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Decision Making Problem

Is it a Decision or is it a Problem?

One of the first decision making problems you face (often without realising it) is to decide whether you have a problem to solve or a decision to make. Time can be wasted and people frustrated if you resort to setting up a problem solving team when really a decision needed to be made.

Alternatively living with a decision that was made, when it wasn’t clear why something had gone wrong (that is, you had a problem to solve first before you could make a decision) can be just as costly.
Decision making problems often arise because you aren’t clear whether you have a problem to solve or a decision to make!

We’ll return to this later. First though, what are some of the decision making problems we face?

Why Do We Get So Many Decisions Wrong?

Not only do we sometimes get mixed up between decisions or problems, according to Ohio State University management professor, Paul C. Nutt, we only get about 50% of our decisions in the workplace right! Half the time they are wrong, so there is evidence that we certainly do have decision making problems.

Paul C. Nutt’s research illustrates that bad decisions were usually bad because two things were missing:

1. adequate participation of stakeholders in the decision making process;
2. sufficient time spent generating a range of possible solutions.

Too often those who should have been involved weren’t, and solutions were proposed and acted upon too quickly. Often with disastrous effects!

A third reason that emerged from his research is that: “too often, managers make bad tactical selections ….. because they believe that following recommended decision-making practices would take too much time and demand excessive cash outlays.”

There seems to be three good reasons why we might have decision making problems:

  1. We don’t involve the key people who should be involved
  2. We don’t generate enough alternatives upon which to base our choice of decision
  3. We don’t follow recognised and proven decision making processes

Decision Making Problem: is it a Decision or is it a Problem?

decision making problemAs we suggested earlier, sometimes what is required is a decision rather than to solve a problem. But how do you decide whether you need to make a decision or solve a problem?

Solving a problem, although having many similarities with decision making, tends to have at least one significant difference. A definition of problem solving tends to suggest that a problem has its roots in the past, whereas decisions are more about the future.

A problem is usually where something gone wrong ( or there is a gap or difficulty) where the cause can be traced to the past. A decision looks ahead. It is a commitment to a course of action which is uncertain. Decision making of course is a part of any problem solving process, you need to decide what action to take having analysed a problem and generated a range of options. But here’s the essence of the decision making problem: how do you know whether you have a decision to make or a problem to solve?

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A simple approach is to determine whether there is something wrong, or something you are dissatisfied with you know needs to change. If there is, and you know why something is wrong and there are clear approaches to take, then you have a decision to make, you look forward and act. It is only when you have a situation where it is not clear what should be done, that you then have a problem to solve.

As a final thought whilst being clear whether you have a decision to make or a problem to solve is crucial, perhaps even more fundamental is to ask yourself decision making lesson number 1 do you really need to make a decision?


If you are interested in finding out more about Professor Nutt’s approach to decision making follow this link to read what he has to say in particular in chapter 1 page 4, where he discusses Drucker’s and Weick’s calls to decide whether there is a decision to make.

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