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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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approach to decision making and problem solving

This is how effective teams navigate the decision-making process

Zero Magic 8 Balls required.

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Flipping a coin. Throwing a dart at a board. Pulling a slip of paper out of a hat.

Sure, they’re all ways to make a choice. But they all hinge on random chance rather than analysis, reflection, and strategy — you know, the things you actually need to make the big, meaty decisions that have major impacts.

So, set down that Magic 8 Ball and back away slowly. Let’s walk through the standard framework for decision-making that will help you and your team pinpoint the problem, consider your options, and make your most informed selection. Here’s a closer look at each of the seven steps of the decision-making process, and how to approach each one. 

Step 1: Identify the decision

Most of us are eager to tie on our superhero capes and jump into problem-solving mode — especially if our team is depending on a solution. But you can’t solve a problem until you have a full grasp on what it actually is .

This first step focuses on getting the lay of the land when it comes to your decision. What specific problem are you trying to solve? What goal are you trying to achieve? 

How to do it: 

  • Use the 5 whys analysis to go beyond surface-level symptoms and understand the root cause of a problem.
  • Try problem framing to dig deep on the ins and outs of whatever problem your team is fixing. The point is to define the problem, not solve it. 

⚠️ Watch out for: Decision fatigue , which is the tendency to make worse decisions as a result of needing to make too many of them. Making choices is mentally taxing , which is why it’s helpful to pinpoint one decision at a time. 

2. Gather information

Your team probably has a few hunches and best guesses, but those can lead to knee-jerk reactions. Take care to invest adequate time and research into your decision.

This step is when you build your case, so to speak. Collect relevant information — that could be data, customer stories, information about past projects, feedback, or whatever else seems pertinent. You’ll use that to make decisions that are informed, rather than impulsive.

  • Host a team mindmapping session to freely explore ideas and make connections between them. It can help you identify what information will best support the process.
  • Create a project poster to define your goals and also determine what information you already know and what you still need to find out. 

⚠️ Watch out for: Information bias , or the tendency to seek out information even if it won’t impact your action. We have the tendency to think more information is always better, but pulling together a bunch of facts and insights that aren’t applicable may cloud your judgment rather than offer clarity. 

3. Identify alternatives

Use divergent thinking to generate fresh ideas in your next brainstorm

Use divergent thinking to generate fresh ideas in your next brainstorm

Blame the popularity of the coin toss, but making a decision often feels like choosing between only two options. Do you want heads or tails? Door number one or door number two? In reality, your options aren’t usually so cut and dried. Take advantage of this opportunity to get creative and brainstorm all sorts of routes or solutions. There’s no need to box yourselves in. 

  • Use the Six Thinking Hats technique to explore the problem or goal from all sides: information, emotions and instinct, risks, benefits, and creativity. It can help you and your team break away from your typical roles or mindsets and think more freely.
  • Try brainwriting so team members can write down their ideas independently before sharing with the group. Research shows that this quiet, lone thinking time can boost psychological safety and generate more creative suggestions .

⚠️ Watch out for: Groupthink , which is the tendency of a group to make non-optimal decisions in the interest of conformity. People don’t want to rock the boat, so they don’t speak up. 

4. Consider the evidence

Armed with your list of alternatives, it’s time to take a closer look and determine which ones could be worth pursuing. You and your team should ask questions like “How will this solution address the problem or achieve the goal?” and “What are the pros and cons of this option?” 

Be honest with your answers (and back them up with the information you already collected when you can). Remind the team that this isn’t about advocating for their own suggestions to “win” — it’s about whittling your options down to the best decision. 

How to do it:

  • Use a SWOT analysis to dig into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of the options you’re seriously considering.
  • Run a project trade-off analysis to understand what constraints (such as time, scope, or cost) the team is most willing to compromise on if needed. 

⚠️ Watch out for: Extinction by instinct , which is the urge to make a decision just to get it over with. You didn’t come this far to settle for a “good enough” option! 

5. Choose among the alternatives

This is it — it’s the big moment when you and the team actually make the decision. You’ve identified all possible options, considered the supporting evidence, and are ready to choose how you’ll move forward.

However, bear in mind that there’s still a surprising amount of room for flexibility here. Maybe you’ll modify an alternative or combine a few suggested solutions together to land on the best fit for your problem and your team. 

  • Use the DACI framework (that stands for “driver, approver, contributor, informed”) to understand who ultimately has the final say in decisions. The decision-making process can be collaborative, but eventually someone needs to be empowered to make the final call.
  • Try a simple voting method for decisions that are more democratized. You’ll simply tally your team’s votes and go with the majority. 

⚠️ Watch out for: Analysis paralysis , which is when you overthink something to such a great degree that you feel overwhelmed and freeze when it’s time to actually make a choice. 

6. Take action

Making a big decision takes a hefty amount of work, but it’s only the first part of the process — now you need to actually implement it. 

It’s tempting to think that decisions will work themselves out once they’re made. But particularly in a team setting, it’s crucial to invest just as much thought and planning into communicating the decision and successfully rolling it out. 

  • Create a stakeholder communications plan to determine how you’ll keep various people — direct team members, company leaders, customers, or whoever else has an active interest in your decision — in the loop on your progress.
  • Define the goals, signals, and measures of your decision so you’ll have an easier time aligning the team around the next steps and determining whether or not they’re successful. 

⚠️Watch out for: Self-doubt, or the tendency to question whether or not you’re making the right move. While we’re hardwired for doubt , now isn’t the time to be a skeptic about your decision. You and the team have done the work, so trust the process. 

7. Review your decision

9 retrospective techniques that won’t bore your team to tears

9 retrospective techniques that won’t bore your team to tears

As the decision itself starts to shake out, it’s time to take a look in the rearview mirror and reflect on how things went.

Did your decision work out the way you and the team hoped? What happened? Examine both the good and the bad. What should you keep in mind if and when you need to make this sort of decision again? 

  • Do a 4 L’s retrospective to talk through what you and the team loved, loathed, learned, and longed for as a result of that decision.
  • Celebrate any wins (yes, even the small ones ) related to that decision. It gives morale a good kick in the pants and can also help make future decisions feel a little less intimidating.

