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Make a Decision or Solve a Problem?

by Gene Benson

Senior Human Factors Consultant

We often learn of a person who is experiencing prolonged personal difficulty in some area and say, or at least think, that the individual needs to make better decisions. That may be true, but it is more likely that the person needs to be a better problem solver.

One of the things we address in our Being Better program is the ability to recognize the difference between making a decision and solving a problem. The squirrel that darts into the road and senses a car rapidly approaching must make a decision on which way to run to avoid being flattened. The rodent, using its limited cognitive ability, decides on a course of action. Assuming a good decision was made, the squirrel goes about its task of searching for food. While it is possible that some conditioning might occur and that the squirrel may learn to equate being on the pavement with increased risk, it is likely that the squirrel will repeat the same behavior over and over. That is, of course, until a zig is chosen when a zag is needed. Unfortunately, that’s as good as it gets for the squirrel. The creature’s limited cognitive ability prevents it from doing better.

In humans, a higher cognitive function is problem solving which includes decision making. If we find ourselves needing to make the same decision repeatedly, we may need to identify and solve a problem. For example, the person who always gets to the end of the month and must decide whether to pay the rent or pay the minimum amount due on the credit card statement. That person needs to move beyond decision making and into problem solving. The monthly decision is how to best allocate limited, insufficient funds while the problem is having insufficient funds. Solving the problem will negate the need for the monthly allocation decision.

Problem solving done well is complex. There is not a single best method and a successful outcome is not guaranteed, regardless of how good the method or how smart the problem solver(s) might be. In the Being Better program we identify eight stages of problem solving and we work some practical scenarios. We consider the stages of problem solving to be:

Stage 1 - Identifying the Problem and the Desired Outcome

Stage 2 – Fact Finding about the Problem

Stage 3 – Listing Possible Solutions

Stage 4 – Analysis and Elimination of Listed Solutions

Stage 5 – Deciding on a Course of Action

Stage 6 – Implementation

Stage 7 – Evaluation

Stage 8 – Return to Stage 3 if desired outcome has not been achieved.

This method can be effective for a wide range of problems whether they be personal, social, or business related.

A small group working together to solve a problem is usually more effective than a single individual going it alone. Though sometimes more difficult to accept, the desired outcome to a personal problem is often best achieved with one or two group members who are not close to the individual(s) involved.

The Problem-Solving module of the Being Better program is highly interactive provides details of how to put the stages of problem solving into practice. Participants work together to apply the stages to realistic situations. Contact me to learn how we can help your company or organization be better.

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