What Is Decision Tree Analysis? An Expert Dishes Out the Details

By: Shubham Gupta on October 30, 2023
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Every leader's journey is peppered with critical decisions. Imagine being at a crossroads, each path leading to an unknown destination. Especially when it's your first time donning the leader's hat, it can get pretty challenging. Here's something to ponder: 30%* of project managers have identified transparency in communication and decision-making processes as key factors in making effective choices. Yet, achieving that crystal-clear clarity can be challenging, especially in complex projects.

So, how do you ensure clarity and precision in your choices? Decision tree analysis might be your answer. This strategic tool promises a systematic approach to intricate decisions, eliminating guesswork. It's not a universal solution, but it's a beacon of clarity for complex scenarios.

Stick around, and we'll unpack the ins and outs of this tool to refine your decision-making playbook. To add layers to our narrative, we've also tapped into the expertise of Te Wu [1], a seasoned project manager at PMO Advisory, a project management training and consulting firm. Together, let's unearth the nuances of this transformative tool.

"Using a decision tree model in project management is more than just 'another task.' It's how you clear the fog, spot the pitfalls, and make confident calls."

Te Wu

Chief Project Officer (CPO), PMO Advisory

What is decision tree analysis?

At its core, decision tree analysis helps you map out choices and predict the potential outcomes in a visual format. Think of it as a decision flowchart, breaking down options and possible consequences into a tree-like diagram. Each 'branch' represents a choice; each 'leaf' symbolizes an outcome.

Instead of viewing a decision tree as a tool, Wu considers it a mindset. He says, "It obliges us to consider not just the immediate choice but the following chain of choices. It's chess, not checkers."

Decision tree analysis example

Have you ever found yourself grappling with multiple challenging business scenarios, each with its own set of variables and outcomes? Wu faced such a complex business decision when strategizing the market launch of a new software product. Let's explore how he used a decision tree to make the most informed choice. Here's a quick decision tree example:

Graphic of new software product launch strategy made easy with decision tree analysis

Wu chose a pilot launch in a niche market to minimize risks and maximize the odds of a successful launch. The result? The pilot was a hit, confirming the analysis to be precise. Feedback from the niche market helped fine-tune the product for a full-scale launch, thus mitigating potential loss risks and optimizing resource usage. So next time you're at a crossroads, remember: a decision tree might show you the way.

What are the different types of decision trees and their uses?

A decision tree is a visual aid that helps you make better decisions by simplifying complex processes. This dynamic tool has evolved into different types discussed below, each tailored to specific scenarios and data sets. Knowing which tree to plant, so to speak, can significantly enhance your decision-making prowess.

  • Classification trees: Imagine you're sorting items into buckets—yes or no, good or bad. Classification trees excel at this. They help you make categorical decisions, perfect for customer segmentation or identifying risks.

  • Regression trees: When decisions aren't black or white, these trees step in. Perfect for scenarios involving numerical outcomes, such as predicting real estate values or determining budget allocations.

  • CHAID trees: Want to understand how variables (such as age, income level, geographic location) interact with each other? The chi-squared automatic interaction detection (CHAID) technique is worth exploring. It digs deep to reveal connections between variables, useful in market research or health studies.

Since Wu has been navigating the intricacies of the decision-making process for years, he shares some actionable recommendations:

  • Ease in with classification: He says, “If you're new to decision trees, start with classification. It’s simple yet powerful. You can apply it to anything from project decisions to marketing.”

  • Deep dive into complexity: He emphasizes, “As you get more comfortable, transition into regression and CHAID. They offer nuance and depth that simple classification might miss."

When and why should you use a decision tree?

Let's get down to brass tacks: You've got decisions to make, but when should you whip out a decision tree instead of going with your gut or using another tool? To answer that, let's delve into specific situations where a decision tree can be helpful.

  • When making complex decisions: Decision trees map out all possible outcomes visually, making it easier to evaluate each pathway. This simplifies the process by laying out options visually, helping you see the forest through the trees.

