Issue trees have four rules. Three are absolute and one is highly situation-dependent: being perspicacious. Let’s talk about that one.

Follow the four rules of issue trees / issue maps

We’ve talked about it, to build effective issue trees, you only have to follow four rules. That sounds easy enough, especially for the first three.

Effective issue trees obey four rules.

Effective issue trees obey four rules; perspicacity/insightfulness is the fourth.

First, you have to remain consistent: if you start a root-cause analysis tree—i.e. a “why” issue tree—don’t change it mid-way to a solution/”how” issue tree and vice-versa.

The second rule is about drilling down progressively into more detail, by breaking down the key question into its issues and sub-issues. Once you’re finished with the breakdown, you formulate your hypotheses, you identify the information needed to test these hypotheses, you identify your sources of information, and then you get your info.

The third rule is about leaving no gaps and not having any overlaps in your analysis; in two words, being MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive).

All those are absolute no matter what your issue tree is about, it is fairly straight-forward to identify if you’re following the rule or not. The fourth rule, being perspicacious, is more complicated because it is relative.

Assess your insightfulness by understanding the “so what” of your choices

Perspicacity is highly situation-dependent.

Perspicacity is highly situation-dependent.

Being perspicacious means being insightful or, in consultant speech, adding value. Consider having to answer the lady in her car about where she is. The two answers are correct, but which one is bringing the most value? In 99% of the cases, the second one; that’s why the whole thing is funny.

But that’s funny only because we assume that the driver is lost and asking for directions. Instead, assume that she has just been involved in an accident, has lost consciousness and is coming back to her senses; what would be the perspicacious answer then? Probably the one on the left. In fact, in that case the second answer becomes the funny one.

That’s what I mean by being a relative rule: assessing whether an answer is perspicacious requires to pitch it against alternatives. And the winner is highly situation-dependent.

When you build logic trees, you need to decide how you want them to branch off by understanding the implications of the various ways in which they can branch off.

There are always various ways to break down a key question. To pick the most insightful one, you must understand their implications.

There are always various ways to break down a key question. To pick the most insightful one, you must understand their implications.

Consider having to classify the numbers on a casino roulette; how would you do it?

The figure shows various ways and, indeed, there are plenty more. Since you can only pick one,  which one is the most perspicacious? You need to drill deeper to find out.

If you choose one classification system, will it have overcrowded branches next to almost-empty ones (and is that desirable?)? Does your classification requires any skills to be understood? For instance, you wouldn’t choose the even/odd classification in a conversation with a two-year old, or the {black, red, green} one with someone that is color blind.

I’m afraid that I don’t have a specific rule to identify the most perspicacious breakdown in all situations. I only have two guidelines:

First, be sure to understand the problem you are solving. Remember our issue tree on how to go from New York to London (for instance, see here)? If this is a business trip, your first branch off should probably {take a plane vs. use another means of transportation}. Then you could break the plane branch into commercial vs. private, etc. On the other hand, if you’re taking the trip as a publicity stint, maybe the current form of the issue tree  isn’t so ridiculous after all.

Second, come up with several candidates and compare them to each other by really drilling into their implications and understanding their “so what”. Looking at only one possibility for organizing an issue tree and deciding that it is perspicacious might be possible, but I guess it takes a lot of practice. I know I can’t do it. So you have to pitch alternatives against each other.  Yep, it’s hard work but don’t be lazy. Remember that we all have a tendency to satisfice, but looking for alternatives is worth the effort: by understanding the specificities of each classification, you are sharpening your thinking.

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