Problem Solving vs Decision Making

problem solving vs decision making

Problem Solving vs Decision Making

We make decisions every day, often without realizing it.

Getting out of bed, choosing what to eat, and deciding how to spend our time all involve quick judgment calls. More complex and impactful decisions like changing careers or moving across the country require extensive analysis.

Problem solving also permeates daily life. Figuring out what caused your computer to crash or how to fit in an extra errand involves assessing situations methodically to identify solutions. Just as with decision making, some problems we face require only simple logic to address while others necessitate more rigorous problem solving techniques.

So what exactly is the difference between decision making and problem solving?

At first glance they seem nearly identical – both involve evaluating options and making choices based on available information.

However, there are subtle distinctions in the catalyst and desired outcomes of each process. Grasping these nuances can lead to better decisions and more effective problem solving.

Defining Key Characteristics

Decision making involves selecting a course of action from among multiple options, often under conditions of uncertainty. The goal is to maximize the chances of achieving a desired outcome. Decisions can range from habitual choices requiring little thought to more complex judgments necessitating significant cognitive effort.

Problem solving refers to the active process of identifying problems, generating potential solutions, evaluating options, and executing the chosen resolutions. The objective is to methodically reduce differences between the current problem state and desired goal state. Problem solving abilities evolve and follow cyclical improvement phases.

While problem solving and decision making certainly overlap, focusing on the distinct motivations behind each process clarifies their differences. The decision making process aims to produce definitive action choices driven by desired end results. Problem solving represents continued efforts to skillfully bridge the gap between current and goal states. These unique orientations lead to divergent thinking patterns and behavioral outcomes even when addressing similar situations.

Here is a table summarizing some of the key differences between problem solving and decision making:

DifferenceProblem SolvingDecision Making
GoalIdentify root causes and understand why an issue is occurringChoose a course of action to achieve a desired outcome
FocusAnalyze the problem space and diagnose the issueEvaluate alternatives and judge implications of potential actions
ProcessClearly define problem -> Gather information -> Generate hypotheses -> Test solutions -> ImplementFrame decision -> Gather intelligence -> Weigh options -> Evaluate tradeoffs -> Commit to choice
Time HorizonIterative process focused on deep analysis to continually refine solutionsPoint-in-time choice aimed at prompting definitive action
SkillsDeductive reasoning, critical thinking, research abilitiesJudgement, valuation of alternatives, risk analysis
BiasesLogical fallacies undermine objectivityCognitive biases skew analysis
ImprovingCatalog past logic, seek accountability, practice impartialityRecord judgement trends, get outside perspectives, compartmentalize emotions
Problem Solving vs Decision Making

Everyday Examples

Consider a business owner noticing decreasing website traffic month-over-month. She now faces a situation requiring resolution. Should she view this issue through the lens of problem solving or decision making?

The problem solving perspective would have her ask broad diagnostic questions – Why did traffic decline? Have external conditions changed? Did we alter on-page content or metadata? Methodically investigating the underlying problem to pinpoint root cause allows her to then generate potential solutions tailored to that diagnosis.

Framing the traffic decline as a decision making matter suggests the business owner should primarily evaluate options most likely to improve future results – e.g. overhauling site content, investing in search engine optimization, and paying for online advertisements. The focus lies more on weighing alternatives rather than understanding the initial problem.

For everyday individual issues like conflicting appointments, household chores, or computer glitches, considering whether to approach the matter as one best addressed via decision making or problem solving can clarify productive pathways forward. Identifying the core motivations and thought processes unique to each method lays the foundation.

Steps and Strategies

While problem solving and decision making influence each other, they demand different outlooks regarding steps and strategies. Structured problem solving techniques specifically concentrate analytical efforts on expanding knowledge about problem causes to derive solutions. Decision making processes leverage existing knowledge to spotlight judgment factors influencing action choices.

Problem Solving Steps

Most problem solving frameworks share key phases focused on deepening understanding – Problem Identification, Information Gathering, Solution Generation, Solution Evaluation, and Implementation.

  • Problem Identification – Clearly articulate the root causes and effects fueling perceived issues or gaps between current and desired end states.
  • Information Gathering – Thoroughly investigate all contextual dimensions around the problem space and potential solutions landscape.
  • Solution Generation – Leverage accrued information to hypothesize prospective resolutions that logically address root causes.
  • Solution Evaluation – Analyze hypotheses based on solution requirements and expected problem solving impact.
  • Implementation – Execute the chosen solution after ensuring organizational alignment and securing necessary resources.

Revisiting and reworking through elements of this cycle fuels iterative refinement and often nudges solutions toward optimal states.

Decision Making Strategies

Decision making processes focus less on understanding all facets of a problem and more on judging the implications of actions. Key strategies include – Framing Decisions, Gathering Intelligence, Weighing Alternatives, Evaluating Tradeoffs, Rating Options, and Committing to Choices.

