Decision making is like trying to solve a puzzle. You need to put together pieces of information from various sources until you get a complete picture. But how can you synthesize and evaluate all of the moving parts when the pieces are unclear or fragmented and you need to get buy-in from dozens of cross-functional collaborators?
Enter the decision tree.
These nifty tree-shaped diagrams make the decision-making process more manageable. Done well, they can also spell fewer dreaded three-hour meetings where the same old arguments are rehashed over and over again, only for someone to finally make a decision that may not be inclusive of everyone’s viewpoints. Luckily, decision trees are simple to create and universal — you can use them to solve problems on your own or with your team in pretty much any field.
Below, more on creating decision trees, their use cases across design, IT, marketing and product teams, and more.
What is a decision tree?
Decision trees start with a problem statement or question. The tree will then branch out into potential steps or actions, and end with outcomes. The process of making a decision tree allows you to quickly visualize a multitude of scenarios and possible consequences and benefits.
A decision tree allows teams to branch out and explore a wide variety of ideas and solutions thoroughly before choosing a path forward. A typical decision tree consists of simple boxes and arrows that demonstrate different outcomes and potential choices for each step in the decision-making process. They can be anywhere from two or three steps long to several pages. The more complex the decision, the longer your tree needs to be.
Here’s what a typical decision tree looks like:
Types Of Decision Trees
There are two main types of decision trees: continuous variable decision trees and categorical variable decision trees.
- Categorical variable decision tree: This type of decision tree comprises categorical target variables divided into different categories. For instance, you can opt for either category A or category B, or you can choose category 1 or category 2 or even 3. These categories imply that every stage of the decision-making process will fall into either of these categories. If it reaches a point where the decision becomes impossible, it could only fall into the category of ‘NO’ with no in-between. This type of decision tree is also called classification.
- A continuous variable decision tree is a type of decision tree that has a constant target variable. For instance, an HR team can use a decision tree to predict a prospect’s current and expected salary to help determine if hiring the individual is viable or not. This decision can be informed by their qualifications, experience, track record, how valuable they are in their current workplace, and the expected value their recruitment can bring to your company. All the information used to make this decision is an example of continuous variables also called regression.
A third common example of a decision tree is the “If/then” statement. This type of decision tree can be used to make simple decisions, like which plants to grow in your garden based on the season, climate, type of soil, etc. Alternatively, you can solve more complex problems, such as the most opportune time to launch a new product feature or adopting a new tool for your company. Now, let’s dive into some specific ways PMs, CIOs, HR reps, and marketing professionals might make use of more detailed decision trees.
How can decision trees be used by teams?
Decision trees can help you and your team reach a final decision in a structured way (e.g., reduce the risk of confirmation bias or groupthink during the decision making process). They’re easy to use, and they ensure everyone has a voice in the process. One of the main reasons decision trees are so effective is that they help teams avoid decision-making gridlock and stay on track to achieve goals.
Decision trees for product managers
According to Department of Product, there are two common situations where PMs should utilize decision trees:
- Engineering issues: Decision trees can be used to work closely with engineers and decide how a particular feature should behave within the larger context of your product.
- Product prioritization: Making a decision tree will result in a series of questions that can help you prioritize certain features or strategies over others. Following the logical order of questions, you will eventually reach a strategic decision based on the most optimal results or goals.
Decision trees can also help product managers communicate better with their teams about the decisions they are making. By breaking decisions down into smaller parts, decision trees make it easier for everyone to understand the rationale behind a particular decision with regards to a product launch timeline. This can help reduce disagreements and align teams towards a common goal.
Decision trees for Chief Information Officers (CIOs)
CIOs can utilize decision trees to map out either/or scenarios and to analyze risks. There are certain scenarios where CIOs may think the level of risk associated with a proposed action is obvious. After visualizing that risk within the context of a decision tree, CIOs may be surprised by some of the counterintuitive results.
For example, CIOs are key decision makers in technology selection. When evaluating several options, a decision tree can help determine the best vendor when there’s similarities across features, costs, and security to see where one can stand apart.
Decision trees for Human Resources professionals
The hiring process offers a clear opportunity for human resources professionals to use decision trees.. Decision trees can help break down the complex decision of who to hire into smaller, more manageable parts to see how similar candidates truly measure up compared to the job requirements. This makes it easier for everyone involved to contribute their input and come to a consensus.
On the other end of the employee lifecycle, human resources professionals can use decision trees during the performance review process. Decision trees can help to identify areas of improvement, develop a plan to address them, and inform compensation reviews and increases.
Decision trees in Marketing
A brand is more than just a logo or colors; it’s the sum of every experience users have with a company. It’s an emotional connection that sets a company apart from its competitors and increases customer loyalty. When building a brand, marketers need to consider how customers feel about their company and products and then take steps to improve where necessary.
Companies use decision trees in branding to understand their current positions against competitors and define the ways they differ. The objective of this analysis is to help companies identify gaps between actual brand equity so that positioning efforts are targeted towards these areas for improvement. As a result of using decision trees in marketing research for this activity, companies can develop messages that focus on their strengths or their differentiation from competitors.
When (and how) to make your own decision tree
The decision tree works best in collaborative decision making, giving multiple team members a chance to offer their unique perspectives long before the final verdict.
It’s also important to make sure decision trees are clear and easy to follow, especially in asynchronous collaboration. That way, whoever is working on the problem will be able to get from start to finish without confusion.
If you’re using a digital whiteboard tool like InVision Freehand, it’s easy. Just follow these five simple steps:
Step 1: Draw a large rectangle in the center of the Freehand canvas to represent the problem or decision at hand.
Step 2: Brainstorm a few potential solutions. (you can use a Freehand template if you need help getting ideas flowing) Draw lines radiating out like branches from the top of the rectangle. Think of these branches as if/then statements.
Step 3: Add more branches. You can then start labeling the branches with ideas that you think are relevant to make it easier for everyone to contribute their thoughts and follow the branches to eventual outcomes.
Step 4: Once everyone has had a chance to contribute, sit down as a team and review the suggestions. Teams can easily annotate and comment in Freehand.
Step 5: Take a chance to review options. Once the team can discuss all of the possibilities and their associated risks and rewards, you’re in a better position to make an informed decision.
Decision trees: Next steps
Managing a successful product launch or marketing campaign can be complex – it requires collaboration and input from all stakeholders and teams within various departments. An easy way to execute all the options and achieve all the outcomes is by using a decision tree to collaborate as a team.
Knowing what a decision tree is and how it can effectively impact your decision-making and outcomes. Better yet, an effective decision tree can be a go-to technique for visualizing many ideas, choices and outcomes simultaneously.
Stephanie Darling is the Editorial Content Manager at InVision. She has a background working with arts and culture organizations, and she loves all things food, dogs, and podcasts.