The 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework shows 3 main stages, Define, Develop, and Determine, around a set of Core Values.

Improve decision-making with the 3-2-1-Go Framework

As a leader or team member, do you ever find yourself wishing you could improve decision-making? Have you ever been caught in the grip of analysis paralysis or stuck in a meeting that goes nowhere, failing to arrive at a definitive conclusion? Striking the right balance between making prompt decisions and engaging others in the process can be quite the challenge.

If these struggles sound familiar to you, then you might think the answer is to learn some simple skills or techniques. It’s probably not. If that were the solution, you’d have worked them out already. In my experience, most decision-making problems arise less from deficiencies in skill, or diligence, or information, and more from a defective or missing decision structure. The structure governs the process used to reach the decision. According to research by McKinsey studying over 1,048 major decisions, this process matters more than the quality and detail of analysis — by a factor of six! It explained 53% of decision outcomes, compared to only 8% for analysis.

So, fix the decision structure and you’ll overcome many of the common challenges and improve decision-making. But how?

Introducing the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework

Let me introduce you to the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework. It’s the result of hundreds of hours of research and thought to address common challenges and provide you with a flexible yet reliable structure for effective decision-making.

All decisions – whether they’re made in minutes, days, or weeks – share various key elements. Each has a specific purpose and a logical place in the process, and the Framework simply makes these clearer. Grasping the essence of these elements and understand their roles can significantly improve decision-making, giving us more confidence, efficiency, and effectiveness. As a consequence, leaders and teams can both perform better and feel better.


The birth of the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework can be traced back to my collaboration with an innovative and dynamic organisation that valued flexibility, timeliness, and quality in its decision-making. They needed a framework that could accommodate decisions of all magnitudes, from minor choices to major ones. Importantly, it needed to work with their more organic structure and not rely on rigid hierarchies or cumbersome procedures.

Existing frameworks all fell short in different ways. So, after months of research into the science of decision-making, I crafted the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework to meet their needs. I believe that with this framework in hand, leaders can facilitate decisions with remarkable flexibility, save valuable time, and improve confidence in the quality of decisions.

Key influences

There are a few noteworthy books that significantly influenced the development of the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework, and they are certainly worth mentioning. The first is Decision Quality, by Jennifer Meyer, Carl Spetzler, and Hannah Winter. It offers invaluable insights that are based on Howard’s (1988) Decision Quality framework. Another book that played a role in shaping the framework is Making Meetings Work: Achieving High Quality Group Decisions, by John E. Tropman, although it is far less well edited. Finally, the framework is indebted to the research of Victor Vroom and Arthur Jago (see their book, The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations) and informed by the Handbook of Decision Analysis (Parnell et al., 2013).

Overall structure

The 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework presents a clear roadmap consisting of three primary stages, each conveniently starting with the letter ‘D’: Define, Develop, and Determine. Decision-making is often an iterative process, where each iteration forms a cycle encompassing these three core stages. The Recognise stage acts as the gateway to the decision-making process, while the Go stage represents the moment of implementation and execution. The first stage, Define, comprises three key elements. There are two elements in the Develop stage, and just one in the Determine stage. These stages centre around the bedrock of Core Values, which is where we’ll begin exploring the framework.

Core Values

Every decision, at its core, is evaluated based on a specific system of values. Different teams place importance on various factors such as efficiency, meticulousness, or cost-effectiveness. With a multitude of value combinations, it becomes crucial for leaders to have and share a clear understanding of the values that will be used to assess both the decision’s quality and the decision-making process itself. This shared understanding forms the bedrock on which leaders can improve decision-making, especially those with multiple people involved.

Task values

Certain values are closely tied to the task or project at hand. For instance, a project may be subject to significant time constraints. The leader might prioritise the speed of reaching a decision over the thoroughness of the process or the creativity of the chosen option. What’s critical is an awareness of how different aspects of the decision contribute to its overall value. Clearly described core values provide touchstones for that awareness. Without being mindful of core values, many decision-makers overlook important considerations, such as the costs of delay or investment in the decision. Yet by focusing our efforts around the important core values, we can make more informed decisions that align with the demands of the project at hand.

Many decision-makers overlook important considerations, such as the costs of delay or investment in the decision.

Team values

As time progresses, decision-making processes can have a profound impact on team dynamics and motivations. Effective processes nurture a sense of agency, self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, and personal growth within the team. Conversely, poor processes can erode these qualities, fostering mistrust and interpersonal conflicts.

