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Decision-making and Problem-solving

Appreciate the complexities involved in decision-making & problem solving.

Develop evidence to support views

Analyze situations carefully

Discuss subjects in an organized way

Predict the consequences of actions

Weigh alternatives

Generate and organize ideas

Form and apply concepts

Design systematic plans of action

A 5-Step Problem-Solving Strategy

Specify the problem – a first step to solving a problem is to identify it as specifically as possible.  It involves evaluating the present state and determining how it differs from the goal state.

Analyze the problem – analyzing the problem involves learning as much as you can about it.  It may be necessary to look beyond the obvious, surface situation, to stretch your imagination and reach for more creative options.

seek other perspectives

be flexible in your analysis

consider various strands of impact

brainstorm about all possibilities and implications

research problems for which you lack complete information. Get help.

Formulate possible solutions – identify a wide range of possible solutions.

try to think of all possible solutions

be creative

consider similar problems and how you have solved them

Evaluate possible solutions – weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.  Think through each solution and consider how, when, and where you could accomplish each.  Consider both immediate and long-term results.  Mapping your solutions can be helpful at this stage.

Choose a solution – consider 3 factors:

compatibility with your priorities

amount of risk


Keys to Problem Solving

Think aloud – problem solving is a cognitive, mental process.  Thinking aloud or talking yourself through the steps of problem solving is useful.  Hearing yourself think can facilitate the process.

Allow time for ideas to "gel" or consolidate.  If time permits, give yourself time for solutions to develop.  Distance from a problem can allow you to clear your mind and get a new perspective.

Talk about the problem – describing the problem to someone else and talking about it can often make a problem become more clear and defined so that a new solution will surface.

Decision Making Strategies

Decision making is a process of identifying and evaluating choices.  We make numerous decisions every day and our decisions may range from routine, every-day types of decisions to those decisions which will have far reaching impacts.  The types of decisions we make are routine, impulsive, and reasoned.  Deciding what to eat for breakfast is a routine decision; deciding to do or buy something at the last minute is considered an impulsive decision; and choosing your college major is, hopefully, a reasoned decision.  College coursework often requires you to make the latter, or reasoned decisions.

Decision making has much in common with problem solving.  In problem solving you identify and evaluate solution paths; in decision making you make a similar discovery and evaluation of alternatives.  The crux of decision making, then, is the careful identification and evaluation of alternatives.  As you weigh alternatives, use the following suggestions:

Consider the outcome each is likely to produce, in both the short term and the long term.

Compare alternatives based on how easily you can accomplish each.

Evaluate possible negative side effects each may produce.

Consider the risk involved in each.

Be creative, original; don't eliminate alternatives because you have not heard or used them before.

An important part of decision making is to predict both short-term and long-term outcomes for each alternative.  You may find that while an alternative seems most desirable at the present, it may pose problems or complications over a longer time period.

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Rebel's Guide to Project Management

Making the Difference: Problem Solving vs Decision Making

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Do you ever find yourself stuck between a rock and hard place, unable to decide what the best course of action is?

I have. Whether it’s what desk to put in our new conservatory space (and I’ll tell you what we ended up deciding later), or who to invite to meetings, or managing to order everyone else’s food and then getting so overwhelmed with having made decisions all day for all the people that I couldn’t choose anything for myself.

I left the café with nothing for me and ended up with a couple of slices of peanut butter toast at home.

Making decisions can be difficult for even the most experienced project managers. But before making any decision, it’s important to understand the difference between problem solving and decision making.

Ready to get into it?

Problem solving involves diagnosing issues that arise during projects while decision making requires taking appropriate steps based on those diagnoses. While they may appear similar at first glance, there are key differences in how each process should be approached – understanding these differences will help you make more informed decisions!

Let’s explore both processes as well as their similarities and differences.

What is problem solving?

You’ve been solving problems since you were a baby: how to stand up, how to get your socks off, how to get your parents to bring you your favorite sippy cup.

As an adult, we solve problems every day at work and at home.

So it probably sounds a bit odd to want to define problem solving before we go any further. Surely we all know what we are talking about as we do it all the time?

Humor me. Problem solving is the process of identifying and analyzing a problem, generating potential solutions, and selecting the best solution to address the issue. It involves breaking down complex problems into smaller components and then finding ways to solve them.

The problem solving process

If you think that description sounds linear, then you’d be right. Problem solving fits neatly into a process, one that we don’t even know we’re following most of the time.

The problem solving process typically consists of four steps:

  • Identify the problem
  • Generate possible solutions
  • Evaluate each option
  • Select an appropriate course of action.

That does make it sound easy. Wicked problems need a slightly different approach (PMI has a problem solving training course that is brilliant and will help with that).

But for now, let’s stick with a high-level approach that works for most problems.

1. Identify the problem

First, it’s important to understand what caused the issue in order to determine how best to resolve it.

You’d be surprised at how many managers don’t bother to find the root cause of the problem to truly understand it. Use techniques like the 5 Whys or an Ishikawa diagram to dig down into what the problem actually is.

2. Generate possible solutions

Brainstorming is one way to come up with different ideas for potential solutions. You could also interview experts, review lessons learned or innovative solutions from previous projects, research what the rest of your industry is doing or consult customers on what they’d like to see. There are no silly ideas at this point!

Choose the creative approach that gets you a range of options to review.

Read next: How to improve problem solving with lessons learned.

3. Evaluate each option

Once you have several options to consider, you can evaluate each one based on its effectiveness and cost before deciding which one is most suitable for your situation.

Use pairwise prioritisation, multi-criteria decision making or analytical hierarchy process (AHP) to help with the evaluation.

analytical hierarchy process

4. Select an appropriate course of action

Now you’ve got all the options for solving your problem, you can actually solve it by choosing a course of action that will sort it out. This is where decision making comes in. in this step you make the decision.

