Business Decision Mapping in 6 Steps

By Tim van Gelder  |  Posted 2009-02-11

Mapping Out the Options: How Technology Helps with Decision-Making

Benjamin Franklin offered famous advice on decision-making to his scientific colleague, Joseph Priestley. His counsel was take a sheet of paper, divide it into two columns, and write down all the advantages of a certain path of action in one column and the disadvantages in the other. Then, by "cancelling out" items in one column with items in the other, assess which column is weightier.

Simple but powerful, Franklin's Moral Algebra continues to be relevant today, when critical business and IT decisions must be made under conditions of great uncertainty and time pressure. Research has shown that such methods reliably produce better decisions than ordinary, unstructured deliberation. The basic principles of Franklin's Moral Algebra, combined with today's decision-mapping software, can improve and accelerate organization decisions. 

We must also acknowledge that in its classic form, Franklin's advice can't do justice to many business decisions. Most obviously, the Moral Algebra frames the problem as whether to undertake a particular action. But most decisions are not yes/no or go/no go. Rather, most decisions involve choosing from a range of possible actions.

For example, in a hiring situation, the decision problem is not likely to be whether or not to hire Jones but, rather, which of Jones, Jiminez or Jagonski to hire? Complicating matters further, the options may form a kind of hierarchy. At one level, the decision is whether or not to hire an accountant or a tax lawyer. At the next level, if an accountant is to be hired, which one?

Another problem is that the method focuses on only one part of the decision problem, which is how to do the overall "weighing up" of the various considerations. But in business decisions, much of the work goes into determining the validity or strength of those considerations in the first place. A claimed advantage of hiring a tax lawyer is that she can manage certain difficult issues having to do with complex tax structures. But is this really true? Perhaps the issues are too complex for any one lawyer, and external advice would have to be obtained anyway.

Recognizing that we need something more than a simple pro/con approach, many textbooks, professors and consultants will prescribe moving to some technical, usually quantitative methodology, such as multi-attribute utility theory or decision analysis. These certainly have their uses, but the reality is that most decision makers do not use these technical methods for the bulk of their decisions-even if they were taught how to use them in business school. And they are not just being lazy. Often, these sorts of complex analytical tools just don't get a grip on the distinctive texture of business decisions. Real problems often can't be reduced to numbers, algorithms and decision rules.

Business Decision Mapping in 6 Steps

Business decision mapping in 6 steps

There is an alternative. It's one that works better for a wide range of decisions, whether in IT, strategy or even in one's personal life. Rather than discarding Franklin's method, we can extend and adapt it so it can handle more of the complexities of business decision-making.

Business Decision Mapping (BDM) is such an extension. It preserves Franklin's essential insight: that deciding usually involves the weighing up of diverse, usually qualitative considerations. It elaborates his method to handle multiple options and lower-level arguments and evidence. But it keeps the complexity under control by laying all this out in a special kind of diagram-a decision map.

Here, briefly, are the 6 most basic steps in BDM:

Step No. 1: First, frame the decision problem using an open question. It's not "Should we hire Jones?" but rather, "Who should we hire?" Even better, "What should we do about our tax accounting needs?" Put the question in a box, preferably with a question icon so that its status is always immediately apparent.

Step No. 2: Canvass the major actions you might take in response to the problem. Write these down in boxes, connected by arrows to the question. For each action, write down the most salient pros and cons. Draw arrows to the relevant option boxes. 

Step No. 3: Consider the major arguments bearing on the pros and cons. Add them to the map. 

Step No. 4: Consider the detailed pieces of evidence supporting the major arguments. Add them also.

Step No. 5: When this has been done as exhaustively and rigorously as circumstances allow, evaluate the evidence, arguments, and the pros and cons.

Step No. 6: Choose the most strongly supported options. In making these assessments, you might use Franklin's "cancelling out" approach.

Advantages of Business Decision Mapping

Advantages of BDM

Compared with standard, informal deliberation (for example, arguing around the board room table), BDM takes some extra effort but offers many advantages. Let's take a look at three of the advantages of BDM:

First, BDM improves the clarity and rigour of thinking behind the decision. With the thinking laid out in front of us, we can more easily survey the considerations and take proper account of them.

Second, BDM improves collaboration. A decision map is an easier way to communicate a complex structure of options, arguments and evidence. With better sharing, team time is spent more productively.

Third, the BDM process automatically results in a concrete record of the thinking behind the decision. This is useful if-as often happens-the decision needs to be revisited at some later point in time. It also helps the decision makers to be accountable. Once a decision is made, things might still turn out badly for other reasons. But at least the decision maker can easily show that the decision was well-grounded at the time.

BDM can be done on paper, whiteboard or computer screen, using markers or generic software packages. However, similar to most things, it can be done better and faster with dedicated tools. In recent years, dedicated decision mapping software has emerged, making creating, modifying and sharing of decision maps relatively simple and fast. Decision mapping, supported by such software, deserves a place as a standard part of the toolkit of IT analysts and executives. 

 Tim van Gelder, PhD, is Founder, Director and Chief Visionary Officer of Austhink Software. Tim is a cognitive scientist, consultant and software entrepreneur specializing in improving human thinking. Educated at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1984) and University of Pittsburgh (PhD, 1989), Tim held academic positions at Indiana University and the Australian National University before returning to Melbourne as an Australian Research Council QEII Research Fellow.

Tim has conducted decades of research on how to improve thinking, particularly reasoning and critical thinking skills. In 1998, Tim set up The Reason Project at the University of Melbourne, which developed a software-supported method for improving critical thinking. Extensive empirical studies showed that this method reliably produces substantial gains in reasoning skills.

Tim is recognized as a pioneer in argument visualization and critical thinking training. He has over 60 publications in cognitive science, and was winner of the 2001 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Critical Thinking. Tim's company, Austhink, has clients that include major organizations in the United States intelligence community, which have adopted Austhink techniques in their analytical training. He can be reached at

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