Why You Need to Learn to Use Issue Trees for Business Problem Solving

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Problem-solving is a fact of life. We all do it constantly without even thinking about it. When you visit a new client’s office, your brain is actively working out how to get in, checking where the reception desk is and who you should speak to first. These are elementary problems that we solve without any real effort.

In business, the same situation occurs. Many of our business problems are as simple as finding our way into a new office. However, we also encounter many questions that are far more complex and prove challenging to resolve. That’s where a method such as issue trees can help.

But how do you make an issue tree, and how do they work?

There is a wealth of information online, and plenty of books that describe issue trees in minute detail. Issue tree basics are briefly discussed below, and we’ll attempt to show you what can be gained by deploying the issue tree concept in your problem-solving.

Why should I use a Problem Solving Method?

You will find many people that dismiss problem-solving methodologies as management consultant speak. The same people will claim that working through a problem is a natural-born ability of an intelligent human being.

For the simple problems we mentioned above, that is true. But take a business problem, such as designing a new motor vehicle. Yes, that is a little extreme, but the analogy holds.

Using a proven method such as issue trees enables a very complex problem to be broken down into small, manageable issues.

Consultants use methodologies like issue trees when clients come to them with a problem they cannot solve in-house.

Issue Trees are Better than Frameworks

Frameworks are often pushed as the most efficient method of solving complex business problems. But frameworks have one big problem. They are not flexible, and often, the problem needs to be shoehorned into a framework where it doesn’t naturally fit.

The idea of a framework will be sold as a quick and easy solution. One that will achieve the same as drawing up an issue tree, but with much less effort.

Unfortunately, frameworks come in small sets of generic solutions, usually around twelve, and you simply choose the framework that fits.

The main problem of frameworks for complex business problems is that you will very likely miss some of the critical details of the issue.

Using issue trees, you draw up a unique framework for the specific problem you are tackling. This means a generic framework does not constrain you, and all the separate issues should be covered.

The Issue Tree Methodology

Building an issue tree is not very difficult. The rules are simple, and if you stick to them, the resulting framework will describe your problem in detail. Here, we’ll cover a few of the basic ideas to show the benefits.

Break the Problem Down

Underpinning every issue tree is the simple principle of breaking down a problem into individual elements. The elements then become the branches of your tree. These elements are then refined into ever smaller issues until you can go no further.

First, start at a high level. Look at the simple example below. The airline has an issue with its revenue flow and needs to discover why.

Take Care With Segmentation

Using issue trees, you’ll find there are multiple ways to break a problem down. Some will lead to an acceptable solution, others may not, but all add to your knowledge about the problem.

How you segment the problem depends on the information available, but mathematical solutions often work the best. When dealing with profitability, as in the airline example above, the initial breakdown could be between revenues and costs.

The cost branch could then be further broken down into fixed costs and variable costs. Revenue could be split into the different income streams of the company.
If a breakdown based on mathematics is not suitable, there are plenty of other logical methods. The MECE methodology will help here.

Where Does MECE fit into the Issue Tree Method?

So what is MECE? It stands for Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. The elements in your branches should follow the MECE guidelines to produce a complete issue tree.

For example, consider the segmentation of the UK population by age and occupation. Those born before 1960 would be in one category, while accountants could be another category.

This segmentation does not fulfill the rules for MECE for the following reasons;

  1. Mutually Exclusive. Segmentation must not overlap, but in our example, an account could have been born before 1960, so they are in both segments.
  2. Collectively Exhaustive. Some accountants were born after 1960, but you’ve not included them.

Issue Tree Advantages

We’ve explained that issue trees have significant advantages over generic frameworks, but they also provide definite benefits for problem-solving in business.

Branch Relationships are Clear and Easy to Understand

With the complex problem now split into smaller issues, the links and relationships between separate issues become apparent. It is far easier to visualize the effect of a small change will have on the overall problem and plan your approach accordingly.

Hypothesis Approach Gives Quicker Solutions

With an issue tree laid out before you, it is easier to identify particular factors that cause the problem. This method is known as the “Hypothesis Driven Approach,” and can often allow you to find the cause of the problem, without considering all possibilities.

More Efficient than Frameworks

Now you can see the small problems, and your team can be set to identify solutions. Allowing the whole team to work on separate issues, boosts efficiency, and can reduce the time taken to solve the problem.

Issue Tree Variations

Two standard variations of the issue tree are commonly used.

The problem tree variant focuses on the issues to develop a suitable solution. This is the version we have described above.

The solution tree variant is often employed to determine how to implement the change required to fix the problem. The solution tree takes the root cause and breaks it down until a solution path is found.

Let’s Get Problem Solving!

They say practice makes perfect, so the easiest way to understand the value of issue trees is to put them to use. Try them out on some more straightforward issues to get a feel for them, and then move to more complex problems.

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