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Decision Mapping: A Method for Improving Decision Making

Decision-mapping is a method for improving decision-making by creating a visual diagram of the logical structure of a decision-making process.

January 15, 2021 25 minute read

“Whatever else it produces, an organization is a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions. Every factory must have ways to ensure the quality of its products in the initial design, in fabrication and in its final inspections.”

-- Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner 

This quote speaks to the vital role that decision-making plays within organizations. An organization is no more successful than the quality of its decisions – minus the role of luck. In what follows, we will see how you can use decision mapping to improve your organization’s decision making.

We’ll first take a look at several pitfalls when it comes to making decisions so we are aware of some of the ways that group decision-making can be improved. Then, we’ll examine what decision mapping is and how it addresses those pitfalls. Lastly, we’ll consider how you can begin to use the method.

Why good group decision-making is difficult

Various factors contribute to the difficulty of making good group decisions. We'll consider five of them below. For each factor I’ll explain what it is and then indicate what problem it causes when making decisions.

Logic is hard

Prior to becoming a software engineer, I earned my PhD in Philosophy. I took courses in logic as well as taught them. I realize how hard it is to properly provide good logical support for an idea. It becomes even more difficult when determining which of several proposed solutions to a problem is the best one. We then have several ideas, each of which have reasons for and against them, and we need to assess the strength of the arguments for each solution relative to the others.

  • Problem: If you can’t understand the logical relationship between various ideas, it’s difficult to assess the strength of the argument in favor of a decision.

Serial position effect

Psychologists have shown that humans tend to remember things mentioned first and last better than middle items. A consequence of this is that ideas mentioned in a meeting are more likely to be forgotten if they are shared in the middle of the discussion – even if they ­­­­are as good as, or perhaps better than, other ideas.

  • Problem: We can make decisions based on “missing” information.

Availability heuristic

Some events are more “available” via our memory than other events.  That is, we remember them more easily. As a result, we tend to view them as being more important or more likely to occur than is actually the case.  For example, many people are more afraid of dying in an airplane crash than in a car accident, even though the latter is much more likely. This is in part due to airplane crashes being more vivid in the mind because of the sensational news reporting about them. This could lead us to make erroneous decisions based on flawed data – on what appears to be true instead of what is true.

  • Problem: Recent or “spectacular” events will be given greater weight than appropriate – because we overestimate their worth or likelihood.

Reputational and informational cascades

A cascade is when information shared early affects what information is shared by others in the discussion. Because of human fears about being disliked or being thought dumb, we can be hesitant to share information or opinions about what we think in group meetings. When someone of high reputation shares an opinion first in a meeting, or several people share the same opinion one after another, people are less likely to share a conflicting opinion. As a result, studies have shown that group deliberation can result in worse decisions than what an average individual would make on their own. (Sunstein and Hastie 2015)

  • Problem: Decisions are made on less information than is known by individuals collectively.

Decision amnesia

This is the forgetting of the reasons behind previous decisions we have made. Our decision-making abilities are not static. They can be improved. One helpful strategy to do this is to learn from decision-making mistakes. The problem is that many times we don’t record our decisions nor the reasons which were the basis for it. That limits our ability to learn from bad decisions. It is difficult to retroactively evaluate decisions that resulted in a different outcome than we expected without a record of our reasons for the original decision. (Kahneman 2019)

  • Problem: Our decision-making abilities are less likely to improve, and so we’ll continue to make similar bad decisions.

Decision mapping is a method that can help minimize the negative impact that the above factors can have on decision-making. Let’s first take a look at what decision mapping is, and then consider how it helps with those problems. 

What is decision mapping?

  • Decision mapping: A method for creating a visual representation of the logical structure of a decision-making process

At its most basic level, decision mapping is a way to visually represent the four main elements in a decision process:

  1. The problem that is trying to be solved
  2. The possible solutions to the problem
  3. The reasons in favor of and/or against each of those possible solutions
  4. The evidence for thinking those reasons are true

Decision mapping has two components: 

  1. The process: creating a map as you discuss how to solve a problem
  2. The product: the map which results from the process

To demonstrate both components, we’ll imagine a scenario in which we are trying to make a decision about how to improve our decision-making. We’ll be able to see both the decision mapping process and product. Because the product is more concrete, we’ll begin by taking a look at an example of it.

