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BOUNDED RATIONALITY, THEORETICAL FRAMES, AND DEFENSIBLE DECISION-MAKING

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

In Decision Provenance: A Transparent Line of Sight, I argued that anyone who has had to buckle up during a turbulent airplane flight can understand the current atmosphere in education and recognize the critical role decision-making plays in maintaining the social equilibrium of the organization.

The most successful leaders have upped the ante given today's social context by firmly grasping the contextual forces that created the turbulence and utilizing formal rationalistic models of decision-making to address them.

The feedback I received on Decision Provenance: A Transparent Line of Sight, provoked this follow-up piece in response. Primarily, I was asked how unbounded the process of Decision Analysis is and how do I control for bias. The short answer is by assembling a diverse team of highly-qualified group members to identify the alternatives and determine the selection criteria and their relative importance (each set of criteria is assigned a weight from 1-10).

The theoretical frames that undergird the Decision Analysis process are grounded in objective rationality. The process is designed to mitigate the impact of emotions in decision making.

It places a high premium on the front end, loading the decision-making team with knowledge. Central to that knowledge is the value of each potential outcome and its consequences. Of course, all rational decision-making models are limited by the perils of predicting the causal chain of consequences (the butterfly effect). Decision-making models are further limited by the social context given the complexities of social sector decisions-making during highly politicized times.


When it comes to decision-making, one size does not fit all. The strategy and subsequent process used will depend on the decision context. A natural connection exists between the four rational process I've been describing. But a natural connection also exists between rational processes and intuitive processes, often referred to as naturalistic processes.

Intuition is baked into the rational decision-making process by virtue of what the members and the facilitator bring to the table.

Domain specific knowledge, developed through extensive experience, taps into the wells of perceptions and mental databases. Experts in decision-making employ analytics but rely on intuition. The powerful combination of analytics and intuition separate the experts from the novices. For more on this idea read, Intuitive Decision-Making: Going with the Gut. If you like baseball you'll appreciate its allegorical purpose in the essay.

Intuitive strategies inform the rational decision-making process through what Aristotle called “phronesis,” or practical wisdom, popularly exemplified in the Clint Eastwood directed movie, Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Captain "Sully" Sullenberger.

Known as the “Miracle on the Hudson," Captain Sullenberger saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew by gliding his stalled plane onto the Hudson River. Like Sully, what comes naturally to experienced leaders is the result of experience and expertise. The COVID-era, marked by mass resignations and retirements of experienced superintendents and other executive level leaders (read Succession Planning in the Era of the Superintendent Exodus for more on this topic) is an example of a causal chain of consequences that is easy to predict as it has unfolded before our eyes in the last couple of years.

The next generation of education leaders will benefit from a highly refined decision-making skill set while they are accumulating the experience necessary to develop domain specific knowledge. There are no short cuts.

I am currently in the process of utilizing Decision Analysis to determine the best option among four alternatives (i.e. Sale, Lease, Repurpose, or Rehabilitate) for a district-owned property that no longer serves its intended purpose. We have appointed a district advisory committee (A “7-11” committee - so named for the minimum and maximum number of committee members prescribed by statute) to advise the governing board regarding the disposition of this property. Assembling a 7-11 Committee preserves the integrity of the Decision Analysis process by ensuring a diverse group of internal and external members participate. The process itself binds and bonds its members in productive ways. The meetings are public and subject to the Brown Act.


Codifying decision-making is difficult because of the complexities and nuances of each situation. I use an established process because if I've learned anything from almost 30 years of education leadership, it's the importance of purposefully examining each situation. It takes time, but when issues are properly mediated through discussion and suitably framed (determining the appropriate frames to use in a given situation depends on context, but my go-to is Bolman and Deal's Four Frames Model), it's the most useful system I have found to ensure that all decisions are collaborative and reflect the mission and purpose at the heart of my organizations.

Situation Appraisal is the most useful of the many methods I have studied and have relied on to untangle the divergent elements, opinions, priorities, and possibilities of a given situation or complex issue.

Decision-making in the current era should be thoughtful and evidenced-based and the entire process must be documented for public consumption, regardless of whether the decision is subject to the Open Meeting Act. Every decision that a public entity makes has implications and often unintended consequences too. The thoroughness of the process to frame the work, engage stakeholders, and create a paper trail cannot be overstated.


Consider these decision-making skill sets tools of confidence.




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