Issue Trees and Critical Thinking

October 25, 2008

How many “well defined” problems and/or research plans have you seen in your career?


How often have you struggled to put together a clear approach to a problem?


Failure to clearly define a problem and organize thinking is one of the biggest challenges I see in professionals and my students. Our educational system has tended to reward memorization and test taking skills over more abstract logic. Unfortunately, most of life is an unstructured problem.


One of the skills that is typically valued in management consultants is there ability to “problem solve”. Here’s a conceptually simple tool to help you improve your ability to add structure and critical thinking to your personal toolkit. Don’t mistake “simple” for simple minded. Most people I’ve seen try to apply this struggle at first.


In my day job running the Carlson Consulting Enterprise at the University of Minnesota, we spend a great deal of time working on structure. Every project team must build a problem definition statement and an issue tree to lay out the underlying thought process required to answer a well defined question.


Step 1

The first step is creating a well defined question, otherwise known as focus. This takes more effort than one might think. The basic principle here is that as a rule, in most situations you have to get to a single, clear question. Many projects I’ve seen have either a client or a team that is all over the place and can’t get focused. If you can’t focus at the beginning it will only get worse over the duration of the project.


The key is to put something on paper (or whiteboard, excel etc.) to make explicit your question. Then let it stew, either in your own mind or with a broader group. There may be many ideas swirling around as to what the key question is. That’s normal. The point is to get them down and organized. This is very iterative. No matter how experienced you are, you won’t nail the question on your first attempt.


For example, there is a big difference between answering the questions “how do we grow our business?” and “how do we become a $100MM business by year X” Both may be appropriate, but define very different sub-questions and likely areas of study.


In general, the more specific and actionable the question the better.


Step 2

The next step is defining your sub questions. I find that often the best starting point is the list of ideas that weren’t quite right for the primary question.  The goal here is to define a framework of questions that taken collectively is “MECE”. This is geek speak for “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive”. This is simply a jargony way to ask yourself 1) are they separate enough that they don’t significantly overlap with each other and 2) are my questions comprehensive enough that they cover all logical avenues?


For example, if you are focused on the question “how do we become a $100MM business by year X?” then you might have sub-questions like: 1) How do we grow our existing customers? 2) How do we find new customers? Under each of these can be listed many sub questions.


Go as many levels deep as makes sense. I often go 1 level down on a cocktail napkin to make clear a point and have gone as deep as 5+ layers when thinking through a complex business plan strategy. Whatever works for you.


Step 3

If your issue tree is for a tangible work project, you’ll want to assign analysis elements and data sources. This is a “reality check” to make sure you’ve thought through how you will answer the questions posed in your tree. Contents here could include things like portfolio analysis as an analysis type or primary interviews as a data source. 


In summary, this is a broadly applicable, simple tool to help structure your thinking. You can apply it at the bar debating sports or in detailed business analysis. It helps visualize and clarify situations both for you, but often more importantly for others.


Sample Issue Tree


 Primary Question   Sub Questions   Analysis 
How can we grow a new opportunity to $XX of revenue and XX% operating margin in 20xx? Is the market attractive? How large is it? Analysis required and target source(s)
How fast is it growing?  
What is the competitive environment?  
Are there unmet consumer needs?  
What is the current state of our related business? What existing relationships can we leverage?  
Can any current products be effective in this market?  
Othe relevant internal factors…  
What is our strategic intent? What is company or BYU strategy?  
Does opportunity fit into overarching strategy?  
What is our best strategy for scaling up growth? Where can we best compete?  
How can we best compete?  
Can we win? Taken together, can above analysis yield a practical path to profitable growth?  




Personal Board of Directors

October 14, 2008

A piece of advice I received early in my career was to develop a personal “board of directors”. The idea is to identify and connect with a small (5-10) group of mentors and peers that can offer you advice.


I think the analogy is an interesting one and is worth considering. It extends and makes a little more tangible the idea of “mentors”. We’re all told to go find mentors for advice. But what does that really mean? Can one or two wise, well intentioned people really tell you everything you need to know? My experience has been that they can’t.


The idea then is to put together a conceptual committee that can collectively offer outside perspectives on key questions. You can build it along whatever lines make sense to you. My rough categories include:


1.      Common sense committee


A favorite sports columnist of mine (Bill Simmons of once wrote an extensive column on the need for sports franchises to anoint a “Vice President of Common Sense”.  I try to apply this to business. Find people you know that you think have good judgment and get their opinions on big things. Just get a smell test.


