A Basic Decision Making Model
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

We will consider decision making in a broader sense than merely making a choice. We will consider it as the often-extensive process ranging from first recognizing a problem or decision to be made, on through framing the problem or decision, identifying and evaluating alternatives, choosing among the alternatives, implementing the chosen alternative, and stabilizing the action plus learning from the experience. We could describe this view of decision making as the process of arriving at an outcome that meets a set of objectives, when dealing with a problem or decision. We will use the terms decision making and problem solving interchangeably, although there are, at times, useful distinctions to be made between them (e.g., decisions are often made and implemented in the absence of problems).

There are many decision making models in the literature, with some attempts to group them into categories. In this course, we will deal especially, but not exclusively, with the category called rational decision making models - which is only one, although a central, example of models in the literature.

We will consider a rational decision making model that packages the elements into five stages with labels that are typical of the mainstream rational decision making models. There is nothing magic about having five stages. We could have packaged this into a different number, and you will find models in the literature with three to eight stages, although they are substantively the same. You should become familiar with the elements in this model and its application to individual and group decision making. As you think about and apply this five-stage model, note that this is not a linear, one-pass process. Rather, there is substantial interaction and iteration among the five stages. Good critical thinking throughout this process is important [see the Strategic and Critical Thinking module].

1. Frame the problem or decision

This stage involves identifying (a) the principal objectives that a "successful" decision should address and (b) a context for the decision, including constraints and other factors that should be considered during the process [see the module on Framing a Decision for more details.]. More often than necessary, even very experienced decision makers neglect this stage and jump directly to arguing about alternatives or taking immediate action ("fire, ready, aim"). For significant decisions, it is important to devote some time to framing them, sometimes in multiple ways to gain insights. Creativity in viewing a decision from more than one frame is a valuable asset.

We will practice recognizing and defining objectives to be achieved in a problem solving/decision making situation, and how to avoid the common trap of defining a problem in terms of a preferred solution (e.g., "the problem is that we need more overtime"). We will consider how well- or ill-defined the problem(s) is, and how to deal with multiple, even competing objectives, often held by different individuals. [See the module on Objectives & Goals for more details.]

2. Generate a rich range of alternatives

The quality of decision making is also improved by pushing yourself to develop a broader, richer, more divergent range of alternatives than might otherwise be considered. Frequently, the quality of a decision is directly related to the range of alternatives that are identified. Creativity is especially important in this stage.

3. Evaluate alternatives and choose

This includes identifying or at least inferring decision criteria from the objectives and factors that were part of the framing of the problem. It may involve identifying/estimating future conditions or implications of the alternatives, testing assumptions, using "what if" questioning and sensitivity analysis, and considering values.

4. Implement chosen alternative(s)

Implementation is often given inadequate attention in organizations. Too often a "brilliant" decision is made and the responsible parties are surprised and disappointed that the decision does not lead directly to the hoped-for result. Our language has for centuries included phrases to remind us of this difficulty, e.g.: "There is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip" (Palladas, c. A.D.400) or "The best laid schemes o'mice and men gang aft a-gley; an' lea'e us nought but grief and pain, for promis'd joy" (Robert Burns, 1785). The most creative, inspired choice can be rendered useless by ineffective implementation. Implementation needs to address creatively the six basic questions of what will be done, how will this be carried out? who will do it? when will this be done?where will it be done? and why is it being implemented in this way (what is the underlying rationale and logic)? [See the module on Implementation for more details.]

5. Stabilize and learn from the decision

Change in an organization takes time and effort to make it stabilized and institutionalized (in the best, non-bureaucratic sense of the word). This could be considered a part of implementation or separated, as done in this model. Also, learning from your experience, including decision making, is vitally important, and this stage incorporates the elements of determining outcomes and reflecting/searching for missed opportunities. The importance of learning from your experience was highlighted by the noted historian, Arnold Toynbee: "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them."

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Last modified May 16, 2010 Copyright 1993-2010 Rex Mitchell