⚠️ Watch out for: Hindsight bias , or the tendency to look back on events with the knowledge you have now and beat yourself up for not knowing better at the time. Even with careful thought and planning, some decisions don’t work out — but you can only operate with the information you have at the time. 

Making smart decisions about the decision-making process

You’re probably picking up on the fact that the decision-making process is fairly comprehensive. And the truth is that the model is likely overkill for the small and inconsequential decisions you or your team members need to make.

Deciding whether you should order tacos or sandwiches for your team offsite doesn’t warrant this much discussion and elbow grease. But figuring out which major project to prioritize next? That requires some careful and collaborative thought. 

It all comes back to the concept of satisficing versus maximizing , which are two different perspectives on decision making. Here’s the gist:

  • Maximizers aim to get the very best out of every single decision.
  • Satisficers are willing to settle for “good enough” rather than obsessing over achieving the best outcome.

One of those isn’t necessarily better than the other — and, in fact, they both have their time and place.

A major decision with far-reaching impacts deserves some fixation and perfectionism. However, hemming and hawing over trivial choices ( “Should we start our team meeting with casual small talk or a structured icebreaker?” ) will only cause added stress, frustration, and slowdowns. 

As with anything else, it’s worth thinking about the potential impacts to determine just how much deliberation and precision a decision actually requires. 

Decision-making is one of those things that’s part art and part science. You’ll likely have some gut feelings and instincts that are worth taking into account. But those should also be complemented with plenty of evidence, evaluation, and collaboration.

The decision-making process is a framework that helps you strike that balance. Follow the seven steps and you and your team can feel confident in the decisions you make — while leaving the darts and coins where they belong.

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Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

approach to decision making and problem solving

Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.

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From deciding what to eat for dinner to considering whether it's the right time to buy a house, problem-solving is a large part of our daily lives. Learn some of the problem-solving strategies that exist and how to use them in real life, along with ways to overcome obstacles that are making it harder to resolve the issues you face.

What Is Problem-Solving?

In cognitive psychology , the term 'problem-solving' refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems.

A problem exists when there is a goal that we want to achieve but the process by which we will achieve it is not obvious to us. Put another way, there is something that we want to occur in our life, yet we are not immediately certain how to make it happen.

Maybe you want a better relationship with your spouse or another family member but you're not sure how to improve it. Or you want to start a business but are unsure what steps to take. Problem-solving helps you figure out how to achieve these desires.

The problem-solving process involves:

  • Discovery of the problem
  • Deciding to tackle the issue
  • Seeking to understand the problem more fully
  • Researching available options or solutions
  • Taking action to resolve the issue

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.

Problem-Solving Mental Processes

Several mental processes are at work during problem-solving. Among them are:

  • Perceptually recognizing the problem
  • Representing the problem in memory
  • Considering relevant information that applies to the problem
  • Identifying different aspects of the problem
  • Labeling and describing the problem

Problem-Solving Strategies

There are many ways to go about solving a problem. Some of these strategies might be used on their own, or you may decide to employ multiple approaches when working to figure out and fix a problem.

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that, by following certain "rules" produces a solution. Algorithms are commonly used in mathematics to solve division or multiplication problems. But they can be used in other fields as well.

In psychology, algorithms can be used to help identify individuals with a greater risk of mental health issues. For instance, research suggests that certain algorithms might help us recognize children with an elevated risk of suicide or self-harm.

One benefit of algorithms is that they guarantee an accurate answer. However, they aren't always the best approach to problem-solving, in part because detecting patterns can be incredibly time-consuming.

There are also concerns when machine learning is involved—also known as artificial intelligence (AI)—such as whether they can accurately predict human behaviors.

Heuristics are shortcut strategies that people can use to solve a problem at hand. These "rule of thumb" approaches allow you to simplify complex problems, reducing the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.

If you find yourself sitting in a traffic jam, for example, you may quickly consider other routes, taking one to get moving once again. When shopping for a new car, you might think back to a prior experience when negotiating got you a lower price, then employ the same tactics.

While heuristics may be helpful when facing smaller issues, major decisions shouldn't necessarily be made using a shortcut approach. Heuristics also don't guarantee an effective solution, such as when trying to drive around a traffic jam only to find yourself on an equally crowded route.

Trial and Error

A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of potential solutions to a particular issue, then ruling out those that do not work. If you're not sure whether to buy a shirt in blue or green, for instance, you may try on each before deciding which one to purchase.

This can be a good strategy to use if you have a limited number of solutions available. But if there are many different choices available, narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique can be helpful before attempting trial and error.

In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. You are facing an issue in a relationship or your career when, out of nowhere, the solution appears in your mind and you know exactly what to do.

Insight can occur when the problem in front of you is similar to an issue that you've dealt with in the past. Although, you may not recognize what is occurring since the underlying mental processes that lead to insight often happen outside of conscious awareness .

Research indicates that insight is most likely to occur during times when you are alone—such as when going on a walk by yourself, when you're in the shower, or when lying in bed after waking up.

How to Apply Problem-Solving Strategies in Real Life

If you're facing a problem, you can implement one or more of these strategies to find a potential solution. Here's how to use them in real life:

  • Create a flow chart . If you have time, you can take advantage of the algorithm approach to problem-solving by sitting down and making a flow chart of each potential solution, its consequences, and what happens next.
  • Recall your past experiences . When a problem needs to be solved fairly quickly, heuristics may be a better approach. Think back to when you faced a similar issue, then use your knowledge and experience to choose the best option possible.
  • Start trying potential solutions . If your options are limited, start trying them one by one to see which solution is best for achieving your desired goal. If a particular solution doesn't work, move on to the next.
  • Take some time alone . Since insight is often achieved when you're alone, carve out time to be by yourself for a while. The answer to your problem may come to you, seemingly out of the blue, if you spend some time away from others.