The product

Imagine that we were trying to figure out how to improve our decision making. We might come up with a decision map that identifies possible solutions for improving our decision making. At the top of the map is a question that asks how we should solve our problem. We then see a list of options (additional options have been left out to keep the map simpler). Under each of those options, we then see pros and/or cons listed. And then under some of those pros and cons are reasons in favor of or objections against them. Here is an example of such a decision map:

Example of a decision map

Hopefully, this is fairly straight-forward. If so, it speaks to one of the benefits of decision mapping. It captures the kind of thinking we already do when we make decisions. It isn’t asking participants to do a new kind of thinking – though it will likely motivate people to improve their thinking.

The process

Unfortunately, it is hard to “see” the process of decision mapping in an article. But I’ll do my best to explain what it looks like. Imagine that a group of people has gotten together to determine how to improve the company’s decision making. So, what does decision mapping look like for this meeting?

First, although not required, it is helpful to have a person whose sole job is to map the discussion and is not otherwise involved in the decision-making process. This allows them to focus on mapping the dialogue and not be distracted by also having to figure out how to contribute to the discussion.

Next, the map can be drawn on a whiteboard or created through a software application. Using software has the benefits of speeding up both the initial placing of elements on the map and editing the map if needed. The maps you see here were created using bCisive (www.bcisiveonline.com), a web application designed specifically for creating decision maps. 

The decision map will begin with just one element at the top -- the question that asks how to solve the problem. In this case, it asks how to improve decision making. As people share their thoughts – whether a possible solution or a pro or con for any of the solutions already listed -- they are added to the map. After someone speaks the facilitator may either add what they think is an accurate summation of the person’s point on the map or ask the speaker to provide a succinct statement of their thought and indicate where it should go on the map.

Once the discussion is complete – something the group has to determine -- the map is finished. However, new ideas can be added after the meeting if the decision hasn’t already been made or at least is reversible. The “finished” map is the second component of decision mapping – the product. 

Participants in the discussion can then use the map as a reference to determine what seems to be the best decision in light of all of the ideas shared. One disappointment you might have with decision mapping is that it will not make the decision for you – though I wish it did! Once the map is created, it is still up to the group to determine which of the proposed solutions is best supported by the reasons offered.

How decision mapping improves decision-making

With an understanding of decision mapping in hand, let’s see how it addresses the five factors we considered earlier that make decision making difficult.

Logic is hard

Decision mapping improves decision making by enabling us to comprehend the logic of the discussion in a visual format. It’s not just that the ideas in the discussion are recorded in a visual medium to aid our memory, it’s also that they are recorded in a way that captures the logical relationship between them.

We frequently use maps instead of prose in other contexts precisely because doing so makes comprehension significantly easier: road maps when traveling, construction diagrams when putting together furniture that comes in a box, etc.

As a way of highlighting the significant improvement maps can be over prose, consider this example taken from work by Paul Monk and Timothy van Gelder. Below is a representation – in prose -- of an area of London and the placement of the roads within it. It’s long, so feel free to skim it.

Pentonville Road runs from east to west, then turns into City Road, which comes to a T-junction where East Road meets Moorgate City Road. Running roughly south from Pentonville Road is first Gray’s Inn Road and then King’s Cross Road, which turns into Farringdon Road after the intersection with Clerkenwell Road. Where Pentonville Road turns into City Road, St. John’s Street runs south. As you go along City Road, you come to Goswell Road (which turns into Aldersgate Street) and Bunhill Row running south. As you go down Gray’s Inn Road, the first intersection is with Guildford Street, which continues to a T-junction with King’s Cross Road. The next intersection, as you continue down Gray’s Inn Road, is with Theobald’s Rd, which at that point turns into Clerkenwell Road, though you could veer of NE along Rosebery Avenue which crosses King’s Cross Road before it joins St. John’s Street near the junction of Pentonville Road and City road. Gray’s Inn Road terminates at High Holborn, a major E-W road which, as you go east, turns into Newgate Street and then Cheapside. St. Paul’s Cathedral is between Newgate Street and Fleet Street, which runs roughly parallel to Newgate. Southhampton Row goes south intersecting with Guildford Street, Theobald’s Road and High Holborn, where it becomes Kingsway, which continues south to a T-junction with the curve of Aldwych, which begins and ends on Fleet Street. From Roseberry Road, you can head east along Lever Street, which crosses St. John’s Street and Goswell Road before finishing at Bunhill Row where it meets City Road. Heading south down St. John’s Road, you cross Lever Street and then Clerkenwell Road. Goswell Road also crosses Lever Street and Clerkenwell Road (which at that point becomes Old Street). Goswell Road becomes Aldersgate Street. Hatton Garden goes between Clerkenwell Road and High Holborn. Streets running south from High Holborn are Kingsway, Chancery Lane and Farringdon Road. Chancery Lane is a short street finishing at Fleet Street. Fleet Street ends at a large intersection just east of St. Paul’s. Aldersgate Street continues past London Museum (which is at the corner of Alsdersgate and London Wall) down to Newgate Street. Beech Street runs E from Aldersgate, turning into Chiswell Street before it meets City Road. East Road runs south, past the intersection of City Road, over Old Street and London Wall, where it becomes Moorgate Street. (Monk and van Gelder 2004)