  • Framing Decisions – Clearly define desired results and clarify which factors require evaluation when judging potential actions.
  • Gathering Intelligence – Research external information and internal preferences to determine decision criteria.
  • Weighing Alternatives – List all options and rank based on decision criteria to facilitate comparison.
  • Evaluating Tradeoffs – Determine what benefits and consequences stem from each option.
  • Rating Options – Score alternatives to derive quantitative judgments supplementing qualitative assessments.
  • Committing to Choices – Make definitive decisions after gathering sufficient intelligence to assess key tradeoffs.

Taking time to intentionally progress through these steps before committing to major decisions can pay significant dividends.

Cognitive Biases and Logical Fallacies

Human judgment naturally incorporates irrational assumptions and logical errors – cognitive biases skew decision making while logical fallacies undermine problem solving. Heightened awareness around these natural human tendencies can improve analysis in both spheres.

Cognitive Biases

Mental shortcuts evolved to quicken judgment often become cognitive biases that negatively impact decisions. Common examples include –

Confirmation Bias– The tendency to embrace information supporting current beliefs while devaluing contradictory evidence.

Loss Aversion Bias – The inclination to overweigh potential losses relative to equivalent gains when assessing risk.

Anchoring Bias – The tendency to rely too heavily on initial information or suggested reference points when making decisions.

Logical Fallacies

Flawed reasoning often hinders problem solving by obscuring truth or generating illusions of strong logic. Common logical fallacies include –

Correlation/Causation Fallacy – Presuming a causal relationship exists simply because two elements correlate or occur together.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy – Incorrectly assessing significance in random data clusters or patterns.

Ad Hominem Fallacy – Attempting to undermine an argument by attacking the person making the argument rather than addressing the logic itself.

Heightening vigilance around biases and logical errors takes concerted effort but can enhance both decision making and problem solving capacities over time.

Improving Skills Over Time

Cultivating increased self-awareness around personal judgment patterns offers a promising pathway toward better decisions and solutions. Our brains run on cognitive shortcuts enabling quick reaction times and pattern recognition. But consciously overriding autopilot brings more precision to high-stakes judgment calls. Comparing gut reactions with structured analysis can spotlight areas needing refinement.

Catalog Past Judgements

Recording an audit trail around past choices provides concrete evidence revealing engrained biases or habitual fallacies. Tracking elements leading up to decisions along with outcomes over specified time horizons furnishes data helping distinguish emotional prompts versus logic. Did initial loss aversion skew expected value calculations? Did confirmation bias corrupt preferred solutions? Objective issue timelines deepen insight.

Embrace Accountability

Openly discussing judgment rationale with trusted advisors introduces essential accountability checkpoints. External perspectives identifying potential flaws overlooked internally assist in recalibrating thinking. Welcome constructive criticism around cognitive blindspots or inconsistent logic. Gather feedback frequently while resolving problems or deciding next steps.

Practice Impartiality

Strive to separate personal preferences, current circumstances, and situational emotions from raw decision criteria or problem specifics, especially for crucial choices. Compartmentalize elements vetoing impartiality to see issues through more balanced lenses. No one achieves perfect objectivity but knowingly attempting to minimize subjective footprints bolsters abilities in both spheres.

The Takeaway

At their roots, problem solving and decision making share common goals – assessing situations, evaluating options, and determining optimal actions based on rational thinking. But when facing difficult junctures, consciously distinguishing problem solving mindsets from decision making orientations clarifies purpose.

If lacking enough information about the root causes behind complex issues, purposefully adopt a problem solving lens aiming to close knowledge gaps. Ask probing questions, run experiments, and gather abundant intelligence. Suspend initial judgement regarding solutions while learning more about current conditions through a problem solving frame,

When facing clear decision points with sufficient contextual awareness, allow a decision making mentality to guide the next steps. Focus analysis more on potential actions rather than problems themselves. Thoroughly vet options against stated requirements and rank based on careful evaluations of tradeoffs.

Learning to shift fluidly between these two frameworks unlocks better solutions and choices over the long run.


Q – In reality don’t optimal outcomes usually require a combination of problem solving and decision making? When should someone use only one approach?

A – For any complex situation, employing both problem solving and decision making lenses at different junctures aids progress. The standalone frameworks serve best as mental models clarifying priorities among all analytical tasks needing completion before determining final actions.

Q – Do certain personality types gravitate more toward either problem solving or decision making by default? How much does inherent nature versus nurtured experience drive aptitudes?

A – Nature versus nurture certainly influences individual predilections toward either philosophy. Early positive or negative experiences making high-stakes decisions could sway some toward more structured problem solving techniques out of excessive caution. More research on neurological and behavioral propensities related to each framework offers promise for tailoring approaches.

Q – For important one-off life decisions like pursuing higher education or switching industries, which philosophy might generate better results?

A – Major one-time life decisions often feature unfamiliar variables arguing for problem solving efforts first before committing irreversibly. Thoroughly investigating unknowns upfront through careful questioning and analysis could surface key insights needed later when weighing tradeoffs while finalizing decisive actions. Be wary of quick decisions in isolation around unfamiliar terrain, lest subsequent consequences reveal vital gaps not properly vetted at the outset.

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