Making decisions and solving problems are two key areas in life, whether you are at home or at work. Whatever you’re doing, and wherever you are, you are faced with countless decisions and problems, both small and large, every day.
Many decisions and problems are so small that we may not even notice them. Even small decisions, however, can be overwhelming to some people. They may come to a halt as they consider their dilemma and try to decide what to do.
Small and Large Decisions
In your day-to-day life you’re likely to encounter numerous ‘small decisions’, including, for example:
- Tea or coffee?
- What shall I have in my sandwich? Or should I have a salad instead today?
- What shall I wear today?
Larger decisions may occur less frequently but may include:
- Should we repaint the kitchen? If so, what colour?
- Should we relocate?
- Should I propose to my partner? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life with him/her?
These decisions, and others like them, may take considerable time and effort to make.
What is Decision Making?
In its simplest sense, decision-making is the act of choosing between two or more courses of action.
In the wider process of problem-solving, decision-making involves choosing between possible solutions to a problem. Decisions can be made through either an intuitive or reasoned process, or a combination of the two.
Intuition is using your ‘gut feeling’ about possible courses of action. Although people talk about it as if it was a magical ‘sense’, intuition is actually a combination of past experience and your personal values. It is worth taking your intuition into account, because it reflects your learning about life. It is, however, not always based on reality, only your perceptions, many of which may have started in childhood and may not be very mature as a result.
It is therefore worth examining your gut feeling closely, especially if you have a very strong feeling against a particular course of action, to see if you can work out why, and whether the feeling is justified.
Reasoning is using the facts and figures in front of you to make decisions. Reasoning has its roots in the here-and-now, and in facts. It can, however, ignore emotional aspects to the decision, and in particular, issues from the past that may affect the way that the decision is implemented
More complicated decisions tend to require a more formal, structured approach, usually involving both intuition and reasoning. It is important to be wary of impulsive reactions to a situation.
What Can Prevent Effective Decision-Making?
There are a number of problems that can prevent effective decision-making. These include:
1. Not Enough Information
If you do not have enough information, it can feel like you are making a decision without any basis.
Take some time to gather the necessary data to inform your decision, even if the timescale is very tight. If necessary, prioritise your information-gathering by identifying which information will be most important to you.
2. Too Much Information
The opposite problem, but one that is seen surprisingly often: having so much conflicting information that it is impossible to see ‘the wood for the trees’.
This is sometimes called analysis paralysis, and is also used as a tactic to delay organisational decision-making, with those involved demanding ever more information before they can decide.
This problem can often be resolved by getting everyone together to decide what information is really important and why, and by setting a clear timescale for decision-making, including an information-gathering stage.
3. Too Many People
Making decisions by committee is difficult. Everyone has their own views, and their own values. And while it’s important to know what these views are, and why and how they are important, it may be essential for one person to take responsibility for making a decision. Sometimes, any decision is better than none.
4. Vested Interests
Decision-making processes often founder under the weight of vested interests. These vested interests are often not overtly expressed, but may be a crucial blockage. Because they are not overtly expressed, it is hard to identify them clearly, and therefore address them, but it can sometimes be possible to do so by exploring them with someone outside the process, but in a similar position.
It can also help to explore the rational/intuitive aspects with all stakeholders, usually with an external facilitator to support the process.
5. Emotional Attachments
People are often very attached to the status quo. Decisions tend to involve the prospect of change, which many people find difficult.
6. No Emotional Attachment
Sometimes it’s difficult to make a decision because you just don’t care one way or the other. In this case, a structured decision-making process can often help by identifying some very real pros and cons of particular actions, that perhaps you hadn’t thought about before.
Many of these issues can be overcome by using a structured decision-making process. This will help to:
- Reduce more complicated decisions down to simpler steps;
- See how any decisions are arrived at; and
- Plan decision making to meet deadlines.
Decision Making Process
Many different techniques of decision making have been developed, ranging from simple rules of thumb, to extremely complex procedures. The method used depends on the nature of the decision to be made and how complex it is.
The important aspect is to go through all the stages in turn, even if only to decide that they are not relevant for the current situation.
1. Listing Possible Solutions/Options
To come up with a list of all the possible solutions and/or options available it is usually appropriate to use a group (or individual) problem-solving process. This process could include brainstorming or some other ‘idea-generating’ process.
This stage is important to the overall decision making processes as a decision will be made from a selection of fixed choices.
Always remember to consider the possibility of not making a decision or doing nothing and be aware that both options are actually potential solutions in themselves
2. Setting a Time Scale and Deciding Who is Responsible for the Decision
In deciding how much time to make available for the decision-making process, it helps to consider the following:
- How much time is available to spend on this decision?
