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I.C. Hierarchically Structure Objectives

C. Hieararchically structure objectives I. Specifying objectives A. Describe the situation B. Describe the problem As used here, "objectives" refer to the collection of goals and accomplishments targeted by a course of action. Objectives can be broadly stated (e.g., "prevent catastrophic wildfire") or more specific (e.g., "reduce surface fuels in treatment areas to less than 3 tons/acre"). An objectives hierarchy arranges objectives from broad, overarching goals to lower-level, specific accomplishments or actions. Objectives in the uppermost levels of the hierarchy reflect broad or inclusive values. Progress towards these objectives is achieved by meeting lower-level, subordinate objectives.

Within the hierarchy, any objective can be viewed in context of a broader objective(s) to which it contributes, and also to more specific objectives that contribute to it. For example, an individual might array a series of objectives under the general objective "maintain physical fitness":

  • maintain physical fitness
    • exercise regularly
      • jog 3 times a week
      • do strength training twice weekly
    • control diet
      • limit calories
      • eat balanced meals

As this simple example illustrates, the more general objective is gradually decomposed into more specific and measurable objectives. The transition is from "Why?" at higher levels, to "How?" at lower levels. Lower-level objectives may include specific actions, which is why they are often referred to as "means objectives." At some point, objectives can be specified in measurable terms.

Objective hierarchies can be constructed several ways. The basic steps are brainstorm, sort, and structure. The "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches to building an objectives hierarchy follow simple rules and are explained below.

Here's a simple way to visualize an objectives hierarchy in a typical planning exercise in today's USDA Forest Service.

Think of the higher level objectives as Forest Plan goals and objectives.

Just below that are project level objectives. A project contributes to objectives in the Forest Plan but a single project cannot fulfill all Plan objectives.

Within each project are lower-level objectives that help achieve the project objectives; these are usually measurable and can be implemented on the ground, often at a stand or watershed level.



  1. Determine your objectives.
  2. Create an objectives hierarchy by structuring your objectives from high-level, general objectives to low-level, specific objectives.


I.C.1. Determine your objectives.

In this step, you will identify all of your objectives and record them in Objectives Table 5: Objectives for Action. Your objective statements will be derived from the problem statements and problem components of Objectives Table 4: Problem Components. For example, a problem component "fire" may be translated into the objective statement, "supress wildfires".

Other objectives will probably come to mind as you fill in Objectives Table 5. Don't forget your most basic, highest level objectives.

At this point, don't worry if you have more objectives than you expect to accomplish. As part of the next step, some of the objectives will sort themselves out as achievable and within the scope of your project.

How do you determine all of your objectives? You can use at least three approaches. One is to "dump the blocks on the table", where your team brainstorms every objective possible and worries about how they fit together later. Two more formal approaches are the "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches, described more fully below.

When identifying objectives, make sure to include both general goals and objectives and specific project objectives. Your set of objectives should be complete, controllable, concise, measurable, and understandable (adapted from Keeney, 1992).

  • Complete - A well-defined set of objectives includes everything that matters in making the decision (McDaniels, 2000). Consider social and economic objectives that may conflict with ecological objectives. By considering potential conflicts and trade-offs up front, a planning team can ensure that their objectives will address all relevant concerns.

  • Controllable - Objectives involve only those endpoints that can be influenced by the decision at hand and the range of options available for that decision.
Remember your high school grammar teacher talking about the "imperative form" of a verb, and "parallel construction?" Your objective statements will be easier to understand, and often more succinct and shorter, if they are couched in imperative form. An imperative statement is "Maintain healthy forests", as opposed to statements like "Healthy forests"', or "Few dead trees except what is needed for wildlife snags."
  • Concise - A concise set of objectives eliminates redundancy. Look for statements that have the same or very similar meanings. Combine objectives that share the same set of subordinate objectives.

  • Measurable - An objective statement needs to be conceptually clear enough so that it will lead to good definitions of measures and measurable endpoints.

