How Trees

“How” Trees

In response to my last post, I’ve also been considering the best way to transform purposes and visions into tangible roadmaps. Organizations I’ve observed often do a poor job of scoping their goals, and do an even worse job articulating their purpose. Is there some process that can help organizations ensure that they (a) articulate a just-abstract-enough purpose, and (b) consider many possible paths to that purpose?

An idea I’ve been workshopping, called a “How Tree,” attempts to address these goals.

The Process

  1. Choose a simple Purpose. This can, for example, be your group’s “Why,” though beginning at almost any level of abstraction should work. Following the lead of Simon Sinek, we’ll use Apple as an example. Let’s say Apple’s Why is to “Think Different,” or, more specifically, to “think different, and to empower others to think different” (see figure 1 below). If you are struggling with this part, don’t worry. While your Purpose is important, it’s more important to get the process rolling. Sometimes the rest of the How Tree will make you realize that you want to change your Purpose.
  2. In relation to your Purpose, ask: “How can we achieve this?” (That is, how can we achieve our Purpose?) You should, in most cases, have multiple answers to this question. The key, in my mind, is to not think too much about whether your answers to this question are “good.” You are aiming for quantity, not quality.
  3. For each one of the answers you just gave, if it’s applicable, ask: “How can we achieve this?” Again, quantity, not quality.
  4. Continue down the tree until you reach some acceptable stopping point (more on this later). Here, you should have a much clearer idea of what tangible things you need to do in order to achieve your stated Purpose.

“Why” refers to the beliefs your organization holds and presents to the outside world. “How” refers to the actions you need to take to achieve some goal.

Figure 1. This is an example of a very small How Tree. It is by no means an example of a good How Tree – it is meant to illustrate the process outlined above. At the top of this “Apple” How Tree, we have the aforementioned Purpose. Below that, we have layers of “How” nodes, each describing a part of how to achieve the goal outlined by that node’s parent node. I have bolded and italicized nodes that I believe could be starting points for concrete action items in the organization. For example, “Schedule time each week for the creation and research of new ideas” is a highly specific goal that absolutely could be broken down more, but might be better decomposed by a smaller team working on that action item. Similar logic can be applied to “Create a Slack Workspace for Apple.”

A bit more explanation

The process outlined above is admittedly pretty vague. What constitutes a good answer to the question “How can we achieve this?” What is a good stopping point in the tree? Unfortunately, I do not have definitive answers to these questions. In my mind, the organization must take the process and adapt it to their needs.

So what’s the point, then?

There are two explicit conceptual goals in this exercise, in my mind:

The first goal is to help organizations break down problems. Breaking huge problems into actionable tasks is not an easy thing to do, but it may be the most important step of any project. Creating a list of actionable tasks before a beginning a project helps groups schedule due dates, assign responsibility, and understand how to scope the group’s efforts.

The second goal of a How Tree is to connect an organization’s projects to its Purpose in an unambiguous way. How Trees force you to meticulously think through how your actions affect your organization’s “Why.”


To be 100% transparent, this idea is still being workshopped. I’ll be updating this post and creating new ones as I begin to use this in the real world. Please let me know your thoughts about this idea; it was originally created out of an effort to clear up my misunderstanding of Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” and probably has some holes to patch up.