Objectives Hierarchies

In most decision problems it will be useful to develop an objectives hierarchy to group similar objectives. Once a list of issues or preliminary “objectives” has been brainstormed, you can build a fundamental objectives hierarchy by continually asking “what do you mean by that?” Consider for example, a park planning exercise in which the fundamental objectives are defined as: “Protect Wildlife”, “Maximize Recreational Opportunities” and “Minimize Net Cost”. Asking “what do you mean by that?” may lead you to several sub-objectives that further describe exactly what is meant by these terms in this particular decision context. For example:

  • Protect Wildlife
    • Minimize Disturbance
    • Enhance Habitat Quality
  • Maximize Recreational Opportunities
    • Maximize Quantity of Use
      • Maximize Land-based Use
      • Maximize Water-based Use
    • Maximize Quality of Experience
      • Maximize Visual quality
      • Minimize Noise
      • Maximize Probability of Wildlife Sightings
      • Minimize Crowding
  • Minimize Net Cost
    • Maximize Revenue
    • Minimize Management Cost

Any objective may have different interpretations depending on the decision context. Through this hierarchy you have defined exactly what you mean by each fundamental objective for this context. Recreational Quality for example, would likely be defined quite differently for say an amusement park, or a fly fishing resort. With the objectives hierarchy, you have defined all the important elements of recreational opportunity that can be affected by this decision. Each of the lowest level objectives will now need an evaluation criterion to be defined.

Using Mean-Ends Diagrams to Help with Objectives Hierarchies

A means-ends diagram is a kind of conceptual model that visually shows the relationship between policy alternatives (means) at one end and fundamental objectives (ends) at the other. It is useful for developing a conceptual understanding of a system, for helping separate interests (objectives) from positions (means), and for identifying potential evaluation criteria. During brainstorming and objectives structuring discussions, it is often useful to quickly trace out means-ends relationships to help people see how the issues they are concerned about fit into the decision process. Besides being important from a decision quality perspective, this helps people to see that issues that are not “fundamental objectives” still have a place in the process and will be addressed.

Below is a mean-ends diagram developed for the park management decision described above. Management objectives include maximizing the quality of visitor experiences, protecting wildlife and minimizing net management cost. Fundamental objectives are shown at the far right, with proposed means shown at the left. The diagram shows that crowding is an important contributor to the quality of experience. It shows how instituting pay parking can address crowding and consequently crowding. It also shows that it affects other objectives at the same time.


Similar diagrams (or additional detail added to this one) might be constructed to show that there are other means of achieving these objectives. For example, the provision of more facilities or zoning the park to accommodate conflicting uses might be other ways to enhance the quality of the experience and protect wildlife that don’t involve reducing park usage. Reducing users (and pay parking in particular) is only one means of achieving the fundamental objectives.

Key Ideas

  • Develop a hierarchy to group similar objectives
  • A means-ends diagram shows how alternatives relate to fundamental objectives and is useful for developing objective hierarchies