Issue Trees and Critical Thinking

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?  




4 Responses to Issue Trees and Critical Thinking

  1. […] Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can […]

  2. […] developed my “issue tree” outlining what I thought the big questions were and also worked through a reverse P&L as […]

  3. […] Issue trees are really helpful in making sure you’re asking the right question, have it disaggregated into MECE (mutually-exclusive, collectively exhaustive) chunks, and can communicate what you think is most important to the interviewer in a very easy-to-follow-manner. Plus, if you’re structure is thoughtful at the beginning, it can serve as “true north” during the interview to make sure you’ve hit all the points you outlined in the beginning / capture relevant data in a easy-to-find place. […]

  4. […] personality, and relevant problem definition. Use mind mapping for this last element, starting an issue tree with the primary audience problem, and branching into its […]

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