Strategic Decision Making: Process perspectives


Strategic decision making: Process perspectives
Said Elbanna

This paper reviews the strategic decision-making process literature with respect to the
synoptic formalism/political incrementalism debate. Procedural rationality is chosen as a
representative of the synoptic formalism perspective; and both intuitive synthesis and
political behaviour are employed as representatives of the political-incrementalism
perspective. In this paper, the author discusses the theoretical underpinnings of these three
process dimensions, as well as the key research efforts gathered together under each
perspective. In conducting this review, a number of areas have been identified which could
profitably be examined further, and a number of implications for managers will be
highlighted and discussed

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Dean and Sharfman (1996, 379–380) describe
strategic decisions as: ‘committing substantial

resources, setting precedents, and creating waves
of lesser decisions (Mintzberg et al. 1976);
as ill-structured, non-routine and complex
(Schwenk 1988); and as substantial, unusual
and all pervading (Hickson et al. 1986)’. Some
of the characteristics of strategic decisions are
as follows. Strategic decisions are the responsibility of top management. They reflect the
interaction between an organization and its
environment and show how an organization
manages this relationship (Ginsberg 1988).
They may be formal or informal and can be
both intended and emergent (Pennings 1985).
They are embedded in both the inner context
(e.g. psychological, structural, cultural and
political factors) and the outer context of the
organization (e.g. competitive factors) (Pettigrew
1992). They deal with concerns which are
essential to the livelihood and survival of the
organization and usually involve a large proportion of the organization’s resources; and they
typically address issues which are unusual for
the organization rather than issues which lend
themselves to routine decision-making (Stahl
and Grigsby 1992). They are difficult to define
or to assess in terms of performance; they are
associated with different trade-offs and risk;
they are interrelated to other decisions in
the organization and set precedents for subsequent ones; they are political and carry high
levels of uncertainty; they rarely have one best
solution and, once a decision is made, it is
difficult to reverse (Wilson 2003).
It should be noted that a decision which is
considered strategic in one industry may be
less strategic or not strategic at all in another
2 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006
Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
(Hickson et al. 1986). For example, a decision
to introduce a new product (e.g. a car) in the
automotive industry can be a strategic one;
while the decision to introduce a new product
(e.g. a children’s toy) in a factory which produces hundreds of new toys every year may
not be a strategic one.
The study of strategic decision-making has
long been of interest to both scholars and
executives (Ireland and Miller 2004). Research
into strategic decision-making has often been
divided into two categories: ‘content research’
and ‘process research’. Content research deals
with issues of strategy content such as portfolio
management, diversification, mergers and the
alignment of firm strategies with environmental
characteristics. Process research, however, deals
with the process by which a strategic decision
is made and implemented and the factors which
affect it. For example, it concentrates on the way
in which managers influence the firm’s strategic
position through the strategic decision-making
process (SDMP) that they use.
Although the body of research over the last
two decades indicates the domination of the
research agenda by content issues, while process issues have received less attention, there is
at present renewed interest in process research
(Rajagopalan et al. 1997). This interest is still
maintained. It should be borne in mind that
these two categories are complementary, not
alternatives, and that content research can
significantly influence the direction of process
research and vice versa (Mintzberg and Waters
1985). For the purposes of this paper, we
focus on the second approach, namely, process
While strategy process research covers a broad
range of issues, this review focuses on the SDMP,
an area of process research which deals with the
question of how strategic decisions are made.
Therefore, SD implementation is beyond the
scope of the present review.
This paper is organized as follows. First, we
discuss research on two specific perspectives
which differentiate the SDMP. These are the
synoptic formalism and the political incrementalism perspectives. Based on a careful
examination of the theoretical and empirical
literature on these two perspectives, procedural
rationality is chosen as a representative of
the synoptic formalism perspective; and both
intuitive synthesis and political behaviour are
employed as representatives of the politicalincrementalism perspective. Second, the author
discusses the theoretical underpinnings of these
three process dimensions as well as the key
research efforts gathered together under
each perspective. Third, this paper suggests a
number of areas which could profitably be
examined further. These areas address implications for theory building, methodology and
Synoptic and Incremental Perspectives
Two basic types of models pervade the literature on the SDMP, i.e. the synoptic formalism
model and the political incrementalism model
(Goll and Rasheed 1997; Johnson 1988). Synoptic formalism is considered an extension of
the traditional rational model; and analysis is
its basic feature. In contrast to synoptic formalism are incrementalism (Lindblom 1959),
logical incrementalism (Quinn 1980) or political incrementalism, as Mueller (1998) calls
it; this clarifies the way in which organizations actually make strategic decisions.
These three terms, i.e. incrementalism, logical
incrementalism and political incrementalism,
are not identical. For example, Fredrickson
and Mitchell’s (1984) discussion of incremental processes does not address the political
aspects of decision-making processes, while
Eisenhardt and Zbaracki (1992) conclude that
the political perspective provides a compelling description of the way in which managers
actually make decisions. Quinn’s ‘logical
incrementalism’ differs from Lindblom’s
incrementalism or ‘muddling through’ in that
it combines elements of rational planning with
elements of incrementalism (Papadakis and
Barwise 1997). Although there are some differences between these three terms, they are
often offered as the antithesis to synoptic
formalism or as simply a more accurate
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characterization of the way in which organizations make strategic decisions in reality.
Researchers have discussed many dimensions of the SDMP in the bulky intellectual
literature of strategic decision-making. The
rationality of decision-making processes has
received a central place in strategic decisionmaking theory and practice (Papadakis and
Barwise 1997). Political behaviour among
decision-makers has long been recognized as
an aspect of decision-making (e.g. Child and
Tsai 2005; Wilson 2003) and has received a
great deal of attention from researchers (Schwenk 1995). Although there is little empirical
research on intuition in strategic decision
literature, making decisions by intuition is
increasingly viewed as a viable approach in
the SDMP (Miller and Ireland 2005; SadlerSmith and Shefy 2004). Eisenhardt and
Zbaracki (1992) point out that studying intuition is one way to create a more realistic view
of the SDMP. Butler (2002) concludes that
more recent research has emphasized how
executives make decisions using intuitive and
political processes in addition to rational procedures.
