The Possibilities-Based Approach to Strategic Decision Making

Making a big decision with a group of people is never an easy process. A big decision generally means a great deal is riding on the outcome, and thus, emotions will be high and opinions strong. How do you navigate those waters?

A colleague of mine recently recommended reading “Bringing Science to the Art of Strategy”, published in Harvard Business Review back in 2012. The article details a seven-step process for brainstorming ideas that could potentially solve a problem, and it provides a method for narrowing down those options and selecting the best choice.

Seven Steps for Brainstorming Solutions

1. Frame a Choice

Articulate at least two mutually exclusive choices, or high-level paths, that you could take.

2. Generate Possibilities

Dive deeper into the choices and identify numerous, more specific, possibilities that might fulfill one of the options above.

3. Specify Conditions

For each possibility, list the conditions that must apply in order for a possibility to be considered a success.

4. Identify Barriers

For each condition, list potential issues or problems that might prevent the condition from being met.

5. Design Tests

For each potential barrier, come up with tests or experiments that you could run that would prove whether a barrier is surmountable.

6. Conduct Tests

Perform the experiments.

7. Make Your Choice

Select the possibility that is proven to have the fewest or least significant barriers to success.

The original article provides much more detail on each of these; I highly recommend reading it. That said, here are a few things that I find particularly compelling about the process.


Conversation is constrained.

Conversations of any kind that involve more than just two or three people can be difficult to navigate—especially when the stakes are high. People tend to get hyper-focused on their own ideas, fears, and concerns, which prevents them from engaging in the conversation with a constructive attitude that is receptive to ideas.

The Possibilities-Based Approach addresses this by providing a set of rules for the type of discussion that is allowed during each step. For example, during the Generate Possibilities step, participants are not allowed to critique others’ ideas. During the Specify Conditions step, all conditions must be expressed as, “X would need to be true in order for this approach to succeed,” and assertions about whether conditions are true or not are not allowed.

Restricting the conversation in this way removes a lot of emotion from the process, which can detract from the group’s ability to make the best decision.

The process leads to a result.

I’ve been in brainstorming sessions and workshops in the past where the activities felt almost arbitrary. It was difficult to connect any artifacts from the exercises back to the topic at hand.

In contrast, every step in the Possibilities-Based Approach seems intentional and well-thought-out and leads right into the next step. At the end, you’re directed straight to whatever you have proven to be the best decision.

Possibilities are proven through testing.

Coming from the world of software development, I have a strong background in testing. We commonly use tests to prove out implementations and to keep things from going off the rails in the future.

I really like that this process carves out time specifically for defining and conducting tests in order to determine if suggested barriers are real or not. I can see how doing so could go a long way to increase confidence in an outcome.

I’m really looking forward to trying this process out the next time I’m involved in making a strategic decision.