Therefore, adept leaders consider how their decision processes shape the psychological capital of the team. They remain mindful of how these processes impact the valued qualities within the team. Additionally, they ensure that team members are aware of these qualities as they actively participate in decision-making. With care and attention, leaders can promote the cohesion, effectiveness, and well-being of the team at the same time as they improve decision-making.

Recognise a Decision is Needed

At the heart of every decision lies the pursuit of one or more goals. Decisions, at their core, are an irrevocable allocation of finite resources to drive progress towards those desired outcomes (Parnell & Bresnick, 2013). We can maximise our progress by using a small portion of our resources to make our use of the rest far more effective. This reasoning forms the rationale for decisions. The need to allocate limited resources when there is more than one way to do so mandates a decision and gets us started with the 3-2-1-Go process.

Define the Frame, Goals, and Team (“3”)

All decisions are defined – it’s a question of how clearly they are defined. Definitions can take various forms, such as verbal explanations, concise bullet points, concise documents, or even extensive reports. As a general rule, it is advisable to begin with brief and rapid definitions, allowing for iterative cycles through the 3-2-1 process to determine if investing additional time in more comprehensive definitions is warranted. However, it is essential to allocate a significant portion of each cycle to adequately defining the decision. Within the Define stage, three key aspects merit consideration: Frame, Goals, and Team. These components provide the vital foundation on which the later stages build.


Frames serve the crucial function of setting boundaries for what should be included or excluded from consideration. They guide attention toward certain matters and away from others, focusing efforts so that progress can be made. Without a well-defined frame, the decision is difficult to grapple with and it becomes challenging to gain traction. Within the frame, four key areas warrant attention:

  • Perspective. What holds significance in this particular situation? Identifying the key situational parameters that the decision has to fit within is vital.
  • Purpose. How does this decision help to make progress? Clarifying the purpose helps ground thinking around the decision to avoid wasted efforts.
  • Scope. What are the boundaries and timeframes that define the decision? Often, these boundaries arise from previous decisions and need to be considered to minimise the effort spend investigating unviable options.
  • Investment. How much time and effort should be allocated to this iteration of the decision-making process? Determining the appropriate level of investment is important to avoid over or under-investing in the decision.

Addressing these questions serves to focus the individuals involved in the decision-making process and instils confidence that their efforts are meaningful and well-directed. The investment in the decision is important, as any investment made in the decision becomes a sunk cost.


Goals play a crucial role in guiding the development of options, making them an essential element in the Develop stage. To improve decision-making, it can be helpful to categorise goals into two types: needs and wants.

Needs (must-haves). These goals serve to eliminate certain options from consideration. By establishing needs, decision-makers can narrow down the range of viable choices, making the decision-making process easier. Many needs remain unspoken as they are understood by those familiar with the decision’s context.

Wants (nice-to-haves). These goals aid decision-makers in choosing between the available options. Similar to needs, some wants are implicit. Wants can pertain to specific options (such as the cost of implementation) or desired outcomes (like the likelihood of success). Usually, identifying and considering one to five of the most important wants is sufficient for making the decision. If a larger number of wants is necessary, it suggests that the options under consideration are closely matched, reducing the risk associated with selecting a slightly inferior option.

Goals guide the search for information

When it comes to making decisions, establishing clear goals at the outset is essential to prevent wasted effort and streamline the process. Goals act as a guiding compass, directing our path as we gather information. Without well-defined goals, there is a tendency to accumulate a vast amount of information and then sift through it in hopes of finding the key insights that will shape the decision. However, this approach is logically backward.

To improve decision-making, it’s crucial to identify the needs and wants associated with our goals. By doing so, we can narrow our focus and target specific information that directly addresses these critical aspects. This targeted approach accelerates the search for relevant information, enabling us to swiftly uncover the key insights necessary for making an informed decision.

Secondly, by limiting wants to the top five most important ones, the evaluation of options becomes more streamlined. Assessing how options align with the most significant wants often reveals a clear frontrunner. Minor wants, on the other hand, become less influential in determining the best option. By prioritising the major wants, decision-makers can save time without compromising the quality of their decision. In cases where options are closely matched and the decision warrants additional effort, minor wants can be considered in subsequent cycles to further refine the evaluation process.


The Decision Team plays a crucial role the decision, and simply providing clear roles can significantly improve decision-making. While other frameworks may assign a variety of roles, the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework keeps it simple with three key roles that contribute to the process.