Given the above, in addition to the fact that
reconciling synoptic and incremental perspectives is a desirable if not imperative matter for
increasing the effectiveness of the SDMP
(Camillus 1982), both these perspectives are
addressed together in the present review.
The next two sections will address the concept
and role of rationality in strategic decisionmaking in turn.
The Concept of Rationality in
‘Rationality is the reason for doing something
and to judge a behaviour as reasonable is to be
able to say that the behaviour is understandable within a given frame of reference’ (Butler
2002, 226). Put another way, rationality characterizes that behaviour which is logical in
pursuing goals (Dean and Sharfman 1993b).
This broad conception underlies many social
science models of rationality.
Given the historical evolution of rationality,
scholars developed some constructs of rationality to be distinguished from more global
conceptions of rationality, which have overtones of decision-maker omniscience (Simon
1978). These constructs represent measures of
the extent to which the SDMP approximates
the rational model of decision-making (see
Table 1). In this case, decision-makers are
rational to the limits of their own capabilities
(i.e. bounded rationality); as Snyman and Drew
(2003) stress, bounded rationality emphasizes
the decision-making process which is limited
by cognitive and political realities. Given these
limitations, decision-makers aim to achieve
objectives which are ‘good enough rather than
the best’ (Eisenhardt 1997, 1).
Although these constructs all derive from
the rational model of decision-making, there
are many differences between them. Authors
have used different labels in measuring rationality. Moreover, studies which use the same
label may use different indicators to operationalize it. For example, Khatri (1994) uses
comprehensiveness as one indicator of what
he calls strategic rationality. He measures
this indicator as a whole, using one item of a
Likert-type scale, while both Fredrickson and
Mitchell (1984) and Jones et al. (1992) divide
comprehensiveness into two components:
analytical and integrative. Although both
Fredrickson and Mitchell and Jones et al. divide
comprehensiveness into the same two components and define them in a similar way, they
operationalize them differently.
Rationality and Strategic Decision-making
Eisenhardt and Zbaracki (1992) argue that
the debate over whether decision-makers are
rational or boundedly rational is no longer
very controversial, where empirical research
clearly supports the following. First, the existence of cognitive limits to the rational model
of decision-making; Janis (1989), for example,
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Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
points out that executives are likely to take
any of the following decision shortcuts to
overcome cognitive limitations, namely, satisficing, simple decisions rules, incrementalism
and the nutshell briefing rule. Second, the
pursuit by many strategic decision-makers of
the basic phases of problem identification,
development and selection, but they cycle and
recycle through the various stages of decisionmaking, frequently repeating, often going
deeper, and always following different paths
by fits and starts. Third, the complexity of the
problem and the conflict among the decisionmakers often influence the shape of the decision
Jones  et al.  (1992) identify three main
obstacles to adopting rational decision processes. First, the organization may lack the
required resources to search for and analyse
the relevant information. For example, it has
been argued that the rational model assumes
that information will be available when
needed but neglects the cost of providing this
information (Braybrooke and Lindblom 1970).
However, even if the organization has the
required resources, the comprehensive processes may lead to ‘achieving tomorrow’s
solution to yesterday’s problem’ (Braybrooke
and Lindblom 1970, 121). Second, as noted
above, the decision-makers may have limited
cognitive capabilities. Third, executives may
be apprehensive about upsetting the organization’s existing political structure and dealing
with its consequences.
The relationship between rational decision
processes and organizational outcomes seems
to be problematic, because it has been a subject
of continuing controversy among researchers,
and no consensus has yet emerged (Goll and
Rasheed 1997). Empirical evidence exists for
all possible relationships between rationality
and organizational outcomes: positive relationships, negative relationships and no relationship (see Table 2).
Fredrickson and his colleagues conducted a
series of studies on this relation. They found
a negative relationship between rationality
and performance in an unstable environment
Table 1. Constructs and conceptualizations of rationality
Construct of
rationality Conceptualization
Langley (1989) Formal analysis Written documents reporting the results of some systematic study
of a specific issue
Kukalls (1991) Planning
The completeness of the strategic planning process and the number
of areas in which strategic planning is applied (e.g. capital
spending, investment planning and new product development)
Dean and Sharfman
The extent to which the decision process involves the collection of
information relevant to the decision and the reliance upon
analysis of this information in making the choice
Khatri (1994) Strategic rationality An explicit (formal), systematic and analytical approach to
Schwenk (1995) Decisional
The extent to which decision-makers follow a systematic process
in reaching carefully thought-out goals
Fredrickson (1984);
Papadakis et al. (1998)
Comprehensiveness The extent to which organizations attempt to be exhaustive or
inclusive in making and integrating strategic decisions
Butler (2002) Rationality The reason for doing something and to judge a behaviour as
reasonable is to be able to say that the behaviour is
understandable within a given frame of reference
Hough (2005) and
Hough and White (2003)
Availability and
Availability captures the degree to which the available cues
were known by the team when they made their decisions.
High availability indicates that the team had a great deal of
knowledge about the issue. Pervasiveness assesses to what extent
all team members were informed of the available information
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Table 2. A summary of empirical research: rationality
Description Major findings Sample Design
Analysis (level of
Fredrickson and
Mitchell (1984)
Fredrickson (1984)
109 executives in an
152 executives in a
stable environment
Experiment; cross-sectional;
scenario-based structured
Correlation (decisionlevel)
The relationship between
comprehensiveness and
Comprehensive processes are positively
related to performance in a stable
environment and negatively in an
unstable environment
Fredrickson and
Iaquinto (1989)
159 executives in
both stable and
Experiment; longitudinal Correlation and
multiple regression
The relationship between
comprehensiveness and
Comprehensiveness exhibits considerable
Fredrickson (1985) 321 MBA students
and 116 executives
Laboratory study; crosssectional; scenario-based
structured interviews
The effect of decision motive
and performance on SDMP
Variation in decision motives and
performance level affects the decision
processes recommended by inexperienced
Bourgeois and
Eisenhardt (1988)
Four computer firms A multiple case;
a multi-method
Content analysis
How do executives make
strategic decisions?
