Cognition in strategic decision making

Jane McKenzie (Henley Management College, Henley on Thames, UK)
Nick Woolf (Henley Management College, Henley on Thames, UK)
Christine van Winkelen (Henley Management College, Henley on Thames, UK)
Clare Morgan (Oxford University, Oxford, UK)

Management Decision

ISSN: 0025-1747

Publication date: 6 March 2009



The purpose of this paper is to challenge an over‐reliance on past experience as the cognitive underpinning for strategic decisions. It seeks to argue that, in complex and unknowable conditions, effective leaders use three distinct and complementary thinking capacities, which go beyond those normally learned during their rise to the top.


A conceptual model of thinking capacities is justified through a review of the psychology literature; the face validity of the proposed model is supported through six in‐depth interviews with successful CEOs.


A model of non‐conventional thinking capacities describes how strategic decision‐makers make choices that are better adapted to the conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity and contradiction, which prevail in complex situations. These capacities are complementary to the more conventional approaches generally used in thinking about decisions.

Practical implications

The paper aims to stimulate awareness of the limitations of habitual mental responses in the face of difficult strategic decisions. It challenges leaders consciously to extend their abilities beyond conventional expectations to a higher order of thinking that is better suited to multi‐stakeholder situations in complex environments.


The paper responds to the challenge of McKenna and Martin‐Smith to develop new theoretical approaches to complex environments. It extends conventional approaches to decision making by synthesising from the literature some essential thinking capacities, which are well suited to the demands of situations dominated by uncertainty, ambiguity and contradiction.



Jane McKenzie, Nick Woolf, Christine van Winkelen and Clare Morgan (2009) "Cognition in strategic decision making", Management Decision, Vol. 47 No. 2, pp. 209-232

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