Finally, implement your chosen solution and monitor its progress over time so that any necessary adjustments can be made as needed.

Benefits of problem solving skills

There are many benefits associated with having effective problem solving skills.

These include improved decision making abilities (more on that in a minute), increased creativity, better communication skills, greater confidence when faced with challenging situations, enhanced ability to think critically, more efficient use of resources, improved relationships between colleagues or team members due to shared understanding of goals and increased productivity levels due to fewer mistakes being made during projects or tasks.

(Breathe. That was a long sentence, sorry.)

All these advantages make problem solving an invaluable skill in both personal life and professional life scenarios.

What is decision making?

Basically, decision making is the process of selecting a course of action from a number of alternatives. It involves gathering information, weighing options, and choosing the best option for achieving a desired outcome.

But how is that different to problem solving?

Decision making is the process of doing Step 4 of the problem solving process. It’s the choice making, option selection, conclusion of the analysis and thinking.

It’s decisive (duh), purposeful, specific. It removes the ambiguity of the ‘what do we do?’ and helps the team move towards the ‘OK, how do we do that?’

It brings action to a situation.

The decision making process

There is a simple method for decision making too, although the actual decision itself might be tough to make.

  • Identify that a decision is required
  • Ensure you have the data to make the decision
  • Make the decision
  • Tell whoever needs to implement the decision

1. Identify that a decision is required

The decision-making process typically begins with identifying what decision needs to be made. Are you making the right decision, or is there something else, deeper, different that is really what’s required?

In this step you also want to identify who is making the decision. That could be your project sponsor, a panel, you by yourself, a committee or whoever. Getting this step clear saves headaches later.

2. Ensure you have the data to make the decision

Do you have all the info you need to make the decision? If not, get it.

When decisions are made quickly but thoughtfully, they can save time and resources while still producing quality results.

Major decisions need more time spent on this step to make sure you understand all the variables.

decision chart example

3. Make the decision

After considering all potential solutions, it’s time to make a choice based on what will yield the best results for everyone involved.

This is the hard part: make the decision! The person or people responsible for this should weigh up the data and use their professional judgement to choose the right course of action. Decision trees can be useful here to avoid unconscious bias (or conscious bias!).

Obviously this is harder for complex decisions. What vendor to choose for a 3-year outsourcing arrangement is harder to decide than what venue to book for a team away day.

4. Tell whoever needs to implement the decision

Great – you’ve made the call and know what to do, but does the rest of the team? Don’t keep the decision to yourself!

Make sure whoever needs to know the next steps is aware that the decision has been made so they can implement it and take the right action.

Having confidence in decisions leads to greater trust between team members and better collaboration overall, which can lead to improved project outcomes over time. Well-made decisions often create opportunities for growth within teams by allowing them to learn from their mistakes as well as their successes along the way.

Similarities between problem solving and decision making

Problem solving and decision making sound very similar, right?

Well, that is true. Both processes involve gathering information, analyzing it, and coming up with solutions or courses of action. They both require critical thinking skills to identify potential solutions or options that are most likely to be successful.

The processes use a similar flow

Both processes involve identifying a problem or issue, researching possible solutions, evaluating those solutions based on criteria such as cost-effectiveness or feasibility, selecting an option from among the available choices, implementing the chosen solution, and you’d also want to monitor its effectiveness over time.

The process can be iterative if necessary; if one solution does not work out as expected then another may need to be tried until a satisfactory outcome is achieved.

They both produce a satisfactory solution

Problem solving and decision making usually lead to some kind of action being taken in order to address a given issue or situation. Problem solving often involves finding creative solutions for complex problems, while decision making typically entails selecting a course of action from several possibilities after carefully evaluating each option’s advantages and disadvantages.

But ultimately, the goal is for something positive (or at least neutral) to come out of the helpful process so that whatever challenge was initially presented can be effectively addressed.

Despite being so similar you could pretty much interchange them in some circumstances, there are some differences.

Differences between problem solving and decision making

Although they have similarities in terms of the process used to come up with a solution, their goals differ significantly.

Process goals are different

The goal of problem solving is to find a solution to an existing issue. It involves identifying the cause of a problem and then finding ways to address it. Problem solving often requires input from multiple stakeholders who can provide different perspectives on how best to solve the issue at hand.

On the other hand, decision making focuses on choosing the best option from multiple alternatives. This could include selecting between competing products or services or deciding which strategy will be most effective for achieving certain objectives.

In other words: decision making doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem. We make decisions every day about small things and big things, but they aren’t all problems that need the creative step of solutioning.

Sometimes a decision just needs to be taken and the options are clearly known.

They require different stakeholders

Another key difference between problem solving and decision making is that while problem solving typically requires input from multiple stakeholders, decision making is usually done by one individual or group who has access to all relevant information needed for the decision-making process.

To give you an example. Let’s say on a technical project the development team hit a problem. They have to bring in various subject matter experts to research and identify the parameters involved. They consult, brainstorm and debate. It’s a group effort, and it’s likely to end in a solution.

However, if I need my project sponsor to choose between two risk treatments, I’ll take him my recommendation and a summary of options and he’ll simply choose. Done.

Decisions are made based on what is known about a situation rather than relying on external opinions or advice when trying to make an informed choice about what course of action should be taken next.

They produce different results

The nature of both processes also differs in terms of the types of solutions they produce. Problem solving typically results in creative solutions that can be implemented over time, while decision making produces immediate choices from among existing alternatives without necessarily creating something new or unique.

Both processes involve the identification of a problem or issue, the collection of information to evaluate possible solutions, and an analysis of potential outcomes. The main difference between them is in their goals: problem solving seeks to identify the root cause of an issue and develop a solution that will address it; decision making focuses on selecting from among available options.

