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When Is It Useful to Reify Decisions?

It has been successfully argued in research on organizations that a decision is an abstraction [1], if it is defined as a commitment to a course of action.

If I say that I decided to go skiing tomorrow, is this abstract or concrete? The only thing you can observe will be my behavior and the concrete outcomes of that behavior. While obvious, it is important to see that you are not observing my commitment – the next thing you can do is assume that I was committed to behaving as you saw me behave, and because of that, assume that I indeed made a decision. 

A human decision, in other words, is abstract; its outcomes are usually concrete.

Now, to reify an abstraction is to treat it as a concrete event or thing that others can observe or otherwise experience. Reification is considered faulty reasoning [2]. 

Paradoxically, it is useful to reify decisions in organizations. This makes it possible to examine the decision, to analyze it before it leads to action. 

Consider this quote credited in [1] to an unnamed executive at General Motors.

“It is often difficult to say who decided something and when – or even who originated a decision… I frequently don’t know when a decision is made in General Motors. I don’t remember being in a committee meeting when things come to a vote. Usually someone simply summarizes a developing position. Everyone else either nod or states his [sic] particular terms of consensus.” (See [1] for the source of the quote.)

If there is a need in an organization to govern decision making, then it becomes necessary to reify decisions. Governance in this case introduces a step between the (unobservable) commitment, and action: the commitment needs to be written down, or otherwise formalized, actions described, and agreement confirmed that actions should in fact be executed. Depending on the specifics of the situation in which actions are needed, it may be worth investing time to identify alternative courses of action, before jumping from commitment to the originally planned actions.

In short, it is useful to reify actions if there is a need to govern decisions. There is nothing to govern, if decisions remain unobservable commitments. 


  1. Langley, Ann, et al. “Opening up decision making: The view from the black stool.” Organization Science 6.3 (1995): 260-279. https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.6.3.260 
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy)

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