The more rational SDMP, the better
performance of the firm
Langley (1989) Three Canadian
Case studies; longitudinal; a
Content analysis
The purposes behind the use
of formal analysis
Four purposes of formal analysis:
information, communication, symbolic
and control
Jones et al. (1992) 70 international
Field study; cross-sectional;
mail survey
The relationship between
rationality and organizational
A positive relationship
Dean and
Sharfman (1993a)
57 strategic
Field study; cross-sectional;
structured interviews
Multiple regression
The conditions affecting
procedural rationality
Competitive threat, external control and
decision uncertainty are related to
procedural rationality
Khatri (1994) 241 companies in
three industries
Field study; cross-sectional;
a multi-method
Correlation; ANOVA
The role of rationality in
Rationality is positively related to
performance in a stable environment
Dean and
Sharfman (1996)
52 strategic
Field study; longitudinal;
structured interviews
Multiple regression
The relationship between
procedural rationality and
decision effectiveness
Procedural rationality is positively related
to decision effectiveness
Goll and Rasheed
62 large
manufacturing firms
Field study; cross-sectional;
mail survey
Correlation; multiple
The influence of environment
on the relationship between
rationality and performance
Rationality is associated with
performance in highly munificent and
dynamic environments.
Papadakis (1998) 38 manufacturing
Field study; cross-sectional;
a multi-method
Pearson correlation
The relationship between
performance and rationality
A positive relationship
Papadakis et al.
As that of Papadakis
As that of Papadakis (1998) Multiple regression;
factor analysis
(decision level)
The relationship between
contextual perspectives and
Rationality is affected by both decisionspecific characteristics and internal
Hough and White
400 decisions Simulation One way analysis of
variance; correlation;
logistics regression
(decision level)
The moderating role of
Dynamism may moderate the relationship
between rationality and decision quality.
Hough (2005) 749 executives Simulation A structured
equation model
(decision level)
How cognitive style affects
strategic decision outcomes
Intuiting/thinking managers used their
intuition to make cognitive leaps based
on objective information
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Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
(Fredrickson and Mitchell 1984). A positive
relationship was found in a stable environment (Fredrickson 1984). Through a longitudinal extension of these studies, Fredrickson
and Iaquinto (1989) find that levels of rationality exhibit considerable inertia. Contrary to
Fredrickson and his colleagues, Dean and
Sharfman (1996) hypothesize that the relationship between procedural rationality and
decision effectiveness will be stronger in
unstable environments than in stable ones.
Bourgeois and Eisenhardt (1988) find a positive relationship between rationality and performance for firms in a high-velocity
environment. Further empirical support for
this position is provided by Goll and Rasheed
(1997), Judge and Miller (1991), Miller and
Friesen (1983) and Priem et al. (1995).
On the basis of a review of relevant previous theory and research, we suggest seven
possible reasons for the contradictory results
of previous studies, listed below.
(1) A lack of clear and systematic treatment of
environmental variables: In the sense of
focusing on some environmental variables
(e.g. uncertainty) and failing to consider
the effect of others (e.g. hostility, munificence and complexity) (Dess and Beard
1984). For example, environmental complexity may need to be rationally treated in
decision-making so as to understand the
different environmental variables which
affect the decision.
(2) Conducting research in different cultures:
For example, consensual decision-making
is more common among Japanese managers than among US managers because
of the great emphasis that Japanese culture
places on consensus (Rajagopalan et al.
1993). Some authors have provided empirical support for the need to take the effect
of culture into account when conducting
research on strategic decisions in different
cultures (e.g. Brouthers et al. 2000).
(3) Failure to include other strategic process
variables: Although the SDMP is multidimensional, most of the existing studies
have focused only on rationality, whereas
these studies have paid less attention to
other process characteristics (e.g. participation and politics) (Papadakis  et al.
1998). As a result, these studies do not
totally capture the complexity and variety
of the phenomenon of decision-making
(Hart and Banbury 1994).
(4) Methodological differences: There are many
methodological differences between previous studies, such as data collection
methods, variation in sample size, statistical techniques, type of industry and
number of industries.
(5) Variations in the operationalization of the
SDMP dimensions: Scholars use different
constructs of rationality. Although these
constructs are derived from the rational
model of decision-making, there are many
differences among them (see Table 1). For
example, Kukalls (1991) declares that one
of the reasons for the contradictions
between his results and those of Fredrickson and Mitchell (1984) is the use of a
different conceptualization of the planning
comprehensiveness construct. In their
comparison of six prior studies concerning
the relationship between rationality and
firm performance, Priem et al. (1995) find
wide differences between these studies in
the operationalization of both rationality
and performance.
(6) Variations in the level of analysis: Some
authors focus on organizational level and
investigate organizational performance
(e.g. Fredrickson and Mitchell 1984);
while some choose decision-level as a
focus instead of organizational level and
examine decision outcomes (e.g. Butler
et al. 1993).
(7) Failure to investigate more complex
relationships: For example, Rodrigues
and Hickson (1995) report that successful
decisions were more likely to result from
decision processes for which resources
were available. According to Rodrigues
and Hickson, resources refer to quantity
and timeliness of resources (e.g. money,
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materials and technology), and the quantity,
timeliness and accuracy of information.