Now here is a different method of representation of the same geographical area — a map.

A road map of an area of London, England

The contrast between the two methods of representation is striking. The map makes comprehension — and so also navigation — much easier.

Now let’s see the same contrast — prose and map — with respect to decision making. Here is a prose representation of a discussion about how to improve decision making. Again, feel free to skim. (Also, the prose method here isn’t entirely accurate to a discussion in a meeting because frequently comments aren’t transcribed, nor made available for everyone to reference.)

 

Sally: It would be good to use decision mapping in major team decisions. For one, it would improve our decision making. 

Bob: Personally, I think it would be really annoying to do while having a discussion. I wouldn’t like having to think about which “box” I’m responding to or adding to the map. 

Sally: Even if it is annoying, it’s likely that the positive value provided by doing the decision mapping would outweigh the negative value of its annoyance. Plus, a lot of the annoyance is probably due to it being something new. New things are often annoying because you’re not used to them. So, the more you do decision mapping, the less annoying it will become. 

Jim: One thing I noticed about decision mapping is that we’ll have a visual representation of the logical relationship between all of the ideas that all of the participants in the meeting having mentioned. One of the results of this is that we’ll be able to easily see which ideas offer support for other ideas. You wouldn’t have to guess whether something someone said was in support of the idea that was being discussed.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think Jim’s right. Plus, on a similar note, we’ll also be able to see what ideas are objections to others. A good thing about this is that we’ll know that, if someone has given an objection to our idea, if we can successfully refute that objection, it will no longer serve as a good reason not to accept the idea it was an objection to.

Bob: Why can’t we just create a list of pros and cons?

Carl: Yeah, I’m not exactly sure what I think about this. It’s a neat idea, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. I think it could really slow our meetings down. Think about all the time spent writing down the reasons for and against something and then trying to connect the ideas with the lines. Sounds like a lot of wasted time to me.

Lindsay: Well, even if it does take us more time, it can be worth it if it results in significantly better decisions. This is especially so if we restrict our use of decision mapping to complex decisions. We wouldn’t need to use it on simple decisions where there wouldn’t be much payoff. 

Bob: I still think it would slow down meetings too much. People might get really confused with the whole diagramming process. Most people haven’t been trained to think about argumentation and how to support one idea with another. So, they’re going to be thinking more about how to map their ideas than about the decision they’re trying to make.

 

In contrast to the prose discussion above, here is a decision map that captures the essential information from that discussion.

Decision-map of a decision-making discussion

For a higher-resolution image, click here.

At first glance, this may seem complicated. But that’s largely due to it being a method that’s new to you. With minimal experience, I believe you would gain the ability to quickly traverse and understand the map. 

To see how much easier it is to evaluate the discussion using the map, consider the following questions:

  • What were the solutions offered?
  • What cons were given for the “Create a list of pros and cons” option?
  • What reasons were given in support of the claim that decision mapping would make decisions more logically driven?

Finding the answers to these questions on the map is much easier than with the prose format. With the map, you can use the icons and structure to quickly identify the answers. Navigating the prose format requires either skimming the text and hopefully spotting it or relying on your memory to remember at about which point in the discussion the idea was shared.

So, although the decision map doesn’t make the decision for you, it improves decision making by providing a visual medium to comprehend the logical relationship between ideas. 

Serial position effect

A further benefit of decision mapping is that it minimizes each participant’s reliance on their memory in evaluating the discussion. As a result, there is less concern that the effect is biasing our assessment of the content. Earlier we saw that the problem resulting from this bias is that we effectively make decisions based on “missing” information because we have forgotten it. With the map having captured the content we don’t have to worry we have forgotten the middle portions of the discussion. It is all there to be referenced. 

