too many items with too much packaging, and we know all that plastic is harming our earth and our oceans. As parents, we think our current waste management practices are setting poor examples for our kids, and we worry that the way we try to separate paper products in unorganized fashion has created a fire hazard – plus, the clutter adds an extra layer of stress.

We’re hoping to turn over a new leaf (pun intended), so we aim to minimize our household waste. By committing to using reusable bags when shopping, avoiding purchasing items with unnecessary and unrecyclable materials, learning more about how we can compost even with limited space, and by creating an earth-friendly plan for our recyclable waste, we hope to do our part environmentally, reduce fire risks at home, and set a good example for our kids.


A relevant to this day and age but incomplete example, this next tree demonstrates a challenge communities around the world can face: people violating stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please note that this is simply an example for the purposes of demonstrating the tool on a community level.

You hopefully understand how Challenge and Solution Trees are formed at this point, so I’ll let the diagrams below speak for themselves.

If we were to then strategize a plan of action to address this challenge, we would need to start with those roots that represent solutions. Though the diagram does not tell you the exact what to do and how to do it, it does make it easier for community organizers and leaders to see what they are working toward and gives a better sense of the actions that need to take place. For example, multiple community actors throughout Morocco have organized to provide housing to homeless persons during the crisis. And the government has pledged financial support to families to, ideally, get them through the shelter-in-place order.


The posters below were designed with you in mind. What challenges do you want to address? And what solutions will you find for them? We hope you’ll identify ways to incorporate Challenge and Solution Trees into your everyday life and work. And we’d love it if you shared your own tree diagrams with us on Facebook.

And don’t forget! Check out our broadcast schedule to tune in live for upcoming sessions. Don’t worry if you’ve missed out on previous broadcasts–you can still watch them in the video archive on our Facebook page.


  1. The Participatory Development Process and Tools: A Guide for Communities and Facilitators. High Atlas Foundation, Mohammedia, Morocco, 2010.
  2. “Developing a Problem Tree.” National Centre for Sustainability, Swinburne University of Technology. 2011.