What is a rationale? (and why do I need one?)

I’ve noticed myself throwing around the word “rationale” a lot lately. For example, when someone on my team presents an idea that I don’t quite get, I ask, “What’s the rationale?” Or if a client requests a revision and my teammate disagrees with it, I say, “Did you explain your rationale for the original decision?”

I’ve also noticed the occasional blank stare in response. 😶

So, it occurs to me that maybe I need to answer for myself, my team, and anyone else who is curious, what exactly do I mean by a rationale? And, why do I think it’s important?


Dictionary and scientific definitions of "rationale" 

According to Merriam-Webster, a rationale is:

  1. :  an explanation of controlling principles of opinion, belief, practice, or phenomena
  2. :  an underlying reason : basis

In the research world, a rationale is a necessary justification for any scientific study. Typically, a research rationale addresses two points. First, it points to a gap in the current research on the topic. Basically, it says, “Hey, look over here! Nobody’s ever looked at it this way before!”

But innovation isn’t enough, a researcher also has to justify the importance of looking at the topic in a new way. Like, maybe there’s a reason nobody ever looked at it that way before. Or, as it was explained to me in grad school, you need to be able to answer the question “So, what?”


Operationally defining "rationale" for everyday use

Although I do still occasionally dabble in peer-reviewed research, I’m not writing for scientific journals on the daily. So, why am I talking about having a rationale so much? Simple. Common People United is all about research and strategy. Research drives strategy, and strategy drives everything we do here. If we don’t have a rationale for a decision, we shouldn’t be making that decision.

Of course, in practical use, a rationale is going to look a little bit different than the scientific-study-version. But, before I get to what a rationale IS, let me take a second to point out what it IS NOT. In most cases, “Because I like it,” “Because I don’t like it,” “Because it’s fun/cute/clever” or “Because someone is questioning it” are not good rationales for making strategic decisions. That last one is where my team sometimes run into trouble.

Certainly, there are times where clients or peers question a decision and provide a rationale we hadn’t thought of or add new information that should result in a change of direction. But that is not always and immediately the case. If we start with a solid research foundation, and have a rationale for our choices, more often than not, clients’, team members’, or peers’ concerns can be met with a confident justification and explanation of the decision-making process.

So, in my current line of work, a rationale serves as a strategic compass for a project, and it typically involves resolving the following questions:

  1. What is the goal of this project?
  2. What is the message we want to communicate?
  3. Who are we trying to communicate with?
  4. How does our proposed solution help achieve the project goal, send the desired message, and reach the desired audience?

It sounds pretty straightforward. The trick is doing enough research first, and then explicitly laying out your rationale. That way, if questions, concerns — or even worse, fear and panic — arise, you can explain your decisions with confidence, and everyone can stay on track and focused on the goal.

Explicitly stating your rationale will take a bit more prep work than diving right into the project, but the results are invaluable. A thoughtful rationale allows you to trust in your decisions, your team, and most importantly, yourself.

If you’re having difficulty establishing a rationale or strategy for a project, send me an email at danee@commonpeopleunited.com. I’d be happy to help!