Both processes require careful consideration of facts and opinions before any action is taken. Problem solving often involves more people than decision making as it requires collaboration to identify underlying causes and brainstorm potential solutions. Decision makers may consult with others for input but ultimately make decisions independently based on their own judgment.

prioritization example

Still got a question?

What is the difference between decision and decision making.

A decision is the act of making a choice between two or more alternatives. Decision making is the process by which decisions are made. It involves gathering information, analyzing data, evaluating alternatives and choosing a course of action based on this analysis. The outcome of the process is the decision. The decision-making process also includes monitoring progress to ensure that goals are being met and taking corrective action if needed.

What is the importance of problem-solving and decision making?

Problem-solving and decision making are essential skills for project managers and managers in general. The processes keep work moving by making sure problems get solved and decisions get made so team members are not blocked from finishing their tasks.

What are the steps in problem-solving and decision making?

Problem-solving and decision making involve a series of steps that can help ensure the best possible outcome. The first step is to identify the problem or opportunity, then analyze it by gathering relevant information and evaluating potential solutions. After considering all options, select an appropriate solution and develop an action plan for implementation. Finally, monitor progress to ensure success and make necessary adjustments along the way. By following these steps, project managers can effectively manage projects while minimizing risks and maximizing results.

Before you go…

Sometimes there isn’t a right decision – it’s simply important to make a decision. As for the desk, in the end, we used a piece of furniture we already had upstairs and didn’t buy one at all.

I spent a morning measuring and researching options, and I’ll never get that time back, but that’s OK.

As a leader, you should be skilled at solving problems and making decisions, and the processes that support them. However, you don’t have to be doing all the solving and making all the calls yourself. As long as you facilitate the process and get the right people in the room, you can step back and let the experts do their thing.

Let the right people do the work and create an environment where your projects move forward because everyone’s got what they need to keep things moving.

Elizabeth Harrin wearing a pink scarf

Project manager, author, mentor

Elizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK. She holds degrees from the University of York and Roehampton University, and several project management certifications including APM PMQ. She first took her PRINCE2 Practitioner exam in 2004 and has worked extensively in project delivery for over 20 years. Elizabeth is also the founder of the Project Management Rebels community, a mentoring group for professionals. She's written several books for project managers including Managing Multiple Projects .


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The SkillsYouNeed Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Introduction to Communication Skills - The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Making decisions and solving problems are two key areas in life, whether you are at home or at work. Whatever you’re doing, and wherever you are, you are faced with countless decisions and problems, both small and large, every day.

Many decisions and problems are so small that we may not even notice them. Even small decisions, however, can be overwhelming to some people. They may come to a halt as they consider their dilemma and try to decide what to do.

Small and Large Decisions

In your day-to-day life you're likely to encounter numerous 'small decisions', including, for example:

Tea or coffee?

What shall I have in my sandwich? Or should I have a salad instead today?

What shall I wear today?

Larger decisions may occur less frequently but may include:

Should we repaint the kitchen? If so, what colour?

Should we relocate?

Should I propose to my partner? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life with him/her?

These decisions, and others like them, may take considerable time and effort to make.

The relationship between decision-making and problem-solving is complex. Decision-making is perhaps best thought of as a key part of problem-solving: one part of the overall process.

Our approach at Skills You Need is to set out a framework to help guide you through the decision-making process. You won’t always need to use the whole framework, or even use it at all, but you may find it useful if you are a bit ‘stuck’ and need something to help you make a difficult decision.

Decision Making

Effective Decision-Making

This page provides information about ways of making a decision, including basing it on logic or emotion (‘gut feeling’). It also explains what can stop you making an effective decision, including too much or too little information, and not really caring about the outcome.

A Decision-Making Framework

This page sets out one possible framework for decision-making.

The framework described is quite extensive, and may seem quite formal. But it is also a helpful process to run through in a briefer form, for smaller problems, as it will help you to make sure that you really do have all the information that you need.

Problem Solving

Introduction to Problem-Solving

This page provides a general introduction to the idea of problem-solving. It explores the idea of goals (things that you want to achieve) and barriers (things that may prevent you from achieving your goals), and explains the problem-solving process at a broad level.

The first stage in solving any problem is to identify it, and then break it down into its component parts. Even the biggest, most intractable-seeming problems, can become much more manageable if they are broken down into smaller parts. This page provides some advice about techniques you can use to do so.

Sometimes, the possible options to address your problem are obvious. At other times, you may need to involve others, or think more laterally to find alternatives. This page explains some principles, and some tools and techniques to help you do so.

Having generated solutions, you need to decide which one to take, which is where decision-making meets problem-solving. But once decided, there is another step: to deliver on your decision, and then see if your chosen solution works. This page helps you through this process.

‘Social’ problems are those that we encounter in everyday life, including money trouble, problems with other people, health problems and crime. These problems, like any others, are best solved using a framework to identify the problem, work out the options for addressing it, and then deciding which option to use.

This page provides more information about the key skills needed for practical problem-solving in real life.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills eBooks.

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.

Guiding you through the key skills needed in life

As always at Skills You Need, our approach to these key skills is to provide practical ways to manage the process, and to develop your skills.

Neither problem-solving nor decision-making is an intrinsically difficult process and we hope you will find our pages useful in developing your skills.

Start with: Decision Making Problem Solving

See also: Improving Communication Interpersonal Communication Skills Building Confidence

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Organization and Self-Management

22 Effective Problem Solving and Decision Making

Types of decision makers.

Problem solving and decision making belong together. You cannot solve a problem without making a decision. There are two main types of decision makers. Some people use a systematic, rational approach. Others are more intuitive. They go with their emotions or a gut feeling about the right approach. They may have highly creative ways to address the problem, but cannot explain why they have chosen this approach.

