Issue trees / logic trees are a central part of our methodology because they help us organize our thinking. So let’s talk about tools that can help us create excellent issue trees.
Logic trees change along the analysis. They change because no matter how much you try, you won’t get a perfect one at the beginning of your project: you’ll duplicate or forget stuff (i.e. it won’t be MECE) or it won’t be insightful enough. Even if you get these two right, as you move along in your analysis, some hypotheses will change, or you’ll use your tree to capture your analysis and your findings. In short, your tree will evolve as your proceed forward. So there’s not point carving your tree in stone. Instead, you need to use a tool that allows you to modify it easily.
Building issue trees manually: Post-its
Even though I don’t recommend that you draw an issue tree by hand on a piece of paper—because that would significantly reduce your ability to modify it as you go—you don’t need a computer to build issue trees. Post-its will do just as well.
Pros: You don’t need a computer. Also, if you place the notes on a wall, the entire team can contribute in the development (big, big plus!) and you get to see the entire tree and be able to read it (more on small fonts below).
Cons: If it’s on the wall, you can’t take it with you. If it’s on a piece of paper, you’ll have to right very small so that the entire tree can fit (yes, even on a very large sheet of paper).
My view: Post-its are an excellent way to get started on the first branches of a tree, especially if you have a few team members to help you. Also, they take the technological distraction away so that you can focus on the real matter. But once you’re past the first levels of issues / sub-issues, move to a digital tree and leverage the practicality of digital media.
Go business-like: PowerPoint/Keynote
If you don’t want to use post-its, then you’ll probably be better off with a computer. Any package that allows you to draw simple shapes will do. Of course, management consultants swear by PowerPoint (part of the Microsoft Office suit, $150 for the student version, $280 for the Business version with three other applications). Alternatively, you can use Apple’s Keynote (part of the iWork suit, $79 with two other applications) if you’re on a Mac.
Pros: Capture your tree in the same PowerPoint/Keynote deck of slides that you use for your progress reports and final presentations and, voilà !, you have all the information about your project in a single file. How more organized can you be?
Cons: The main problem with these non-drawing packages is that you will spend enormous amounts of time on formatting stuff. This is not maybe, this is a certainty. First because as your tree develops, you will try to keep it readable as part of a slide deck so you’ll use as big a font as you can. That’s your first error, because each time you’re adding a new element to your tree, you’ll have to reformat it manually: reduce the font and replace the boxes on the page. Second, because trees get big. Really big. 10-pages-or-more big. So if you want to fit 10 pages worth of content on one slide, you’ll have to use fonts of size 2 or 3 and even then you’ll run out of real estate, simply because trees usually require more vertical space than horizontal one.
Now Keynote is much cheaper than PowerPoint but the latter has one advantage: it lets you attach connectors to each element. With Keynote, you have to draw the connecting lines between boxes and if you move them around or resize them, you have to re-draw them (or group elements, either way, it’s more work).
My view: I spent my fair share of afternoons developing trees with Powerpoint and I won’t do it again. The main reason is because it’s counter-productive: developing trees is hard work. If you have a distraction—like having the excuse of resizing boxes—you’ll choose it over testing whether your thinking is MECE and perspicacious. So you’ll take much more time to develop your tree. The only situation where I think it makes sense to use one of these packages is to develop very simple/incomplete trees, such as example or early-stage trees.
Go engineer-like: OmniGraffle
Omnigraffle, $100 by the Omni Group, is a diagraming program for Mac computers.
Pros: It’s easy to use, you can draw boxes and it expends horizontally and vertically as much as you need so that you can accommodate your tree even when it becomes comprehensive.
Cons: Compared to PowerPoint or Keynote, OmniGraffle hasn’t much cons, apart that you have to shell out $100. Compared to the mind-mapping software below, it’s just not quite as nice, simply because OmniGraffle requires you to move boxes manually whereas they do it automatically.
My view: This is one step above the presentation packages but not quite as good as the mind-mapping packages. That said, if you have it installed and are comfortable with it this is definitely a good option.
Go free: Freemind
Freemind is a mind-mapping software, which is close to perfect to draw issue trees, and it runs on Windows-, Mac- and Linux-based systems. Once you’re done with your tree, you can export it as a PDF or a JPEG and you can share it with the rest of your team without them having to install the software.
Pros: It’s free! Compared to all packages above, you don’t have to waste any time drawing links between boxes, rearranging boxes on the page, making sure that the content fits onto a single page… Also, it’s very intuitive.
Cons: Again, compared to the packages above, there is not much wrong: it is not very advanced but it will get the job done. If you’re ready to forgive it for not having too many niceties—my copy crashed tonight as I was trying to exit it—it might be your best friend. Oh, and did I mention it was free? This made it very popular with my students and they got some excellent trees with it.
My view: It is definitely the best buy, of course, and a very good option by itself. Download and, if you like it, look no further.
Finally, you can invest in a mind-mapping tool. There are several out there; just for Macs: Conceptdraw, iMindMap, Inspiration, and others. (This page reviews those and a few more). I haven’t tried them all but I use Mindjet’s MindManager ($249).
Pros: First, it is just better suited to draw issue trees than any non-mind-mapping packages. Now, compared to Freemind, I find it more intuitive to use and I like the look and feel of the trees. Adding new elements is very easy; so is hiding part of your tree. That means that it is easy to capture your entire analysis in the tree (not just the hypotheses but the actual facts that you gather with their sources, etc.) so it can become the central repository of your effort. This is really helpful with organizing. (To be fair, FreeMind or other packages might be able to do that as well but MindManager is the only one that I know does it.)
Cons: The price! $250 is a lot of money. The software is not quite as intuitive as I’d like it to be but I’m just being picky.
My view: Download it and try it for free for a month. Then if you like it and don’t mind the price, go for it.
Closing, it depends on your budget
I have all of these packages and I’ve used them all at some point to draw trees. I use Keynote for very simple trees—mainly basic examples for my class or for this site—but when it comes to drawing a “real” tree, I use MindManager because it allows me to waste virtually no time on the formatting and I can get the structure that best supports my thinking.