  • While assessing risks: Ever wonder about the 'what-ifs'? Decision trees assign probabilities to different outcomes, enabling you to quantify risks accurately. This gives you a clearer picture of potential losses and gains, turning abstract fears into tangible numbers.

  • When allocating resources: By breaking down your strategic options or project alternatives into smaller, easier-to-analyze components, decision trees can highlight where your resources will have the most significant impact. This structured approach helps you weigh your choices more objectively.

  • Where multiple stakeholders are involved: The visual format of a decision tree allows for more accessible communication among team members, ensuring everyone's on the same page. This common language makes it simpler to reach a consensus, even when various perspectives are at play.

Why choose this tool over others? The answer lies in its transparency and structure. It forces you to lay down all the cards and allows others to observe your thought process, making it a winning strategy for group settings.

Wu, with years of experience in the trenches of decision analysis, offers a real-world perspective on when to use a decision tree diagram effectively:

Mini case study

“I was once tasked with launching a new product line, juggling variables like market demand, production costs, and potential profit margins. Rather than getting mired in endless debates or going with my gut, I used a decision tree that laid out all the pathways and associated risks clearly. This helped the team reach a data-driven consensus, empowering us to make a well-informed decision that everyone could stand behind.”

What are the pros and cons of using decision tree analysis?

So, you're thinking about giving decision tree analysis a shot. But like any tool, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Here's a quick rundown of decision trees’ advantages and drawbacks, alongside Wu’s anecdotal insights, to help you weigh in:

Pros of decision tree analysis



Wu's insights

Visual clarity

Provides a visual representation of complex choices, enhancing transparency in decision-making

"I've used decision trees in multi-stage projects to clarify complex scenarios. The visual aspect is invaluable for stakeholder communication."

Risk assessment

Allows the assignment of probabilities to outcomes, quantifying risks effectively

"In financial projects, the probabilistic nature of decision trees has allowed my teams to put actual numbers to risks, something not all methods offer."

Resource allocation

Decomposes decisions to show optimal resource utilization

"One project saved 20% in costs when we used a decision tree to focus our resources on high-impact areas identified through the analysis."

Cons of decision tree analysis



Wu's cautionary tales

Can be overwhelming

Might be excessive for simple decisions

"I once saw a simple choice ballooned into a complex tree. It wasted time and confused the team more than it helped."


The efficacy of the tree depends on the accuracy of the input data

"A project almost got derailed because of incorrect data input. Make sure to validate your data sources rigorously."


Detailed decision trees can be lengthy to construct

"In a time-sensitive project, we found that building the tree took longer than expected, slightly delaying our decision-making process."

What resources do you need to create an effective decision tree?

So, what does it take to create a decision tree that doesn't just look good on paper but actually drives results? First, you'll need efficient decision tree tools to visualize complex scenarios. 

Good old Excel or specialized project management software can be a game-changer. Next, you'll need an expert in the field, such as a data analyst or a knowledgeable project manager, who understands data and probabilities. This expert will be essential for accurately interpreting the data and calculating probabilities that make your decision tree not just a theoretical exercise but a practical, actionable guide.

Finally, set aside some dedicated time to map each decision node and possible outcome.

Wu stresses the importance of reliable data, "Without solid data, your tree is just a piece of art. Make sure your data sources are credible." 

Double down: We've explored the ins and outs of decision trees, aiming to arm you with actionable insights for your complex decision-making challenges. Understanding when to use this tool equips you for future success in an uncertain landscape. 

So, the next time you're grappling with a tough decision, remember that you have a tool designed to turn confusion into clarity. Make it count.

Survey methodology

*2023 Emotional Intelligence in Project Management Survey Data

Software Advice’s 2023 Emotional Intelligence in Project Management Survey was conducted in June 2023 among 239 U.S.-based project managers to learn more about how emotional intelligence affects the decision-making processes during a project. Respondents were screened to ensure they are actively working as a project or program/portfolio/project management office (PMO) manager.


  1. Te Wu, LinkedIn