Six Problem-Solving Steps

The most effective method uses both rational and intuitive or creative approaches. There are six steps in the process:

Identify the problem

Search for alternatives, weigh the alternatives, make a choice.

  • Implement the choice
  • Evaluate the results and, if necessary, start the process again

To solve a problem, you must first determine what the problem actually is. You may think you know, but you need to check it out. Sometimes, it is easy to focus on symptoms, not causes. You use a rational approach to determine what the problem is. The questions you might ask include:

  • What have I (or others) observed?
  • What was I (or others) doing at the time the problem occurred?
  • Is this a problem in itself or a symptom of a deeper, underlying problem?
  • What information do I need?
  • What have we already tried to address this problem?

For example, the apprentice you supervise comes to you saying that the electric warming oven is not working properly. Before you call a repair technician, you may want to ask a few questions. You may want to find out what the apprentice means by “not working properly.” Does he or she know how to operate the equipment? Did he or she check that the equipment was plugged in? Was the fuse or circuit breaker checked? When did it last work?

You may be able to avoid an expensive service call. At the very least, you will be able to provide valuable information to the repair technician that aids in the troubleshooting process.

Of course, many of the problems that you will face in the kitchen are much more complex than a malfunctioning oven. You may have to deal with problems such as:

  • Discrepancies between actual and expected food costs
  • Labour costs that have to be reduced
  • Lack of budget to complete needed renovations in the kitchen
  • Disputes between staff

However, the basic problem-solving process remains the same even if the problems identified differ. In fact, the more complex the problem is, the more important it is to be methodical in your problem-solving approach.

It may seem obvious what you have to do to address the problem. Occasionally, this is true, but most times, it is important to identify possible alternatives. This is where the creative side of problem solving really comes in.

Brainstorming with a group can be an excellent tool for identifying potential alternatives. Think of as many possibilities as possible. Write down these ideas, even if they seem somewhat zany or offbeat on first impression. Sometimes really silly ideas can contain the germ of a superb solution. Too often, people move too quickly into making a choice without really considering all of the options. Spending more time searching for alternatives and weighing their consequences can really pay off.

Once a number of ideas have been generated, you need to assess each of them to see how effective they might be in addressing the problem. Consider the following factors:

  • Impact on the organization
  • Effect on public relations
  • Impact on employees and organizational climate
  • Ethics of actions
  • Whether this course is permitted under collective agreements
  • Whether this idea can be used to build on another idea

Some individuals and groups avoid making decisions. Not making a decision is in itself a decision. By postponing a decision, you may eliminate a number of options and alternatives. You lose control over the situation. In some cases, a problem can escalate if it is not dealt with promptly. For example, if you do not handle customer complaints promptly, the customer is likely to become even more annoyed. You will have to work much harder to get a satisfactory solution.

Implement the decision

Once you have made a decision, it must be implemented. With major decisions, this may involve detailed planning to ensure that all parts of the operation are informed of their part in the change. The kitchen may need a redesign and new equipment. Employees may need additional training. You may have to plan for a short-term closure while the necessary changes are being made. You will have to inform your customers of the closure.

Evaluate the outcome

Whenever you have implemented a decision, you need to evaluate the results. The outcomes may give valuable advice about the decision-making process, the appropriateness of the choice, and the implementation process itself. This information will be useful in improving the company’s response the next time a similar decision has to be made.

Creative Thinking

Your creative side is most useful in identifying new or unusual alternatives. Too often, you can get stuck in a pattern of thinking that has been successful in the past. You think of ways that you have handled similar problems in the past. Sometimes this is successful, but when you are faced with a new problem or when your solutions have failed, you may find it difficult to generate new ideas.

If you have a problem that seems to have no solution, try these ideas to “unfreeze” your mind:

  • Relax before trying to identify alternatives.
  • Play “what if” games with the problem. For example, What if money was no object? What if we could organize a festival? What if we could change winter into summer?
  • Borrow ideas from other places and companies. Trade magazines might be useful in identifying approaches used by other companies.
  • Give yourself permission to think of ideas that seem foolish or that appear to break the rules. For example, new recipes may come about because someone thought of new ways to combine foods. Sometimes these new combinations appear to break rules about complementary tastes or break boundaries between cuisines from different parts of the world. The results of such thinking include the combined bar and laundromat and the coffee places with Internet access for customers.
  • Use random inputs to generate new ideas. For example, walk through the local shopping mall trying to find ways to apply everything you see to the problem.
  • Turn the problem upside down. Can the problem be seen as an opportunity? For example, the road outside your restaurant that is the only means of accessing your parking lot is being closed due to a bicycle race. Perhaps you could see the bicycle race as an opportunity for business rather than as a problem.

Working in the Food Service Industry by The BC Cook Articulation Committee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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decision making and problem solving meaning

What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Did you choose cereal or a bagel? Why? Or what if you missed the bus? How did you solve this problem? Problem-solving and decision-making are skills we use all day, every day. But what is actually involved in these processes? Let's read…

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What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Did you choose cereal or a bagel? Why? Or what if you missed the bus? How did you solve this problem? Problem-solving and decision-making are skills we use all day, every day. But what is actually involved in these processes? Let's read on and find out.

In this article, we will begin by discussing the similarities and differences between problem-solving and decision-making.

Then, we'll lay out the problem-solving and decision-making steps.

As we continue, we'll look at the criteria for decision-making and problem-solving.

We will then list the types of problems in decision-making.

Finally, we'll take a look at a few examples of decision-making problems.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making: Similarities and Differences

Both problem-solving and decision-making are mental processes that involve the use of information to determine an action. Both require identification and evaluation. Decision-making may be part of problem-solving and problem-solving may be part of decision-making.

