Tips and Techniques
October 7, 2021

Help Your Team Make Decisions With The CAPPED Decision Framework

You finished that Big Meeting! You all made that Big Decision! Or did you? Don’t give up, group decisions in meetings *are* possible. Use this CAPPED decision framework to help your team actually make those decisions.

We’re all faced with numerous decisions to make every day. Some are easy (what socks will I wear today? Will I wear socks at all?), while some are harder (will I tell my partner that I detest this Netflix series we’re watching together?). Some decisions are pretty low-risk (will I order salad or not?), while other decisions have higher stakes, with astronomic levels of unpredictable consequences (again, will I tell my partner that I detest this Netflix series…).

When it comes to making decisions together at work, we tend to have a mix of decisions going on, too. But as soon as more than one person is involved, things can get pretty complex. Different decisions mean different things to different people with different levels of knowledge, and can have different consequences. A decision like “Who’s turn is it to do a coffee run?” can be pretty simple in one team, but RIFE WITH POLITICS AND RAMIFICATIONS in another team.

Collective decision-making is hard

As a facilitator, I’m fascinated with how groups of people can make decisions (at all!), and after hundreds of meetings, offsites, workshops, sprints, design critiques, presentations, and so on, I’ve noticed a lot of patterns. And anti-patterns. I’m sure you have too.

There’s something fundamentally screwy about collective decision-making in meetings: no matter how high the stakes are, no matter how much information or people or politics are involved, we’re always optimistic that this time we will arrive and align on a decision by the end of the meeting. Of course, usually we don’t, so we collectively shrug our shoulders and mumble something about working it out over Slack later on.

If I were to graph how decisions are made (or not) in big meetings, according to effort and time elapsed, it often looks like this:

The Decision Cliff, at the end of a lot of Big Meetings

This is de rigueur for mountaineers, but it’s a horrible experience in meetings. Some people might dominate and want to charge ahead, having already made up their mind. Others might feel left behind, get resentful, and start being more argumentative. And often, everyone is mentally tired by the end of big meetings, right when it’s crunch time!

Decision-making frameworks

Do I think collective decision-making is a cruel, bald-faced lie? Of course not. Do I believe a group can indeed reach a decision, without letting themselves off the hook and sorting out later as a smaller group over Slack? Absolutely.

There are a lot of different decision-making heuristics, frameworks, methods and activities to use in different kinds of meetings and workshops. I’m sure you’ve used a few yourself. To wit:

  • Prioritisation structures, like Impact versus Effort, RICE, MoSCoW
  • Eisenhower Matrix — do it, delegate it, delay it, or drop it
  • Pros and cons, and other more complex evaluation matrices
  • OODA — observe, orient, decide, act
  • Cause and effect analysis
  • Integrative thinking — embracing that there are multiple solutions to any challenge that can often be combined
  • Cone of plausibility — a way to assess the likelihood of outcomes as proven, probable, plausible, or possible
  • Backasting — beginning with a desired (or undesired) future state, and working your way back to the present
  • Cynefin framework — evaluating the context as simple, complicated, complex or chaotic

Oh my word, I’m putting myself to sleep.

Many of these boil down to this basic framework: we seek to understand the given situation, we evaluate, and we decide. Simples!

Individual decision-making frameworks aren’t enough for groups

But, in applying so many of these structures and heuristics in meetings I have run over the years, I’ve had a massive realisation. They are all made for individual decision-making. Yes, of course we can apply them in collective decision-making (and still be effective), but these structures don’t help groups enough to navigate the other complexities as soon as two or more are involved.

In truth, when two or more people are involved in making decisions, we need to afford for two other elements: learning and emergence.

When we come together to decide, we need to allow for learning: listening and reflecting on different people’s ideas, backgrounds, perspectives, opinions and knowledge.

We also need to allow for emergence: creating a way for those different perspectives, ideas and backgrounds to synthesise new perspectives, new frames and new approaches. A big reason why a lot of creative workshops don’t yield many new ideas is that most of us gallop through divergent activities of idea generation (Crazy 8s!), and then, barely pausing for breath, grab the sticky dots and start a knock-out game to get to a ‘winning idea’.

For a lot of group decision-making — group anything, really — to be successful, we need time and space for emergence between divergence (making options) and convergence (making decisions).

The CAPPED decision framework

By extracting the patterns found in existing decision-making frameworks, plus condensing various things I’ve tried in workshops and learned from others, I’ve come up with a decision-making framework that caters for groups, and for the learning and emergence that’s often needed.

It’s the CAPPED decision framework, and it goes a little bit like this:

  • ClarifyWhat do we need to decide?
  • Analyse — What do we need to know, to help us decide?
  • Project — What are our options, to decide? Or: How does each option play out in future?
  • Prioritise — What do we need to discard, to decide?
  • Experiment — What do we need to validate, to decide?
  • Decide — What’s the actual decision?
The CAPPED decision framework

I’m also a fan of using a specific (appropriate) amount of time as a forcing function to help move discussions along, and get results, hence the ‘CAPPED’ mnemonic. ;)

Using the CAPPED decision framework

There are several ways you can use this framework as a facilitator (or whenever you have to run a meeting):

Decision navigator — You can keep this in your mental back pocket (or even your actual back pocket), for when you’re in a meeting that needs a decision to be made. You can use it to detect where the discussion is at, what stages it still needs to go through, and if you think anything needs to change, to help keep the group tracking towards a successful decision.

Agenda guide — You can use it as a start of a structure for any agenda that involves making and aligning on a decision at the end of a big meeting, because each stage builds on the former. It’s also fairly elastic, and works for anything from a 60-minute problem-solving session to a multi-day offsite.

Discussion guide — You can use the stages’ prompts and questions as a way to help deepen and enrich a conversation, and help more insights emerge. It’s amazing how effective a discussion can be if you ask (toward the end), “So, what have we decided?” The simple act of someone having to reflect and verbalise the result of the discussion can be very powerful, in either clarifying consensus, or exposing false consensus.

Discussion diagnostic — You can use it as a way to diagnose underlying reasons why a group trying to move toward a decision might be stuck. For example, a group might be stuck trying to prioritise and refine a set of options; a big reason might be because they don’t yet have a shared understanding of how each option might play out in future.

Main benefit of the CAPPED decision framework: scaffolding

This framework gives us a way to scaffold the discussions that people have on their way to making decisions, and help avoid that ‘Decision Cliff’:

Rather than having one Big Decision to align on at the end, you can break it into several smaller decisions along the way

With this framework, we can help groups create a pathway of logic up to the decision. To borrow the ‘mountaineering’ analogy again, it’s much easier helping a group up a series of steps, rather than trying to get them all up a massive cliff!

I’ve had a lot of success with this in helping groups of all sorts — leadership teams, agile development teams, designers, teachers — navigate their way through a lot of information and opinions to actually reach decisions, and finalise a piece of work. In. The. Meeting!

Learn how to apply the CAPPED decision framework

I hope this is useful for you, to help you and your teams navigate decisions.

You can learn all about applying this framework – including more questions to ask as a facilitator to help groups along – in the ‘Better Meetings for Alignment and Decisions’ online class. It’s one of 4 online classes that help you lead better, by leading meetings better.

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