The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process

Making Good Decisions Under Pressure

The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process - Making Good Decisions Under Pressure

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Don't get overwhelmed with choice: use RPD to make quick decisions.

Firefighters often have to make life-or-death decisions with a moment's notice. One wrong choice could endanger the lives of others on their team, or of bystanders on the scene.

So how do people who work in high-pressure situations make these crucial decisions so quickly? The answer lies in how they assess the situation, and then compare what's in front of them with situations that they've encountered in the past.

The Recognition-Primed Decision (RPD) Process explores this. In this article, we'll examine the RPD Process, and look at how you can use it to make better decisions in high-pressure situations.

About the RPD Process

The RPD Process was first identified by research psychologists Gary Klein, Roberta Calderwood, and Anne Clinton-Cirocco in the late 1980s. Klein then published the process in his 1999 book "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions." Klein is best-known for pioneering the field of naturalistic decision making – the study of how people make decisions in demanding and high-pressure situations.

Klein, Calderwood, and Clinton-Cirocco identified the process after studying professionals such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians/paramedics, and nuclear technicians, who routinely make quick, life-or-death decisions. They found that other decision-making models didn't adequately explain how people make good decisions under pressure.

The process highlights the three simple steps that we go through, often subconsciously, when we need to make a quick decision in a high-pressure situation. This process is based on "pattern recognition," and on how we use past experiences of similar situations to influence our decisions.

The three steps are as follows:

1. Experiencing the Situation

The first step is simply experiencing the situation we're in. We listen and look at what's happening around us, so that we can come up with an initial assessment.

2. Analyzing the Situation

Next, we analyze the situation in more detail. We do this, often subconsciously, by considering whether:

  • The situation is the same or similar to situations that we've experienced before.
  • There are familiar patterns or cues that can help us predict how the situation will develop.
  • The situation is developing as we would expect.

In this stage, we gather enough information to make a decision.

Level 3: Implementing the Decision

The last step is to take action based on our analysis, and implement the decision.

Process reproduced from “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions” by Gary Klein. © 1998 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by permission of The MIT Press.

How to Use the Process

As we mentioned above, the RPD Process is based on pattern recognition and past experiences. So it's not a decision-making process that you can learn and then apply consciously in high-pressure situations.

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However, you can use the theory behind the process to prepare yourself and your team for making better decisions.

Let's look at how you can do this:

1. Identify Possible Situations

Begin by brainstorming situations and scenarios where you or your team have to make quick and accurate decisions under pressure.

Generally, these will be situations where you won't have time to use a step-by-step decision-making process, and where the wrong decision will have serious negative consequences.

If you're unsure of the consequences, analyze the situations you've identified using tools such as Risk Analysis, Impact Analysis, and the Futures Wheel. (If the consequences of getting decisions wrong are insignificant, don't waste time working through this process.)

2. Create Training Scenarios

Next, create training scenarios that simulate the situations that you've identified. Define the problem you need to solve clearly, and identify positive and negative outcomes.

Then describe the situation in as much detail as you can. This will help you simulate the situation in the next step.

3. Simulate the Situation

Now, put yourself or your team members in a situation that, as closely as possible, simulates the stress and time pressure of the real situation. (Techniques such as Active Training and Role Playing can be useful here.)

Work through each scenario, or variation of the scenario, several times. Think about how you handled the situation, and the consequences of your decision. What would have led to a better outcome? Was it a good or bad outcome? What could you have done differently?

Here, you'll also find it useful to break each situation down, and discuss what's happening with your group. You can do this by:

  • Identifying what you can realistically accomplish – What do you need to do first when faced with the situation? What are your priorities?
  • Recognizing signals, cues, and patterns – What is happening that will affect your decision? What makes this situation the same or different from other situations? Have you seen this situation or a similar situation before?

Remember, it's unlikely that you'll be able to prepare for every possible situation. You will, however, be able to train your team to recognize the patterns and cues needed to make good decisions in similar situations.

Tip 1:

You may also find it useful to "shadow" someone else in the situations you've identified. Again, use the questions above to break situations down, and to think about how you would have made a decision in the same situation.

Tip 2:

When you're faced with a real situation, Klein says that you can check the accuracy of your possible decision by forming "expectations" – these are educated guesses about how the situation will develop.

Tip 3:

Organizations such as the military and emergency services have highly developed programs for preparing people for these situations, many of which are based on this type of approach. Where possible, draw on these approaches rather than going back to first principles.

Key Points

The RPD Process was identified by Gary Klein, Roberta Calderwood, and Anne Clinton-Cirocco, and published in Klein's 1999 book "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions."

The process highlights how we make decisions in high-pressure situations. There are three main steps:

  1. Experiencing the situation.
  2. Analyzing the situation.
  3. Implementing the decision.

The process highlights how important pattern recognition and past experience is for making quick decisions. You can prepare yourself for this by working through training scenarios that simulate situations where you'll need to make quick and accurate decisions.


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