Obstacles to Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is not a flawless process as there are a number of obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. These obstacles include:

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people can make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions. Thus, they may not even try some potential options.
  • Functional fixedness : This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When trying to solve a problem, it's important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. The more complex the problem, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental set: A mental set is a tendency to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

In the end, if your goal is to become a better problem-solver, it's helpful to remember that this is a process. Thus, if you want to improve your problem-solving skills, following these steps can help lead you to your solution:

  • Recognize that a problem exists . If you are facing a problem, there are generally signs. For instance, if you have a mental illness , you may experience excessive fear or sadness, mood changes, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Recognizing these signs can help you realize that an issue exists.
  • Decide to solve the problem . Make a conscious decision to solve the issue at hand. Commit to yourself that you will go through the steps necessary to find a solution.
  • Seek to fully understand the issue . Analyze the problem you face, looking at it from all sides. If your problem is relationship-related, for instance, ask yourself how the other person may be interpreting the issue. You might also consider how your actions might be contributing to the situation.
  • Research potential options . Using the problem-solving strategies mentioned, research potential solutions. Make a list of options, then consider each one individually. What are some pros and cons of taking the available routes? What would you need to do to make them happen?
  • Take action . Select the best solution possible and take action. Action is one of the steps required for change . So, go through the motions needed to resolve the issue.
  • Try another option, if needed . If the solution you chose didn't work, don't give up. Either go through the problem-solving process again or simply try another option.

You can find a way to solve your problems as long as you keep working toward this goal—even if the best solution is simply to let go because no other good solution exists.

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

Dunbar K. Problem solving . A Companion to Cognitive Science . 2017. doi:10.1002/9781405164535.ch20

Stewart SL, Celebre A, Hirdes JP, Poss JW. Risk of suicide and self-harm in kids: The development of an algorithm to identify high-risk individuals within the children's mental health system . Child Psychiat Human Develop . 2020;51:913-924. doi:10.1007/s10578-020-00968-9

Rosenbusch H, Soldner F, Evans AM, Zeelenberg M. Supervised machine learning methods in psychology: A practical introduction with annotated R code . Soc Personal Psychol Compass . 2021;15(2):e12579. doi:10.1111/spc3.12579

Mishra S. Decision-making under risk: Integrating perspectives from biology, economics, and psychology . Personal Soc Psychol Rev . 2014;18(3):280-307. doi:10.1177/1088868314530517

Csikszentmihalyi M, Sawyer K. Creative insight: The social dimension of a solitary moment . In: The Systems Model of Creativity . 2015:73-98. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-9085-7_7

Chrysikou EG, Motyka K, Nigro C, Yang SI, Thompson-Schill SL. Functional fixedness in creative thinking tasks depends on stimulus modality .  Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts . 2016;10(4):425‐435. doi:10.1037/aca0000050

Huang F, Tang S, Hu Z. Unconditional perseveration of the short-term mental set in chunk decomposition .  Front Psychol . 2018;9:2568. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02568

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Problem Solving and Decision Making


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Problem Solving and Decision Making by Emily G. Nielsen , John Paul Minda LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019 LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0246

Problem solving and decision making are both examples of complex, higher-order thinking. Both involve the assessment of the environment, the involvement of working memory or short-term memory, reliance on long term memory, effects of knowledge, and the application of heuristics to complete a behavior. A problem can be defined as an impasse or gap between a current state and a desired goal state. Problem solving is the set of cognitive operations that a person engages in to change the current state, to go beyond the impasse, and achieve a desired outcome. Problem solving involves the mental representation of the problem state and the manipulation of this representation in order to move closer to the goal. Problems can vary in complexity, abstraction, and how well defined (or not) the initial state and the goal state are. Research has generally approached problem solving by examining the behaviors and cognitive processes involved, and some work has examined problem solving using computational processes as well. Decision making is the process of selecting and choosing one action or behavior out of several alternatives. Like problem solving, decision making involves the coordination of memories and executive resources. Research on decision making has paid particular attention to the cognitive biases that account for suboptimal decisions and decisions that deviate from rationality. The current bibliography first outlines some general resources on the psychology of problem solving and decision making before examining each of these topics in detail. Specifically, this review covers cognitive, neuroscientific, and computational approaches to problem solving, as well as decision making models and cognitive heuristics and biases.

General Overviews

Current research in the area of problem solving and decision making is published in both general and specialized scientific journals. Theoretical and scholarly work is often summarized and developed in full-length books and chapter. These may focus on the subfields of problem solving and decision making or the larger field of thinking and higher-order cognition.

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5 Key Decision-Making Techniques for Managers

Business manager engaging in decision-making with his team

  • 31 Mar 2020

Decision-making is an essential business skill that drives organizational performance. A survey of more than 750 companies by management consulting firm Bain found a 95 percent correlation between decision-making effectiveness and financial results. The data also showed companies that excel at making and executing strategic decisions generate returns nearly six percent higher than those of their competitors.

At many organizations, it’s up to managers to make the key decisions that influence business strategy. Research by consulting firm McKinsey , however, shows that 61 percent of them believe at least half the time they spend doing so is ineffective.

If you want to avoid falling into this demographic, here are five decision-making techniques you can employ to improve your management skills and help your organization succeed.

Access your free e-book today.

Decision-Making Techniques for Managers

1. take a process-oriented approach.

One of your primary responsibilities as a manager is to get things done with and through others, which involves leveraging organizational processes to accomplish goals and produce results. According to Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger, who’s featured in the online course Management Essentials , decision-making is one of the processes you can use to your advantage.

“The majority of people think about making decisions as an event,” Schlesinger says. “It’s very rare to find a single point in time where a ‘decision of significance’ is made and things go forward from there. What we’re really talking about is a process. The role of the manager in overseeing that process is straightforward, yet, at the same time, extraordinarily complex.”

When establishing your decision-making process , first frame the issue at hand to ensure you ask the right questions and everyone agrees on what needs to be decided. From there, build your team and manage group dynamics to analyze the problem and craft a viable solution. By following a structured, multi-step process, you can make informed decisions and achieve the desired outcome.

2. Involve Your Team in the Process

Decision-making doesn’t have to be done in a vacuum. To avoid relying on managerial decisions alone, involve your team in the process to bring multiple viewpoints into the conversation and stimulate creative problem-solving .

Research in the journal Royal Society Open Science shows team decision-making is highly effective because it pools individuals’ collective knowledge and experience, leading to more innovative solutions and helping to surface and overcome hidden biases among groups.

