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The Four Stages of Effective Decision Making

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In order to thoroughly identify, assess and select a “best choice” alternative from among a variety of potential solutions, it is essential to understand how to utilize the various stages of decision making in a manner that accommodates creative insight and thought.

Decision-making is most powerful when combined with logical, intuitive and creative mental processing. The stages used at specific points in the decision making and problem solving processes are well suited to group settings but are equally applicable to individual situations.

Tunnel vision is the biggest obstacle to problem identification during the decision making process. Tunnel vision often leads to artificial restrictions on the search for alternatives because it leads to a problem being defined too narrowly.

In order to prevent tunnel vision and maintain focus on the main problem, four decision-making stages and their individual steps should be followed in the specific order outlined below. Careful execution of these stages will help generate the best solution for an existing problem.

The Contribution Stage

The goal of the contribution stage is to gain a better understanding of the existing problem and the specific circumstances surrounding it.

Before doing anything, the decision making group must identify the problem and state it clearly and concisely. The idea at this point is to understand and maintain a focus on the decision-making or problem solving process and its purpose.

The identification of a problem consists of not only describing it accurately, precisely and in detail but also addressing the possible gaps that exist between current perceptions of the situation and desired outcomes.

The following are four typical gaps that indicate a decision has to be made soon:

  • Something needs to be adjusted or corrected because a current method, procedure, action or practice is insufficient to produce the desired results.
  • Something needs to be prevented because of a possible threat or negative influence.
  • Something is appealing, engaging or interesting and needs to be acknowledged, received or accepted.
  • Something needs to be provided because an element seems to be missing, ignored or unidentified.

Step One: Brainstorming

To initiate effective brainstorming, group members should either individually or collectively write down possible solutions to the problem at hand with all alternatives objectively considered. It is important to brainstorm extensively in order to expand and build upon the ideas generated.

Once the brainstorming session has run its course, the group can begin classifying, categorizing, and prioritizing issues surrounding the problem. The goal is to create a hierarchy of issues and factors based on how essential each is to achieving a particular solution.

Step Two: Criteria

During this step, the group develops the criteria to evaluate possible alternatives for resolving the problem or situation. It is important to categorize criteria as either “essential” for a successful solution or simply “desired.”

When the criteria are being developed, the group should establish boundaries, acceptable alternatives and important values or feelings that need to be considered, as well as certain results that should be avoided.

Once ideas are generated, the criteria need to again be objectively considered. Important criteria should be categorized, with the group making a preliminary selection to be used throughout the process. It should be noted that these criteria will probably need to be modified as other important facts and information come to light.

Step Three: Fact Gathering

This step focuses on gathering information and facts that are relevant to making a decision. It is a critical component in clarifying the aforementioned perceived gaps.

Quality is more important than quantity when gathering information. Too much information can confuse and complicate the decision making process.

Brainstorming can again be used at this point. Facts should be classified and categorized so as to clarify the connection between various elements of information. The goal is to establish patterns and relationships among the facts.

All considered information must be analyzed in terms of the group’s problem statement and evaluation criteria; any non-pertinent facts should be eliminated. Relevant information and associated patterns should be prioritized by applicability to the problem at hand, and additional facts collected later if necessary.

The Procedural Stage

The group must actively develop, evaluate, and select alternatives and solutions to solve the identified problem.

Step One: Development

It is important to create alternatives over the entire range of acceptable options outlined in the contribution stage. At this stage the process needs to be free, open, and unconcerned with feasibility. This activity should ensure that nonstandard and creative alternatives are generated. Once again, the brainstorming technique can be used effectively, allowing participants to quickly record and share results without partiality and to use the input to develop additional alternatives.

A number of brainstorming methods such as “challenging assumptions,” the “random word technique,” and “taking another’s perspective” can be used to generate more creative alternatives. Alternatives that appear unworthy of further consideration need to be eliminated.

It is possible to categorize or classify alternatives and consider them as a group, but care should be taken not to create categories that are too complex, unmanageable or cumbersome. If the group shows dissatisfaction with the quantity or quality of alternatives under consideration, a break may be beneficial in order to renew the group and inject more objectivity and fresh insight into the process.

Step Two: Evaluate

A list of specific advantages, disadvantages, and interesting aspects for each alternative should be shared, discussed and recorded. After eliminating alternatives that are clearly outside the bounds and parameters of the stated criteria, these advantages and disadvantages should be considered in more detail.

An analysis of existing relationships among alternatives should also be completed, which can be done by asking, “Is an advantage of one a disadvantage for another?” At this point, serious consideration should be given to the relative importance of advantages and disadvantages.

Only those alternatives that the majority of the group considers to be relevant and correct should be given further consideration.

Step Three: Developing a Solution

For relatively simple problems, one alternative may clearly be the “best choice” solution. However, in more complex situations, combining several alternatives may be more effective. A distinct advantage of this process is that—if previous steps have been completed thoroughly and with attention to detail—selecting a solution becomes far less complicated.

Before completing this stage it is important to diagnose possible problems with the selected solution and determine the implications of these potential problems. This means asking the question, “What could go wrong and why?” When developing a solution, it is important to discuss the worst-case scenario that could come about if the solution is implemented.

The Implementation Stage

During this stage, a plan with which to put the selected solution into action is created. The plan must be highly detailed to allow for successful implementation.

Methods of evaluation must also be considered and developed. When developing a plan, the major phases of implementation are considered first, with steps necessary for each phase outlined. It is often helpful to construct a timeline and diagram the most important steps in the implementation process. “Backward planning” and task analysis techniques can be useful during this stage.

The plan should be implemented as carefully and completely as possible, with minor modifications often needed.

The Reflection Stage

The final decision making stage—reflection—is comprised of three steps.

Step One: Assess Implementation

Once initially undertaken, this step should be ongoing.
The group needs to decide how to determine “completeness of implementation” prior to evaluating the implemented solution’s effectiveness.

The fact that this step is often ignored or omitted is one of the main reasons decision making and problem solving processes fail: it often never becomes apparent that the selected solution is simply not being effectively implemented.

Step Two: Evaluate Solution’s Effectiveness

It is particularly important to evaluate outcomes in light of the problem statement generated at the beginning of the process. Affective, cognitive and behavioral results should also be considered, especially if they have been identified as important criteria. The solution should be judged according to its overall efficiency and impact on the people involved.

Step Three: Modification

When necessary, the solution should be modified according to suggestions generated during the previous step, as evaluation often brings additional problems to light that will need to be considered and addressed by the group. Issues identified that focus on implementation efficiency and effectiveness should be targeted.

Excerpt: Intelligent Decision Making: The Pinpoint Management Skill Development Training Series (Majorium Business Press, 2011) $ 18.95 USD

If you would like to learn more about effective decision making techniques, refer to Intelligent Decision Making: The Pinpoint Management Skill Development Training Series. This training skill-pack features eight key interrelated concepts, each with their own discussion points and training activity. It is ideal as an informal training tool for coaching or personal development. It can also be used as a handbook and guide for group training discussions. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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