Why You Need a Decision Document

What is a Decision Document? Used properly, a decision document can be informal, help you break through processes and speed up your initiative.

Decision Document Being Reviewed By Multi Ethnic Business TeamJust what you need – another formality, process or roadblock, right? Wrong! Used in the right manner, a decision document can be informal, help you break through processes and speed up your initiative. So what exactly is a decision document and when and how do you use one to your advantage? Hold on to your britches, we will go through an executive overview of this tool and I’ll provide a template for you at the end.

What is a Decision Document?

A decision document is a tool for capturing the status of a current program, project, initiative or other investment which has come to a fork in the road. Now, an important decision must be made and the team of decision makers needs to be aligned on what options exist, make a selection, document why the option was chosen and by whom, for future reference. Used properly, it is not a CYA solution but a tool for providing clarity, expediting alignment and removing barriers to success. A decision document…

  • Aligns key stake holders on current status, a particular issue or challenge and options to consider
  • Explains each option, the relevant benefits and risks
  • Documents which decision is made, by whom and when
  • Provides a record of accountability and drives support by decision makers

When Should a Decision Document Be Used?

There are many scenarios in which a decision document may be useful. Some examples include when the decision to be made is not clear to those who must make the decision. For example, if the project is very detailed or technical in nature but the investment decision goes to a very senior level of leadership not familiar with those details. Another scenario may be in a fast-paced project where the leadership have little time to dig into the details. Furthermore, highly regulated or sensitive environments such as food and drug industries or security matters may benefit from regular use of this tool. Of course, these documents can be useful in highly political or confrontational environments to ensure support and alignment is maintained throughout as well.

What are the Primary Components of a Decision Document?

Each decision document may have its own terminology. However, in essence each document should include the following primary sections:

1. Decision to be Made

In this section, describe the decision that must be made. This should be very clearly stated, but succinct. This is an executive brief of what recipients of the document are being asked to decide.

2. Current Status

This section must include the who, what, when and where of the situation requiring a decision. You should also provide the history of how you came to the issue at hand. While your decision-makers need to understand the background, this requires a careful balance of providing enough history without going into exhaustive and unnecessary details. A good litmus test for content to be included here is to simply ask yourself, “is this information relevant to the decision?” In other words, would knowing the piece of history or current status detail influence the decision maker one way or another? If the answer is yes, then it is relevant enough to be included.

3. Options

Be sure to capture all relevant decisions, with an emphasis on the relevant part. This section is not to list every possible variation anyone could ever dream up. Instead, list genuine options that the decision makers could consider selecting. Depending upon the nature of your particular environment, you may want to include a section of “excluded options”. In this case, you would briefly list options that were quickly ruled out and a short statement of explanation.

For each option, explain the option in detail first. Then, in bullet or similar quick-reference fashion, highlight the positives and negatives (I prefer the position of “Benefits” and “Risks”) of each option.

4. Recommendation

This is the recommendation of the team or individual submitting the decision document for consideration. It should include a reference back to the specific option being recommended (Option #1, 2 or 3…). In addition, the reasoning for this recommendation should be captured. For example, you should explain why the recommended option is better than others. Logic such as lowest overall risk or cost are obvious reasons. Others may include a balance of risk and costs or time sensitivity.

5. Decision

Here, you document the decision the team agreed to. If you’ve done your legwork prior to submission, you may anticipate the chosen option. In this case, you may want to document the chosen option (anticipated) when presenting the document for signatures / approvals.

6. Next Steps

Based on the decision being made, what actions must happen next? This may not be required in all cases, but it is often helpful in ensuring the right actions happen in a timely manner. In addition, key decisions that require documentation like this often stem from a problem and include lessons learned or opportunities to avoid a recurrence. This section may also be useful for capturing this information.

7. Sign Off

If deemed necessary, here the decision-makers physically sign the document. Most of the time though, a simple email confirming approval and alignment is sufficient form the individuals.

Decision Document Example Templates

Below is a sample template of a decision document following the above format. I’ve provided it in Microsoft Word 2003, 2007 and Adobe Acrobat formats:

Question: Have you ever used a decision document? How did it help you and / or your team?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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