2.      Audit committee (ethics)


Who do you trust to give you a straight picture on right and wrong when things get murky. It’s important to find trustworthy confidants to run things past. Your compass won’t always be pointing in a clear direction, so get a little help calibrating.


3.      Analytics committee


Are there people you know who challenge your thinking? Then get their take on sticky analytical problems.


4.      Career & Compensation committee


Who can help you with career questions? Find a small set of people you think are astute politically and can help with thinking through career transitions and compensation questions.


5.      Life balance committee


Who can challenge your thinking on whether you are spending your time appropriately and keep you grounded.


A few additional thoughts on committee membership: 

– Make most members non-family and not directly in your chain of command. You want honest, unbiased advice.

– Build and adjust it over time. You may not have 10 people now. That’s OK. Go with what you have available. Also, membership may shift over time.

– Get multiple perspectives on deeper questions.

– Committee memberships can be overlapping.

Exploring Interests & Starting Transitions

October 4, 2008

I recently had a long conversation with a good friend about how to get started exploring new directions in their career. My friend isn’t thrilled with their current situation, it’s not where they saw themselves, they are at a different life point now than when they started…Sound familiar?


One of the most common questions I get asked is some version of “I’m stuck, where do I go from here?”  Many of us have trouble beginning to think about new things.  We reach a point of comfort, or a “rut” and don’t have the time or energy to put into thinking beyond where we are today. If you are happy with what you are doing, that is fine. If not, here are a few ideas for getting started.


Note: This is NOT a post about “job searches”, rather it’s about how to explore when you think you need a change. Examples could be moving to a non-profit to feel more fulfilled or launching your own business.


1.      Determine a few areas you want to explore


This sounds obvious. It is. So do it.


What are you interested in? What activities get you excited and willing to go “above and beyond” without pay or recognition?


For me it’s always been teaching and coaching. I went to History graduate school believing I wanted to be a History professor. I decided against that after spending several years in a PhD program and realizing that success would be more driven by publishing than teaching. Time well spent in my mind. I now knew that I liked to teach, but that wasn’t the right avenue. I’ve found my way back in part because I kept gravitating to it.


So make a list. It may have really diverse activities or characteristics on it. Good. Play with it and see what emerges. It may yield ideas for job roles, businesses or simply ways to adapt your current job to meet your personal needs.


2.      Recognize that it takes effort, things don’t “work themselves out”


Once you have a few ideas, then you need to actually look around. Explorers don’t wait for new things to come to them. They set off without a clear idea of what they’ll find and generate opportunities to learn.


So do some reading. There’s more information out there on most topics than you can possibly digest. This is necessary, but not sufficient. It sets up the “real” research.


Most importantly, go meet people and get an intimate perspective on the area you are interested in.  For example this could mean talking to: staff and students at a school if you are debating a return or career switch, entrepreneurs you know about the joys and challenges of new business start-up, people who do the thing you are contemplating…You get the idea.


Important note: Don’t hesitate to connect with people. I am constantly impressed at how many people will help you with their perspective and a little time if you approach them respectfully. I write about this more in columns on relationships.


3.      Don’t be hasty or “crawl, walk, run”


Jumping into the deep end is not my idea of “exploring”. This is something to be pecking away at over time. If you can’t sustain interest over time, then you’ve found something out.


Figure out a way to gradually get into your chosen area(s). If you’re curious about counseling, take on a volunteer role somewhere, take a class.  If interested in starting a business, find a local entrepreneur and see if they’ll let you help them on weekends. If you really want to close the deal, don’t ask for salary.


Pick something and do it, but don’t over-commit. View it as a personal pilot program. Some pilots fail. That’s OK. You’ll learn some things that aren’t a good fit (and at a low personal cost) and maybe find your passion.


If you are actively moving some ideas and activities forward, you will find opportunities to make bigger moves or changes will “emerge” from the new connections you are making.


4.      Think through your cash flow, what do you need?


Not to be a bummer, but bills don’t pay themselves. Another benefit of crawl, walk, run is that it allows you time to fully understand the economics of whatever you are exploring. Will you make more, less? Are the hours different? Are there other costs to these changes (child care, school tuition, professional dues etc.)?


Make sure you are being a realist about the financial implications of your potential options. If you’re someone who is accustomed to a certain lifestyle, be honest with yourself about it.


5.      Don’t be a victim


This is a pet peeve of mine. I hate hearing “so and so is so lucky. Things always seem to work out for them.” Grrrr. Get off the couch and take action, even if it’s small. Activity compounds over time (like interest) and you’ll develop momentum. As golf great Gary Player once said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”