On the basis of this, one may argue that
the success of a decision is a function of
the availability of both resources, such as
money, material and technology (a product
of good performance), and information
(a dimension of rationality). These findings may suggest a positive interaction
between rationality and performance which,
in turn, influences strategic decision
In summary, the above arguments on the
possible reasons for the contradictory results
of previous studies should be considered by
researchers when interpreting and comparing
their results with earlier ones.
Political Behaviour
‘Since, strategic decisions are made among
people by people for people they are a welter
of action, interaction, and counteraction’
(Hickson et al. 1986, 54). The interaction of
interests, conflict and power means that the
SDMP can be characterized as political in nature
(Wilson 2003). The origin of the political
perspective on strategic decision-making is the
political science literature of the 1950s, when
various authors developed a view that the
conflicting goals and interests of people affect
decision-making in government (Eisenhardt
and Zbaracki 1992). This view assumes that
decisions are the result of a process in which
decision-makers have different goals, form
alliances to achieve their goals, and the
preferences of the most powerful prevail.
The political model attacks the model of
the group as rational (Eisenhardt 1997). As
a group, people may share some objectives,
such as the welfare of the organization, but
they have conflicting preferences and interests
which arise from different expectations of the
future, different positions inside the organization and clashes. For example, some may be
interested in growth, while others may favour
profitability (Allison 1971).
The Concept of Political Behaviour in
There is a lack of uniformity in defining politics.
Gandz and Murray (1980, 237) divide definitions of politics into two categories. In the first
category, politics are defined in ‘a “neutral”
fashion as the occurrence of certain forms of
behaviour associated with the use of power
or influence’. Within this category, there are
three subdivisions. The first one considers
any conflict over scarce resources as political
behaviour. The second subdivision expands
the definition of politics to include conflict over
any policy decision. Lastly, some broaden
the definition to include any use of power or
influence. The second category defines politics
in terms of consciously self-serving behaviours
against others in the organization.
The political behaviour may reflect power
which is technically considered illegal.
Consequently, it is divisive and conflictive,
often pitting people against the other system
of influence, i.e. formal authority, accepted
ideology and/or authorized expertise, or else
against each other (Mintzberg and Waters
1985). Political behaviour as a part of human
behaviour in decision-making seeks to ‘get
others to do what we want, when they might
not elect to do so’ (MacMillan and Jones
1986, 1).
In strategic decision-making, researchers see
political behaviour from two points of view.
On the one hand, there are the authors who
are interested in examining politics inside
organizations. From this perspective, there
are two categories. The first category inspects
politics among organizational members. It
investigates political tactics among the actors;
and their attempts to affect the outcomes of
decision processes to serve their self-interests.
In addition, it examines the relationship between
political dynamics and organizational outcomes
(e.g. Dean and Sharfman 1996). The second
one investigates politics among organizational
units; and the acquisition by these units of the
power to influence the decision process (e.g.
Pfeffer and Moore 1980).
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Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
On the other hand, there are the authors
who use a broad approach to include all kinds
of influence on decision processes from both
internal actors (organizational members and/
or organizational units) and external parties
(e.g. government agencies and customers)
(e.g. Mintzberg  et al.  1976). What ties
together the above two points of view is the
belief of the individuals, whether they are
working inside or outside the organization,
that they will be affected by the decision outcomes. For this reason, they attempt to satisfy
their personal or institutional needs by influencing the decision process.
Political Behaviour and Strategic
Many researchers have been interested in
investigating the role of political behaviour in
the SDMP and its effect on organizational
outcomes (see Table 3). Hickson et al. (1986)
argue that not every executive or unit within
the organization essentially affects the decisionmaking processes where they are influenced
only by a specified set of interest units or
executives, i.e. ‘decision-set’. The decisionset of interests brings political tactics into
decision-making to exert influence upon the
decision processes in order to ensure that their
objectives are embedded in the decision.
Some of these tactics which have been
addressed by previous authors are: coalition
formation (e.g. Child and Tsai 2005); agenda
control (e.g. Eisenhardt and Zbaracki 1992);
tactics of timing (e.g. Hickson et al. 1986);
the use of outside expert consultants (e.g.
Pfeffer 1992); negotiation or bargaining
(e.g. Papadakis 1998); the use of power (e.g.
Krishnan and Park 2003); and tactics of information such as manipulation and control of
crucial information (e.g. Pettigrew 1973).
Most previous researchers have supported a
negative relationship between political behaviour and organizational outcomes (e.g. Dean
and Sharfman 1996; Gandz and Murray
1980). The following reasons may help to
account for this negative relationship.
First, political tactics contrast with the
straightforward influencing tactics of open
discussions and sharing information among
decision-makers (Eisenhardt and Bourgeois
1988). For example, politics may lead to
a distortion of information (Pfeffer 1992).
Moreover, political behaviour often involves
restricting the information flow (Pettigrew
1973). Therefore, managers may make decisions depending on incomplete information
which could lead to disappointing outcomes
(Dean and Sharfman 1996).
Second, political decision processes are
divisive and therefore time-consuming. Therefore, they may lead to delay for the decision,
with a possible loss of opportunities and profits (Pfeffer 1992). This problem will be more
obvious in competitive and rapidly changing
environments in which decisions should be
made fast (Eisenhardt 1989).
Third, as argued by Dean and Sharfman
(1996), political behaviour may lead to incomplete understanding of the environmental
constraints, resulting in the undermining of
strategic decision effectiveness in two ways.
First, political tactics are directed towards the
interests, power bases and positions inside the
organization rather than towards what is feasible, given the present environmental forces.
Hence, decisions which result from such processes are less likely to consider environmental
constraints. Second, political processes may
exclude some feasible alternatives because
they are in conflict with powerful individuals’
interests, undermining the likely success of
strategic decisions.