However problem-solving and decision-making have noticeable differences.

Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure.

Decision-making, on the other hand, requires a person to make choices or to choose between options (or not).

Decision-making is also usually clearer at the start than problem-solving. When making a decision the choices are often quite clear and clearly presented. But with problem-solving, the biggest part of the battle might be identifying what the problem itself is.

A detective must solve the problem by solving a case. A judge must make decisions such as determining bail, sentencing, and other trial procedures.

Also, the process of problem-solving and decision-making can look different in the brain. The point at which you find a solution to a problem can often feel like a lightbulb going off in your head. In some ways, that is similar to what occurs in the brain.

Research shows that the frontal lobe (responsible for focusing attention) is most active while a person is trying to solve a problem. But once they have found the solution, suddenly, there is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe (Myers, 2014). Making a decision, however, is usually a much more gradual process.

Problem Solving and Decision Making, cartoon with thought bubble then lightbulb, StudySmarter

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Steps

Problem-solving and decision-making steps can look very similar. However, to go about them the same exact way would be an incorrect approach. Let's take a look at the specific steps in problem-solving and decision-making.

Problem-Solving Steps

The steps are: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.

1. Specify the Problem

As mentioned earlier, one of the most challenging steps in problem-solving is identifying what the problem is in the first place. A good way to start is to determine what the goal state is and how it differs from the present state.

2. Analyze the Problem

What are the potential causes of the problem? What does the presentation of this problem mean for the situation? Try to research the problem as much as possible and collect as much information as you can.

3. Formulate Solutions

Begin formulating solutions. but don't feel pressured to know exactly what to do at this stage – simply brainstorm as many solutions as possible and be creative. Consider other problems or situations you've faced in the past and if you can apply what you learned to this problem.

4. Evaluate Solutions

Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each solution and how well it will actually solve the problem. Try to imagine the possible outcomes of each solution. Consider whether the solution solves all of the problem or only parts of it.

5. Choose a Solution

This is the "aha" moment in problem-solving. We often arrive at a solution through insight. Insight is the sudden realization of the solution to a problem. You have considered several possibilities and finally, the right one has finally clicked.

6. Evaluate the outcome

None of us are capable of finding the perfect solution to our problems 100% of the time. Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board. Don't be discouraged! The last step to problem-solving is to evaluate the outcome of the solution. Even if it is not the outcome you expected, you have the opportunity to learn from it.

Decision-Making Steps

Decision-making may involve problem-solving – but not always. The six steps to problem-solving are as follows: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate possible solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.

1. Identify the Decision or Goal

First, identify what your goal is and why you need to make a decision. Knowing why you're making a decision makes it more likely you'll stick with it and defend it.

2. Gather Information

What information do you need to understand the situation and the decision you have to make? Reach out to people you trust and those who have a better understanding than you.

3. Identify Alternatives

Next, identify what your options are. It is important to note that when making a decision, you are not required to make a choice between the alternatives. But even not making a choice is a decision that you consciously make.

Problem Solving and Decision Making, woman pointing in opposite directions, StudySmarter

4. Weigh the Evidence

This is a great time to use a pros and cons list. Consider the impact each alternative may have and potential outcomes.

5. Choose Among Alternatives

Finally, you are ready to choose an alternative. This step may be intimidating, but considering the following questions may help you decide the best path forward:

Is this solution compatible with my priorities?

Is there any risk involved in this solution and is it worth the risk?

Is this a practical solution or would it be far too difficult or even impossible?

6. Take Action

While not always required after solving a problem, making a decision almost always requires you to take action.

You've chosen what college to go to, now you must respond to your acceptance letters and notify the schools you don't want to go to that you will not be attending.

7. Evaluate the outcome

Similar to problem-solving, it would be unrealistic for any of us to know all the information or see every perspective while making a decision. Evaluate the consequences – good or bad – of your decision and then adjust future decisions accordingly.

Criteria for Decision-Making and Problem-Solving

The criteria for decision-making and problem-solving include abstract thinking and reasoning and the ability to use decision-making and problem-solving methods.

Abstract Thinking and Reasoning

To make decisions, a person should at least have the capacity to weigh various options . Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning, as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence .

If you ask a toddler what they want for lunch, it's best to give them only a couple of options, like chicken nuggets or Mac-n-cheese.

Leaving their options wide open or giving them too many options will probably lead to them saying no or choosing something they don't actually want and guaranteeing a tantrum later.

The same could be said for problem-solving: a person must have the capacity to think of as many solutions as possible which requires abstract thinking and reasoning. One should be able to recognize a problem and determine its significance.

Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Methods

Many times when solving a problem, our strategy is to just do trial and error. Try one solution, if it doesn't work, try another, and another, and another until the problem is solved. Or we may use other techniques to solve a problem. For example, we may try to solve a problem using whatever method we know will guarantee the correct solution or algorithm .

Algorithms are logical rules or procedures that are guaranteed to generate the correct solution to a problem.

Algorithms are most often used in mathematics or chemistry because if you know how to use a formula correctly, you will always get the correct answer. This may be an effective way to solve some problems, but it can be time-consuming.

You are asked to figure out what word can be formed using the following letters: YSCPOGLHOY. You could use an algorithm by finding all the thousands of possible combinations until you land on the correct word. However, this would take far too long.

An alternative method to solve the problem is to use the same methods or information we used to solve similar problems. This is called heuristics .

Heuristics are shortcuts we use that allow us to solve problems and make judgments efficiently.

Types of Problems in Decision-Making

Most of the decisions we make day-to-day require very little time and effort. We follow our intuition to decide which way to take home based on traffic or make snap judgments when deciding which candy to take from the candy jar. Using shortcuts such as heuristics saves us time but without much conscious awareness. This will inevitably lead to errors. Let's take a look at the problems in decision-making including confirmation bias , representative heuristic, availability heuristic , and overconfidence.

