Four ready-to-implement decision making frameworks
In complex situations, the decisions that govern them are complicated, too. Thankfully, there are a range of tools at your disposal that help you to make informed, timely decisions as leaders.
Poor decision making is a direct drain of time, money, and productivity. And the costs in terms of missed opportunities, reduced time to market, and sluggish responses to external factors, are likely even greater.
By contrast, swift and effective decisions can yield huge rewards, helping organisations to respond to threats, seize opportunities, innovate, and succeed.
While every leader likes to believe that they make the best decisions, with the most favourable outcomes, it is impossible to be the case 100% of the time. After all, in complex situations, the decisions that govern them are complicated, too. It's a vicious cycle.
Thankfully, there are a range of tools that help leaders to make informed, timely decisions. These range from data and statistical models, to decision making frameworks. The latter can be revolutionary if they're used correctly.
This article presents a range of ready-to-implement strategic decision making frameworks, to help executives cut through the mounting pressures of decisive leadership.
The need for decision making frameworks
Frameworks play a significant role in organisational performance. They give clarity and control to leaders when faced with difficult challenges, and provide objectivity in scenarios that can be subjected to fractious opinions. They help leaders to mitigate bias, operate effectively under pressure, and take timely, impactful, and data-driven decisions.
Decision making frameworks are a great example of the benefits of following a predefined set of rules and processes when approaching challenging subject matter. They enable leaders to effectively manage stakeholders, consider alternatives, and assign clear roles and responsibilities throughout the process of taking decisive action.
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Yet, decision making is growing increasingly complex. A study by Gartner is 2021 found that “65% of decisions made are more complex (involving more stakeholders or choices) than they were two years ago.”1 Therefore, the need for frameworks to support objective decision making is very clear.
Thankfully, decision making has been studied at length by academics, business consultants, and world-class professionals for decades. In fact, since the mid-20th century there have been a number of detailed studies conducted in the field of decision making, such as Herbert A. Smith’s “Rational Decision Making in Business Organizations” in the American Economic Review, which explores the nature of decision making and its relationship with human behaviour.2
Decision making frameworks, therefore, have considerable backing from multiple academic disciplines, and the spheres of business and psychology.
Decision making frameworks for leaders
Given the volume of research and practice that has been devoted to the subject of decision making frameworks, it's safe to say that there are quite a few out there. Choosing between them can be challenging in itself.
Here are four ready-to-implement decision making frameworks for leaders:
1. The 'SPADE' framework
Gokul Rajaram, an eminent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and advisor, developed his own framework for decision making called SPADE while working for Jack Dorsey-founded payments company, Square.
SPADE is a decision making framework that is designed - once again - for making complicated decisions, and was developed with the knowledge that in highly complex scenarios, consensus decision making sometimes simply doesn't work. SPADE works like this:
In many cases, people only consider 'what' when making decisions. The 'Setting' phase of SPADE "comprises three primary dimensions: What, When, and Why" which encourages a more rounded view of the subject matter of the decision.
Much like other frameworks, SPADE places a significant focus on the people involved. According to Gokul Rajaram, you need to, very early on, "identify the people who should consult (give input), approve, and most importantly, a single person who is responsible."
Alternatives are feasible and realistic variants of the approach being considered, and it is the job of the 'responsible' person to come up with a diverse set of alternatives, and then host a brainstorming meeting to discuss them.
Once you have laid out all of the alternatives and evaluated their pros and cons, it is time to get those you have consulted to vote. It is important to do this privately, as difficult decisions are often controversial and divisive, and you want to be sure to avoid groupthink. Ask each person to provide a sentence or two as to why they chose this outcome, and then present them all in an anonymised table so that all participants can view the outcome.
Once you have reached a decision, it is important to set it into action immediately. This should begin with a type of meeting called a 'commitment’ in which you explain the decision, and give each person the chance to explain how they feel about it. This step was termed a 'commitment' by Andy Grove, the father of OKRs, who saw this step as necessary to achieve buying, support, and ultimately aiding execution.
Once this has taken place, you need to understand how the decision will be executed and delegated. This should begin by writing a 'one pager' summary of the SPADE process, which you can share with your entire organisation.3
2. The 'RACI' framework
Increasing transparency and clarity in the decision making process is fundamental to success. Thankfully there is a decision making framework to support exactly this - and it's called the 'RACI' framework. This is an acronym, which helps leaders to consider who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed before every major decision.
The RACI framework is especially powerful in larger organisations, where visibility of decision making and the involvement of individuals decreases with every individual added in headcount.