In contrast to rationality, there is little in the
way of applied research on intuitive processes
in the strategic decision literature. The majority of serious scholarly works on this subject
are theoretical in nature and produced almost
exclusively by psychologists; empirical research
in applied management settings is quite limited
(Agor 1989c), and this scarcity has persisted
until recently. Therefore, the extent to which
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Table 3. A summary of empirical research: political behaviour
Description Major findings Sample Design Analysis (level of analysis)
Pfeffer and
The University of
A case study; longitudinal;
a multi-method
Correlation; multiple
regression (organization-level)
The effect of subunit power
on resource allocation
Powerful departments get more of
scarce resources
Gandz and
Murray (1980)
428 graduates and
MBA students
Field study; cross-sectional;
mail survey
Content analysis; K-W ANOVA;
Friedman test; correlation
Managers’ perceptions of
Politics are pervasive and detrimental
to organizational effectiveness
Pfeffer and
Moore (1980)
Two campuses of a
A case study; longitudinal;
a multi-method
Correlation; multiple
regression (organization-level)
A model of budgeting in a
Budget allocations were a function of
student enrolment and department
Hickson et al.
150 strategic
Case studies; longitudinal; a
Content, correlation and
discriminant analyses (decisionlevel)
The influence of interest
units on SDMP
SDMP is influenced by a wide variety
of interesting units
Eisenhardt and
Bourgeois (1988)
Eight computer firms A multiple case;
longitudinal; a multimethod
Content analysis (organizationlevel)
Political behaviour of SDMP Politics arise from power
centralization; they are associated
with poor performance.
Dean and
61 strategic decisions Field study; cross-sectional;
structured interviews
Factor analysis (decision-level) The relationship between
political behaviour and
Political behaviour and rationality are
independent dimensions of the SDMP
Dean and
52 strategic decisions Field study; multiple-
respondents; longitudinal
Multiple regression (decisionlevel)
The relationship between
political behaviour and
decision effectiveness
A negative relationship
Eisenhardt et al.
12 technology-based
A multiple case;
longitudinal; a multimethod
Content analysis (organizationlevel)
The interplay of conflict,
politics and speed in SDMP
Successful strategic decisions are most
likely to be made by teams which
promote active and broad conflict
over issues without sacrificing speed
Papadakis (1998) 70 strategic decisions Field study; cross-sectional;
a multi-method
Correlation; (decision-level) The relationship between
political activities and
individual performance
Some interesting correlations but
with no clear pattern
Nutt (1998) 317 strategic
Field study; longitudinal; a
ANOVA; a Duncan test;
content analysis (decisionlevel)
The tactics used to evaluate
Political tactics (bargaining) were
rarely used but highly successful
Simmers (1998) 140 senior officers Field study; cross-sectional;
a multi-method
Correlation; factor analysis;
multiple regression
The relationship between
politics and outcomes
Different relationships between
collaborative politics and outcome
Papadakis et al.
As that of Papadakis
As that of Papadakis (1998) Multiple regression; factor
analysis (decision-level)
The relationship between
contextual perspectives and
Politics are mainly influenced by
decision-specific and firm
Papadakis et al.
An important Greek
chemical company
Case history; longitudinal; a
Content analysis (decisionlevel)
Strategic decision-making
from a crisis to an
Different motives lead to different
processes of decision-making
Hickson et al.
(2003); Miller et
al. (2004)
55 strategic decisions Case studies; longitudinal; a
Content, correlation and factor
analyses (decision-level)
Strategies for successfully
implementing strategic
Executives should communicate
effectively with the key stakeholders
in the implementation process to
avoid political tactics.
Child and Tsai
Three multinational
corporations and
four local firms
Case studies; longitudinal; a
Content analysis (organizationlevel)
The dynamic between
firms’ environmental
strategies and institutional
Multinational corporations take
political initiatives through public
relations, co-optation and collective
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executives use intuition in strategic decisionmaking remains a topic for future research.
This review addresses this neglected but
important process (intuitive synthesis) in
the SDMP in the hope of providing a more
realistic view of the way in which strategic
decisions-makers actually act.
The Concept of Intuition in
It is difficult to describe intuition, but it is
easy to recognize (Sadler-Smith and Shefy
2004). Eisenhardt and Zbaracki (1992) state
that intuition refers to more incremental adaptations based on deep and intimate knowledge
of the situation faced by decision-makers.
Intuition is a synthetic psychological function
in that it apprehends the totality of a given
situation. It is often associated with having
a hunch or a strong feeling of knowing what
is going to occur (Vaughan 1989) without
explaining the rationale behind it (Nutt 1998).
Butler (2002) argues that most models of
intuition can be seen as ways of trying to push
the decision process as far as possible towards
the computational strategy. Parikh (1994)
observes that intuition could be a form of
intelligence which decision-makers can use
when they cannot access rational processes.
Sadler-Smith and Shefy (2004, 76) argue
that intuition can now be understood as ‘a
composite phenomenon involving interplay
between knowing (intuition-as-expertise) and
sensing (intuition-as-feeling)’. Similarly, in
their review of intuition in strategic decisionmaking, Miller and Ireland (2005) mention
that intuition can be conceptualized as automated expertise and as holistic hunch.
Khatri and Ng (2000) suggest that intuition
is: subconscious; complex; quick; a component of all decisions; not emotional; and
not essentially biased. Moreover, they propose
three indicators of intuition, namely, reliance
on judgement, reliance on experience and the
use of gut feeling. These indicators have been
widely addressed by previous studies and will
be discussed in turn.
(1) Reliance on judgement: Decision-makers
use intuitive synthesis when decisions
should be made fast, information is not
adequate, and there is no precedent.
Such situations call for judgement. Butler
(2002) argues that judgement is central to
the process of solution building. Daft and
Lengel (1986) propose that, if work is
not analysable, managers have to employ
judgement and experience rather than computational routines. Bunge (1975) suggests
that judgement is a part of intuition, while
Simon (1987) treats intuition and judgement as synonymous concepts.
