Understanding the importance of decision making and decision making processes
What is decision making?
Put simply decision making is making a choice between various courses of action. Decision making is something we do constantly as we are faced with thousands of decisions to make every day. For example, even as I type I am making a constant string of choices of which words to use in order to express what I want to say.
Most decisions we make are actually unconscious ones. It would take too long to explore the pros and cons of every decision and we can also risk ‘paralysis by analysis’ if we spend to much time on a decisions, even a relatively unimportant one, as we can become overloaded by information. Have you ever stood and stared for an age weighing up a choice in a supermarket or spent hours trying to decide on an online purchase? Most of us will have experienced this kind of analysis paralysis to one level or another when the choice is too great or outside our usual frame of reference.
Some decisions are relatively unimportant such as what clothes to wear, what to eat for lunch or what to watch on television. Some decisions are much more important such as the choice of spouse, career or purchasing a property. We instinctively know that we should take more time and effort over the more important decisions but we do not necessarily know how we make decisions or have tools to help us make the best choice.
How do we make decisions?
We often think of decision making as a rational process where we engage our logic to solve a problem but decision making is actually not just problem analysis (although they are linked) and also a lot of decision making is influenced more by emotion than by logic.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, our emotions are very important and employing them does not necessarily make a choice irrational, as our emotions are connected to our experiences, preferences and values.
If we were purely rational we would operate according to ‘Rational Choice Theory’ and always choose the choice that offers the best statistical chance of success or reward. However various scientific studies have shown that this is not the case. We are not purely rational and can be heavily influenced, by ourselves, others and circumstances to make quite irrational decisions.
People don’t realise that they often influence and even fool themselves. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published a paper in 2011 that concluded we use our reason and logic, not to get to the truth or to make good decisions but primarily to strengthen our position and persuade other people that we are right. In other words we can selectively choose data that supports our decision or prematurely terminate our gathering of information.
Our circumstances also play a large part in our decision making especially if we are in stressful conditions. At the extreme level we could be affected by the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses first outlined by Walter Bradford Cannon. These physiological responses have a direct influence upon our psychology and may even completely preclude our decision making capacity.
Other people can also bias our decisions. This could be simple peer pressure or more manipulative influence employed by an individual. Our psychology can be exploited. Sales people used have long understood this, hence strategies such as creating the idea of scarcity or advertising using subliminal suggestion and product placement.
What is a decision making process?
Being aware of the influences we have is very important if we want to make good decisions. Decision making processes can help us as they encourage us to take a step back from our situation and assess it more objectively. This will not eliminate bias but it will help.
Decision making processes also seek to identify the stages needed to make a decision so we can follow through on a choice in a logical manner. One common breakdown of steps in a decision making process is:
1. Outline the goal or outcome/analyse the problem
2. Gather data/consider factors
3. Develop alternatives/courses of action
4. Consider the pros and cons of each alternative
5. Make the decision
6. Implement the decision/take action
7. Learn from the decision
To some level most people apply a decision making process at some time, even if they don’t call it by that name. Making a list of the pros and cons of a decision is one of the simplest and most common decision making processes. Related to this is the setting of priorities or by reducing choices by process of elimination.
One process we employ is giving our decision making to people and things. Acquiescing responsibility for a decision, as we do to our elected politicians, or delegating decision making to subordinates is a decision making process. Flipping a coin is way of acquiescing responsibility to fate or probability (depending upon your view of the world) whereas there is also an increasing array of software that we can also use to support our decision making, or even to make decisions for us.
Why are decision making processes important?
Despite the importance of decision making and the general awareness of decision making processes very few organisations put much time and training into teaching people how to make better decisions. We gain a certain amount of critical thinking and problem analysis through our formal education but few people feel properly prepared to make important decisions in their work, especially when they may need defend their position, demonstrate their rationale and persuade others to follow a decision.
Many existing processes within organisations support decision making. For example a tender process where bids are received and reviewed in the light of factors such as cost, quality and the track record of a company is a formalised decision making process. Voting in a meeting is another simple process. But few people – including leaders – are taught decision making skills that can be used more generally.
A few institutions have recognised the importance of teaching their decision makers processes that equip them to make decisions in a variety of circumstances. The military and the medical profession are key examples of this. This is because those with responsibility in these professions are dealing with life and death decisions often made under highly stressful and emotionally charged situations. In these careers, where people are held accountable for such weighty choices it is no surprise that a lot of thinking has gone into good decision making.
What decision making processes are there to use?
There are some robust decision making processes and tools available. Military thinking has led to the development of decision making models and processes such as the OODA loop (based on work with the United States Air Force), the Military Decision Making Process (United States Army), the Estimate Process and the Seven Questions (HM Forces, United Kingdom). All of these share some common aspects and reflect the seven steps outlined above.
Even though not everyone has to make life and death decisions, most people in responsible positions – such as leaders and managers – appreciate the need to make good decisions whatever field they are working in.
Decision making is also becoming of increasing importance to those not in traditional leadership roles. Organisations are becoming less hierarchical in structure and in today’s fluid and fast moving work place the best employees are those who can take the initiative, make and act upon good decisions. Systems such as the SWOT analysis are very useful in helping to shape decisions but there are few full decision making processes that are available to individuals and organisations. Therefore everyone can benefit from understanding more about the way we make decisions and from learning simple decision making processes
You can find some other good resources on decision making here:
As well as using The Right Questions process which you can explore here: