If you work in business—any aspect of a business, from R&D to sales to back-office data entry—you’ve probably experienced an unpleasant surprise or two. Not every marketing campaign boosts sales the way we want. Not every event has the turnout we hope for. Not every promotion we expect comes our way.
Particularly with problems that have fiscal casualties, you’ll want to do a little analysis and find out what happened. And one of the absolute best tools to apply to your analysis is critical thinking.
Critical thinking applies logic to solve problems systematically. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report” in 2020, “The top skills . . . which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include . . . critical thinking and analysis, as well as problem-solving.” And 2020 wasn’t the first year critical thinking made the list.
When it comes to problem-solving, logic trees are a go-to critical thinking framework. Done right, they’ll get you to the root of a problem (pun intended) and even help you find solutions.
What is a logic tree?
A logic tree takes a complex problem and breaks it up systematically, drilling down into smaller, more manageable components. If you’ve seen an image like this, you’ve seen a logic tree:
Looks pretty simple, right? It is! But there are some important rules to follow to make sure your logic tree grows up big and strong—and, more importantly, leads to you to answers you seek.
The Logic Tree and the Case of the Missing Sandwich
Logic trees are often used for complex issues, which is why they’re also called “issue trees.” But consider a simple (though still frustrating) problem faced by many office workers in the days before COVID-19 . . .
It’s lunchtime at your workplace, so you head to the office fridge—only to find your lunch is gone. You stare in disbelief at the empty space where your sandwich should be. A mocking smudge of condensation stares back.
As you are a logical person (not prone to throwing tantrums), you decide to approach this problem with critical thinking. You march back to your desk, grab a pen and paper, and write down four words: “Who took my sandwich?”
You’ve planted your logic tree.
Decide what you really need to know.
Before you jump into the branches, remind yourself that logic trees stem from problems—but knee-jerk responses often misidentify problems. So once you’ve got your initial question down, take a step back. Is there a branch that should have come before the first one you made?
Setting aside the sandwich problem for just a moment, consider you’re exploring a different issue: “How can I get promoted?” Think about the reason you’re asking that question. What’s the actual problem you need to solve? Maybe you should have asked, “How can I earn more money?” That opens far more possibilities than just getting promoted—you could look for another job, start a side business, or invest in your buddy’s startup. “How can I get promoted?” becomes just one branch on a bigger tree.
This is how logic trees (and critical thinking in general) not only help you identify solutions, but think outside the box—innovate.
Beware emotional bias in the branches.
You decide to start your logic tree with “Who took my sandwich?” From that root problem, you might break up the question into its seemingly logical components: “someone inside the office ate my sandwich” (Mary Anne, maybe? Or Phil?) and “someone came in off the street and stole it” (a hungry ninja, perhaps?).
Already, your logic tree is telling you something important.
The fact that you’ve defined the first two branches of your logic tree as “culprit here or there” means you’re sure there’s a thief in your midst. You’ve (perhaps subconsciously) ruled out the possibility that you forgot your sandwich at home or left it on the bus. The logic tree you’ve started will also not remind you if you didn’t make a lunch at all today because you’ll be eating out with Mary Anne and Phil.
Logic trees will only tell you what you ask them to tell you. They can only answer the questions you lay down. Don’t let your emotions limit the possibilities. Try to be aware of the assumptions you’re baking in.
Apply MECE to the branches of your logic tree.
Now that you’ve got your first two branches, you set to work breaking them down further. This is a good time to remember to follow the MECE principle. MECE stands for “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.” In other words, it means you want to build the branches of your logic tree without gaps or duplicates.
Remember, logic trees are a critical thinking tool, and critical thinking is about systematic problem-solving. The MECE component of logic trees helps keep the system clean by eliminating possibilities, which increases efficiency toward finding an answer.
For example, if one branch says, “Someone in the office took my sandwich” and another says, “Someone on this floor took my sandwich,” you’re setting yourself up for some overlap. (Surely, this floor is in the office, no?)
It seems unlikely that someone came in off the street and took your sandwich, so you focus on the other possibility: an inside job. That leads to two new MECE-friendly branches: someone from your team, or someone from another team? Then more branches under those: Someone who decided your lunch looked way more delicious their own, or someone who innocently mistook your lunch for theirs?
Aha! Looking at the breakdown, the answer strikes you. You bought that sandwich from Sandwich Heaven—the same place your teammate Rick sometimes buys his lunch. You check the fridge again, and sure enough there’s another sandwich almost identical to yours (except this one has tomato, gross).
Don’t expect logic trees to end with “the answer.”
Logic trees aren’t about quick fixes. They’re about training your mind to reach reliable solutions.
While you may be tempted to rush off and have a chat with Rick about stealing your sandwich, it’ll serve you much better to reflect on why he took your sandwich in the first place. You and Rick bought sandwiches from the same shop, which makes it easy to mix them up. That may be the answer—but is it a solution?
At the end of your logic tree, pose some further questions: Should you and Rick decide to put your sandwiches on different shelves in the fridge? Should you make it a point to label yours with your name? Or should you stop going to Sandwich Heaven every day?
This follow-up is important, even for logic trees targeting more serious issues. If you’re trying to determine why sales are down, perhaps your logic tree will reveal you’re targeting the wrong customers. In that case, what steps can you take to reset your targets?
The Payoff of Learning Logic Trees
While they might sound like a lot of work (and yes, they can be a bit overwhelming at first), logic trees can actually save you a lot of time once you get the hang of them. Even better, you don’t have to slave away at mastering them on your own. There’s no reason a logic tree needs to be a solitary activity (even if you’re hunting down a sandwich thief).
In fact, if you’re working on a critical business issue, you really shouldn’t try to go it alone. Ask your boss, your team, a consultant, or another colleague to review your work. They don’t even have to understand the problem in depth—the point is to get a fresh pair of eyes on your logic tree and, by extension, your problem.
Finally, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee a logic tree will bring you to the perfect answer. What they will do is train your critical thinking skills and help widen your view of the problems you face.