(2) Reliance on experience: Intuitive synthesis
represents a form of experience which is
based on a deep knowledge of problems
related to a specific job or environment
(Prietula and Simon 1989). Agor (1989a)
finds a relationship between good intuitive
decisions and the numbers of years of
experience. Wally and Baum (1994) point
out that intuition is an ability to learn from
experience. Depending on semi-structured
telephone interviews with 60 managers
across different industries and geographic
locations in the US, 56% of interviewees
thought that intuitive decisions were based
on experience (Burke and Miller 1999). In
his study of the tactics used by decisionmakers to evaluate alternatives during
strategic decision-making in 317 organizations, Nutt (1998) identifies four types of
evaluation tactics: analytical, bargaining,
judgmental and subjective. In the judgmental tactics, ‘choices were made intuitively by the decision-makers, drawing on
their prior experience or knowledge of
the situation’ (Nutt 1998, 349). Floyd and
Lane (2000) argue that decisions to acquire
needed assets are initiated at operating
levels by managers experimenting with
novel solutions to emerging problems.
Based on their knowledge of the organization’s context, middle managers assess
the long-term implications of such experiments, and they advocate the most promising ones as initiatives to top management.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006 11
March 2006
(3) Use of ‘gut-feeling’: Parikh (1994) describes
intuition as a process of feeling out the
problem or trusting one’s gut feeling.
Therefore, if the decision which is founded
on intuition turns out to be wrong, decisionmakers will have no defence because they
cannot articulate the reasons on which the
decision was based (Schoemaker and Russo
1993). Decision-makers simply know that
they are right, or they have a strong feeling
about the decision. In Burke and Miller’s
(1999) study, 40% of the subjects mention
that intuition is based on a person’s feelings
or emotions. They declare that this characterization is consistent with the interpretation of intuition as a gut feeling.
In conclusion, in contrast to rationality and
political behaviour, there is little in the way of
the operationalization of the intuitive processes
in the strategic decision-making literature.
As a result, the concept of intuition is still
‘unrefined and poorly understood’ (Clarke
and Mackaness 2001); and scholars who have
explored it have widely different perspectives
about what it actually is and how it works.
As Miller and Ireland (2005, 29) suggest,
‘intuition presents itself as a troubling tool’.
Therefore, any exploration you conduct of the
existing literature on intuitive synthesis will
leave you more than frustrated (Agor 1989b).
Intuitive Synthesis and Strategic
One of the basic assumptions about management
in general and decision-making in particular is
that rational processes yield choices which are
superior to those coming from intuitive processes.
However, this assumption has recently come
‘under fire’ (Khatri 1994). For example, Miller
and Ireland (2005) claim that many managers
embrace intuition as an effective approach to
strategic decision-making. Grant (2003) argues
that rapid change requires approaches to strategy
formulation which are ‘flexible and creative’.
Making decisions by intuition is increasingly
viewed as a viable approach in today’s business
environment, because few strategic decisions
have the advantage of complete, accurate and
timely information. The decision-making literature suggests that the evaluation of alternatives tends to be intuitive, unless managers are
forced to involve others (Nutt 1998). Burke
and Miller (1999) report that executives
outline various benefits of the use of intuition
in decision-making. These are: to expedite
decision-making; to improve ultimate decisions;
to facilitate personal development; and to promote decisions compatible with the company.
They argue that intuition may be beneficial in
certain scenarios and, at times, may be the
primary decision approach available. The reason
for this is perhaps that intuitive processes can
deal with more complex systems than those
which can be dealt with by our conscious
minds (Parikh 1994).
Papadakis and Barwise (1997) suggest that
decision-makers need to combine both rationality and intuition. Fredrickson (1985) finds
empirical evidence that managers could be
simultaneously rational and intuitive. In her
study of strategic decision-making in eight
microcomputer firms, Eisenhardt (1989) supports this notion. She finds that effective managers in these firms made strategic decisions
in a somewhat surprising way. They generated
a large number of alternatives, but did not
analyse them thoroughly. They gathered information from multiple sources, but then
focused on only a few of them. It seems that
these managers were using a combination of
rationality and intuition.
Several authors have suggested that top
executives use intuition in an unstable environment (e.g. Agor 1989a; Mintzberg 1994;
Quinn 1980), but none of them explicitly
examines whether intuition in fact has any
bearing on organizational outcomes. For
example, Eisenhardt (1989), Judge and Miller
(1991) and Wally and Baum (1994) investigate the impact of intuition on the pace of
strategic decision-making, but they do not
directly investigate the relationship between
intuitive synthesis and organizational outcomes. In one of the very few applied studies
12 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006
Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
which have addressed the role of intuition
on organizational outcomes, Khatri and Ng
(2000) find that the use of intuitive synthesis
in the SDMP is positively associated with
organizational performance in an unstable
environment, but negatively in a stable one.
Using intuition in decision-making is not
without its shortcomings or criticism. Sauter
(1999), for example, mentions that managers
using intuition may become impatient with
routine or details; and they may reach conclusions very quickly, ignore relevant facts or
follow an inspiration when it is clearly bad.
Nevertheless, Sauter suggests some methods
to manage these negative tendencies. For
example, when decision-makers use intuition,
they must understand their strengths and
weaknesses; they must assess all intuitively
obtained information using appropriate analytical tests and consider all factors carefully
without bias.
In summary, most of the few empirical
studies which have investigated the role of
intuition in the SDMP are still initial research
efforts and have some shortcomings. Eisenhardt (1989, 1990) and Bourgeois and Eisenhardt (1988), for example, showed that
intuition played a significant role in increasing
the speed of strategic decisions in a highvelocity environment. However, their results
may not be sufficiently generalizable, because
they depended on a small number of case
studies and a single industry (see Table 4).
Isenberg (1986) finds that intuition supports
managers’ efficiency by reducing the information required to make a decision. Nevertheless, the generalizability of his findings is
limited because of the small sample size and
the focus on students and general managers.
Moreover, most of these research efforts do
not clearly examine the relationship between
intuitive synthesis and organizational outcomes.