  • Understandable - Strive for clear meaning and consistent understanding by all stakeholders. Short objectives statements fit better in an objectives hierarchy and are easier to read and interpret. If a statement is vague or cannot be easily measured, then subordinate objectives can be defined to clarify the meaning to everyone concerned. For example, "Sustain healthy forests" is clearly stated, but may be interpreted in dramatically different ways unless it is more precisely defined by lower level objectives.


I.C.2. Create an objectives hierarchy by structuring your objectives from high-level, general objectives to low-level, specific objectives.

Most natural resource managers and planners are familiar with the concepts of setting objectives and then developing alternative methods of achieving those objectives. The process of developing an "Objectives Hierarchy" is simply a formal method of documenting this logic.

Mindfully structuring objectives in a framework—indicating where each sits in relation to others and whether it's a "how" or "why" objective—makes the transition to a conceptual model and then to a probabilistic belief network much easier.

An objectives hierarchy can be drawn using a number of available software products. For example, you may find the Organizational Chart feature on the Drawing Toolbar in MS Word and MS Powerpoint useful.

Based on Objectives Table 5: Objectives for Action, Table 2: Area or Unit Goals Objectives, and other relevant sources of information, create an objectives hierarchy. You may wish to begin the process in table format, Objectives Table 6: Objectives Hierarchy. Alternatively, you may want to work graphically (see box).

You can create an objectives hierarchy by brainstorming as a team; to some extent, brainstorming may provide the most innovative approaches to your challenges. Two more structured approaches could be described as "top-down" or "bottom-up" approaches. The two approaches provide flexibility, recognizing that risk assessments and planning exercises often begin with a narrow view of a larger problem. Using these structured approaches can help ensure that all important objectives are included.

We've included examples of both approaches to illustrate the differences.

THE TOP-DOWN APPROACH: Narrowing the focus

A higher level objective can be decomposed into lower level, measurable objectives that help accomplish the higher level objective. To help identify these, ask yourself questions such as What is important about this objective? or What are the key components of this objective?

Table 1:. How to construct objectives hierarchies (Modified from Clemen, 1996:47)

Constructing objectives hierarchiesAt some point in the top-down process, it will become obvious that a higher level objective is sufficiently specific to (1) design or select monitoring indicators or measures; and/or (2) identify lower level objectives that contribute to the achievement of the higher level objective.

You can continue the process of building the objective network downward through more steps by asking How does this happen? or How could I achieve this? (Table 1). Eventually this process links higher level objectives to lower level management activities. This process not only helps identify a wider range of candidate management activities, but also begins to flesh out your team's understanding of how social values integrate into management activities.

An example of the top-down approach: Restoring forest health

Scenario: A planning team is formulating an approach to maintain and restore forest health in late-successional reserves (LSRs) in a national forest under the Northwest Forest Plan.

The top-down approach to building an objectives hierarchy is a sequential process of narrowing a team's focus from broad to specific objectives using "what" and "how" questions. In this example, a higher level objective is decomposed, or broken down into more detailed higher level objectives and eventually into several lower level objectives that help accomplish them (Figure 1). A planning team has identified a higher level objective, or desired future condition, Maintain Healthy LSRs. The team asks (for each objective identified), What is important about this objective? or What are the key components of this objective? This team concludes that Healthy LSRs can be fully addressed within their decision context by decomposing it into two sub-objectives (or desired future conditions): Restore Natural Fire Regimes and Protect from Uncharacteristic Wildfires. These two objectives do not fully define Healthy LSRs in a scientific or managerial sense, but only circumscribe the project's contribution to Healthy LSRs. Obviously, there are many other aspects of LSRs not addressed here that might define what is meant by "healthy" .

Figure 1. Objectives hierarchy developed in the top-down example.
Objectives Hierarchy Top down example

How long does this top-down process of creating new objectives continue? Generally, once an objective starts to sound "manageable", when specific management prescriptions, indicators, or measures become apparent, then it's time to ask How do we accomplish this? In this example, the team perceives that the main threat risk to future LSR health is wildfire. They select Reduce Wildfire Hazard as an appropriate means to Protect from Uncharacteristic Wildfires and Restore Natural Fire Regime.

The objective Reduce Wildfire Hazard is still too vague to measure readily. By continuing to ask How do we accomplish this?, the team reveals subordinate objectives, Reduce Fuel Loads then Prescribed Fire and Mechanical Fuels Reduction. By continuing the“decomposition” process, specific management activities can be defined.

