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The Reasonably Rational Thinking Process, Part 2: The Goal Tree

9 min

This is Part 2 of our series on the Reasonably Rational Thinking Process. Read Part 1 here.

Dejected, the man once again surveyed his surroundings. Trees, strecthing up towards the sky and blocking the sun, towered everywhere. The seemingly endless columns of bark were broken through only periodically by shafts of anemic light; nowhere was there any indication of a way forward. How can I escape, if I can’t even begin? he thought.

Helplessness may be learned, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

As we discussed in Part 1, helplessness emerges in the face of two primary criteria:

  1. They is no clear cause of the problem; and
  2. There is no clear next action.

The process of solving an intractable problem, then, hinges on two primary elements:

  1. Determing the critical root cause; and
  2. Determining our most effective next action.

We will deal with each of these stages in turn by exploring the Reasonly Rational Thinking Process.

The Reasonably Rational Thinking Process is based on the Logical Thinking Process developed by William (Bill) Dettmer. Dettmer’s system was originally designed to help large organizations take poorly-defined systems problems and slowly, but surely, move towards a solution.

Dettmer summarizes his approach here:

Dettmer’s process is meticulous – he takes a great deal of time breaking down every possible component part of a systemic problem.

He does this because, at the level of large organizations, potential mistakes in defining the nature of systemic problems can lead to massive wastes of time and capital.

The problem for us – people who simply want to think more rationally about the problems we face in our own lives, or in smaller businesses – is that this meticulous approach makes the entire Logical Thinking Process incredibly unwieldy.

For normal, every day problems – or for businesses with less than, say 20 people – I don’t think a full and complete run down of the LTP is necessary to make progress.

In fact, I’d wager that speed of implementation and the ability to get feedback from efforts to make things better is more valuable in those situations than adding 10 points to the “rigorous thinking” scoreboard.

After all, the potential downsides in these scenarios – some wasted time, some wasted effort – is considerably less.

What we need in these instances isn’t a completely Logical Thinking Process – we just need to be Reasonably Rational.

We need to avoid the most common mistakes and pitfalls of complex problem solving…without becoming obsessed with complete logical accuracy.

(This is not a problem with Dettmer’s approach, by the way – in fact, Dettmer’s approach is absolutely the right one for the companies he typically works with.

We’re just going to hack his tools a bit to serve a different market).

With that, let’s explore my own simplified version of the Logical Thinking Process – The Reasonably Rational Thinking Process.

Reasonably Ration Thinking Process #1: The Goal Tree (or, What The F*** am I Doing?)

A huge amount of suffering is caused by the fact that we have no clearly desired outcome.

Many times we think we know what we want – more money, a better job, whatever – but we’re unclear about what, specifically, constitutes those end states.

How much money, exactly? Better job, how – less hous, more pay, better coworkers…?

Many situations call for optimization of one thing or the other – choices must be made.

If we’re unclear about our priorities, and what really matters, we subconsciously avoid progress for fear and making the wrong choice.

What’s more, problems only exist in relation to a goal; no situation is an issue unless we have a desired alternative.

(Sure, it’s raining. But that’s only a problem if you need it to be sunny because you planned to propose during a picnic and you’ve already packed 400 egg salad sandwiches because you’re a compulsive over-cooker and they’re all going to go bad and start smelling up this uber unless you figure something out).

So, not only is a clear understanding of our goal critical for understanding what to do next…it’s crucial to even understanding the nature of the problem.

And yet…it can be frustratingly hard to know what our goal really is, sometimes.

I recently had a conversation with my wife, who is volunteering for a literacy non-profit. She goes into a middle school once a week to spend about an hour reading aloud with two young students.

Lately she’s been having an issue with keeping the kids on task; they’re still reading, but they often don’t enjoy reading aloud (one of the primary aspects of the program). They’d rather read quietly on their own.

Is this a problem?

Really, it all depends on the goal. Is the goal:

In this case, it seems these two goals conflict.

(In actuality, they may not – more on that later.)

In any case, it’s hard to determine what action she should take – or whether she should take any action at all – without truly understanding our primary goal.

When you’re in these kinds of situations, the best way to figure out what you really want is by creating a diagram called a Goal Tree.

The Goal Tree

A goal tree takes a broad, overarching aim and breaks it down into actionable component parts.

Basically, it takes a dream and tells you what to work on in order to achieve it.

