Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD) explained

Recognition Primed Decision Making - Toolshero

Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD): this article explains Recognition Primed Decision Making, developed by Gary Klein in a practical way. Next to what it is, this article also highlights an example, definition and objectives, variations, a adapted roadmap RPD process for business and a short summary. After reading it you will understand the basics of this decision making tool. Enjoy reading!

What is Recognition Primed Decision Making?

Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD) is a model about the process of decision making when people need to make quick and effective decisions in complex situations.

The model shows that the person who has to make such a decision first generates a possible course of action. This is compared with the constraints imposed by the situation and then the course of action is chosen that will not be rejected.

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Example Decision Primed Decision Making

RPD is a well-known term in the decision-making world and is used by diverse groups of people, including trauma nurses, chess players, firefighters, stock brokers, and more.

The method is valuable in situations where time pressure is present, where information is incomplete or when goals are poorly defined. The method also has limitations, including the fact that it requires a lot of experience before decisions can be consistently made this way.

The Recognition Primed Decision Making model was proposed by Gary Klein, in his book Sources of Power. It has since proven to be a legitimate model for how people make difficult decisions.

Recognition Primed Decision Making definition and objectives

Decision making refers to making choices between alternative options for action.

Inactivity, or doing nothing, is also an alternative course of action. However, in the case of Recognition Primed Decision Making, there is no time to accurately evaluate the alternative options.

In business, managers make hundreds of choices every day. Management is therefore almost 1 on 1 compared to decision making.

Yet most choices managers make, fail. Increasing effectiveness in decision-making is therefore a good goal in almost all cases. Effective decision making helps to avoid the most common pitfalls in the decision-making process.

There are many situations where choices are so important and urgent that experience is the only way to make them right. This kind of situation is generally less common in business.

Consider the example of a firefighter. The knowledge and experience that this firefighter has gained enables him to decide within a second whether or not he should open a door in a burning house.

Objectives of Recognition Primed Decision Making

Recognition Primed Decision Making aims to:

  1. Help new professionals to quickly learn to make important decisions in critical situations.
  2. Help experienced people make decisions and tackle and solve a problem at the root.

Variations Recognition Primed Decision Making Model

The RPD model has three variations when it comes to strategy.

Variation 1

In the first variation of the RPD model, the decision makers recognize the situation and characterize it as typical. That means they have been in a similar situation before. Variation 1 therefore concerns a situation in which both situational details and the course of action are known.

This form can be described as an “if… then…” response. Recognition of this situation will always lead to immediate action or a course of action appropriate to the situation. Highly experienced individuals are more likely to encounter situations classified as Variation 1 than inexperienced decision makers.

Variation 2

The second variation of the RPD model deals with situations where the decision maker finds himself in an unfamiliar situation where he can choose from a known selection of options.

Variation 2 can therefore be described as “if?… then…” reaction. In other words, as soon as the situation is recognized in this scenario, the decision maker also knows which course of action to take.

Knowledge about the available course of action is therefore available, while important parameters about the situation are unknown.

Therefore, to avoid wrong decisions, decision making models all possible details of the situation and then chooses the most relevant course of action. Experienced decision makers are generally more likely to model the situation correctly, and are therefore more likely to choose the right course of action.

Variation 3

The third possibility in the Recognition Primed Decision Making model is when the decision maker is aware of the situation, but does not know what the right course of action is.

The decision making therefore implements a trial-and-error simulation. This mental simulation reproduces the most effective way of acting. Variation 3 is therefore described as: “if… then?…”.

The decision maker goes through several actions until he or she finds action that seems to fit the goals and priority of the situation. Due to the time pressure involved in such situations, the decisionmaking will choose the first course of action that seems appropriate.

Experienced decision makers are more likely to find an appropriate course of action than inexperienced decision makers, because their expertise allows them not to consider inappropriate courses of action.

Adapted roadmap RPD process for business

Below is a roadmap for making difficult decisions in a business environment. Naturally, the time pressure in business is often less than in life-threatening situations. Nevertheless, it can also happen in business that a decision has to be made within seconds or minutes. The 3 steps of this custom RPD process are:

1. Experience the situation

In the first phase, the decision maker becomes acquainted with the new situation. It is important that as much input as possible is collected. If the decision maker does not have all the necessary information, then an ineffective course of action is more likely to be chosen.

One of the things decision makers could do at this stage is to observe and listen. Take a good look around you at everything that is happening. How does the situation develop as I observe? What information can I obtain by questioning bystanders and those involved? Why is something a problem and how do others think it can be solved?

The input that others provide does not always have to be accurate or reliable: it helps to get your own thinking process going. Never let important decisions depend on unverified input from others, but always decide for yourself whether the basis for your decision is sufficiently well-founded.

2. Analyzing situation

In the second phase, the analytical part of the process begins. With a basic understanding of the situation, it is possible to start working on a solution. At this stage, ask yourself a number of questions, such as:

  • What is different about this situation from other situations?
  • Which parts of this situation could I have foreseen?
  • Is this something that has happened before?
  • What actions were taken then?

By analyzing the situation, different solutions or suggestions often come to mind. Despite the time pressure, it is important not to immediately implement the first decision or option. Try to be patient and decide how much time is left to make a decision.

3. Execute decision

Once the best opportunity for action has been taken, it is important that it is implemented as quickly as possible. There is no point in waiting to perform an action when the decision has already been approved. So get started right away to make the decision work after the first two steps of this process are over.

During the earlier steps, it is important to keep the importance of implementation in mind. Only consider options and decisions that can actually be implemented in practice. There is no point in considering a theoretical option that turns out to be impractical in practice.

Recognition Primed Decision Making summary

Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD) is a decision-making approach that is highly effective in complex, time-pressured situations.

Making a decision quickly is therefore the most important aspect of this decision-making method. The complexity of situations is determined, among other things, by the information that is available or when objectives are incompletely defined.

The RPD model is a mental model. That is, the person using this approach does so very quickly and probably automatically. The approach was developed based on experience rather than learning a decision-making method. The decision maker recognizes the different signals and indicators of each situation and tailors an effective course of action accordingly.

In general, the decision maker chooses the first option and course of action that does not fall out when he or she evaluates the various options. This concept is known as ‘action script’.

As people develop and gain more expertise in their field, their ability to make these kinds of important decisions the right way improves. They are better able to recognize indicators and characteristics of a problem than people who are not experienced. As a result, they can perform a more reliable mental simulation and thereby choose a more accurate course of action.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about the Recognition Primed Decision Making Process? Do you often find yourself in situations where a difficult decision has to be made quickly? Do you think the RPD process is useful in your work environment? What other tools and methods do you know that support decision making? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Klein, G. A. (1993). A recognition-primed decision (RPD) model of rapid decision making. Decision making in action: Models and methods, 5(4), 138-147.
  2. Klein, G. A. (1997). The recognition-primed decision (RPD) model: Looking back, looking forward. Naturalistic decision making, 285-292.
  3. Ross, K. G., Klein, G. A., Thunholm, P., Schmitt, J. F., & Baxter, H. C. (2004). The recognition-primed decision model. ARMY COMBINED ARMS CENTER FORT LEAVENWORTH KS MILITARY REVIEW.
  4. McLennan, J., & Omodei, M. M. (1996). The role of prepriming in recognition-primed decisionmaking. Perceptual and motor skills, 82(3_suppl), 1059-1069.

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Janse, B. (2022). Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD). Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 01/31/2022 | Last update: 06/07/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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