Considering others’ perspectives on how to approach and surmount a specific challenge is an ideal alternative because it helps you become more aware of your implicit biases and manage your team with greater emotional intelligence .

Related: Emotional Intelligence Skills: What They Are & How to Develop Them

3. Foster a Collaborative Mindset

Fostering the right mindset early in the decision-making process is critical to ensuring your team works collaboratively—not contentiously.

When facing a decision, there are two key mindsets to consider:

Decision-Making Mindsets: Advocacy vs. Inquiry

  • Advocacy: A mindset that regards decision-making as a contest. In a group with an advocacy mindset, individuals try to persuade others, defend their positions, and downplay their weaknesses.
  • Inquiry: A mindset that navigates decision-making with collaborative problem-solving. An inquiry mindset centers on individuals testing and evaluating assumptions by presenting balanced arguments, considering alternatives, and being open to constructive criticism.

“On the surface, advocacy and inquiry approaches look deceptively similar,” HBS Professor David Garvin says in Management Essentials . “Both involve individuals engaged in debates, drawing on data, developing alternatives, and deciding on future directions. But, despite these similarities, inquiry and advocacy produce very different results.”

A study by software company Cloverpop found that decisions made and executed by diverse teams deliver 60 percent better results. Strive to instill your team members with an inquiry mindset so they’re empowered to think critically and feel their perspectives are welcomed and valued rather than discouraged and dismissed.

4. Create and Uphold Psychological Safety

For your team members to feel comfortable sharing their diverse perspectives and working collaboratively, it’s crucial to create and maintain a psychologically safe environment. According to research by technology company Google , psychological safety is the most important dynamic found among high-performing teams.

“Psychological safety is essential—first and foremost—for getting the information and perspectives out,” HBS Professor Amy Edmondson says in Management Essentials . “It’s helpful to be able to talk about what we know and think in an effective and thoughtful way before coming to a final conclusion.”

To help your team feel psychologically safe, be respectful and give fair consideration when listening to everyone’s opinions. When voicing your own point of view, be open and transparent, and adapt your communication style to meet the group’s needs. By actively listening and being attuned to your colleagues’ emotions and attitudes, you can forge a stronger bond of trust, make them feel more engaged and foster an environment that allows for more effective decisions.

Related: 5 Tips for Managing Change in the Workplace

5. Reiterate the Goals and Purpose of the Decision

Throughout the decision-making process, it’s vital to avoid common management pitfalls and lose sight of the goals and purpose of the decision on the table.

The goals you’re working toward need to be clearly articulated at the outset of the decision-making process—and constantly reiterated throughout—to ensure they’re ultimately achieved.

“It’s easy, as you get into these conversations, to get so immersed in one substantive part of the equation that you lose track of what the actual purpose is,” Schlesinger says.

Revisiting purpose is especially important when making decisions related to complex initiatives—such as organizational change —to ensure your team feels motivated and aligned and understands how their contributions tie into larger objectives.

Why Are Decision-Making Skills Important?

Effective decision-making can immensely impact organizational performance. By developing your decision-making skills, you can exercise sound judgment and guide your team through the appropriate frameworks and processes—resulting in more data-driven decisions .

You can also anticipate and navigate organizational challenges while analyzing the outcomes of previous efforts, which can have lasting effects on your firm’s success.

Management Essentials | Get the job done | Learn More

Improve Your Decision-Making Skills

Enhancing your decision-making capabilities can be an integral part of your journey to becoming a better manager , reaching your business goals, and advancing your career. In addition to real-world experience, furthering your education by taking a management training course can equip you with a wide range of skills and knowledge that enable both your team and organization to thrive.

Do you want to design, direct, and shape organizational processes to your advantage? Explore Management Essentials , one of our online leadership and management courses , and discover how you can influence the context and environment in which decisions get made.

This post was updated on December 21, 2022. It was originally published on March 31, 2020.

approach to decision making and problem solving

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Critical Thinking and Decision-Making  - What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking and decision-making  -, what is critical thinking, critical thinking and decision-making what is critical thinking.

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Critical Thinking and Decision-Making: What is Critical Thinking?

Lesson 1: what is critical thinking, what is critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a term that gets thrown around a lot. You've probably heard it used often throughout the years whether it was in school, at work, or in everyday conversation. But when you stop to think about it, what exactly is critical thinking and how do you do it ?

Watch the video below to learn more about critical thinking.

Simply put, critical thinking is the act of deliberately analyzing information so that you can make better judgements and decisions . It involves using things like logic, reasoning, and creativity, to draw conclusions and generally understand things better.

illustration of the terms logic, reasoning, and creativity

This may sound like a pretty broad definition, and that's because critical thinking is a broad skill that can be applied to so many different situations. You can use it to prepare for a job interview, manage your time better, make decisions about purchasing things, and so much more.

The process

illustration of "thoughts" inside a human brain, with several being connected and "analyzed"

As humans, we are constantly thinking . It's something we can't turn off. But not all of it is critical thinking. No one thinks critically 100% of the time... that would be pretty exhausting! Instead, it's an intentional process , something that we consciously use when we're presented with difficult problems or important decisions.

Improving your critical thinking

illustration of the questions "What do I currently know?" and "How do I know this?"

In order to become a better critical thinker, it's important to ask questions when you're presented with a problem or decision, before jumping to any conclusions. You can start with simple ones like What do I currently know? and How do I know this? These can help to give you a better idea of what you're working with and, in some cases, simplify more complex issues.  

Real-world applications

illustration of a hand holding a smartphone displaying an article that reads, "Study: Cats are better than dogs"

Let's take a look at how we can use critical thinking to evaluate online information . Say a friend of yours posts a news article on social media and you're drawn to its headline. If you were to use your everyday automatic thinking, you might accept it as fact and move on. But if you were thinking critically, you would first analyze the available information and ask some questions :

  • What's the source of this article?
  • Is the headline potentially misleading?
  • What are my friend's general beliefs?
  • Do their beliefs inform why they might have shared this?

illustration of "Super Cat Blog" and "According to survery of cat owners" being highlighted from an article on a smartphone

After analyzing all of this information, you can draw a conclusion about whether or not you think the article is trustworthy.

