The Kepner-Tregoe Matrix

Making Unbiased, Risk-Assessed Decisions

The Kepner-Tregoe Matrix helps you weight up options and impacts.

Weigh up your options carefully.

© iStockphoto/AnthonyRosenberg

No matter what position you hold, from the board room to the mailroom, you make decisions every day.

And the end result in business is directly linked to the quality of the decisions made at each point along the way.

So not surprisingly, decision-making is a universally important competence in business. Some decisions clearly have a greater impact on the business than others, but the underlying skill is the same: The difference is in the scope and depth of the process you go through to reach your decision.

One reason why decision-making can be so problematic is that the most critical decisions tend to have to be made in the least amount of time. You feel pressured and anxious. The time pressure means taking shortcuts, jumping to conclusions, or relying heavily on instinct to guide your way.

In your organization, you've probably heard of someone who made it all the way to VP by relying on his gut to make decisions. At the other extreme is the guy who simply can't make a decision because he analyses the situation to death. The bottom line is, you have to make decisions, and you have to make good decisions. Poor decisions are bad for business. Worse still, one poor decision can lead to others, and so the impact can be compounded and lead to more and more problems down the line.

Thankfully, decision-making is a skill set that can be learned and improved on. Somewhere between instinct and over-analysis is a logical and practical approach to decision-making that doesn't require endless investigation, but helps you weigh up the options and impacts.

One such approach is called the Kepner-Tregoe Matrix. It provides an efficient, systematic framework for gathering, organizing and evaluating decision making information. The approach was developed by Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe in the 1960's and they first wrote about it in the business classic, The Rational Manager (1965). The approach is well-respected and used by many of the world's top organizations including NASA and General Motors.

The Kepner-Tregoe Approach

The Kepner-Tregoe approach is based on the premise that the end goal of any decision is to make the "best possible" choice. This is a critical distinction: The goal is not to make the perfect choice, or the choice that has no defects. So the decision maker must accept some risk. And an important feature of the Kepner-Tregoe Matrix is to help evaluate and mitigate the risks of your decision.

The Kepner-Tregoe Matrix approach guides you through the process of setting objectives, exploring and prioritizing alternatives, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the top alternatives, and of choosing the final "best" alternative. It then prompts you to generate ways to control the potential problems that will crop up as a consequence of your decision.

This type of detailed problem and risk analysis helps you to make an unbiased decision. By skipping this analysis and relying on gut instinct, your evaluation will be influenced by your preconceived beliefs and prior experience – it's simply human nature. The structure of the Kepner-Tregoe approach limits these conscious and unconscious biases as much as possible.

The Kepner-Tregoe Matrix comprises four basic steps:

  1. Situation Appraisal – identify concerns and outline the priorities.
  2. Problem Analysis – describe the exact problem or issue by identifying and evaluating the causes.
  3. Decision Analysis – identify and evaluate alternatives by performing a risk analysis for each and then make a final decision.
  4. Potential Problem Analysis – evaluate the final decision for risk and identify the contingencies and preventive actions necessary to minimize that risk.

Going through each stage of this process will help you come to the "best possible choice", given your knowledge and understanding of the issues that bear on the decision.

How to Use the Tool

The Kepner-Tregoe Matrix is an in-depth approach that can be supported by detailed instruction and worksheets. As an overview of the approach, the following steps show the general principles of how the Kepner-Tregoe approach can apply to a decision-making situation:

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