Quick Decision Making – the RPD Way

There are times when a snap but critical decision has to be made and you’re the individual in the time and place to make it.  Klein’s theory of rapid decision making can then be relevant and helpful.  But how relevant and helpful depends on the situation, the decision maker and the kind of decision to be made.

Psychologist Gary Klein studied people working in military and fire fighting situations where quick decision making is often essential and frequently critical. From his research Klein felt traditional models of decision making didn’t take into account the actual decision making processes he found in real world ‘operational settings’.

He scathingly observed that much traditional decision making theory was derived from:

“laboratory studies that rely on naïve subjects performing relatively context-free tasks under little time pressure and static task conditions”

His questioning of the practical relevance of laboratory research to the complexities of real life decision making remains a wise caution! Broad sweeping conclusions are still being drawn from some of the latest tightly structured and controlled laboratory research involving decisions of no real importance.

With traditional theories the focus was on considering several possible solutions which would then be analysed and compared against one another to identify the best one.

The discrepancy between Klein’s observations of operational decision making and laboratory led theory led him to create the RPD or Recognition Primed Decision model. Rather than analysis, RPD is based on recognition. Identifying the first workable option rather than the best option is the aim.

Instead of comparing different options for their strengths and weaknesses to choose the best, Klein found fire fighters would play out (by a process of mental simulation) one potentially good enough option at a time, to find the first that would work. RPD is about ‘satisficing’ – deciding quickly on a good enough workable solution. It is not about searching for the optimum option which could take too long when a quick decision is called for.

When RPD is useful

Time, or rather very little time, is the key factor in whether the RPD approach is relevant and useful. This can be in critical or emergency situations when rapid action is required, or perhaps in more routine circumstances when a decision doesn’t merit lengthy deliberation. It’s not necessarily a recipe for success when time is short because you’ve procrastinated and left making a decision till the last possible minute!

RPD is a decision making process that works well for people operating in a field in which they have substantial experience

Limitations of RPD

Generally, even in emergencies, the RPD process requires some relevant experience and expertise. Klein’s research found that less experienced fire fighters lacked the confidence to base their decisions on their assessment of the situation and were more likely to use traditional decision making processes with evaluation of competing options.

He was initially surprised to discover attempts to train people directly in the theory of the RPD process didn’t work. It was only as they gained experience on the job that rookie fire fighters gained the capacity to make quick decisions using RPD effectively. It’s a description of decision making in action not a prescription. As experience is gained RPD seems to become a natural way of making generally good quick decisions. Relevant experience come first, use of RPD follows.

Quick Conclusions

RPD is a model rooted in the here and now. The focus of the decision making process is on assessing the situation, not creating a range of potential options. It can be a great methodology when decisions are about the crucial next step, not about the achievement of goals in a longer termed future.

To prepare yourself, or others for critical situations, where making a quick decision would be crucial, remembering the RPD method, although helpful, won’t be enough. You’ll need to know what to look out for in assessing the situation, and be familiar with two or three normally appropriate courses of action. With in depth experience you may naturally use RPD to make quick decisions anyway. Without that experience, repeated rehearsal of emergency situations you want to prepare for seems your best bet. Then if you’re actually faced with an emergency you’ll be able to swiftly gauge the situation and quickly play out in your mind how well what seems the most appropriate option is likely to work. If good enough then go for it, if not move straight on to the next one.

Klein’s RPD theory of decision making was a brilliant step away from theories based on logical ideals or derived from rigidly circumscribed laboratory experiments. It acknowledged the mastery of experienced professionals making critical decisions in the heat of the moment. But unless you have expertise in a particular area and face tight time pressure RPD may not be that relevant.

There’s perhaps also a hidden danger in relying on RPD exclusively, even though it might get you quick good enough results. Without taking the time to review how some decisions ​have been made from a fresh perspective, habitually drawing on a track record of experience might be blocking awareness of even better options you weren’t yet aware of!

When it’s not an emergency, could Decision Treehouse help you save time in making that important decision?