Availability heuristic

The problem with the availability heuristic is that it can lead us to grant too much weight in our deliberation to events or data which are more easily recalled. We treat them as having more value or being more likely to occur than is actually the case. 

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he points out that there are two ways the human mind makes decisions. The first is the “fast” way, which makes almost instantaneous, reflexive, decisions. Examples include quickly steering out of the way of an obstacle in the road, determining the answer to “2 + 2 =”, detecting that a person’s voice is hostile, etc. 

“Slow” thinking, on the other hand, is deliberative thinking. Typical examples are complex calculations, evaluating the odd noise your car is making to determine its cause, checking the Thanksgiving turkey to see if it’s properly cooked, etc. (Kahneman 2011, 21-22).

One of the characteristics of the fast mode of thinking is that it uses heuristics, which are mental shortcuts for determining what is true. Most of the time this works well – especially when there’s no time to deliberate. The problem is that these shortcuts can lead us to make bad judgments in some contexts. Sometimes we need to use our “slow” way of thinking to better discern what is true. 

The availability heuristic is one of the heuristics our mind uses when in fast mode. If we don’t have time to deliberate, then relying on what information we can easily recall is likely better than just taking a shot in the dark. But as we saw earlier with the plane crash example, it can lead us astray.  

So, if we have more time and the stakes are worth it, it can be better to not rely on the availability heuristic. Kahneman points out that sometimes we need to intentionally engage our deliberative thinking. 

Decision mapping is one way to do this since it promotes a more deliberate type of thinking. In general, it forces us to slow down in a meeting and think about the relationship between the ideas shared. One particular way it can do this is a result of the fact that the map displays what evidence we have – or don’t have -- for a claim. It reminds us of the need to provide evidence for our claims. 

Consider a scenario where people are deciding how to travel to their vacation destination. Suppose that initially, someone says we should drive by car because we might die in a plane crash. The map would look like this.

Decision-map of how to travel to our vacation destination

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Someone may note that, well, we can also die in a car crash. So the question becomes, which is more likely? After a little bit of research, it might be discovered that flying is actually much safer. In fact, there are only 0.07 deaths per billion miles traveled by plane, compared to 7.28 deaths by car.

The updated map would then look like this:

Decision map showing it's safer to travel by plane than car

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By using decision mapping, we are more likely to make decisions based on an idea’s actual value or likelihood to occur, and not it's merely psychologically-influenced apparent value or likelihood.

Group dynamics

It is easy to think that a decision made by a group of people would be better than one made by a single individual. Two heads (or more) are better than one, right? As it turns out, that’s not always the case. Research by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie — in their book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter — shows that due to sociological factors, we may choose not to share information or ideas we have with the larger group. These sociological factors result in two kinds of “cascades.”

  • Reputational cascades occur when the reputation of an early contributor (such as a senior manager) influences people to not share conflicting information. Others in the meeting might then assume the manager knows best, and so infer their own opinion is likely wrong, or they will be concerned about the appearance of contradicting the thoughts of the leader. And so they don’t share their differing view.
  • Informational cascades occur when information shared at the beginning influences people to not share conflicting information. Most often this is the result of people inferring that since someone has provided a different view than their own, their own assessment of things must be incorrect. This cascade is especially impactful when the first few speakers all agree.

Although there are various ways to prevent or decrease the likelihood of these cascades occurring, one solution provided by Hastie and Sunstein is to “prime” critical thinking. That is, find ways to create an environment that encourages dissent. They write:

Social norms are not set in stone. If consensus is prized and known to be prized, then self-silencing will be more likely. But if the group is known to welcome new and competing information, then the reward structure will be fundamentally different and will support much better outcomes. (Sunstein and Hastie 2015, 107-8)

By using the decision mapping method and its elements of “pros,” “cons,” “reasons” and “objections,” you are signaling to the rest of the group that dissent is expected as a part of your group’s decision-making process.

Decision amnesia

When Kahneman was asked what advice he would give to companies to improve their decision making, he said this: 

  1. Write down decisions so they can later be evaluated for what made them go well or poorly.
  2. Record the main arguments for and against it, and what the alternative considerations were. (Kahneman 2019)

After decisions have been made and enough time has passed to see the consequences of the decision, we can then revisit the original decision. Did the actual outcome of the decision line up with the expected outcome? If not, why not? Without recording our decision-making reasons, it is difficult to answer those questions because we will likely have forgotten most of the discussion that went into the decision. 

