Decision Making - An Introduction

Also see: Problem Solving.

People often find it hard to make decisions - inevitably we all have to make decisions all the time, some are more important than others.  

Some people put off making decisions by endlessly searching for more information or getting other people to offer their recommendations.  Others resort to decision making by taking a vote, sticking a pin in a list or tossing a coin.

Regardless of the effort that is put into making a decision, it has to be accepted that some decisions will not be the best possible choice.  This page examines one technique that can be used for effective decision making and that should help you to make effective decisions now and in the future. 

Although the following technique is designed for an organisational or group structure, it can be easily adapted to an individual level.


What is Decision Making?

In its simplest sense: 'Decision Making is the act of choosing between two or more courses of action'.  However, it must always be remembered that there may not always be a 'correct' decision among the available choices.  There may have been a better choice that had not been considered, or the right information may not have been available at the time.  Because of this, it is important to keep a record of all important decisions and the reasons why these decisions were made, so that improvements can be made in the future.  This also provides justification for any decision taken when something goes wrong.  Hindsight might not be able to correct past mistakes, but it will aid improved decision making in the future.

Effective Decision Making


Although decisions can be made using either intuition or reasoning, a combination of both approaches is often used.  Whatever approach is used, it is usually helpful to structure decision making in order to:

  • Reduce more complicated decisions down to simpler steps.
  • See how any decisions are arrived at.
  • Plan decision making to meet deadlines.

Stages of Decision Making

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 method described on this page follows a seven stages:

  1. Listing all possible solutions/options.
  2. Setting a time scale and deciding who is responsible for the decision.
  3. Information gathering.
  4. Weighing up the risks involved.
  5. Deciding on values, or in other words what is important.
  6. Weighing up the pros and cons of each course of action.
  7. Making the decision.

1. Listing Possible Solutions/Options

In order to come up with a list of all the possible solutions and/or options available it is usually appropriate to work on a group (or individual) problem-solving process. This process, could include brainstorming or some other 'idea generating' process (see our page: Problem Solving for more information). 

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?

Also see our page: Time Management.

Responsibility For The Decision

Before making a decision, it needs to be clear who is going to take responsibility for the decision.  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 organisation?  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 organisation that you are in.  Is the individual responsible for the decisions he or she makes or does the organisation 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 make a formal decision as to 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.

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