THE BOTTOM-UP APPROACH: Initial focus on activities

In contrast to the top-down approach, the bottom-up approach begins by asking the question Why is this accomplishment valuable? or What benefits are derived? The bottom-up approach to building an objectives hierarchy is a sequential process of broadening a team's narrow focus on specific threats, issues, or management prescription to derive higher level objectives. It uses mainly "why" questions. It is a process of discovery that helps clarify and identify higher level objectives, and may even uncover "hidden" objectives (Keeney, 1992) that can expand or re-define the decision context.

An example of the bottom-up approach: Collaborative efforts to solve a problem.

Scenario: A planning team and various stakeholder groups are formulating a collaborative approach to address hazardous fuels and wildfire at the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

In this example, the bottom-up approach helps a planning team and other stakeholders whose main reason for undertaking a risk assessment action is the threat of wildfire. In such a case, the conversations within the team and stakeholder groups may already be focusing on a specific management strategy for reducing wildfire risk, Mechanical Fuels Reduction (Figure 2). While a narrow initial focus is to be expected, defining the scope of the project (i.e., the decision context) and conducting a risk assessment may require a more extensive exploration of the decision context. The bottom up approach facilitates this.

Figure 2. Objectives hierarchy developed in the bottom-up example.

Objectives Hierarchy Bottom up exampleIn the bottom-up approach, Mechanical Fuels Reduction is the point of departure for the team. The goal is to identify or clarify broader objectives and additional management options. First, the team asks, Why is this objective important? In this example, their response is that it will Reduce Fuel Loads (Figure 2). Having identified this intermediate objective, the team now considers the question, What can help achieve this objective? Their answer is Prescribed Fire. As in the top-down example, specific management prescriptions might be defined by continuing to decompose these two strategies.

At this point the team again considers the objective Reduce Fuel Loads, again asking Why is this objective important? They make the obvious conclusion that it would be a means to Reduce Wildfire Hazard, and proceed to again ask Why is this objective important? At this point in the exercise, the team realizes there are numerous answers to the question, some outside the scope of their project. But because the team's initial focus was restoration, the team understands that the objective Reduce Wildfire Hazard is a means for moving the ecosystem towards two important desired future conditions (i.e., higher level objectives), represented by Restore Natural Fire Regime and Protect from Uncharacteristic Wildfires.

As before in the top-down approach, the team shifts continually from lower level to higher level objectives in stages. The members feel that Natural Fire Regime and Protected from Uncharacteristic Wildfires are really statements about desired future conditions, fundamental to the entire forest plan and not likely to be achieved by any individual project.

To continue the same line of questioning for Natural Fire Regime and Protected from Uncharacteristic Wildfires, the team asks Why is this objective important? Their answer may be simply, "it just is". Such feelings about a higher objective may reflect commonly held values within the team. The team decides to state the obvious. They link Natural Fire Regime and Protected from Uncharacteristic with their conception of the the project's fundamental objective: Restore Forest Health in the WUI.
Question: Why is this objective important? Answer: "it just is". This answer can reflect commonly held values. Values-based objectives may derive from existing plans, laws, regulations, or policies. It's important to identify and state these higher-level connections, for in doing so, other more hidden objectives may emerge.

In this example, the exercise of stating (and documenting) the obvious prompts a conversation about forest health among a diverse set of stakeholder groups. For some, forest health implies a strong connection between ecological and economic integrity. The river corridor along which the project is situated is well-known to commercial mushroom harvesters who are concerned that management prescriptions also address their needs. The team decides to include the objective Improve Mushroom Harvest under Restore Forest Health in the WUI.

Because the ecology and management of fungi that fruit in fall versus spring differ so markedly, they are represented by distinct higher level objectives (Figure 2). Prescribed Fire will likely improve spring harvests of morels, while Improved Access to foot traffic will help harvesters during both seasons. Most importantly, the consideration of hidden higher level objectives has facilitated further thought about design, placement, and timing of management prescriptions for fire and fuels to account for various mushroom species and their harvests.


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