Critical Thinking Techniques: Issue Tree

Issue trees are useful for working groups to solve problems visually.
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The purpose of critical thinking is to encourage you to think about your own thinking processes, with the goal being to understand how preconceptions, misconceptions and biases effect your decisions so you can move beyond those impediments to objectivity. However, the actual process of critical thinking involves breaking down, or deconstructing, a problem into its constituent parts. Addressing a problem in this way makes it possible for you to see the clear path to a solution.

1 Definition

A critical thinking issue tree is a way of looking at a problem that allows you to concentrate on its various factors. It's a visual representation you would use to structure thinking, in much the same way you would use an outline to structure writing. By using an issue tree, you can visualize the relationship between the parts of a problem, as well as the comparative effectiveness of all possible solutions, as your group generates ideas.

2 Visualization

As you draw an issue tree, with the central problem denoted in the tree's trunk, you can delineate the various aspects of the problem -- or in a separate issue tree, the various possible solutions -- by writing those off to the side, as branches on the tree. By doing so, you can see clearly how certain issues or problems branch off from others, showing interrelationship. Additionally, you'll be able to see how solutions or outcomes might be the flowering of specific actions taken to address problems.

3 Hypothesis Driven

According to the Groove Network Marketing Facilitation Mentoring Program, there are two types of issue trees: hypothesis-driven and data-driven. A hypothesis-driven issue tree uses the same logic as the scientific method, in that it begins with a conjecture, or best guess, or with an objective or goal. If you're creating a solutions issue tree, you would list a hypothetical result on the diagram, representing it as leaves or flowers of a branch. Between the trunk (the problem) and the solution (the leaves or flowers) you can list on the branches the actions you can take to reach the desired outcome. A hypothesis-driven tree begins with a hypothetical solution and validates it by answering the question, "How?"

4 Data Driven

Issue trees are useful for unraveling complex problems.
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The Groove Network defines a data-driven tree as one that starts with the question, "Why?" As the name implies, this conceptualization uses the image of the tree and its branches to examine factual evidence. Your result when using this tree would be a comprehensive, thoughtful list of the individual issues (branches) that add up to create the larger problem (the trunk). After deconstructing the problem this way, you can connect similar issues with circles, or use numbers or arrows to indicate causal relationships.

5 Usefulness

When dealing with an existing problem or concern, an issue tree is a way to take the abstract and physically represent in a visual medium so as to logically establish both the issue and its component parts or causes. This is one method of mapping issues to determine what sub-issues exist, as well as how they overlay or overlap, allowing you to see when causes are mutually exclusive or interrelated. Issue trees are useful in business environments because they can be shared among a working group and because they make clear what the outcomes -- or, in business terms, deliverables -- will be for specific solutions.

Anthony Fonseca is the library director at Elms College in Massachusetts. He has a doctorate in English and has taught various writing courses and literature survey courses. His books include readers' advisory guides, pop culture encyclopedias and academic librarianship studies.