Critical thinking has a wide range of real-world applications . It can help you to make better decisions, become more hireable, and generally better understand the world around you.

illustration of a lightbulb, a briefcase, and the world


How to improve your problem solving skills and build effective problem solving strategies

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Effective problem solving is all about using the right process and following a plan tailored to the issue at hand. Recognizing your team or organization has an issue isn’t enough to come up with effective problem solving strategies. 

To truly understand a problem and develop appropriate solutions, you will want to follow a solid process, follow the necessary problem solving steps, and bring all of your problem solving skills to the table.  

We’ll first guide you through the seven step problem solving process you and your team can use to effectively solve complex business challenges. We’ll also look at what problem solving strategies you can employ with your team when looking for a way to approach the process. We’ll then discuss the problem solving skills you need to be more effective at solving problems, complete with an activity from the SessionLab library you can use to develop that skill in your team.

Let’s get to it! 

What is a problem solving process?

  • What are the problem solving steps I need to follow?

Problem solving strategies

What skills do i need to be an effective problem solver, how can i improve my problem solving skills.

Solving problems is like baking a cake. You can go straight into the kitchen without a recipe or the right ingredients and do your best, but the end result is unlikely to be very tasty!

Using a process to bake a cake allows you to use the best ingredients without waste, collect the right tools, account for allergies, decide whether it is a birthday or wedding cake, and then bake efficiently and on time. The result is a better cake that is fit for purpose, tastes better and has created less mess in the kitchen. Also, it should have chocolate sprinkles. Having a step by step process to solve organizational problems allows you to go through each stage methodically and ensure you are trying to solve the right problems and select the most appropriate, effective solutions.

What are the problem solving steps I need to follow? 

All problem solving processes go through a number of steps in order to move from identifying a problem to resolving it.

Depending on your problem solving model and who you ask, there can be anything between four and nine problem solving steps you should follow in order to find the right solution. Whatever framework you and your group use, there are some key items that should be addressed in order to have an effective process.

We’ve looked at problem solving processes from sources such as the American Society for Quality and their four step approach , and Mediate ‘s six step process. By reflecting on those and our own problem solving processes, we’ve come up with a sequence of seven problem solving steps we feel best covers everything you need in order to effectively solve problems.

seven step problem solving process

1. Problem identification 

The first stage of any problem solving process is to identify the problem or problems you might want to solve. Effective problem solving strategies always begin by allowing a group scope to articulate what they believe the problem to be and then coming to some consensus over which problem they approach first. Problem solving activities used at this stage often have a focus on creating frank, open discussion so that potential problems can be brought to the surface.

2. Problem analysis 

Though this step is not a million miles from problem identification, problem analysis deserves to be considered separately. It can often be an overlooked part of the process and is instrumental when it comes to developing effective solutions.

The process of problem analysis means ensuring that the problem you are seeking to solve is the right problem . As part of this stage, you may look deeper and try to find the root cause of a specific problem at a team or organizational level.

Remember that problem solving strategies should not only be focused on putting out fires in the short term but developing long term solutions that deal with the root cause of organizational challenges. 

Whatever your approach, analyzing a problem is crucial in being able to select an appropriate solution and the problem solving skills deployed in this stage are beneficial for the rest of the process and ensuring the solutions you create are fit for purpose.

3. Solution generation

Once your group has nailed down the particulars of the problem you wish to solve, you want to encourage a free flow of ideas connecting to solving that problem. This can take the form of problem solving games that encourage creative thinking or problem solving activities designed to produce working prototypes of possible solutions. 

The key to ensuring the success of this stage of the problem solving process is to encourage quick, creative thinking and create an open space where all ideas are considered. The best solutions can come from unlikely places and by using problem solving techniques that celebrate invention, you might come up with solution gold. 

4. Solution development

No solution is likely to be perfect right out of the gate. It’s important to discuss and develop the solutions your group has come up with over the course of following the previous problem solving steps in order to arrive at the best possible solution. Problem solving games used in this stage involve lots of critical thinking, measuring potential effort and impact, and looking at possible solutions analytically. 

During this stage, you will often ask your team to iterate and improve upon your frontrunning solutions and develop them further. Remember that problem solving strategies always benefit from a multitude of voices and opinions, and not to let ego get involved when it comes to choosing which solutions to develop and take further.

Finding the best solution is the goal of all problem solving workshops and here is the place to ensure that your solution is well thought out, sufficiently robust and fit for purpose. 

5. Decision making 

Nearly there! Once your group has reached consensus and selected a solution that applies to the problem at hand you have some decisions to make. You will want to work on allocating ownership of the project, figure out who will do what, how the success of the solution will be measured and decide the next course of action.

The decision making stage is a part of the problem solving process that can get missed or taken as for granted. Fail to properly allocate roles and plan out how a solution will actually be implemented and it less likely to be successful in solving the problem.

Have clear accountabilities, actions, timeframes, and follow-ups. Make these decisions and set clear next-steps in the problem solving workshop so that everyone is aligned and you can move forward effectively as a group. 

Ensuring that you plan for the roll-out of a solution is one of the most important problem solving steps. Without adequate planning or oversight, it can prove impossible to measure success or iterate further if the problem was not solved. 

6. Solution implementation 

This is what we were waiting for! All problem solving strategies have the end goal of implementing a solution and solving a problem in mind. 

Remember that in order for any solution to be successful, you need to help your group through all of the previous problem solving steps thoughtfully. Only then can you ensure that you are solving the right problem but also that you have developed the correct solution and can then successfully implement and measure the impact of that solution.

Project management and communication skills are key here – your solution may need to adjust when out in the wild or you might discover new challenges along the way.

7. Solution evaluation 

So you and your team developed a great solution to a problem and have a gut feeling its been solved. Work done, right? Wrong. All problem solving strategies benefit from evaluation, consideration, and feedback. You might find that the solution does not work for everyone, might create new problems, or is potentially so successful that you will want to roll it out to larger teams or as part of other initiatives. 

None of that is possible without taking the time to evaluate the success of the solution you developed in your problem solving model and adjust if necessary.

Remember that the problem solving process is often iterative and it can be common to not solve complex issues on the first try. Even when this is the case, you and your team will have generated learning that will be important for future problem solving workshops or in other parts of the organization. 

