Strategic Decision-Making

fork in the road decision image 2

decision-making

I believe that outside of God himself, the greatest and most remarkable power in this universe is the power of decision. The power of a personal being— not the mechanical power of a galaxy, of a black hole, however great those may be physically—the power of a personal being to choose-- to effect eternal destiny -- is a unique reflection of the image of God.

Jon Ortberg

The power to choose.  To decide the course our lives will follow.  What a remarkable privilege!  We make an extraordinary number of decisions in our lives—from the direction of our next step to the place we’ll reside, work, and play.  Abraham Maslow said, “Let us think of life as a progression of choices, one after the other.” Indeed, the story of our lives can be told as an account of the decisions we have made.  We are afforded the opportunity to craft the days of our lives just as the artist enjoys the freedom of creation.

Despite this freedom, many of the things we do in life do not spring from deliberate choices; they are simply a matter of follow-through on earlier decisions. Most of the smaller, tactical decisions we make are pre-ordained to some degree by the larger, strategic decisions that we have made, or that others have made, in the past. 

Then there are the decisions we make in our business, family, and political lives that begin to feel like Hobson’s choices.  Thomas Hobson was a liveryman in the seventeenth century who, legend has it, offered his customers this choice:  take any horse you like as long as it’s the one nearest the door.  We feel, in other words, that we are not really making decisions at all because there seems to be only one course we can take.

But there is another course open to us—and that is to become strategic, rather than reactive, in determining the course of our lives, businesses, and nations.  Strategy is, simply, the art and science of options.  It is a matter of understanding current options, creating new options, and choosing among them. 


In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

From the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

For every decision we make, there is the road not taken.  The word decide derives from the Latin term decidere, from de- ("off") + cædere ("to cut").  That is, in making a decision, we cut off all the alternative options for action previously under consideration.  Whilst we attempt not to “burn our bridges behind us” in making life decisions, truly strategic decisions involve just that.  We commit a major life asset, such as our time or financial savings, to a choice that will be difficult or impossible to change.  Individuals decide to marry, to embark on a career, to relocate—life directions that are difficult to undo.  Companies commit irretrievable resources to their objectives.  Once deployed, armies cannot be pulled back without severe consequences.

In the business context, strategic decisions always involve trade-offs, since it is axiomatic that no company or organization has unlimited resources.  In strategic circumstances, doing one thing often means that you cannot do another. In the 1990s, for example, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates made the strategic choice to bet the future of his company on the internet, redeploying the lion’s share of resources from such previous priorities as CD-ROM content.  Families, too, are faced with strategic choices that set direction and have long-term consequences.  Decisions such as where to live, where to work, and where to go to school mark pivotal moments in our lives.

History has been described as“a drama of uncertainty resolved by decision.” To resolve present uncertainties, leaders have often turned to the past for guidance.  General Douglas McArthur looked to the past as he led American armies in World War II and the Korean conflict. In his memoirs, McArthur encouraged field leaders to study military history for insights and principles that could be applied to conditions of the present and near future. “These principles know no limitation of time,” he said. “Consequently the Army extends its analytical interest to the dust-buried accounts of wars long past as well as to those still reeking with the scent of battle.”

The study of decision itself is critical if we are to take optimal advantage of life’s opportunities as they arise.As Napoleon Bonaparte said, there is nothing more precious than to be able to decide.  That is to say, the ability to control our destiny is a priceless privilege. And yet how many have squandered opportunities, making decisions that leave us shaking our heads?  The mighty Coca-ColaCompany released, with much fanfare, something called New Coke, with the intention of dropping their fabulously successful hundred-year-old formula for Coca-Cola.  The Department of the Treasury issued the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar to an unwilling public after deciding that a survey to ascertain public opinion was unnecessary.  NASA has launched space shuttles in dangerous circumstances with disastrous results. 

Most of us, of course, don’t have the opportunity to make decisions of this magnitude.  Yet we are all confronted with strategicquestions regarding the direction of our careers, our families, and the courses of our lives.  Given the opportunity to decide our direction, it is incumbent on each of us to choose wisely.

The purpose of the website is to shed light on the art and practice of strategic decision-making.  Like General McArthur, we will look often to the past for lessons for the present.  We will turn to dust-buried accounts of wars and other human endeavors, drawing upon histories of business, science, the arts, politics, philosophy, and the military. Psychology—the study of the mind, thought, and behavior—will provide a crowbar with which we can pry out wisdom from the past to guide us as we go forward.  

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Four Phase Decision Model   small

strategic decision-making model

The strategic decision process begins with the introduction of a simple four-phase decision making model. 

The elements of this model are:

  • Decision Framing
  • Information and Intelligence Gathering
  • Coming to Conclusions
  • Learning from Experience

All of this follows, of course, an important “metadecision” depicted in the center of the graphic.  This is the decision of “how will we decide?” We believe it is critical for organizations to agree on a strategic decision process before jumping into the details of any particular decision.

My company, Strategy by Design, specializes in helping organizations with strategic decision-making.  We offer consulting and training in a simple but proven method for making key decisions.  Our process begins with some thought-provoking questions: 

·         Are you asking the right questions, and confronting the most important issues?

·         Do you have strategic intelligence you need to make sound choices?

·         Is your decision process effective, involving the right people?

·         What have you learned from your previous strategic choices?



From Turning Points: Making Decisions in American History, edited by David Burner and Anthony Marcus.

Principles of Decision-Making

Strategy is, simply, the art and science of options.

It is a matter of understanding current options, creating new options, and choosing among them.

First, the strategist must make a meta-decision: "How will we decide?"

Decision-making is a four-phase process: Framing the Decision - Gathering Intelligence -- Coming to Conclusions - Learning from Experience


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