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Problem Solving

Integrated problem solving decision making is really the way we work

Is problem solving decision making a specific type of decision making, a complementary process, or a redundant term? In many cases the terms "problem solving" and "decision making" are used interchangeably. In anything other than the most basic problems, there will be a step in the problem solving process that requires choosing a solution among alternatives. This step in the problem solving process is why problem solving and decision making are often seen as highly integrated. When encountering a problem under stress with limited time, it is not unusual to react (without analysis) with a solution that worked before under seemingly similar circumstances.

Why are problem solving and decision making considered separately?

Woman problem solving at glassboardThis may be surprising, but the reason problem solving and decision making are addressed separately is a consequence of the historical choices made on research on these topics. The theory of choice (decision making) has its roots mainly in economics and operations research. Problem solving was initially studied mainly by psychologists as part of research into how we think. Both topics fundamentally deal with how people break large problems down in size to handle complexity that cannot be handled exactly (e.g., choosing a career).

The main characteristic that distinguishes the research on problem solving versus decision making is the limits placed on human rationality. Decision making doesn't expect that people will be entirely rational (we do have emotions). Problem solving has a greater focus on the thinking process and heuristics, the intuitive judgments that rapidly converge toward a specific solution.

Decisions as problems, problems as decisions

Fortunately for us, we aren't constrained by the arbitrary boundaries that have resulted from historical choices. We can choose to blur the distinction between decision making and problem solving, and apply solutions and techniques to all the decisions we want to make, regardless of what research has generated the solution.

It is also easy to frame complex problems as decisions. For example:

Problem: My computer isn't working
Framed as a decision: Choose approach to get a working computer

How do you map problem solving to our decision making process?

Problem solving and decision making graphics

As an example, FEMA defines a problem solving process in their November 2005 Independent Study, Decision Making and Problem Solving.

The following table provides a simple mapping from FEMA's problem solving model to the Decision InnovationTM decision making process.

Problem solving decision making comparison table

Using an integrated problem solving decision making approach

At Decision-Making-Solutions.com we deal with problem solving as synonymous with decision making. Addressing specific needs provides the proper focus for addressing complexity, and problems of value can be framed as a decision or set of decisions.

We will take advantage of the research and techniques that are applied to problem solving decision making. For example, systems engineers or architects have a wide range of problem solving approaches that help tame complexity and information in ways that enable quick and effective solutions. Our expectation and hope is that by blurring the distinction between problem solving and decision making, you will benefit from a broader set of solutions to your complex decision needs.

Norman Vincent Peale quote on problem solving

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