What is Structured Decision Making?

Structured Decision Making (SDM) is a subset of decision analysis based on two equally important concepts; problem decomposition and value-focused thinking. It is not a particular technique or computer program but rather a group or tools and methods that help incorporate the two concepts into a decision.


Problem decomposition is simply breaking a large complex problem into smaller parts. Often the most critical portion of any decision is defining the problem. This seems simple enough but when multiple decision makers or stakeholders are involved it is important that they are all focused on solving the same problem! The decomposition continues by identifying the fundamental objectives of the problem. Again these may differ if more than one stakeholder is involved or if an agency’s mission has conflicting directives, e.g., recreation and resource extraction. At that point alternative actions are described, consequences estimated and trade-offs considered.


Value-focused thinking comes from the work of Ralph Kenney (Keeney 1992). It means to recognize that not all objectives must be equally valued in the decision process. If values are explicitly considered the resulting recommendation are transparent, repeatable, and can be modified as new information arrives.


Almost all decisions involve uncertainty. SDM recognizes this and incorporates it using sensitivity analysis, adaptive management, or other methods.


What Structured Decision Making is Not.

SDM is not a cookie-cutter approach to making decisions. It may involve the use of various models and algorithms but they must fit the problem.


SDM will not make a decision. Rather it will educate and inform the decision maker(s) so that they can better understand the possible consequences and trade-offs of the decision.


Keeney, R.L. 1992. Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.