The best part is, you don’t really need to know the answers beforehand in order to make it. In fact, the process of creating the diagram will itself help you to determine what needs to be done.

I think of the Goal as the benchmark – the thing against which we measure everything we do. Is it moving me towards, or away from, my goal?

Let’s take the above example: My wife’s students are resisting reading aloud.

Before we start addressing and diagnosing the problem, we need to have a clear idea of our goal. So let’s start there.

The first thing we need to ask ourselves is: What’s the ultimate goal of everything we’re doing here?

Another way of phrasing that is:

What’s the one aim towards which all my effort is directed?

It’s OK if we’re not 100% sure how to answer this question right now – we can revise later. But for now, we need a sense of what the big, overarching goal is.

So, for example, our goal could be:

The students are able to read aloud proficiently.

Something about that feels incomplete, right? It practically begs the question: why?

Why do we care if the students can read aloud in class? What’s the point?

Same goes for:

Encourage in the kids a love of reading.

It sounds nice, but again – why? Why do we care if they have a love of reading?

Let’s think it through:

We want them to be able to read aloud…because they have to do that in school.

OK. Good so far.

And we want them to love reading…because that’ll mean they read more, increasing their reading proficiency.

Great! We’re making progress. But…why do we care if they’re proficient readers?

Well…proficient readers will have access to lots of information from written sources, and be able to access those resources whenever they need. And that’ll make them more capable and resilient.

NOW we’re getting somewhere. All of a sudden, THAT sounds like a self-sufficient goal…something that is obviously worth while. Whereas before, they felt a bit intermediate – nice, but not the end result towards which all our effort is directed.

Let’s say after a few stabs at this process, we come up with this as the Ultimate Goal:

My ultimate goal is…

Students are resourceful enough to handle the challenges they meet in school.

Now we’re going to write that down at the top of a piece of paper (or, in my case, in a piece of flow chart software. Either way is totally fine.)

Now that we have our ultimate goal, let’s focus in on a single question:

What conditions are indispensable for this result?

In other words:

For the goal to be true, what other things have to be true?

These indispensable conditions are called Critical Success Factors. You literally cannot achieve the goal without them.

Typically, you are going to have no more than 3-5 of these.

Remember: we’re not thinking too broadly here. Our stated goal is that the students are resourceful enough to meet the challenges they’ll run into in school and life. What are the things they absolutely require in order to achieve that goal?

Let’s brainstorm.

To be resourceful enough to handle the challenges they meet in school, they’ll need:

This makes sense, right?

If they don’t know the resources, they can’t be resourceful;

If they can’t access the resources, they can’t be resourceful;

If they won’t access resources, they can’t be resourceful.

Let’s add those Critical Success Factors to our chart. We’ll place them below our Goal, and connect them to the goal with lines, showing the relationship.

Now that we’ve laid out some Critical Success Factors, we need to ask:

What conditions are indispensable for the achievement of our Critical Success Factors?

We’re going to repeat the process we just went through – but instead of thinking about the Goal, we’re thinking about what we need in order to achieve our Critical Success Factors.

We call these Necessary Conditions.

To recap:

We start with a Goal – the benchmark against which we measure everything in a system.

Then we figure out our Critical Success Factors – what are the indispensable elements of achieving our Goal?

Then we figure out our Necessary Conditions – what are the indispensable elements of achieving our Critical Success Factors?

After some time brainstorming (and more than a few edits), here’s what I got:

What this tree gives us is clarity into why we do what we do.

If something isn’t on the tree, it’s not moving us closer to our goal.

Likewise, if we’re neglecting the things in the tree, nothing else matters.

This works particularly well for complex issues. Below is a goal tree I created when I wanted to completely rebuild our client success systems in my marketing agency:

I ignored the “sales” branch of the tree because I was focusing in on customer service…but you can see here how every important element of what we do plays a role in moving us towards our goal (“Large number of monthly clients”).

There’s another aspect of the Goal Tree that is incredibly valuable:

The easiest place to start is with the Necessary Conditions at the bottom of the tree.

While the system can look impossible complex, the only things we need to focus on right now are the Necessary Conditions with nothing below them, i.e., the bottom layer of the tree.

If you’re starting work towards a large goal, this is how you do it:

This is also a critical step towards addressing problems

Because, as we said earlier, problems exist only in relation to our goals.

More on that in the next segment – the Problem Tree.

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