  1. The Driver. The Driver takes charge of coordinating the decision-making process and acts as the central point for gathering and summarising information as needed. It’s important to note that the Driver may not necessarily be the team leader or the ultimate decision-maker. The role of the Driver is agreed upon by the leader and the team, allowing busy leaders to delegate the workload associated with decision-making.
  2. Deciders. The Deciders, typically a group of 1-5 individuals (occasionally more for larger decisions), play a pivotal role in the decision-making process. Most decisions involve a single Decider, often the leader, while others may include two, three, or even four or five Deciders. One of the Deciders is likely to take on the role of the Driver as well. Each Decider agrees upon their level of involvement and engagement in the decision, in consultation with the Driver. It is ideal for the Deciders to collectively possess a wealth of experience and relevant background knowledge that can contribute to the decision at hand.
  3. Informers. The Informers are individuals who are aware of the decision and maintain communication with the Driver and Deciders. They serve as a vital resource, providing input and sharing their knowledge when asked, or even proactively when necessary. This open channel of communication allows for valuable insights from those who possess key knowledge that could significantly impact the decision-making process.

Completing the Define Stage – the Setup

At this stage, we have achieved clarity on the Frame, Goals, and Team for our decision-making process. The Driver and Deciders are in agreement and trusted, while Informers know of the decision and who to speak with if needed. This solidifies the decision Setup, providing a clear foundation to guide us in the next stage.

Develop the Options and Outcomes (“2”)

During the second major stage, Develop, we focus on two vital components: Options and Outcomes.


Options are alternatives for action. The decision is only as good as the best option. That’s why it’s crucial to develop sets of options that are both creative and distinct. The Frame and Goals can help to steer efforts to generate options efficiently. Yet creative solutions are sometimes needed, which push beyond them and force them to be reconsidered.

To progress through this stage, options must undergo validation. Viable options need to be reasonable, feasible, and meet the identified Needs. It’s important to consider the resources and the willingness of key personnel to implement each option. Any invalid options can be discarded from the pool but retained as inspiration for generating new options.

As decisions involve inherent risk and uncertainty, it’s crucial to identify and assess the key risks and uncertainties associated with successfully executing each valid option. If risks and uncertainties differ vary options, it may be wise to incorporate at least one item related to risk in the list of Wants. Additionally, when there is uncertainty about whether an option will fulfil a specific Need, consider treating that Need as a Want with a risk-oriented focus.


Outcomes are the consequences of a successfully executed Option, and will relate directly to the Wants. Once you have a range of valid Options, it’s time evaluate their Outcomes against the desired Wants to assess them. To mitigate potential biases, it’s crucial to evaluate all options against a shared set of criteria. For major business decisions, this evaluation often takes the form of rigorous mathematical methods. For common decisions, though, simple evaluations like ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘very bad’ often suffice. The Driver is aiming to reach a set of Outcome evaluations that the Deciders agree with and will find sufficient.

As with Options, it’s important to consider the key risks and uncertainties associated with how each option might eventuate. Some Outcomes may be much more certain than others, so a Want with a risk-oriented focus might be useful here too. Remember, every decision limits future options, so also explore the down-stream consequences of each option. If these consequences vary significantly and hold importance, consider including a Want that relates to those differences.

Completing the Develop Stage – the Summary

Some Deciders will want to to read through as much detail as possible before determining what action to take. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but often it’s an enormous waste of time. Our working memory is limited to somewhere between four and seven simple pieces of information. This means that when we decide cognitively, we are only able to base our choice on a few pieces of simple key information. To improve decision-making, we must work with this reality, rather than against it.

The idea of the Summary is to simply summarise what actually matters to the Deciders, so they don’t have to do that for themselves. The Driver, who is the person most familiar with the decision, can quickly create the summary and fill in gaps on request. This can save the Deciders a great deal of time. Highly experienced Deciders might only get involved by reading the Summary.

The Summary should consist of as few words as possible. That said, the Driver would ideally check that it is satisfactory to each Decider before moving to the next stage. The simplest Summary is to have a single-sentence purpose statement and a table with a row for each Want and a column for each option. Each column evaluates the option against the wants, and all options are evaluated against the same wants. At a glance, the summary should show exactly why the decision is difficult, or perhaps easy.

Determine Action on an Agreed Basis (“1”)

The Determine stage derives its name from the dual meaning of making a choice and shaping future actions. Here, the main key for this stage is the Basis. However, before the Deciders can proceed with that, the Driver needs to assess whether it’s the right time to do so.