Problems in Decision-making

Confirmation bias.

Throughout life, we all begin to form concrete ideas and beliefs. When we are more eager to seek evidence in favor of our ideas or beliefs than against them, this is called confirmation bias. This is a consequence of fixation (inability to see other perspectives) and mental set (solving problems the way we've solved similar ones before).

Problem Solving and Decision Making, three fingers pointing at person of color, StudySmarter

Representativeness Heuristic

We all build prototypes (mental image) of people, places, and things in our world. Our brains form prototypes to understand and categorize our world, but we get into trouble when we believe our prototypes are always true. The representativeness heuristic is when we estimate the likelihood of an event based on whether or not it fits the prototypes we have formed of people, places, things, or events.

A person walks into the store with leather pants, a leather jacket, and tattoos all over. Are they more likely to be a biker or a school teacher? If you answered a biker, then you are using your prototype of what a biker looks like to make your decision, rather than using the base rate. It's more likely that person is a teacher because there are far more teachers in the world than bikers.

Availability Heuristic

We may also fall victim to the availability heuristic while making decisions. The availability heuristic is when we estimate the likelihood of events based on how available they are in our memory or how vivid similar events occurred previously. The availability heuristic can lead to us placing our fear in the wrong places. It is far more likely for a person to die from heart disease than a shark attack but we are much more afraid of sharks than we are of unhealthy foods like donuts.


Confidence is not a bad thing. People who have a lot of self-confidence usually live happily, make tough decisions easily, and seem competent. But when we are too confident in the accuracy of our beliefs and judgments, it may lead to errors. In fact, people who are overconfident are usually more likely to be wrong. Stockbrokers often fall victim to this when they are sure they can outsmart the stock market, and go all-in on a stock only to lose everything. However, if we get clear feedback and actually receive it, we may be able to avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence.

Decision-Making Problems: Examples

The representativeness heuristic can easily lead to stereotypes and discrimination . Following 9/11, Arab Americans often faced discrimination because people began to form a prototype (really a stereotype) of what terrorists looked like. For example, Arab Americans might have experienced more strenuous security checks at the airport.

Even though almost all Arab-Americans are peace-loving people, many began to assume if they looked the part they were "more likely" to be terrorists. This still continues today. White supremacy groups have been responsible for more terrorist attacks in America than any other organization according to the New York Times (2020) , yet many people still feel more threatened by a man in a turban than a white man.

Problem Solving and Decision Making - Key takeaways

  • Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure. Decision-making, on the other hand, requires a person to make choices or to choose between options (or not).
  • The six steps to problem-solving are as follows: specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate possible solutions, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome.
  • To make decisions and problem-solve, a person should at least have the capacity to weigh various options . Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence .
  • Let's take a look at the problems in decision-making including confirmation bias , representative heuristic, availability heuristic , and overconfidence.
  • The representativeness heuristic can easily lead to stereotypes and discrimination . Following 9/11, Arab-Americans often faced discrimination because people began to form a prototype (really a stereotype) of what terrorists looked like.
  • Myers, D. G. Myers' Psychology for AP. Worth Publishers. 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about Problem Solving and Decision Making

--> what is problem solving and decision making.

Problem-solving means that a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure. 

--> What is the difference between problem-solving and decision-making?

Problem-solving might not require action while decision-making almost always requires an action to follow.

--> What process involves influencing group problem solving and decision making?

The process of group problem-solving and decision-making should involve defining the problem, determining the cause, developing alternatives, assessing the consequences, and developing an action plan. 

--> Why are decision making and problem-solving important?

Decision-making and problem-solving are important skills that can be used in all aspects of life including work, family, friends, relationships, and learning. 

--> What are the steps in problem-solving and decision-making?

Problem-solving and decision-making involves the following: 

1. Identify the decision or problem

2. Gathering information or analyzing the problem

3. Finding solutions or considering alternatives, 

4. Choose a solution or choice

5. Evaluate the outcome

Final Problem Solving and Decision Making Quiz

Problem solving and decision making quiz - teste dein wissen.

True or False? Decision-making is also usually clearer at the start than problem-solving.

Show answer

Show question

How does problem-solving resemble a light bulb going off in the brain?

 Research shows that the frontal lobe (responsible for focusing attention) is most active while a person is trying to solve a problem. But once they have found the solution, suddenly, there is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe (Myers, 2014.).

What is the first step of problem-solving?

Specify the problem

__________ are logical rules or procedures that are guaranteed to generate the correct solution to a problem.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are shortcuts we use that allow us to solve problems and make judgments efficiently.  

Consider the following letters: YSCPOGLHOY. What problem-solving method should you use to figure out what word the letters form?

When we are more eager to seek evidence in favor of our ideas or beliefs than against them, this is called _____________.

confirmation bias

The ______________ is when we estimate the likelihood of an event based on whether or not it fits the prototypes we have formed of people, places, things, or events.

representativeness heuristic

 _______________ is when we estimate the likelihood of events based on how available they are in our memory or how vivid similar events occurred previously.

Availability heuristic

A person walks into the store with leather pants, a leather jacket, and tattoos all over. Are they more likely to be a biker or a school teacher? If a person assumed the person that walked in is a biker, they are using what type of decision-making problem? 

Representativeness heuristic

True or False? When we are too confident in the accuracy of our beliefs and judgments, it may lead to errors.

True or False? The representativeness heuristic rarely leads to stereotypes and discrimination.

True or False? We usually develop strong problem-solving and decision-making skills during early childhood. 

Why is it best to give a toddler only a couple of options for lunch rather than broadly asking them to decide what they want to eat?

