Decision making: identifying and considering multiple options, assessing the pros and cons of each, and choosing the course of action closest to the desired outcome.
Participants in our seminars sometimes ask me why I draw a distinction between “problem solving” and “decision making.” Indeed, decision making could be seen as a very advanced form of problem solving. But I like to shine a bright light on this distinction: nine out of 10 problems people face in the workplace—especially the problems new young employees face—have been solved already. So the best way to solve a problem is to take a good repeatable solution from the past and apply it in the moment.
That’s why my approach to problem solving is nine-tenths about capturing and learning repeatable solutions. What’s more, this is a way to prepare in advance for recurring problems. Decision making, on the other hand, is for that rare breed of problem—or that sliver present in every problem—where the decision has not been made already by someone with more experience and authority. And what is that sliver common to every problem? Deciding what the problem really is in the first place.
What is the essence of decision making anyway? It’s not the same thing as sheer brain power, mental capacity, or natural intelligence. It’s not a matter of accumulated knowledge or memorized information. It is more than the mastery of techniques and tools.
If you think about decision making, maybe you think of the most basic decision-making tool: the weighing of pros and cons. But pros and cons are really just predictions of likely outcomes. So your pros and cons list is useless if you can’t accurately predict the likely outcomes of one choice versus another.
Good decision-making is really about being able to predict likely outcomes. To see the connections between cause and effect. To project out the consequences of one set of events and actions as opposed to another. The irony is that the only way to develop that “go forward” ability to predict the future is to learn from the past.
I recall witnessing a young person, maybe 16 or 17 years old, going through a brunch buffet line. She turned to her mother and asked, “Mom, do I like scrambled eggs?” Her mother turned to her and said, “Well, you’ve had scrambled eggs before.” The young lady said, “I know. Did I like them?”
Experience alone does not teach good decision making. The key to learning from experience is paying close attention and aggressively drawing lessons from one’s experiences. If you can begin to see the patterns in causes and their effects, then you can start to think ahead with insight. Ultimately, that’s the key to decision making.