The IDEAL strategic decision-making process

This blog post is a part of a larger Strategic decision-making collection I am constantly adding to and synthesizes what an effective decision-making process looks like — because just having a “process” is not enough — you need an IDEAL process.

IDEAL framework

While there is no one “right” decision-making process, many processes can lead to the wrong outcome. 

The IDEAL framework distills decades of managerial experience and lists the characteristics of an effective strategic decision-making process.   

I developed the framework to use in corporate trainings as a way to frame the conversation and introduce broad principles before we delve into greater details for specific areas of focus.

IDEAL stands for: 

 I = Insights-driven 

 D = Deliberate 

 E = Explicit 

 A = Adaptive / Agile 

 L = Leads to action  

As I explain each of these in turn, assess them based on your own experience.

I = Insights-driven

In this IDEAL framework, “Insights-driven” means that the process is based on facts and evidence, where you constantly drive their interpretation to implications and actionable solutions, asking the question “So what?” 

The first idea here is based on the key phrase “facts and evidence.” 

Often, executives are so focused on their own “silo” that they are working with incomplete information. I find that a lot of disagreements get cleared away the moment a group of decision-makers establish a shared fact base. This is why it is important to build an objective picture of the situation based on facts and evidence (as opposed to emotions, personal opinions, and “gut feel”). 

The second idea is captured with the key question “So what?”

It is not enough to gather raw data, statistics, and evidence to answer the question "What’s going on?"  

Decisions are based on the interpretation of such facts, which requires connecting the dots and applying business judgment to articulate the business implications of your findings (i.e., repeatedly answering the question “So what?” and climbing the “insights hierarchy”).

I call the habit of relentlessly asking “So what?” a success habit, because it applies to all stages of the strategic decision-making process.

D = Deliberate

The second element of the IDEAL framework, “Deliberate,” signifies an intentional and systematic process that takes a holistic point of view

The first idea here is captured with the phrase “intentional and systematic process.” 

We already established the importance of the process. Based on my observations, it is tempting to jump to conclusions and skip a deliberate process. However, our first conclusion is not always the “right” one — for example, it may be based on incomplete information, or be skewed by your own biases. 

The second idea is captured with the phrase “holistic point of view.” 

This phrase describes what perspective we should assume in our deliberate process. Sometimes, teams work hard on a proposal but take a narrow, siloed approach and do not account for how their ideas fit with the bigger picture (e.g., what are the implications for other parts of the organization, or how their recommendation supports the overall business strategy?). These teams are later disappointed that their ideas are not approved by the senior management.   

The practice of assuming a holistic point of view is also a success habit —see “Taking a top management perspective.”

E = Explicit

The third element of the IDEAL framework, “Explicit,” conveys the principle of clearly articulated objectives, approach, and logic for easier discourse and alignment.  

The key phrase here is “clearly articulated,” which means “easy for others to see.” 

Many disagreements come from unstated assumptions, misinterpreted language, or unclear logic. Therefore, to avoid confusion and speed up decision-making, it is helpful to make your thinking “easy to see.“  

Three examples of what needs to be explicitly articulated include:

  • Clear objectives — to help everyone understand what you are trying to do. 

  • Clear approach — to help everyone understand how you plan on doing it.

  • Clear logic — to help everyone understand your thinking and key assumptions. 

I always recommend having a “Takeoff checklist” to explicitly articulate your objectives, approach, and logic at the beginning of a strategic decision-making process or discussion.

A = Adaptive / Agile

The fourth element of the IDEAL framework, “Adaptive / Agile,” recognizes that each situation requires a different approach, and that the strategic decision-making process is by nature iterative and nonlinear

The first idea here is that different situations call for different decision-making approaches. 

Therefore, while it is important to have a common decision-making framework for easier alignment, it is also important to be flexible on how you apply it. 

In other words, you have to adapt your general approach to the specific situation by designing a process that fits your situation. 

The second idea acknowledges that decision-making is an iterative and nonlinear process. 

While we can elegantly describe it in a simple framework with distinct stages and steps, in reality, it is complex and messy. There are many moving parts that affect each other. 

For example, new discoveries require that we go back and reexamine prior thinking or even start over from scratch. 

Being adaptive means that we are open to changing our thinking with new insights or new developments. 

It may be difficult to give up on the solutions you’ve spent time developing, especially if you have already communicated a given direction. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

 L = Leads to action

Finally, we come to the fifth element of the IDEAL framework, “Leads to action.” This is important if you adopt my pragmatic definition and recognize that the decision-making process can make a difference only if people act on its conclusions. This requires the process to result in actionable recommendations and to create buy-in

The process must produce actionable recommendations (as opposed to analyses that do not lead to a recommendation or that propose unrealistic solutions). In fact, when the emerging recommendations are action-biased, executives will often implement them even before the “formal” recommendations have been presented.

The decision-making process should create the buy-in you need for implementation. Often, thinking about who else needs to be involved comes after decisions have been made, and as a result, the implementation is delayed or even rejected. Buy-in leads to action.

The recurrent nightmare of anyone developing strategic recommendations is that at the end of a stressful project, their work results in a document collecting dust on a shelf, and their recommendations do not make any difference.  

Link to your experience

And there you have it — the IDEAL framework.  

Three bonus ways to reflect on what you just read: 

  • Can you recall one idea that resonated with you?

  • Think of a project or initiative at work you contributed to — was your team’s process IDEAL?

  • Think of something you are involved with right now (can be personal or professional) — can you apply an element from the IDEAL framework for a better outcome?

Please explore other blog posts in this Strategic decision-making series.

Originally written by Aneta Key in February 2016. Last edited November 2018.