It’s worth underlining how important record keeping is throughout the problem solving process. If a solution didn’t work, you need to have the data and records to see why that was the case. If you go back to the drawing board, notes from the previous workshop can help save time. Data and insight is invaluable at every stage of the problem solving process and this one is no different.

Problem solving workshops made easy

approach to decision making and problem solving

Problem solving strategies are methods of approaching and facilitating the process of problem-solving with a set of techniques , actions, and processes. Different strategies are more effective if you are trying to solve broad problems such as achieving higher growth versus more focused problems like, how do we improve our customer onboarding process?

Broadly, the problem solving steps outlined above should be included in any problem solving strategy though choosing where to focus your time and what approaches should be taken is where they begin to differ. You might find that some strategies ask for the problem identification to be done prior to the session or that everything happens in the course of a one day workshop.

The key similarity is that all good problem solving strategies are structured and designed. Four hours of open discussion is never going to be as productive as a four-hour workshop designed to lead a group through a problem solving process.

Good problem solving strategies are tailored to the team, organization and problem you will be attempting to solve. Here are some example problem solving strategies you can learn from or use to get started.

Use a workshop to lead a team through a group process

Often, the first step to solving problems or organizational challenges is bringing a group together effectively. Most teams have the tools, knowledge, and expertise necessary to solve their challenges – they just need some guidance in how to use leverage those skills and a structure and format that allows people to focus their energies.

Facilitated workshops are one of the most effective ways of solving problems of any scale. By designing and planning your workshop carefully, you can tailor the approach and scope to best fit the needs of your team and organization. 

Problem solving workshop

  • Creating a bespoke, tailored process
  • Tackling problems of any size
  • Building in-house workshop ability and encouraging their use

Workshops are an effective strategy for solving problems. By using tried and test facilitation techniques and methods, you can design and deliver a workshop that is perfectly suited to the unique variables of your organization. You may only have the capacity for a half-day workshop and so need a problem solving process to match. 

By using our session planner tool and importing methods from our library of 700+ facilitation techniques, you can create the right problem solving workshop for your team. It might be that you want to encourage creative thinking or look at things from a new angle to unblock your groups approach to problem solving. By tailoring your workshop design to the purpose, you can help ensure great results.

One of the main benefits of a workshop is the structured approach to problem solving. Not only does this mean that the workshop itself will be successful, but many of the methods and techniques will help your team improve their working processes outside of the workshop. 

We believe that workshops are one of the best tools you can use to improve the way your team works together. Start with a problem solving workshop and then see what team building, culture or design workshops can do for your organization!

Run a design sprint

Great for: 

  • aligning large, multi-discipline teams
  • quickly designing and testing solutions
  • tackling large, complex organizational challenges and breaking them down into smaller tasks

By using design thinking principles and methods, a design sprint is a great way of identifying, prioritizing and prototyping solutions to long term challenges that can help solve major organizational problems with quick action and measurable results.

Some familiarity with design thinking is useful, though not integral, and this strategy can really help a team align if there is some discussion around which problems should be approached first. 

The stage-based structure of the design sprint is also very useful for teams new to design thinking.  The inspiration phase, where you look to competitors that have solved your problem, and the rapid prototyping and testing phases are great for introducing new concepts that will benefit a team in all their future work. 

It can be common for teams to look inward for solutions and so looking to the market for solutions you can iterate on can be very productive. Instilling an agile prototyping and testing mindset can also be great when helping teams move forwards – generating and testing solutions quickly can help save time in the long run and is also pretty exciting!

Break problems down into smaller issues

Organizational challenges and problems are often complicated and large scale in nature. Sometimes, trying to resolve such an issue in one swoop is simply unachievable or overwhelming. Try breaking down such problems into smaller issues that you can work on step by step. You may not be able to solve the problem of churning customers off the bat, but you can work with your team to identify smaller effort but high impact elements and work on those first.

This problem solving strategy can help a team generate momentum, prioritize and get some easy wins. It’s also a great strategy to employ with teams who are just beginning to learn how to approach the problem solving process. If you want some insight into a way to employ this strategy, we recommend looking at our design sprint template below!

Use guiding frameworks or try new methodologies

Some problems are best solved by introducing a major shift in perspective or by using new methodologies that encourage your team to think differently.

Props and tools such as Methodkit , which uses a card-based toolkit for facilitation, or Lego Serious Play can be great ways to engage your team and find an inclusive, democratic problem solving strategy. Remember that play and creativity are great tools for achieving change and whatever the challenge, engaging your participants can be very effective where other strategies may have failed.

LEGO Serious Play

  • Improving core problem solving skills
  • Thinking outside of the box
  • Encouraging creative solutions

LEGO Serious Play is a problem solving methodology designed to get participants thinking differently by using 3D models and kinesthetic learning styles. By physically building LEGO models based on questions and exercises, participants are encouraged to think outside of the box and create their own responses. 

Collaborate LEGO Serious Play exercises are also used to encourage communication and build problem solving skills in a group. By using this problem solving process, you can often help different kinds of learners and personality types contribute and unblock organizational problems with creative thinking. 

Problem solving strategies like LEGO Serious Play are super effective at helping a team solve more skills-based problems such as communication between teams or a lack of creative thinking. Some problems are not suited to LEGO Serious Play and require a different problem solving strategy.

Card Decks and Method Kits

  • New facilitators or non-facilitators 
  • Approaching difficult subjects with a simple, creative framework
  • Engaging those with varied learning styles

Card decks and method kids are great tools for those new to facilitation or for whom facilitation is not the primary role. Card decks such as the emotional culture deck can be used for complete workshops and in many cases, can be used right out of the box. Methodkit has a variety of kits designed for scenarios ranging from personal development through to personas and global challenges so you can find the right deck for your particular needs.

Having an easy to use framework that encourages creativity or a new approach can take some of the friction or planning difficulties out of the workshop process and energize a team in any setting. Simplicity is the key with these methods. By ensuring everyone on your team can get involved and engage with the process as quickly as possible can really contribute to the success of your problem solving strategy.

