Print version (pdf)

Simply put, decision mapping is drawing a map of the thinking involved in a deliberative decision.

Making a decision is essentially trying to choose the best thing to do from a range of options.  Each of those options may have various advantages and disadvantages, and these in turn may be supported by further arguments and evidence, or subject to dispute.  Decision mapping displays this complex structure in an easy-to-follow diagram.

There are two main aspects to it.  First, there is making fully explicit the various decision ingredients – the questions, options and sub-options, pros and cons, arguments and evidence – and their relationships in a systematic, disciplined way.

Second, there is producing the map, i.e. laying all this out in visual form.  Following a set of diagramming conventions, and using purpose-built software, we produce a map showing what we’ve got and how it all hangs together.   The map can be displayed on screen or printed out, sometimes in the form of a large chart or poster.

Here is an example: a map based on a Harvard Business Review case study (click to see larger image):


Benjamin Franklin famously recommended that, to make a difficult decision, we should list the Pros and Cons of a course of action on a sheet of paper, and “cancel out” those of equal weight.  Decision mapping is really just Franklin’s “Moral Algebra” extended to handle more complex deliberative decision structures and modified so as to take advantage of contemporary information-processing technologies.

But why would you do this?

Fundamentally, decision mapping helps us make better decisions.  It helps improve “hit rate,” i.e. the proportion of decisions we get basically right.  It does this by improving the thinking leading up to the decision.

The process of decision mapping, properly followed, makes the thinking more clear, rigorous and complete.  Following the decision mapping guidelines, we can articulate and organise our thinking more effectively.  Then, when it comes time to make our choice, our judgement is more well-founded.

The map itself helps us get our minds around the decision.  The reality is that decisions, especially important ones, are often quite complicated.  By default we try to hold and process that complexity in our heads.  The trouble is that our cognitive capacities are limited in crucial ways, and can be quickly overwhelmed.  Relevant considerations get ignored, and cognitive biases kick in.   A decision map helps address this problem by storing the thinking outside the head in an easily-surveyable form.   In effect, working with decision maps is like adding RAM to our minds, allowing us to devote more cognitive resources to the really hard task of evaluating the arguments and choosing the right option.

Any other reasons?

Well, yes… for one thing, it can reduce the stress associated with decision making.  It helps dispel some of the anxiety which inevitably arises while making an important decision.  When we can quite literally see that the thinking has been done properly, then we can be more confident that our choice is going to be well made and will turn out well.  If things nevertheless turn out badly, we’ll have fewer regrets about our choice.

Decision mapping also creates a clear record of the core thinking behind a decision.  This is useful if we need to make more decisions of a similar nature, or if at some point we need to look back and review the thinking behind a particular course of action.  This can be especially handy if fate conspires against us and our well-made decision goes wrong.  When the Inquisition comes knocking, we can show our map.

Decision mapping can help us communicate the thinking behind a decision.  We can show the map itself, so others can then quickly see what options and arguments were considered.  Alternatively the map can be the roadmap for some other form of communication such as a document or a PowerPoint presentation.

Better communication is important when a team is trying to work together on a decision.  An emerging decision map helps keep everyone “on the same page,” with a shared understanding of the issues and considerations in play.  Contributions can then be more productive, and everyone on the team ends up with a stronger sense of ownership of the eventual decision and the outcome.

What sort of decisions is it good for?

At a theoretical level, decision mapping is designed for deliberative decisions.   These are the decisions we make by weighing up the arguments bearing one way or another on our various options.

Deliberative decisions contrast with intuitive (or “blink”) decisions which involve little if any conscious consideration of options and their merits – for example, choosing to swerve when a cyclist suddenly enters our lane.  They also contrast with technical decisions.  This broad category encompasses all decisions made via some kind of formal or technical decision procedure, usually quantitative in nature.  Multi-criteria decision analysis and its numerous kith and kin are the central examples.

In practice, most important decisions are made deliberatively.  To take a dramatic case, transcripts of conversations among President Kennedy and his team during the Cuban Missile Crisis show that they were exploring options and trading arguments – in short, deliberating.  At a more personal level, consider what you would do in deciding whether or when to have a serious surgical operation.

So decision mapping, as an enhanced form of deliberative decision making, will be suitable for a wide range of major decisions.

Such as?…

Many business decisions are made deliberatively, and a great deal can turn on making these decisions well.  This makes decision mapping particularly relevant to business.   For example, Board decisions typically involve weighing up the case presented by Management for a particular course of action in the light of various potential objections and alternatives.

Every month the Harvard Business Review provides a case study describing a realistic business scenario in which a senior figure is called to make some kind of hard call.  Decision mapping, it turns out, fits these case studies very well.

This is not to say that decision mapping is the “one true way” for making business decisions.  Intuitive and technical decision methods certainly have their place.  Different decision techniques are appropriate for different types of decisions; the ideal is to be expert in each, and to choose the right tool for the job.

Isn’t this just mind-mapping?

There is certainly a family resemblance between decision mapping and other mapping techniques such as mind mapping and concept mapping.  All involve displaying complex structures of information using “node and line” diagrams.  However decision mapping is tailored specifically for decision making, and so has its own unique set of rules, visual conventions and procedures.   Also decision mapping tends to be more rigorous and demanding than its more well-known cousins.

Decision mapping is closely related to the Minto Pyramid Principle, a set of concepts and techniques widely used in management consulting to clarify and discipline thinking.  The similarity or overlap is inevitable since both reflect fundamental principles of good thinking and use simple diagrams.   However while decision mapping is focused solely on decisions, the Pyramid Principle emphasizes preparation of thoughts for written presentation.

Who else is using it?

In one sense, the answer is – everyone.  All of us are on occasion involved in making weighty decisions by articulating the options and the pros and cons and associated arguments.  We may lay these out in a document or PowerPoint presentation, or just try to hold them in our mind’s eye.  This is decision mapping, but usually done in a relatively haphazard manner and using an inferior mode of presentation.  We all count as decision mappers because decision mapping, in the full sense described here, is really just making what we all naturally do more systematic and visual.

Decision mapping “as such” is a new development and is only just starting to spread.  Austhink has been using decision mapping to facilitate decision processes in a number of large companies, government departments and non-profit organisations.  And since the release of the bCisive software, decision mapping is starting to be picked up around the world, with users applying decision mapping to diverse issues in their organisations or their personal lives.

bCisive? What’s that?

bCisive (“be decisive”) is software designed to support decision mapping.  It also supports related activities such as argument mapping and hypothesis mapping.

In theory, decision mapping does not require any particular technological aids.  A decision map could be drawn using a whiteboard, Microsoft Visio, or even in the sawdust on the workshop floor.  However, as with carpentry, so with decision.  Difficult tasks are made easier, and the results are usually much better, when you use the right tool for the job.   Currently bCisive is the only (and hence the leading) software solution for deliberative decision making.

See also:

Stay posted
Find this interesting? Sign up for occasional emails about new posts or other news