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Complex Decisions Made Simple With Structure and Tools

Dec. 20, 2016
Brian Egan


Structuring techniques are the foundation of decision making. They are to decision making what blueprints are to construction. There are a number of techniques that will quickly and easily improve the analysis of virtually any problem. This white paper introduces some of the simplest and most effective structuring techniques including sorting, sequencing, placement, decision trees, and ranking.



Sorting is the most basic structuring technique. It involves grouping data into patterns of association. For example, grouping similar items on a grocery list is a technique to simplify finding them in a store. When working on a problem, we all tend to sort information in our heads. However, for the greatest clarity, recording the information on a list that can be viewed and rearranged is a better approach. It provides a visual perspective and a written record that can be edited, re-sorted, and augmented. Sorting contributes to the understanding of even the easiest of problems (such as shopping) and allows us to ask questions of the data, such as: Are there enough items needed from a different store in order to justify driving to that store?


Sequencing is a form of sorting. With sequencing, events are put in chronological order to create a visual understanding of how events relate to each other temporally. There is a familiar logic to sequencing because humans tend to think chronologically. Newspaper and magazine articles report information in time sequence because it helps us to understand the relationships of events. The same is true for problem analysis.

The objective of sequencing is to create a visual depiction of events and their relationships in time. From this display it is possible to see aspects of a problem that would otherwise remain invisible. For example, crimes are typically analyzed in order to understand the chain of events that occurred.


Richard Neustadt and Ernest May coined the term placement in their highly informative book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, The Free Press, 1986. Their structuring technique was a specialized form of a timeline, in which parallel events are arranged in parallel columns to illustrate relationships and implications between the events. Neustadt and May were primarily concerned with political decision making, but the technique can also be applied to common problem solving. Placement is an effort to illustrate relationships between events so as to imply cause and effect. This form of problem analysis is common in criminal investigations. The timing and location of events relating to a crime are compared with the timing and location of activities of a particular suspect. If the two overlap sufficiently, the police naturally assume a cause-and-effect relationship and therefore investigate or analyze further.

A similar approach can be taken to analyzing the events associated with any problem. Various types of data relating to the problem are compared from a chronological perspective in order to determine if there are any patterns that suggest causations. Studying the causes and effects within a problem helps to validate or invalidate our gut reaction to a problem. Like other structuring techniques, it provides a valuable check on biases and mindsets that mislead our thinking.


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