Models for decision-making

There are many decision-making models for a work setting – the most well-known is probably the rational approach recommended by Kepner-Tregoe. The downside is the time it takes to collect and analyse all the data, plus the risk of information overload. We shouldn’t ignore the data, but we should put it into perspective and learn to rely more on experience and gut feel to make decisions. In this article, we focus on decision-making models that are simple and practical to use.

Models for decision-making

“Sir, What is the secret of your success?” a reporter asked a bank president.
“Two words.”
“And, sir, what are they?”
“Good decisions.”
“And how do you make good decisions?”
“One word.”
“And sir, what is that?”
“And how do you get Experience?”
“Two words.”
“And, sir, what are they?”
“Bad decisions.”
Unknown author

Matrix model

When you have to make a decision between a number of options, draw a matrix as shown below. Decide on your decision-making criteria (I would suggest a maximum of seven) and write them across the top of each column. List your options on the left of each row. You can mark a simple tick or cross in each box, or be more analytical and rate each option with a score against each criteria. Your decision is the one with the most ticks or highest score.

Note the importance of also listening to your emotional reaction and ‘gut feel’ – does the decision made on the basis of the rational data feel right, and one that you are happy to implement? If not, why not and what will you do about this?

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Decision-making governance for teams

This process is useful for new and changing teams, as it avoids prevarication and speeds up decision-making. Doing this exercise early on in the team’s formation means you are more likely to have an open and constructive discussion before emotions arise in a real case situation.

Stick four pieces of flipchart paper on the wall, one each for:

  • Decisions the leader must make
  • Decisions the team must make
  • Decisions certain team-members must make on behalf of the team
  • Decisions that must be made outside the team (e.g. by stakeholders, another department, or the next layer of the organisation)

Talk about the types of decisions the organisation is likely to have to make, and plot them on the flipcharts. Then decide on your meetings governance that will be required to discuss these topics and make decisions in a timely way.

For further information, read my article on the components that make up high-performing leadership teams.

Diamond decision-making

This model helps people balance the time to brainstorm and be creative with a practicality of when to narrow down and decide. I find it particularly useful when dealing with teams who like to analyse the detail as it helps them regain their sense of pragmatism. It also helps individuals who like a quick decision to realise that they might be missing the best option.

A diamond shape in balance



“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”
Unknown author

Pareto Principle

As you may know, at the beginning of the 20th century, economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of Italy’s wealth belonged to 20% of the population.

Remember how valuable the 80:20 rule can be when deciding how you spend your time and resource, because often:

  • 20% of workers do 80% of the work
  • 20% of a company’s clients/products are responsible for 80% of its turnover
  • 20% of time spent on a task leads to 80% of the results

Are you investing your time in the right place and getting the ‘biggest bang for your buck’? Remember the 80:20 principle to guide your decision-making.

Know that approximately 80% of your results will be gained from 20% of the time you spend on a task.  How can you cut out superfluous activity?
Source: The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus & Roman Tschäappeler

Personal performance model  

This model is useful when thinking about whether or not you should change your job.

Print out or draw the blank model below. Every evening for three weeks, ask yourself the following questions and mark your answers on a scale of 1 “doesn’t apply at all” to 10 “totally applies”.

  • Have to: To what extent are my current tasks being imposed on me or demanded of me?
  • Able to: To what extent do my tasks match my abilities?
  • Want to/Allowed to: To what extent does my current task correspond to what I really want?

Example ‘sail’

After three weeks, analyse the shape of the different ‘sails’. If they are ever-changing, your job offers variety. If the shape is skewed towards ‘have to’ and little on ‘want to’ and ‘able to’, ask yourself:

  • What do you want?
  • Are you able to do what you want?
  • What are you able to do?
  • Do you want what you are able to do?

Source: The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus & Roman Tschäappeler

You can also use it to plot your level of motivation regarding your objectives for the year (work and personal), and to manage under-performance issues with employees (e.g. is the problem because he/she can’t do the job or won’t do the job?).

We are all more likely to achieve our objectives when they score highly on ‘want to’ and ‘able to’. You may be motivated to do ‘have to’ tasks, but if they are not also ranked highly on ‘want to’, they will feel like harder work. In addition, you may experience stress when you ‘have to’ do things you don’t have the ability to do (known as qualitative stress, as opposed to quantitative stress which is too much volume of work to do).

