Decision making is a critical part of solving complex problems. In theory, it happens after framing the problem and exploring options and criteria, in the form of a climax where the fundamental components of the process—the question you’re answering, the options you’ve created as possible answers, and the criteria you’ll use to evaluate these options—all come together.
But in reality, decision making doesn’t happen at this neat, discrete point in time. Rather, it permeates the entire problem-solving process, so you should act accordingly.
Decision making is an integral part of problem solving
There is no denying that decision making is a critical part of solving complex problems. Assume for a second that the complex problem you’re facing is to set a strategy for your organization—“strategy” defined as a plan of action to achieve an overall objective. Then, at some point, you’ll have to choose between going one way or going another way; what my colleague Albrecht Enders describes as a “fork in the road.” At that fork in the road, your options are mutually exclusive: choosing one prevents you from also choosing another. And chances are that that decision entails a fairly big trade-off: one option might have high reward but comes at a high risk, whereas the other might be low risk but low reward.
This decision should get you to pause because of its inherent trade-off: you will need to give up something that you value so that you can get something that you value more. So, you will need to identify how much you value what—and this is the extended “you,” here, which includes not just you the decision maker but also your stakeholders. Here, a decision matrix can help you visualize these trade-offs more concretely.
So, when solving complex problems, you can use a matrix to navigate the fork in the road. It’s a well-established practice … and a mixed metaphor. Except that that doesn’t capture how decision making permeates the problem-solving process.
However, decision making happens throughout the process, so act accordingly
Indeed, when you’re framing your problem—deciding what your key question is and what it isn’t; and setting its context with the situation and the complication—you are already making critical decisions. When you’re deciding which stakeholders to onboard onto your problem-solving team, which others to consult, and which to leave out, you’re also making important decisions. When you’re electing to conduct a full-blown diagnosis or bypass it, develop your how map, summarize it in a set of options, select and weight your criteria, craft the message that you’ll use to announce your decision to your stakeholders, you decide.
Indeed, then, the matrix at the fork in the road is only the emerged part of the decision-making iceberg, and an even more mixed metaphor.
And, in fact, because so many of these decisions happen earlier in the process than the fork in the road—some of them much earlier—I’d contend that their effects can be orders of magnitude higher that of the decision you make in your decision matrix.
What we’re dealing with, then, isn’t a nicely sequential process wherein the decision occurs after framing and exploring but a process along which deciding occurs continuously. And, if we account for the facts that -1- early decisions have a bigger effect and -2- we often don’t understand our problem until later in the process and need to go back to update our thinking, then it gets even messier.
A direct implication is that you need to meaningfully engage stakeholders throughout the decision process. If you wait until you’ve already framed the problem to engage them, you might miss some of their perspectives. That might result in you having to rework past results once you realize that you had blind spots; it might also mean that they won’t support your decision because they felt left out.
Another important take away is that you should continuously check for biases throughout the process. If we’re making decisions at every step of it, then biases can derail us at any moment. Periodically step back and review your key assumptions. Here again, engaging stakeholders can help, as it might be easier for them to see what you’re missing.
Finally, don’t hesitate to formalize how you make decisions along the way. Traditionally, we use decision aids (comparing various options using how they fare on several criteria) only when comparing potential solutions for our problem. But you could use the same decision aids for each of the decisions along the way; for instance to help you compare possible problem formulations and decide which would be most valuable to you.
Bhardwaj, Gaurab, et al. “Alleviating the plunging-in bias, elevating strategic problem-solving.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 17.3 (2018): 279-301.
Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 35–36, pp. 21–45.
Enders, Albrecht, K. A. Andreas, and Jean-Louis Barsoux. “Stop jumping to solutions!.” MIT Sloan Management Review57.4 (2016): 63.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Applying Risk Analysis, Value Engineering, and Other Innovative Solutions for Project Delivery. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24851.