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Decision record (DR)

A decision record (DR) is a way to initiate, debate, and archive an important choice, along with its context and consequences.


What is a decision record?

A decision record (DR) is a way to initiate, debate, and archive an important choice, along with its context and consequences.

A decision log (DL) is the collection of all DRs created and maintained for a particular project (or organization).

A decision in this context is an organization's choice that addresses a significant requirement.

A significant requirement (SR) is a project's need that has a measurable effect on a project's system.

All these terms are within the topic of knowledge management (KM).

The goal of this document is to provide a fast overview of decision records.

Decision record template

See our file which uses these major sections:

  • Title: short present tense imperative up to 50 characters.

  • Status: request for comments | proposed | accepted | rejected | deprecated | superseded

  • Issue: describe the issue you want to address, and leave no questions about why.

  • Assumptions: describe any assumptions, premises, cross-project requirements, etc.

  • Constraints: capture any constraints to the environment this decision might pose.

  • Positions: list the potential candidate options as facts and data, not opinions.

  • Opinions: by the team and stakeholders, and also third-party advisors and reviewers.

  • Selection: explain why you selected a position, with purpose and accountability.

  • Implications: state your decision’s implications, such as any need for changes.

  • Related: such as for references, cross-project work, and follow on needs.

How to start using decision records

To start using decision records, talk with your teammates about these areas.

Decision identification:

  • How urgent and how important is the decision?

  • Does it have to be made now, or can it wait until more is known?

  • Both personal and collective experience, as well as recognized design methods and practices, can assist with decision identification.

  • Ideally maintain a decision todo list, that complements the product todo list.

Decision making:

  • A number of decision making techniques exists, both general ones and software-specific ones, for instance, dialogue mapping.

  • Group decision making is an active research topic.

Decision enactment and enforcement:

  • Decisions have to be communicated to, and accepted by, the stakeholders of the system that fund, develop, and operate it.

  • Architecturally evident coding styles and code reviews that focus on architectural concerns and decisions are two related practices.

  • Decisions can be reconsidered when making significant changes to a system, such as evolving a system, or upgrading a system, or adjusting a system for changing requirements.

Decision sharing (optional):

  • Many decisions recur across projects.

  • Hence, experiences with past decisions, both good and bad, can be valuable reusable assets when employing an explicit knowledge management strategy.

  • Group decision making is an active research topic.

Decision documentation:

  • Many templates and tools exist for decision planning and decision capturing.

  • See agile communities, e.g. M. Nygard's architectural decision records.

  • See traditional software engineering and architecture design processes, e.g. table layouts suggested by IBM UMF and by Tyree and Akerman from CapitalOne.

Decision guidance:

  • The steps above are adopted from the Wikipedia entry on Architectural Decision

  • A number of decision making techniques exists, both general ones and software and software architecture specific ones, for instance, dialogue mapping.

Why are decision records better than just notes?

A decision record adds some structure to freeform notes.

A decision record template adds a list of items to cover, which functions as a checklist.

The important result is that teams can use decision records and templates to improve teamwork: the decision records and templates both work as checklists, that help the team ensure they cover all the bases, and they communicate efficiently and effectively.

The advantages of decision records tend to grow with team size, project expansion, integration opportunities, stakeholder involvement, long term maintenance, and evolution over time.

For example, we use decision records with large teams, and across multiple departments, and with multiple partner organizations, and on multiple-year projects, and million-dollar budgets. With this kind of size and scope, we prefer using some kinds of structured communication over just freeform notes.

In practice, we also like using decision records because they encourage more participation among remote teammates, more asynchronous communication, more efficient evalation of options, and more summarization going forward. All of these aspects also help onboard new teammates because the decisions are clear, complete, succinct, and recorded.

How to start using decision records with tools

You can start using decision records with tools any way you want.

For example:

  • If you like Google Drive and Google Docs, then create a decisions folder, and a doc per decision record.

  • If you like source code version control, then create a decisions directory, and a text file per decision record.

  • If you like project planning tools, such as Atlassian Jira, then use the tool's planning tracker.

  • If you like wikis, such as MediaWiki, then create an decision record wiki, with a wiki page per decision record.

Suggestions for writing good decision records

Characteristics of a good decision record:

  • Point in Time - Identify when the decision was made

  • Rationality - Explain the reason for making the particular decision.

  • Immutable record - The decisions made in a previously published decision record should not be altered.

  • Specificity - Each decision record should be about a single decision.

Characteristics of a good context in an decision record:

  • Explain your organization's situation and business priorities

  • Include rationale and considerations based on social and skills makeups of your teams.

Characteristics of good consequences in an decision record::

  • Right approach - "We need to start doing X instead of Y"

  • Wrong approach - Do not explain the decision in terms of "Pros" and "Cons" of having made the particular AD

A new decision record may take the place of a previous decision record:

  • When an decision is made that replaces or invalidates a previous decision record, then create a new decision, and reference the old decision.

For more information






See also:

  • REMAP (Representation and Maintenance of Process Knowledge)

  • DRL (Decision Representation Language)

  • IBIS (Issue-Based Information System)

  • QOC (Questions, Options, and Criteria)

  • IBM’s e-Business Reference Architecture Framework


Decision record: how to initiate and complete decisions for teams, organizations, and systems


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