What Is a Tree Diagram? (And How to Write an Effective One)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 25, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In management, it's helpful to establish priorities for the various tasks managers delegate or complete themselves. One modern tool which can help with creating task-oriented priorities is a tree diagram. Understanding what these diagrams are and how to use them can help you divide larger projects into smaller sequential tasks and processes. In this article, we explain what a tree diagram is and why you might use one, and explain how to construct this type of diagram to manage workflow.

What is a tree diagram?

A tree diagram is a workflow diagram and management planning tool which you can use to create an outline for the hierarchy of tasks and subtasks required to reach an objective. The diagram often begins with one single item, which then branches out into two or more. These subsequent items may continually divide into two or more items until the diagram outlines the full process in its smallest or most immediately necessary tasks. This diagram resembles a tree and got its name from its branching structure, with the central item as the trunk of the tree.

A diagram of this type divides broader task categories into increasingly fine elements and details. This can be helpful when defining the smaller and more quickly achievable stages of a project and aids in prioritizing the steps to take. For managers, these diagrams help divide larger objectives into stages requiring isolated degrees of progress. Other names for this diagramming method include tree analysis, systematic diagram, hierarchy diagram, or analytical tree.

Why use this type of diagram?

For managers, there are many instances when this type of diagram can help make larger-scale projects more approachable or divide broader objectives into observably achievable steps. Even for team members who aren't managers, employing these planning tools can be helpful in understanding how their assigned tasks can subdivide into smaller steps for them to take. Here are a few instances when using a hierarchy diagram can be helpful:

As a communication tool

When a manager wants to outline a process they want their employees to take to approach their collective objectives, this type of diagram can help make the sequence of tasks clear. Managers can also use these diagrams to assign sequences of tasks to various team members or departments by considering individuals or groups as branches in the tree. Presenting a clearly defined tree of tasks can effectively communicate which tasks are to be completed and who's responsible for each task.

Related: What Are the Four Functions of Management? (With Tips)

Analyzing processes in detail

By allowing managers to outline their team's entire process, diagram models such as these can help to divide each step into highly detailed segments. Managers can list each required component in the stage at which it's necessary and establish every task needed before and after it. Processes such as these can make necessary items obvious, allowing managers to identify the requirements necessary to complete a project.

When predicting issues

Because these diagrams reverse-engineer projects in their outline, they can help to identify issues in a process. For example, if there's a shortcoming in a process, then that branch of the tree can't further divide in the diagram. This can be extremely helpful in the planning stages of a project, as it can direct managers to potential issues before they may arise, giving them the opportunity to solve problems ahead of time.

Related: What Is Management? The Definitions, Function, and Levels

When delegating

For managers, these diagrams can help to review the distribution of responsibility across their teams. If some branches representing particular individuals or teams are significantly more populated than others, there may be a need for a reassignment of responsibilities. This can help ensure that all team members or departments have an equal amount of responsibility and that none are under or over delegated. These diagrams can also help to show managers which departments may require more of their attention than others.

When predicting needed resources

Creating these diagrams in advance can be useful for identifying which resources may become necessary before commencing a project or reaching a critical stage. Processes like this mean that managers may have time to prepare and ensure resources such as people, equipment, or information are available at the right time. It may also be a good idea to allow your team members to review these diagrams to help ensure you identify all the resources you require to complete a project.

To subdivide individual tasks

These diagrams are typically for managers to use, but members of a team can also employ them to subdivide their individual tasks into smaller stages. For instance, if a team member is responsible for creating a presentation, they may create a systematic diagram to divide this task into its components, like creating presentation slides, preparing charts, or creating a presentation outline. In this way, a systematic diagram can continuously divide tasks into smaller elements and achievable goals.

Related: What Is Strategic Management and Why Is it Important?

How to draw this diagram

Whether you create your diagram vertically or horizontally, the process for designing one is mostly the same. Here are the steps you can follow to create this type of diagram:

1. Create a goal statement

The first step in creating your analytical tree is to establish a goal for your project, goal, problem, or task, and write a goal statement. If you're designing a vertical tree, write this at the top of the diagram. For a horizontal tree, write your goal statement at the far left. This goal statement is usually a top-line declaration of the overall result you wish to achieve. For instance, for a shoe brand, a goal statement may be launch our new shoe range with maximum impact and reach.

2. Ask useful questions

To begin constructing your diagram, you can write your first overarching goal at the top or far left of your workspace. Then, you can begin asking questions that help you deconstruct this goal into smaller tasks with a higher level of detail. For instance, to achieve its impact and reach goals, the shoe brand may ask, " Where do our customers shop?".

From this question, they can identify retailers or online stores to further direct their thinking. They may write a statement, such as win with key retailers, as a subsequent branch in their tree. Other questions managers may ask can be:

  • To divide smaller goals: "What goes into achieving this goal?"

  • To divide larger goals: "What tasks can we complete to accomplish this stage?"

  • To solve or identify a problem: "What causes this?" or "What can stop this from progressing?"

3. Brainstorm answers to your questions

Next, brainstorming answers to your questions can help guide you in creating actionable steps to build the branches of your tree. For example, the shoe brand may answer their question about their customer's shopping habits by identifying their key retail outlets. They can write each answer as new branches, each stating a different retail group to target. Continue to create as many branches as you can to answer your establishing questions.

4. Do a sufficient and necessary check

Review all branches of your tree to make sure that they're sufficient to achieve your relevant project goals. It's wise to consider if each task is actually necessary for the requirements. Doing this effectively can help you identify tasks that can be de-prioritized if needed.

5. Repeat this process down the branches until tasks can't divide further

As you divide tasks into increasingly smaller segments, you can repeat the process, continually refining the actions to take. It's often helpful to continue asking questions and using the answers to create branches. Then, you can determine if each task you populate your branches with is sufficient and necessary to refine your workflow plan.

You can continue dividing your task stages until you can't subdivide them any further. The most likely outcome from doing this is that the tasks at the ends of each branch network are numerous but immediately actionable. When you've divided your tasks as comprehensively as you can, your diagram is nearly complete.

6. Review your diagram

Finally, once you've divided every necessary goal to its fundamental stages, it's time to review the entire diagram. If you can determine that each task is actionable and relevant to the project's goal statement, then your tree analysis is comprehensive and effective. It may also be helpful to allow other team members to review the final diagram to help ensure the branches can't divide into any more tasks or actions and identify if any useful questions are missing.

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