Effective Decision Making – A Framework
Our page on Making Decisions discusses some of the issues around decision-making.
This page describes one possible framework for making effective decisions. It is a seven-stage model, and was originally designed for use in groups and organisations. However, there is no reason why you cannot use the same method, or a simplified form, for decisions at home.
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.
See our pages on Problem Solving and Creative Thinking 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?
Remember that sometimes a quick decision is more important than ‘the right’ decision, and that at other times, the reverse is true.
Also see our page: Time Management.
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 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.
- Is the individual responsible for their decisions 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 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.
You may find the pages in our Study Skills and Research Methods sections useful during the information gathering stage of decision making. Our pages Effective Reading and Note-Taking may be of particular relevance.
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.
For more about risk, see our page on Risk Management.
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 organisations 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, as the television programme Opportunity Knocks had it, ‘Make Your Mind Up Time’.
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.
Having Made the Decision...
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, once you have made a decision, don’t waste your time thinking about ‘what ifs’. If something does go wrong, and you need to revisit the decision, then do. But otherwise, accept the decision and move on.
This page has set out one decision-making technique that you may like to use. Remember, though, that no technique can substitute for good judgement and clear thinking. All decision-making involves individual judgement, and systematic techniques are merely there to assist those judgements.