But by using decision mapping, you almost automatically follow Kahneman’s two recommendations, and so makes answering those questions easier. 

With the original decision map available, we can successfully answer questions like the following:

  • What was the evidence in favor of the decision?
  • Did we weigh the pros and cons appropriately?
  • Was the decision based on circumstances that subsequently changed?

For any flaws we identify, we can make changes to our decision-making process to reduce their impact in the future.

A benefit of decision mapping is that once a decision has been made, both #1 and #2 have already been captured. If you use the software, the map will likely already be saved to your account or computer for future reference. If you use a whiteboard for capturing the map, you can quickly take a picture and save it. 

We’ve now seen how decision mapping addresses the various problems with decision making mentioned earlier. But I would like to point out one further benefit of decision mapping.

The interpersonal benefit

Another benefit is decision mapping's impact on interpersonal relationships. Because it prompts us to provide reasons for our proposed solutions, it promotes a shared understanding of each other and our perspectives. When we share our reasons for our position and not just our positions themselves, we come to recognize why someone holds an opposing view. This may help us see that they aren’t being unreasonable or discussing in bad faith, but instead have different experiences or knowledge that impacts their perspective.

When to use decision mapping

I stated earlier to think of decision mapping as one tool among many in your decision-making toolbox. So, when should the tool be used?

My suggestion is that it should be used primarily when dealing with more complicated decisions. This is largely based on the results of a decision mapping experiment we conducted with two of our software development teams. The teams used mapping for meetings where they discussed ways of improving team processes. We found that mapping every decision wasn’t worth the effort. Some decisions are simple enough that the payoff of mapping was so minimal it didn’t outweigh the costs of mapping (taking the time to create the map, imposing a more structured and less conversational style of discussion, etc.). 

But it has been found to be useful with more complicated decisions. For example, another team — which was not a part of the experiment — was considering developing a new feature for an existing software product. Prior to the meeting, everyone was in favor of doing the development. But we decided to map out the decision on whether to do the development. After 30 minutes of discussion, it became clear that due to technical limitations, there was a significant roadblock that would either prevent the successful development of the feature or at least require a lot more research and development than the feature would be worth. The cost of a slower, more deliberate meeting was more than compensated for by the saving of several weeks of failed development.

Another software team decision mapped their decision on whether to change a significant part of their team process. In this case, we found that it helped streamline the discussion. As the team deliberated over a couple of possible solutions, having the map helped the conversation stick to the relevant considerations — namely, focusing on the pros and cons of each solution.

Although I have focused on the role of decision mapping in group contexts, it can also be used for individual decision making. For example, I used the method recently when my wife and I were deciding what our COVID-affected school plans for our kids should be for the Spring of 2021. It helped us to identify some additional effects of the various options that we hadn’t originally recognized.

How to begin using decision mapping

Because decision mapping aims to capture the kinds of deliberation we already engage in, almost anyone can start using the method. It is a skill, however, and so the ability to do it can be improved with experience and training.

I would suggest starting off by trying decision mapping on your own — before trying it out with your coworkers — so that you can get familiar with the process. At this stage, you can use a piece of paper and manually draw the map. Once you’re comfortable with mapping then you can try it out in a group setting. Here a whiteboard would be helpful.

Once you have some experience doing that, then I would advise using the software. This will enable you to add elements to the map and rearrange the map, if necessary, at a much quicker pace. The only software specifically designed for decision mapping is a web application, www.bcisiveonline.com.  The cost of the basic plan is $10/month per person.

References

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 

Kahneman, Daniel. “#68 Daniel Kahneman: Putting Your Intuition on Ice.” Interview with Shane Parrish. The Knowledge Project. Podcast audio. October 15, 2019. https://fs.blog/knowledge-project/daniel-kahneman/.

Monk, Paul and Tim van Gelder. “Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments.” Accessed December 16, 2020. http://www.austhink.org/monk/Fenner/Fenner/

More resources

Decision-mapping software, bCisive.

How to use the bCisivie decision-mapping software. Also provides further information on the decision-mapping process. 

An in-depth explanation of the facilitator's role in a meeting using decision-mapping. (This book is actually on dialogue-mapping, but it's very similar to decision-mapping. The main difference is it's not as focused on the logic of the discussion.)

  • Conklin, Jeff. “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems.” John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2006.
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