Kinston’s & Algie’s guide on how managers can approach decisions

Forrest ChristianDecision-making, Warren Kinston 3 Comments

Can you make better decisions? Did you know that there are seven (and only seven) fundamental languages that people use to talk about action or decisions at work? This comes from the seminal work of Jimmy Algie & Warren Kinston, which is detailed in their 1989 article, “Seven Distinct Paths of Decision and Action” [7MB PDF].

This paper describes the seven different approaches to decision-making, but note that it’s really about action, since decisions without action aren’t really decisions for managers.

They clarified this model of many years. Algie started developing it back in the 1970s, and I think that Kinston was developing something along these lines independently. Coming together at Brunel in the 1980s, they formed a fruitful partnership in teasing out the details of the seven different approaches to deciding and acting.

If people are to gain increased control over their own actions, they need a framework which encompasses the possible distinctive approaches to decisive action from their own practical standpoint. The main questions we have sought to clarify, therefore, are: (a) what distinct approaches exist in practice, and (b) when should each be used or avoided. Our research has resulted in a framework of distinct approaches which model the different ways that people can and do act. In any particular case. the issue. the individuals concerned and the circumstances determine what actually occurs. [pp. 117]

Their emphasis is on how managers can make better decisions. They were practicing this in their consulting and commercial short courses, especially but not exclusively in the healthcare industry in the U.K. (They also did extensive work in other areas, including government.)

For that reason, it’s worth spending the time to get through. They show how each different approach leads to a very different path to action.

Although the various ways of deciding can be seen as conforming to a basic decision-making process, they differ sharply in their focus. For purposes of exposition, however. the decision process can be artificially segmented as follows: a start or impetus to act, an exploration of the topic, a development of possible alternative courses, application of value leading to a resolution, frequently a repeat of this cycle at a lower level with greater detail, action to implement, review during action and afterwards. and a way of overcoming failure (see Table I). Clearly this might be better termed an action cycle rather than a decision cycle, but we shall follow convention and use the latter phraseology. [pp. 118]

They detail the different approaches and show how they work in action for managers. I can’t recall if it is here or elsewhere, but they note that the Empiricist approach, dominant in engineering and software development, has no managerial approach associated with it because this mindset has no interest in managing. Explains your information technology department, doesn’t it?

Warren pointed out that this didn’t make much sense and wasn’t in the article. (I’m not sure what I saw that I’m referring to.) He also points out the following (abbreviations expanded and reformatted): “In Strengthening the Management Culture, it is clear that pragmatist, structuralist, dialectic, and rationalist emerge from Action … and empiricist, imaginist and systemicist emerge from Inquiry … and exist to strengthen Goals & Action.”

You can spend a lot of time unpacking the material in just Strengthening.

They note that the problems are often caused by being good at one approach:

We now turn to note how choice of an approach goes wrong in organizations. In practice, we found that the most prominent form of dysfunction centred not on the primary selection of the approach but on difficulties in changing approaches. Some people or organizations adhered to a single approach, irrespective of its demonstrable ineffectiveness for many of the issues to be handled. Sometimes an approach in use had been clearly relevant to the issue in the past, but, as circumstances and needs changed, it had become ineffective….

They describe further problems in organizations that are caused by issues with using approaches. It’s recommended reading. Kinston deals with it in more detail, and in a less academic approach intended for CEOs, in his Strengthening the Management Culture.

Kinston also has some interesting articles from this time, related to this one, on the process of Scientific Enquiry, which are really fascinating if you work in science. Perhaps later.

Kinston, Warren and Algie, Jimmy. 1989. “Seven Distinct Paths of Decision and Action“. [7MB PDF] Systems Research, 6(2): 117-132.


A set or distinct approaches to decision and action is offered as developed from collaborative inquiry with practising managers. The approaches so elicited align frequently, but not invariably or precisely, with accounts in the literature. They are named:

  • rationalist
  • empiricist
  • pragmatist
  • dialectic
  • systemic
  • structuralist and
  • intuitionist

Each approach tends to be advocated over-enthusiastically by its proponents as a full and appropriate response for all contingencies. The characteristic advantages and difficulties of each arc examined, and issues in the selection of a preferred approach are explored.

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