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Decision Making: It’s not always the “rational” approach that is the best choice.

After a bit of a “hiatus,” I’m back with a few more blogs posts about DECISION MAKING.  Today, I share another interesting angle on the nature of decision making and how decisions are often made. 

Typically, we assume that making decisions should always be done using a rather straight-forward, logical approach: 

  1. defining the problem or identifying the issue

  2. gathering relevant information

  3. determining possible solutions

  4. choosing the best option

  5. implementing the chosen action

According to management guru, Henry Mintzberg, sticking with that assumption in all decision-making situations (what he calls the “thinking first” approach) may be a mistake.  Mintzberg believes that utilizing a rational decision making process, as described above, is not as common as we believe. He even calls it a bit “mysterious” at times. Perhaps the world of decision making is not as clean and orderly as we think. 

He’s identified two other ways by which decisions are often made:

  1. Seeing First

  2. Doing First

The Seeing First and Doing First processes are must less rational and linear.  They value a creative, reiterative process to identify best solutions. 

Thinking First is best suited to problems where:

  1. The issue is clear.

  2. The data is coherent.

  3. The context is well-defined

Thinking First is most appropriate when companies are redesigning or re-engineering a production or service process.

Seeing First is best suited to problems where:

  1. The issue is not clear and obvious and includes multiple elements.

  2. Initial data may be confusing, complex, and emerge over multiple inquiries.

  3. Solutions may appear as intuitive insights rather than the result of a rational process of inquiry.

This approach is most appropriate when companies plan to develop a new product or service for an emerging market.

Doing First is best suited to problems where:

  1. The issue is unique and has unknown, confusing qualities.

  2. It’s necessary to try several possible solutions, see what works, find out why, and then reject the others.

  3. Often experimentation precedes “thinking first.”

This approach is most appropriate for companies facing a disruptive technology.

Mintzberg equates “Thinking First” with science; “Seeing First” with art; and “Doing First” with craft.”  It’s not necessary to abandon the “thinking first” approach all together.  Rather, the point of this discussion is to include the possibility of using all three in concert. 

He goes on to say that “…a company may tackle a new issues by craft [doing first], then to imagine by art [seeing first]; and finally in order to program by science [thinking first].  “Thinking First” should be used it when appropriate along with a seeing or doing first process if circumstances deem either as the best way to proceed.

So, don’t get stuck using only the narrow approach of “thinking first” when making decisions. Instead, consider the potential of also “Seeing First” and “Doing First.”


Jim Dittmar

Dr. James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute which began in 2014.  Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Or


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