- Is there a deadline for making a decision and what are the consequences of missing this deadline?
- Is there an advantage in making a quick decision?
- How important is it to make a decision? How important is it that the decision is right?
- Will spending more time improve the quality of the decision?
Remember that sometimes a quick decision is more important than ‘the right’ decision, and that at other times, the reverse is true.
Responsibility for the Decision
Before making a decision, you need to be clear who is going to take responsibility for it.
Remember that it is not always those making the decision who have to assume responsibility for it. Is it an individual, a group or an organization?
This is a key question because the degree to which responsibility for a decision is shared can greatly influence how much risk people are willing to take.
If the decision-making is for work, then it is helpful to consider the structure of the organization.
- Is the individual responsible for their decisions or does the organization hold ultimate responsibility?
- Who has to carry out the course of action decided?
- Who will it affect if something goes wrong?
- Are you willing to take responsibility for a mistake?
Finally, you need to know who can actually make the decision. When helping a friend, colleague or client to reach a decision, in most circumstances the final decision and responsibility will be taken by them.
Whenever possible, and if it is not obvious, it is better to agree formally who is responsible for a decision.
This idea of responsibility also highlights the need to keep a record of how any decision was made, what information it was based on and who was involved. Enough information needs to be kept to justify that decision in the future so that, if something does go wrong, it is possible to show that your decision was reasonable in the circumstance and given the knowledge you held at the time
3. Information Gathering
Before making a decision, all relevant information needs to be gathered.
If there is inadequate or out-dated information then it is more likely that a wrong decision might be made. If there is a lot of irrelevant information, the decision will be difficult to make, and it will be easier to become distracted by unnecessary factors.
You therefore need up-to-date, accurate information on which to make decisions.
However, the amount of time spent on information-gathering has to be weighed against how much you are willing to risk making the wrong decision. In a group situation, such as at work, it may be appropriate for different people to research different aspects of the information required. For example, different people might be allocated to concentrate their research on costs, facilities, availability, and so on.
4. Weighing up the Risks Involved
One key question is how much risk should be taken in making the decision? Generally, the amount of risk an individual is willing to take depends on:
- The seriousness of the consequences of taking the wrong decision.
- The benefits of making the right decision.
- Not only how bad the worst outcome might be, but also how likely that outcome is to happen.
It is also useful to consider what the risk of the worst possible outcome occurring might be, and to decide if the risk is acceptable. The choice can be between going ‘all out for success’ or taking a safe decision.
5. Deciding on Values
Everybody has their own unique set of values: what they believe to be important. The decisions that you make will, ultimately, be based on your values. That means that the decision that is right for you may not be right for someone else.
If the responsibility for a decision is shared, it is therefore possible that one person might not have the same values as the others.
In such cases, it is important to obtain a consensus as to which values are to be given the most weight. It is important that the values on which a decision is made are understood because they will have a strong influence on the final choice.
6. Weighing up the Pros and Cons
It is possible to compare different solutions and options by considering the possible advantages and disadvantages of each.
Some organizations have a formal process that is required at this stage, including a financial assessment, so check beforehand if you are making a decision at work.
One good way to do this is to use a ‘balance sheet‘, weighing up the pros and cons (benefits and costs) associated with that solution. Try to consider each aspect of the situation in turn, and identify both good and bad.
For example, start with costs, then move onto staffing aspects, then perhaps presentational issues.
Having listed the pros and cons, it may be possible to immediately decide which option is best. However, it may also be useful to rate each of the pros and cons on a simple 1 to 10 scale (with 10 – most important to 1 – least important).
In scoring each of the pros and cons it helps to take into account how important each item on the list is in meeting the agreed values. This balance sheet approach allows this to be taken into account, and presents it in a clear and straightforward manner.
7. Making the Decision
Finally, it’s time to actually make the decision!
Your information-gathering should have provided sufficient data on which to base a decision, and you now know the advantages and disadvantages of each option. It is now time to make your decision!
You may get to this stage, and have a clear ‘winner’ but still feel uncomfortable. If that is the case, don’t be afraid to revisit the process. You may not have listed all the pros and cons, or you may have placed an unsuitable weighting on one factor.
Your intuition or ‘gut feeling’ is a strong indicator of whether the decision is right for you and fits with your values.
If possible, it is best to allow time to reflect on a decision once it has been reached. It is preferable to sleep on it before announcing it to others. Once a decision is made public, it is very difficult to change.
For important decisions it is worth always keeping a record of the steps you followed in the decision-making process. That way, if you are ever criticised for making a bad decision you can justify your thoughts based on the information and processes you used at the time. Furthermore, by keeping a record and engaging with the decision-making process, you will be strengthening your understanding of how it works, which can make future decisions easier to manage.