Young children might not be able to grasp abstract thinking and reasoning as this skill doesn't develop until adolescence.

What are three questions you could ask yourself while choosing among the alternatives in decision-making?

Is this a practical solution or would it be far too difficult and even impossible?

When does problem-solving happen?

When a person is trying to find a solution to a problem, whether it's ongoing, intermittent, or a one-time failure

When does decision-making happen?

When a person has to choose between options (or not)

What similarities do problem-solving and decision-making share?

Identification and evaluation

Which has a more gradual increase of brain activity?


What is the correct order of steps when problem-solving?

Specify the problem, analyze the problem, formulate solutions, evaluate solutions, choose a solution, evaluate the outcome

Why is evaluating the outcome an important step in problem-solving?

It allows you to go back and make sure you found the right answer. If not, this gives you an opportunity to try to find another answer. 

Why is identifying alternatives an important step in decision-making?

You fully understand all the options you are choosing between

Why is gathering information an important step in the decision-making process?

You need to get more information in order to be knowledgable when making your decision

Can a child make decisions?

Yes, but not well-thought out ones. Abstract thinking and reasoning are important steps in decision-making which are qualities that children are still developing. 

What is a beneficial attribute about an algorithm?

It will get you the right answer, guaranteed

What is something bad about the use of an algorithm?

It can be very time-consuming

What is a beneficial attribute of heuristics?

It can help you use mental shortcuts to get to the answer quicker

What is a negative attribute of heuristics?

You won't always get the right answer

Why is confirmation bias a problem in decision-making?

It causes us to see things a certain way (the way we want them to) and will find people or sources that will agree with what we believe, swaying our decision

Why is overconfidence a problem when it comes to decision-making?

Someone who is overconfident is more likely to make the wrong decision 

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What is the difference between Problem Solving and Decision Making?

Explore the nuances of "Problem Solving and Decision Making" in this insightful discussion. Gain a deeper understanding of the concepts - what Decision Making entails and uncover the key distinctions between Decision Making and Problem-Solving. This blog will equip you with valuable insights into these essential life and professional skills.


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While the terms are frequently used interchangeably, they represent distinct mental activities with specific objectives. Problem Solving involves identifying and resolving issues using critical thinking and creativity. On the other hand, Decision Making entails choosing the best course of action among alternatives and considering risks and rewards. 

In this blog, we will learn what is Problem Solving and Decision Making, the differences between them and how to apply these abilities in the workplace. Read further into this blog to know more! 

Table of Contents  

1) What do you understand by Decision Making? 

2) Understanding Problem Solving 

3) Decision Making and Problem Solving: Key differences 

4) How can you integrate Decision Making and Problem Solving? 

5) Conclusion 

What do you understand by Decision Making?  

It is a hard choice for all of us when we are faced with the responsibility to make important decisions, both in the workplace and personal life. However, instead of getting afraid, we can tackle these important tasks by fully understanding the implications of our decisions. Before getting to know the differences between Decision Making and Problem Solving, let us first understand the term Decision Making. 

It is a cognitive process that plays an essential role in our personal and professional lives. It involves evaluating different options and selecting the most appropriate course of action based on various factors and objectives. 

Effective Decision Making requires a combination of critical thinking, analysis, and judgment, and it can have a significant impact on outcomes and consequences. Let's uncover the important steps to Decision Making and some real-life examples:  

Steps of Decision Making

1) Evaluation of alternatives: As a first step, you can start Decision Making by identifying and generating possible alternatives to address a given situation or problem. 

2) Rationality and objectivity: To make a correct rational Decision involves a systematic analysis of available information, weighing the pros and cons of each alternative, and choosing the most logical and beneficial option. 

3) Heuristics and biases: In some cases, you may have mental shortcuts to make decisions quickly. However, remember that these shortcuts can also introduce biases and lead to suboptimal choices.  

4) Decision making under uncertainty: Often, decisions must be made with incomplete or uncertain information. This requires you to make risk assessments. You also need to have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. 

5) Group Decision Making: In collaborative environments, decisions may be made collectively through group discussions, brainstorming, and consensus-building. This approach leverages diverse perspectives and expertise. 

6) Strategic Decision Making: In organisations, you need to make strategic Decision Making. It involves considering long-term implications, aligning decisions with organisational goals, and anticipating potential impacts on stakeholders.  

7) Ethical considerations: Ethical Decision Making involves assessing the moral implications of choices. It revolves around making decisions that align with your values and principles. 

8) Learning from outcomes: To be an effective decision-maker, you need to learn from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes to improve your future Decision Making processes. 

Here are some real-life examples that may require you to make some justified decisions: 

a) Choosing between two job offers based on salary, benefits, and career prospects. 

b) Deciding which college or university to attend, considering factors like location, courses offered, and campus culture. 

c) Selecting an investment option after analysing risk, return potential, and financial goals. 

d) Determining the best marketing strategy for a new product launch, considering target audience, budget, and competition. 

e) Making a medical treatment choice for a patient after weighing the benefits, risks, and patient preferences. 

Gain a deeper understanding of yourself to take more effective Decision Making with our Personal & Organisational Development Training . 

Understanding Problem Solving  

You're now aware of how you can make effective Decision Making. Let us now learn how to effectively carry out Problem Solving tasks in our daily life. Problem Solving is a critical cognitive process that allows individuals to address obstacles, overcome difficulties, and achieve desired outcomes. 

It involves a systematic approach to understanding the issue, identifying possible solutions, and implementing the most effective resolution. This helps you to navigate complexities and arrive at successful conclusions. Let us now look at some tips that can help you in Problem Solving effectively:  

Steps to be efficient in problem Solving

1) Problem identification: As a first step towards Problem Solving, effectively carry out tasks. Also, recognise and define the issue or challenge that needs to be addressed.  