For more on this, read my article on managing your energy, not your time.

“Using the power of decision gives you the capacity to get past any excuse to change any and every part of your life in an instant.”
Anthony Robbins

Thinking ‘outside the box’

Dr Peter Sudefeld, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, developed the Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST). He observed that a person in a darkened room with no visual or auditory stimuli benefited from reduced blood pressure, and improved mood and creativity. So a person who wants to think ‘outside the box’ is better off thinking inside one!

Some people may love the peace and solitude, but I think I would find it claustrophobic.  In order to detach and gain perspective, I prefer to go for a walk or take a break that takes me outside my usual environment. There are some more ideas in my article about innovation.

What works best for you?

Naturalistic decision-making

US psychologist Gary Klein pioneered the field of naturalistic decision-making and developed the Recognition Primed Decision model. It’s used to train decision-making in the US Army, US Navy, and fire-fighters, as they all have to make quick life-or-death decisions and can’t delay to analyse all the data.

It shows how experienced people can identify patterns in a situation. Rather than compare options, they imagine how the situation would play out, and make the decision based on whether it feels comfortable to them. (This model pre-supposes that people are experienced. Inexperienced people will be less effective and still need to look at the data and canvas opinion to avoid a trial-and-error effect.)

In chess, experts make faster and better decisions than novices because they recognise and understand the meaning of the patterns.

The hypothesis is that the first option is usually satisfactory, so they use the first workable decision rather than spend a lot of time analysing the best possible option.

How to use this method:

  1. Review your situation and identify the patterns
  2. Use these patterns to make an initial decision/judgment
  3. Simulate the decision playing out in your mind
  4. If it feels right, do it
  5. If it doesn’t feel right, then re-review the patterns and come up with your next decision/judgment
  6. Repeat steps 3 and 4, and keep doing this until you simulate the decision playing out that, in your judgment, is the first workable solution (note the word workable, rather than best)

In an organisational context, constraints may mean you don’t have all the facts or complete freedom, so you may never be able to make the best decision, but you can make a good enough decision (also keeping the Pareto Principle in mind!).

I would encourage you to have trust and confidence in your experience and judgment. Continue to look at the facts, but don’t be a slave to them.

If you’re interested in this subject, you may also like to read my article on dealing with ambiguity.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a sacred servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Albert Einstein

Force field analysis

When I was studying, I learnt about the sociologist Kurt Lewin, who wrote about change management. He developed a “force field analysis” model in 1951 (not when I was studying!) which describes any current level of performance or being as a state of equilibrium between the driving forces that encourage movement and the restraining forces that discourage it.

The driving forces are usually rational, conscious and economic. The restraining forces are usually negative, emotional and sometimes unconscious.

He proposed that change is easier and more effective if the forces that discourage change are reduced rather than increasing the forces that encourage the change. It is not sufficient merely to increase the driving forces as the restraining forces will still remain and make it hard or impossible for you to implement your decision.

This model is simple but be mindful that it can take a lot of work to do:

Describe your proposed decision in the middle. List all the forces ‘for’ the decision on the left hand side, and all the forces ‘against’ on the right hand side. Score each factor and add them up to decide whether or not to move forward. Alternatively, decide how to strengthen the forces ‘for’ and weaken the forces against.

You can also use this model to list the pros and cons when change is forced upon you, such as when the company stops a project you’ve been working on, or moves a piece of work away from you.

Timeline for ‘future pacing’

Timeline is a way of making sure a decision is the right one.

Stand relevant stakeholders in a row at one end of the room and tell them it represents today, while the other end of the room represents the end of the project (or the ultimate results of your decision).

  • Ask them all to take one step forward. Tell them it’s now a week into the future, and ask them to consider what they think about the project now. Chances are, they still feel OK about it
  • Next, ask them all to take another step forward. This time, it’s a month into the future. Ask if they can think of any issues arising. It’s possible someone might raise a concern that could be affecting their area by then
  • Then ask the group to take another two steps forward. Now it’s six months into the future. Again, ask what they see, what they hear and what they feel about the project. By future-pacing and tapping into their senses it will become apparent whether things are likely to be still on track. If not, you have the chance to do something about it now

The timescale you use will depend on what’s appropriate for your scenario, and needs careful facilitation to ensure everyone feels able to contribute, even when they’re in a minority. I can help with that.

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information.

Next month we look at mindfulness.