The choice pre-check

In collaboration with the Deciders, the Driver evaluates whether further improvements to the Frame, Goals, Team, Options, and Outcomes are worthwhile. The value gained from investing in the decision gradually diminishes over time, while the costs of prolonging the decision tend to increase. The ideal time to choose is when it is no longer worth trying to improve the quality of the decision. This marks the point where the overall expected value of the decision reaches its peak. Beyond this point, the costs of additional investment and further delay outweigh the potential benefits.

The ideal time to choose is when it is no longer worth trying to improve the quality of the decision.

If additional investment is merited, the Driver and Deciders could agree to cycle through the Define and Develop stages again before trying to chose an option. Even on its own, this pre-check can improve decision-making and save the Deciders a needless discussion.

The Basis

When people attempt to ‘make a decision’ in a meeting, things often don’t go as smoothly as expected. One key reason is that the actual decision-making process should mostly take place before the meeting even begins, during the preceding stages. Another significant issue is a lack of a clear and agreed-upon Basis for making the choice. The Deciders don’t know how to move from the Summary to a selected choice.

This typically leads to an open discussion, hoping that it will somehow lead to a decision. The problem is, discussing is not choosing. In discussion mode, the goal is to explore, gather information, generate ideas, and expand possibilities. In contrast, the goal in choosing mode is to narrow down options, rule out possibilities, and negotiate a satisfactory conclusion. Choices aren’t made during open discussions because that’s not what open discussions do. Choices only get made in choosing mode, so it’s important for everyone involved to recognise which mode is which, and which one they are in.

Discussing is not choosing.

To get into choosing mode, the Deciders need to know how they will choose. They need to understand what the choosing process looks like feel comfortable to engage in it. That is, they need an agreed Basis for making a choice. Alongside the Summary, the Basis allows the choice to be made.

Types of Basis

There are several possible options for a Basis. One possibility is for the leader to make the decision, in which case they should be the sole Decider, and it’s evident that their preference will determine the choice. For multiple Deciders, consensus among them is ideal. I recommend using the AIR Consensus method, since it provides an effective and efficient way to reach consensus.

If consensus is not achievable, a majority vote could be used sparingly, since the lack of consensus might damage the team dynamic. A leader should override the Deciders’ choice only in exceptional circumstances, as doing so could undermine trust and cooperation within the team.

Choices that are always available

In addition to the option to proceed with an option outlined in the Summary, two other choices are always available to the Deciders.

  • Improve. If the decision’s quality, as generated in the previous stages, falls short, this choice allows for further improvement by initiating another cycle. When opting for this choice, it’s important to accompany it with specific ‘Improvement Points” on how the decision can be improved.
  • Stand Aside. In cases where consensus is the Basis, Deciders can choose this option to avoid obstructing the consensus within the group. Why might this happen? This may occur when a Decider believes that additional investment is not justified but remains unconvinced to align with the majority’s choice.

Completing the Determine step – the Snapshot

To create a Snapshot that documents the decision if required, the Driver can augment the Setup and Summary with additional notes capturing the Basis for the decision. This record might include the Deciders’ preferences and key explanations for any shifts in their preferences. This snapshot can then be shared to the wider team so they know why the decision was made to improve decision-making transparency and build trust.

Implement the selected option (“Go”)

With the decision made, it’s time to put the chosen option into action. This marks the conclusion of the 3-2-1-Go decision-making process.

Closing thoughts

The 3-2-1-Go Framework provides essential decision structure to help improve decision-making, and it is my gift to you. My hope is for it to be flexible enough to adapt to how leaders and teams want to operate, while remaining robust enough to steer them clear of common pitfalls. In separate posts, I will delve into valuable tools and approaches for each of the three stages. I will provide links to these resources once they are available.

I’d love to hear how the framework resonates with you and your team’s decision-making process, as well as which aspects improve decision-making most for you.

In memory of Anna Wilson, an inspiring, capable, and kind leader who made the development of the 3-2-1-Go Decision-Making Framework possible, and who helped to make it what it is.

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Drawing on over a decade of research into the science of how individuals, leaders, and teams work best, Reuben is a trusted advisor and partner for navigating complex challenges. His articles distil complex ideas and present practical insights, so you don't have to do the research yourself. With an authentic approach and genuine empathy for his clients, Reuben is a valuable asset to any organisation.

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