The Decision Tree model: Clear responsibilities and guidelines on various levels of decision-making

Why we need more structure without having to decide everything ourselves

Complexity and decision-making pose a challenge for every business. We ourselves are continuously reminded just how complex and varied our daily business really is. And as our team approaches the 150 mark, the degree of complexity is not exactly decreasing. Of course, it goes hand in hand that people increasingly call for more structure or for someone to "just make a decision!"

The development of our social intranet suite Linchpin is probably the most prominent example of the increasing complexity in our work processes. While it started out as a clearly defined subject area with one team, one product owner and clear responsibilities within the team, the structures have changed a great deal over the past one and a half years.

Today we have five development teams and a marketing team working on Linchpin, which means five POs, and over 20 developers and other employees that are more or less directly involved in the Linchpin universe.

While in the initial team it was quite clear that the product owner (PO) was responsible for Linchpin as an overall solution as well as the content of its individual components, nowadays the boundaries have become more fluid and, as such, less clear. Although each PO is responsible for their own apps, there is also Linchpin as a suite and a number of different stakeholders. Furthermore, we are challenged with finding a logical and effective way of marketing and promoting both the individual apps and the overall solution,  as well as continually working on their development in line with the needs of the various target groups.

Despite a number of restructuring measures to suit shifting parameters (roadmap meetings, various weeklys) it is becoming increasingly clear that – despite plenty of opportunities to actively participate and take on responsibility – a certain degree of structure and clarity is necessary when it comes to decision-making.

The tree analogy as a decision-making aid on different levels

In search of solutions for this challenge, we turned to the Decision Tree model by Susan Scott (2000). In our opinion, this concept has the potential to provide us with clear responsibilities and guidelines at different levels of decision-making.

But to what extent can this Decision Tree analogy serve as a solution to the challenges we face? We are great believers in each employee's ability to find appropriate solutions. Furthermore, we believe in the idea that decisions are best made by those who hold the relevant knowledge and expertise on that specific topic and by those who are affected by the problem or situation. So, a classic hierarchical decision-making structure with various levels of hierarchy is not an option for us.

However, it is also the case that not all developers can or want to have to worry about product strategy. Likewise, the person responsible for product strategy doesn't want and should not have to decide whether a button should be placed three centimeters to the left or to the right.

This is where the Decision Tree model comes in and draws upon the various parts of a tree as representations of the different levels of decision-making in light of the product. The Decision Tree differentiates between four levels of decision-making and considers the responsibility for making decisions from the viewpoint of an individual or team.

Leaf decisions

These decisions only have a minimal effect on the entire tree. If a leaf falls off the tree, it will not endanger the tree as a whole. The tree might not be as pretty as it once was, but it is still fully intact and able to grow new leaves in its place.

Within a business context, this also means that leaf decisions should be made autonomously by individuals or the team and that they carry the responsibility for them without the need to consult others beforehand.

In the classic Decision Tree model this means that each individual should:

Make the decision. Act on it. Do not report the action you took.

Branch decisions

Decisions on this level of importance hold a higher risk. Their effects have the potential to bring lasting damage to the tree, although individual branches aren't solely responsible for the tree's survival. A broken branch initially leaves a large hole behind, and it takes much longer than a leaf to grow back if it grows back at all.

Bringing this back into the business context, this means that branch decisions can be made, implemented and answered for by the team itself but consultation with stakeholders and peers beforehand is probably useful and necessary.

In the classic Decision Tree model this means that the individual should:

Make the decision. Act on it. Report the action you took.

Trunk decisions

These kinds of decisions have a decisive impact on the entire tree. Sticking with the analogy: Potential damage to the trunk has a significant impact on the tree's future growth and long-term development. While the tree won't necessarily die, when a bad trunk decision is made, regeneration after such a decision would take a long time and the damage may be irreversible.

Decisions on this level should certainly not be made by individuals or teams alone but should always follow consultation with various stakeholders. The responsibility for the decision also lies with the stakeholders rather than the team or individual.

In the classic Decision Tree model this means that the individual should:

Make the decision. Discuss your decision with your supervisor before you take action.

Root decisions

The fourth and most influential level within the Decision Tree model is the root decision. Roots are responsible for keeping the tree alive and enabling growth, symbolizing the tree's (or the product's) DNA. Damage to the roots will sooner or later cause the tree to die.

For this reason, decisions on this level should only be made after consultation with others and seldom if ever be made at a team level. Stakeholders must assume responsibility for such decisions and should only make them after extensively analyzing the situation.

In the classic Decision Tree model this means that the individual should:

Make the decision jointly, with input from many people. These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause harm to the organization.

Our takeaway from the Decision Tree model

The analogy with the roots, trunks, branches, and leaves is based on the potential extent of any negative effects on the tree or organization/product as a whole.

That means a trunk decision isn't necessarily more important than a leaf decision, but a lost leaf will not damage the tree in the same way a damaged trunk would.

There are three objectives that we have drawn from the classic model, which seem to be relevant for our daily business in practice:

  • Identify and clarify where exactly it would make sense for a person or a team to make, implement, and answer for a decision (and where it wouldn't make sense without further consultation).
  • Provide employees with a visualization of a clear development trajectory, whereby more leaf decisions also means more responsibility.
  • Take steps to promote (self-)leadership and expect this from employees.

The first and third points play a particularly important role for us at //SEIBERT/MEDIA, which is why we plan to adapt this model for use as we continue to develop Linchpin in a way that makes sense for us. We have already taken a number of initial steps, which we will talk about in my next post.

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Further information

Agile organization at //SEIBERT/MEDIA – from brainstorming to realization
Agile organization at //SEIBERT/MEDIA – open space meetings
Agile skill matrix: Systematizing team training and controlling the exchange of knowledge

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