Here's how it works in practice:
- Responsible - This individual (or group) holds overall responsibility for reaching a decision. They can almost be considered the 'project manager' of the decision. They will draw in the expertise of varied stakeholders, formulate a proposal for the accountable individual (or group) to review. For example, in a software engineering team, who are trying to decide whether to launch a new product, the 'responsible' individual might be the Head of Product or Product Owner.
- Accountable - This role in the decision should be clarified first. After all, this is the person that the overall responsibility rests with. They will approve the decision in the end, and will assume accountability for its outcomes. For example, in our software example above, this person might be the CTO - they will ultimately decide whether the new product is technically feasible, and will have a final say on whether the existing team is capable of delivering it.
- Consulted - These individuals will be involved in the process, but might not have the loudest voice. For example, when the Head of Product is ready to present their proposal to the CTO, the 'consulted' individuals would likely be invited to listen in, and could also provide their feedback and input. For example, the company's Chief Marketing Officer might be consulted at this stage to provide a commercial point of view on the new product being considered.
- Informed - Last, but by no means least, there will be a range of stakeholders who need to be informed about the outcome of the decision. This should include everyone who will be affected by the decision, or involved in the work as a result. In our example, this would include the engineers who would move to the new product team, the sales team who will be able to sell it, and the customer support team who will have to field questions on the new product, among others.4
RACI is especially powerful in larger organisations, where visibility of decision making and individual involvement decreases with every person added in headcount.
3. The 'RAPID' framework
Developed by Bain & Company, the RAPID framework is another acronym-based model which aims to give clear roles throughout the decision making process. This decision making framework is designed for situations which involve a broad range of stakeholders, and should only be used for complex decisions which require a formalised process.
Like RACI, 'RAPID' stands for the different roles in the process, which are:
- Recommend: Create the initial proposals and recommendations
- Agree: Must agree the proposals from the Recommend group
- Perform: Execute the work following the decision
- Input: Provides information and facts to the Recommend group
- Decide: The person who has the authority to make the decision
The primary advantages of this decision making framework are that it is somewhat egalitarian, as a greater number of stakeholders can be involved in the decision making process, and it makes it very clear who is responsible for each stage.5
4. The 'Gradients of Agreement' framework
Contrary to the SPADE decision making framework, the 'Gradients of Agreement' is a method which aims to govern by consensus.
In the Gradients of Agreement, participants are asked to rate their level of support or buy-in for a particular decision based on a predefined eight-point scale. The stages are then grouped under five stages which give a wider vocabulary to participants, rather than just saying "yes" or "no" to a particular decision.
1. Full support - "I like it"
2. Endorsement with minor concerns - "I mostly like it"
3. Agreement with some reservations - "I can live with it"
4. Abstain - "I have no opinion"
5. Stand aside - "I don't like this, but I don't want to hinder the group."
6. Disagreement, but willing to side with the majority - "I want people to note my disagreement, but I'll support the decision"
7. Disagreement, with the request to be removed from any implementation - "I don't want to stop the group, but I don't want to be involved."
8. Can't support the proposal.
There are a number of ways that you can ask your collaborators to share their levels of support, ranging from a simple 'show of hands' going through the eight levels to a secret ballot. Once received, you should aggregate the responses to determine the level of support, from “enthusiastic support’ to ‘strong objection.’ If your results are scattered and impossible to arrive at a firm categorisation, this is called ‘ambiguous support’. In these cases, it is possible to proceed with the decision, just in the knowledge that the outcome might not be looked upon favourably by all.
It is essential to recognise that the Gradients of Agreement decision making framework isn't simply a voting system, but instead is supposed to broaden the language of the discussion from simple binary terms, so that you can understand different individuals' positions and have a meaningful dialogue around them. This collaborative approach enables your team to build a solution that has strong support, which will flow into the execution process.6
When complex situations arise, use a strategic decision making framework
Complexity is woven into the fabric of leadership. However, it doesn’t need to be tackled alone. Leaders can implement these frameworks and use them as essential tools in the process of decisive action.
By giving clarity to stakeholder management, the levels of engagement needed, and the ways that outcomes are communicated, leaders can use these tools to achieve buy-in from their teams and ultimately triumph over the obstacles in front of them.
1 ‘How to Make Better Business Decisions’, M. Rollings, Gartner, 2021.
2 ‘Rational Decision Making in Business Organizations’, H. A. Simon, The American Economic Review, 1979.
3 ‘Gokul’s S.P.A.D.E Toolkit: How to implement Square’s famous decision-making framework’, Gokul Rajaram, 2020.
4 ‘Understanding Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RACI Matrix)’, J. M. D. Santos, project-management.com, 2021.
5 ‘RAPID®: Bain's tool to clarify decision accountability’, Bain & Company, 2011.
6 ‘Team Decision Making: The Gradients of Agreement’, TRG, 2014.