The key conclusions of this review are organized in the following way. First, we discuss
substantive extensions. Second, methodological implications are highlighted and addressed.
Finally, we suggest a number of implications
for managers.
Substantive Extensions
The synoptic and incremental debate.While
the synoptic and incremental debate has been
much contested, it has not been adequately
tested in empirical terms, and a gap is said to
separate the strategic decision researchers using
the incremental and the synoptically based
perspectives. This gap requires the SDMP to
be investigated from both perspectives. This
review shows that the strategic decisions which
companies take are not entirely based upon
one process, but may arise from a number
of processes. Therefore, the use of a multidimensional empirically grounded representation of the SDMP dimensions to examine the
process–outcome relationship (e.g. Dean and
Sharfman 1996) is an advantage over empirical efforts which focus on specific process
dimensions (e.g. Jones et al. 1992).
Implementing strategic decisions. To complete
the model of strategic decision-making and
success, one needs to include how well
decisions are implemented because of the
potentially significant impact of implementation
on strategic decision success (Baum and Wally
2003; Nutt 1993; Wilson 2003). For example,
Hickson et al. (2003) conclude that the way
decision implementation is managed appears
to be vital for decision success. Nutt (1999)
reports that half the decisions in organizations
fail. Nutt suggests that the key reasons for
failure take place predominantly during
decision implementation rather than during
Process capability.Enhancing our understanding of strategic decision-making would
require greater attention to the role of process
capability. Nutt (2004) claims that decisionmakers should generate a pool of ideas to
avoid failed decisions and in so doing expand
the search for alternatives by finding an
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006 13
March 2006
Table 4. A summary of empirical research: intuition
Description Major findings Sample Design
Analysis (level of
et al. (1976)
25 strategic
Case studies and
a multi-method
Content analysis
How organizations make
unstructured decisions
Analysis was used infrequently. Judgment
was used when managers decide without
explaining their rationale
Quinn (1980) Nine
Case studies;
a multi-method
Content analysis
How companies arrive at
strategic change
Firm is a political system. The strategy
process is typically fragmented, evolutionary,
and largely intuitive
Eight computer
A multiple case;
a multi-method
Content analysis;
How executive teams
make rapid decisions
Aided by intuition, managers can react
quickly and accurately to changing stimuli;
fast decision-makers use more information
and alternatives
Wally and
Baum (1994)
151 CEOs Scenario-based
questionnaire; crosssectional; a multi-method
LISREL analysis
Determinants of the pace
Use of intuition associated positively with
speedy decisions
Sabherwal and
King (1995)
81 companies  Field study; crosssectional; mail survey
Cluster analysis
An empirical taxonomy of
Five ways of making decisions: planned,
provincial, incremental, fluid and political
et al. (1998)
80 firms Field study; crosssectional; mail survey
Descriptive statistics
Examination of the SDMP Small firms tend to rely on intuition and at
best make moderately rational decisions
Krabuanrat and
Phelps (1998)
Five Thai-based
Case studies; longitudinal
design; in-depth
Semi invasive approach
The use of heuristics (e.g.
past experience) in
Heuristics are commonly used both
individually and in combination with
Nutt (1998) 317 strategic
Field study; longitudinal;
a multi-method
ANOVA; a Duncan test;
content analysis
The tactics used to
evaluate alternatives
Analytical tactics are widely used and most
types are quite successful. Intuitive tactics
are rarely used and successful
Khatri and Ng
221 companies Field study; crosssectional; mail survey
ANOVA and regression
analyses (decision-level)
Relationship between
intuition and performance
A positive relationship in an unstable
environment; a negative relationship in
a stable environment
Hickson et al.
(2003); Miller
et al. (2004)
55 strategic
Case studies;
a multi-method
Content, correlation
and factor analyses
Strategies for successfully
implementing strategic
Managers can plan the implementation of
strategic decision better when they have
previous similar experience (a dimension of
14 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006
Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
appropriate arena of action, using broad objectives
and searching from several perspectives.
Simon (1987) argues that it is doubtful that
decision-makers depend only on either intuition
or rationality; rather, it is more likely that there
is a continuum of decision-making styles
involving an intimate combination of the
two kinds of process. Decision-makers might
achieve a more balanced perspective by considering both intuitive and rational processes
as complementary or dual processes (SadlerSmith and Shefy 2004). For example, intuition can be brought in after rational processes
have done the groundwork and provide data
and analyses as the basis for intuitive processes (Sauter 1999).
The role of political behaviour.The following
are suggestive questions which may need to
be answered to provide academics and managers with a more realistic picture of the
dynamics of political behaviour in decisionmaking.
(1) How can managers overcome the negative
effects of political tactics? The answer
may be through improved mutual trust
(Papadakis and Barwise 1997) or common
goals, clear areas of responsibility and
humour (Eisenhardt 1999).
(2) Is political behaviour necessarily dangerous? Although most previous studies take
a negative view of politics, some authors
argue that politics may be harmful in some
situations and helpful in others (Stevenson
et al. 1985). Eisenhardt et al. (1997), for
example, argue that, in a rapidly changing
environment, politics may be beneficial
because they serve as an important mechanism for organizational adaptation. Nutt
(1998) suggests that bargaining reduces
uncertainty and increases acceptance.
Mintzberg (1998) points out that politics
should be evaluated according to their
effect on the ability of an organization to
pursue the appropriate mission efficiently
in the long term. He suggests some functional roles for politics over the SDMP
stages. In the preparation stage, politics
can ensure that all sides of the decision
are fully debated. Then, in the decisionmaking stage, politics can work as a kind
of ‘invisible underhand’ to promote a necessary change blocked by the legitimate
systems of influence. Lastly, in the execution stage, politics can ease the path for
the implementation of a strategic decision.