Source external advice

Looking to peers, experts and external facilitators can be a great way of approaching the problem solving process. Your team may not have the necessary expertise, insights of experience to tackle some issues, or you might simply benefit from a fresh perspective. Some problems may require bringing together an entire team, and coaching managers or team members individually might be the right approach. Remember that not all problems are best resolved in the same manner.

If you’re a solo entrepreneur, peer groups, coaches and mentors can also be invaluable at not only solving specific business problems, but in providing a support network for resolving future challenges. One great approach is to join a Mastermind Group and link up with like-minded individuals and all grow together. Remember that however you approach the sourcing of external advice, do so thoughtfully, respectfully and honestly. Reciprocate where you can and prepare to be surprised by just how kind and helpful your peers can be!

Mastermind Group

  • Solo entrepreneurs or small teams with low capacity
  • Peer learning and gaining outside expertise
  • Getting multiple external points of view quickly

Problem solving in large organizations with lots of skilled team members is one thing, but how about if you work for yourself or in a very small team without the capacity to get the most from a design sprint or LEGO Serious Play session? 

A mastermind group – sometimes known as a peer advisory board – is where a group of people come together to support one another in their own goals, challenges, and businesses. Each participant comes to the group with their own purpose and the other members of the group will help them create solutions, brainstorm ideas, and support one another. 

Mastermind groups are very effective in creating an energized, supportive atmosphere that can deliver meaningful results. Learning from peers from outside of your organization or industry can really help unlock new ways of thinking and drive growth. Access to the experience and skills of your peers can be invaluable in helping fill the gaps in your own ability, particularly in young companies.

A mastermind group is a great solution for solo entrepreneurs, small teams, or for organizations that feel that external expertise or fresh perspectives will be beneficial for them. It is worth noting that Mastermind groups are often only as good as the participants and what they can bring to the group. Participants need to be committed, engaged and understand how to work in this context. 

Coaching and mentoring

  • Focused learning and development
  • Filling skills gaps
  • Working on a range of challenges over time

Receiving advice from a business coach or building a mentor/mentee relationship can be an effective way of resolving certain challenges. The one-to-one format of most coaching and mentor relationships can really help solve the challenges those individuals are having and benefit the organization as a result.

A great mentor can be invaluable when it comes to spotting potential problems before they arise and coming to understand a mentee very well has a host of other business benefits. You might run an internal mentorship program to help develop your team’s problem solving skills and strategies or as part of a large learning and development program. External coaches can also be an important part of your problem solving strategy, filling skills gaps for your management team or helping with specific business issues. 

Now we’ve explored the problem solving process and the steps you will want to go through in order to have an effective session, let’s look at the skills you and your team need to be more effective problem solvers.

Problem solving skills are highly sought after, whatever industry or team you work in. Organizations are keen to employ people who are able to approach problems thoughtfully and find strong, realistic solutions. Whether you are a facilitator , a team leader or a developer, being an effective problem solver is a skill you’ll want to develop.

Problem solving skills form a whole suite of techniques and approaches that an individual uses to not only identify problems but to discuss them productively before then developing appropriate solutions.

Here are some of the most important problem solving skills everyone from executives to junior staff members should learn. We’ve also included an activity or exercise from the SessionLab library that can help you and your team develop that skill. 

If you’re running a workshop or training session to try and improve problem solving skills in your team, try using these methods to supercharge your process!

Problem solving skills checklist

Active listening

Active listening is one of the most important skills anyone who works with people can possess. In short, active listening is a technique used to not only better understand what is being said by an individual, but also to be more aware of the underlying message the speaker is trying to convey. When it comes to problem solving, active listening is integral for understanding the position of every participant and to clarify the challenges, ideas and solutions they bring to the table.

Some active listening skills include:

  • Paying complete attention to the speaker.
  • Removing distractions.
  • Avoid interruption.
  • Taking the time to fully understand before preparing a rebuttal.
  • Responding respectfully and appropriately.
  • Demonstrate attentiveness and positivity with an open posture, making eye contact with the speaker, smiling and nodding if appropriate. Show that you are listening and encourage them to continue.
  • Be aware of and respectful of feelings. Judge the situation and respond appropriately. You can disagree without being disrespectful.   
  • Observe body language. 
  • Paraphrase what was said in your own words, either mentally or verbally.
  • Remain neutral. 
  • Reflect and take a moment before responding.
  • Ask deeper questions based on what is said and clarify points where necessary.   
Active Listening   #hyperisland   #skills   #active listening   #remote-friendly   This activity supports participants to reflect on a question and generate their own solutions using simple principles of active listening and peer coaching. It’s an excellent introduction to active listening but can also be used with groups that are already familiar with it. Participants work in groups of three and take turns being: “the subject”, the listener, and the observer.

Analytical skills

All problem solving models require strong analytical skills, particularly during the beginning of the process and when it comes to analyzing how solutions have performed.

Analytical skills are primarily focused on performing an effective analysis by collecting, studying and parsing data related to a problem or opportunity. 

It often involves spotting patterns, being able to see things from different perspectives and using observable facts and data to make suggestions or produce insight. 

Analytical skills are also important at every stage of the problem solving process and by having these skills, you can ensure that any ideas or solutions you create or backed up analytically and have been sufficiently thought out.

Nine Whys   #innovation   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   With breathtaking simplicity, you can rapidly clarify for individuals and a group what is essentially important in their work. You can quickly reveal when a compelling purpose is missing in a gathering and avoid moving forward without clarity. When a group discovers an unambiguous shared purpose, more freedom and more responsibility are unleashed. You have laid the foundation for spreading and scaling innovations with fidelity.


Trying to solve problems on your own is difficult. Being able to collaborate effectively, with a free exchange of ideas, to delegate and be a productive member of a team is hugely important to all problem solving strategies.

Remember that whatever your role, collaboration is integral, and in a problem solving process, you are all working together to find the best solution for everyone. 

Marshmallow challenge with debriefing   #teamwork   #team   #leadership   #collaboration   In eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. The Marshmallow Challenge was developed by Tom Wujec, who has done the activity with hundreds of groups around the world. Visit the Marshmallow Challenge website for more information. This version has an extra debriefing question added with sample questions focusing on roles within the team.


Being an effective communicator means being empathetic, clear and succinct, asking the right questions, and demonstrating active listening skills throughout any discussion or meeting. 

