Towards rejection of root cause as a term of art

I believe root causes in complex systems do not exist. As Casey Rosenthal writes in Inhumanity of Root Cause Analysis,

The selection of one thing as a ‘root cause’ versus another isn’t something that exists out there in reality. It’s something that one particular human projects into their narrative of what happened. It’s a story.

When I discuss the fallacy of a linear root cause in complex systems with smart, talented folks who have successfully applied RCA, Five Whys, or other approaches, a frequent response is something along the lines of

Of course there's no ONE root cause; we use root causes, plural. And for all this philosophy, there are many incidents where the root causes are clear and actionable.

I have a modest suggestion here: remove the use of the term “root cause” from your vocabulary; use either “contributing factor” or “precipitating event” as a replacement. The later a special designation for the “straws that break the camels back” after which impact is apparent. That's all you have to do. I'm not asking for any other process or culture changes. Find and replace. If you don't think language here is that important, then I expect it to not be a big deal for you to make this small change (to your incident review templates, to Slack custom reply reminders, etc). If as you read this, you are hesitating... maybe language is a big deal to you after all? In which case, we're on the same level of linguistic pedantry, and I think you owe it your organization and customers to read Casey's post and think over whether you believe root cause exists or not.

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