To answer the above questions, new conceptions and research designs need to be developed. For example, more studies such as that
of Simmers (1998) expressing and investigating a political perspective in two ways, i.e.
competitive and collaborative, can be useful
The role of the broader context.While this review tells us something about the role of
some contextual variables, e.g. environmental
uncertainty, in the SDMP, we still know little
about the role of other contextual variables in
the SDMP. For example, what is the role of
the national context in the SDMP? What is the
relationship between top management characteristics, which may affect their perceptual
and evaluational processes and the SDMP? Is
there a relationship between the time and
information available to decision-makers and
decision process? What is the role of ‘information load’ in making decisions (Huber and
Daft 1987)? Do time and information required
moderate the relationship between decision
process and outcomes? Is there a relationship
between the type of information, e.g. real
time or planning information, and the SDMP?
Does the way in which decision-makers
categorize and label a strategic decision in the
early stages of decision-making influence the
subsequent responses of the organization? Do
external actors lead to more rational or political decisions? What is the role of company
size in the context of strategic decisionmaking? Given such questions and the above
discussion, a next logical step in this line of
critical review would be to review the role of
contextual variables in the SDMP.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006 15
March 2006
Methodological Implications
Longitudinal research designs.One of the
limitations of most previous research, especially questionnaire-based research, is that the
data are cross-sectional, analysis was post hoc,
and data were collected after the decisions
were made and their outcomes were clear.
Therefore, a more accurate understanding of
the causal relationships between process and
outcomes requires the adoption of longitudinal research designs (Bowman et al. 2002).
This will enable researchers to investigate
how relationships between context, process
and outcome unfold over time and to achieve
a better understanding of the degree and direction of causality among the main variables
(e.g. the long debate on the causal relationship
between performance and rationality) (Van de
Ven 1992).
The consistency between unit of analysis and
outcome measures.Outcome measures should
be consistent with the unit of analysis. If the
unit of analysis is the overall SDMP of an
organization (e.g. Child and Tsai 2005; Jones
et al. 1992), organizational outcomes such as
ROA and organizational effectiveness will be
more appropriate. If the study examines isolated strategic decisions (e.g. Hough 2005;
Miller et al. 2004), the overall economic performance of an organization may bear only a
weak relationship to any individual decision;
therefore, decision outcomes such as decision
quality or effectiveness will be more appropriate. This choice avoids the problem of ambiguity in the causal ordering, which would
accompany the choice of organizational performance as a focus and provides a close link
between the SDMP and its outcome, which is
essential in the light of the many exogenous
effects on organizational performance (Pearce
et al. 1987).
Better conceptualization.Montgomery et al.
(1989) identify loosely defined variables as a
major problem in the empirical strategic decisionmaking field; therefore, a key requirement for
the development of this field is to improve
measurement approaches (Bowman et al.
2002). Hence, one clear opportunity for future
research lies in better conceptualization of the
SDMP dimensions (in particular, intuition
concentrating on its content validity).
It is appropriate, also, to reveal that some
authors have criticized the existing conceptualization of decision and strategic decisionmaking. For example, Chia (1994, 781) points
out that the attempts to replace decision by
other terms, e.g. action and change, ignore
the ontological status of the decision-making
process. He argues that ‘decision is better understood as a series of interlocking pre-definitive
acts of punctuating the flow of human experiences in order to facilitate sense-making and
to alleviate Cartesian anxiety’.
Similarly, Hendry (2000) argues that
existing conceptualizations of the SDMP
(i.e. rational, action and interpretative perspectives), while each affording valuable insights
to some aspects of the issues raised, offer only
partial and disconnected perspectives on the
strategy process as a whole that leave important questions unaddressed. To overcome this
problem, he develops an empirically grounded
conceptualization of strategic decisions as
elements of a strategic discourse that is itself the
most prominent feature of strategy as a social
practice. The suggested conceptualization provides a common foundation for the competing
rational, action and interpretative perspectives
of strategic decision-making. According to
Hendry, the conceptualization of strategic
decisions as discourse has some immediate
implications for empirical research. For
example, it allows researchers to consider the
instrumental and sense-making roles of strategic decisions as parallel, interacting features
of the strategic decision process rather than as
rival interpretations, and so to address a wide
range of questions that effectively escape the
existing partial and disconnected perspectives.
The above discussion opens up a very
promising avenue for future research on the
conceptualization and operationalization of
strategic decisions.
16 © Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2006
Strategic decision-making: Process perspectives
The perceptual measures.The perceptual
measures of the decision process may not truly
reflect the phenomenon of interest. As argued
by Mintzberg et al.  (1976), tapping the
memories of the executives could introduce
distorted information. It is expected that
some information, such as unsuccessful steps
and political tactics, as well as unsatisfactory
results of decisions went unreported (Larimo
1995). It is recommended that this limitation
be remedied by a number of methods. These
are to take full advantage of the different
aspects of validity and reliability of the constructs, to reverse scale anchors in several
places to reduce response bias, to use multiple
sources of data, i.e. triangulation of evidence,
and to confirm that all the information will be
completely anonymous and confidential.
Policy and Practical Implications
This review may, it is hoped, provide a number
of managerially relevant guidelines and insights
for decision-makers in order to help them
improve their decision-making process.
First, managers have the power to influence
the success of strategic decisions, and thus the
fortunes of their organizations, through the
processes which they use to make decisions.
Second, organizational politics are generally
seen as having long-lasting detrimental effects,
inefficient and unpleasant. The evidence is that
managers engaging in political tactics make
less effective decisions than those who do not.
This has some implications for top management.
(1) They should be aware that political tactics
could lead to unsuccessful decisions and
consequently poor company performance.
(2) They need to defuse political tactics in
order to achieve successful decisions.
However, this is not to say that effective
managers never need to use political
behaviour themselves. Of course, they
need to be aware of the politics inside their
organizations and to know how to get their
proposals accepted (Papadakis and Barwise 1997).
The author would like to thank John Child for
his general encouragement and constructive
comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers
and the editor for their insightful comments.
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Said Elbanna is from the Department of


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