2) Data gathering: Gathering relevant information and data related to the problem is essential for understanding its root causes and implications. This helps you become a good problem solver. 

3) Analysis and diagnosis: Analyse the gathered information to identify the underlying causes of the problem. This helps you in devising targeted solutions. 

4) Solution generation: Brainstorming and generating multiple potential solutions is crucial for you when you are exploring diverse approaches to resolve the problem. 

5) Evaluation of alternatives: Carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each solution. This helps you in selecting the most feasible and effective one. 

6) Implementation: After choosing a solution, you have to put the chosen solution into action. This requires planning, coordination, and effective execution. 

7) Creative thinking: Employing creative thinking approaches can lead you to have innovative solutions to complex problems. 

8) Root Cause Analysis: Identifying and addressing the root cause of a problem ensures that you have a more sustainable and lasting solution. 

Let us now see some real-life examples where you need to apply your Problem Solving skills: 

a) Resolving a technical issue with a computer by identifying and troubleshooting the actual cause of the problem. 

b) Finding an alternative transportation route when faced with unexpected road closures. 

c) Addressing a communication breakdown within a team by facilitating open discussions and conflict resolution. 

d) Solving a math problem by applying various Problem Solving Techniques and mathematical principles. 

e)  Fixing a malfunctioning appliance by diagnosing the issue and performing necessary repairs. 

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Decision Making and Problem Solving: Key differences  

Now you know what Problem Solving and Decision Making means. You read that their features and the steps that are taken in each scenario are different from each other. Further, we have made it easy for you by showing you the difference between Problem Solving and Decision Making. Let us have a look at these differences:  

1) Definition  

Problem Solving is a systematic process to identify, analyse, and resolve issues or challenges. It involves understanding the root cause of a problem, generating possible solutions, and selecting the best course of action. This approach aims to eliminate or reduce the negative impact of the issue. 

Decision Making is the process of choosing among various alternatives. Every Decision Making process yields a choice that can be an action, a strategy, or a resolution. It doesn’t necessarily need a problem; it can be any situation requiring a choice. 

2) Objective  

The main objective of Problem Solving is to overcome an obstacle or challenge. It aims to transform the current undesirable situation into a desired state. On the contrary, the primary goal of Decision Making is to select the best possible choice out of multiple alternatives. It could be proactive, like deciding on a strategy for market expansion, or reactive, like choosing a course of action in response to a competitor's move. 

3) Nature  

The process of Problem Solving is often reactive. It arises when a discrepancy occurs between the expected outcome and the actual outcome, necessitating a solution. However, in Decision Making it can be both proactive and reactive. Proactive Decision Making involves making choices in anticipation of future events, while reactive Decision Making responds to an immediate situation or problem. 

4) Process  

The process of Problem Solving often begins with understanding and diagnosing the problem. It is then followed by brainstorming potential solutions, analysing the feasibility of each solution, and finally, implementing the most suitable one. 

Whereas, in Decision Making, the process typically starts by identifying a need, gathering information, identifying alternatives, weighing them based on criteria like risks, benefits, and implications, and then selecting the best option.

5) Tools and techniques  

In Problem Solving, the common tools include Root Cause Analysis, Brainstorming, SWOT Analysis, and Fishbone Diagrams (Ishikawa). These tools help identify the origin of a problem and explore possible solutions. 

On the other hand, Decision Making involves techniques that are often used such as decision trees, cost-benefit analysis, pros and cons lists, and grid analysis. These help in evaluating the implications of each available choice. 

6) Skills required  

In Problem Solving, the major skills required are critical thinking, analytical skills, creativity, and resilience. The ability to persevere and not get overwhelmed when faced with challenges is vital. 

However, Decision Making requires analytical skills, risk assessment, intuition, and foresight. The ability to predict the outcomes of each choice and be accountable for decisions is essential. 

7) Duration and finality  

Problem Solving is time-consuming. It requires a deep dive into understanding the problem before moving on to solutions. The process concludes once a solution is implemented, and the problem is resolved. 

On the other hand, Decision Making can be swift (like everyday decisions) or prolonged (strategic decisions) depending on the complexity of the problems. Once a decision is made, the next step is to implement it, but decisions can sometimes be revisited based on outcomes or changing scenarios. 

How can you integrate Decision Making and Problem Solving?  

You are aware of the differences between Problem Solving and Decision Making abilities. But you need to integrate these two special skills so that you can carry out challenging tasks or situations, both in the workplace and in your personal life. The following tips will help you show how you can take effective decisions and simultaneously solve problems: 

1) Foster a systematic approach: You can start by adopting a systematic approach to Problem Solving. It involves defining the issue, gathering relevant information, analysing data, generating potential solutions, and evaluating alternatives. Then, you can implement your structured Problem Solving process, which provides a solid foundation for your informed Decision Making. 

2) Identify decision points: You can recognise the key decision points within the Problem Solving Process . You have to then determine which factors require choices. Then weigh the consequences of each decision on the overall problem-solving outcome.  

3) Incorporate critical thinking: You can emphasise your critical thinking throughout both Problem Solving and Decision Making. Engage in objective analysis so that you can consider multiple perspectives and challenge assumptions to arrive at well-rounded solutions and decisions.  

4) Utilise data-driven decisions: Ensure that the decisions made during the Problem Solving process are backed by relevant data and evidence. Your data-driven Decision Making minimises biases and increases the chances of arriving at the most suitable solutions.   

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If you integrate both Problem Solving and Decision Making, you will have a more potent approach toward various challenges or tasks. This will help you in making well-informed choices in those circumstances. Moreover, this synergy will empower you to have a Problem Solving mindset to navigate complexities with clarity and achieve effective outcomes. 

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