In a problem solving setting, you need to communicate well in order to progress through each stage of the process effectively. As a team leader, it may also fall to you to facilitate communication between parties who may not see eye to eye. Effective communication also means helping others to express themselves and be heard in a group.

Bus Trip   #feedback   #communication   #appreciation   #closing   #thiagi   #team   This is one of my favourite feedback games. I use Bus Trip at the end of a training session or a meeting, and I use it all the time. The game creates a massive amount of energy with lots of smiles, laughs, and sometimes even a teardrop or two.

Creative problem solving skills can be some of the best tools in your arsenal. Thinking creatively, being able to generate lots of ideas and come up with out of the box solutions is useful at every step of the process. 

The kinds of problems you will likely discuss in a problem solving workshop are often difficult to solve, and by approaching things in a fresh, creative manner, you can often create more innovative solutions.

Having practical creative skills is also a boon when it comes to problem solving. If you can help create quality design sketches and prototypes in record time, it can help bring a team to alignment more quickly or provide a base for further iteration.

The paper clip method   #sharing   #creativity   #warm up   #idea generation   #brainstorming   The power of brainstorming. A training for project leaders, creativity training, and to catalyse getting new solutions.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is one of the fundamental problem solving skills you’ll want to develop when working on developing solutions. Critical thinking is the ability to analyze, rationalize and evaluate while being aware of personal bias, outlying factors and remaining open-minded.

Defining and analyzing problems without deploying critical thinking skills can mean you and your team go down the wrong path. Developing solutions to complex issues requires critical thinking too – ensuring your team considers all possibilities and rationally evaluating them. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Data analysis 

Though it shares lots of space with general analytical skills, data analysis skills are something you want to cultivate in their own right in order to be an effective problem solver.

Being good at data analysis doesn’t just mean being able to find insights from data, but also selecting the appropriate data for a given issue, interpreting it effectively and knowing how to model and present that data. Depending on the problem at hand, it might also include a working knowledge of specific data analysis tools and procedures. 

Having a solid grasp of data analysis techniques is useful if you’re leading a problem solving workshop but if you’re not an expert, don’t worry. Bring people into the group who has this skill set and help your team be more effective as a result.

Decision making

All problems need a solution and all solutions require that someone make the decision to implement them. Without strong decision making skills, teams can become bogged down in discussion and less effective as a result. 

Making decisions is a key part of the problem solving process. It’s important to remember that decision making is not restricted to the leadership team. Every staff member makes decisions every day and developing these skills ensures that your team is able to solve problems at any scale. Remember that making decisions does not mean leaping to the first solution but weighing up the options and coming to an informed, well thought out solution to any given problem that works for the whole team.

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow


Most complex organizational problems require multiple people to be involved in delivering the solution. Ensuring that the team and organization can depend on you to take the necessary actions and communicate where necessary is key to ensuring problems are solved effectively.

Being dependable also means working to deadlines and to brief. It is often a matter of creating trust in a team so that everyone can depend on one another to complete the agreed actions in the agreed time frame so that the team can move forward together. Being undependable can create problems of friction and can limit the effectiveness of your solutions so be sure to bear this in mind throughout a project. 

Team Purpose & Culture   #team   #hyperisland   #culture   #remote-friendly   This is an essential process designed to help teams define their purpose (why they exist) and their culture (how they work together to achieve that purpose). Defining these two things will help any team to be more focused and aligned. With support of tangible examples from other companies, the team members work as individuals and a group to codify the way they work together. The goal is a visual manifestation of both the purpose and culture that can be put up in the team’s work space.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important skill for any successful team member, whether communicating internally or with clients or users. In the problem solving process, emotional intelligence means being attuned to how people are feeling and thinking, communicating effectively and being self-aware of what you bring to a room. 

There are often differences of opinion when working through problem solving processes, and it can be easy to let things become impassioned or combative. Developing your emotional intelligence means being empathetic to your colleagues and managing your own emotions throughout the problem and solution process. Be kind, be thoughtful and put your points across care and attention. 

Being emotionally intelligent is a skill for life and by deploying it at work, you can not only work efficiently but empathetically. Check out the emotional culture workshop template for more!


As we’ve clarified in our facilitation skills post, facilitation is the art of leading people through processes towards agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership, and creativity by all those involved. While facilitation is a set of interrelated skills in itself, the broad definition of facilitation can be invaluable when it comes to problem solving. Leading a team through a problem solving process is made more effective if you improve and utilize facilitation skills – whether you’re a manager, team leader or external stakeholder.

The Six Thinking Hats   #creative thinking   #meeting facilitation   #problem solving   #issue resolution   #idea generation   #conflict resolution   The Six Thinking Hats are used by individuals and groups to separate out conflicting styles of thinking. They enable and encourage a group of people to think constructively together in exploring and implementing change, rather than using argument to fight over who is right and who is wrong.


Being flexible is a vital skill when it comes to problem solving. This does not mean immediately bowing to pressure or changing your opinion quickly: instead, being flexible is all about seeing things from new perspectives, receiving new information and factoring it into your thought process.

Flexibility is also important when it comes to rolling out solutions. It might be that other organizational projects have greater priority or require the same resources as your chosen solution. Being flexible means understanding needs and challenges across the team and being open to shifting or arranging your own schedule as necessary. Again, this does not mean immediately making way for other projects. It’s about articulating your own needs, understanding the needs of others and being able to come to a meaningful compromise.

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

Working in any group can lead to unconscious elements of groupthink or situations in which you may not wish to be entirely honest. Disagreeing with the opinions of the executive team or wishing to save the feelings of a coworker can be tricky to navigate, but being honest is absolutely vital when to comes to developing effective solutions and ensuring your voice is heard. 

Remember that being honest does not mean being brutally candid. You can deliver your honest feedback and opinions thoughtfully and without creating friction by using other skills such as emotional intelligence. 

Explore your Values   #hyperisland   #skills   #values   #remote-friendly   Your Values is an exercise for participants to explore what their most important values are. It’s done in an intuitive and rapid way to encourage participants to follow their intuitive feeling rather than over-thinking and finding the “correct” values. It is a good exercise to use to initiate reflection and dialogue around personal values.


The problem solving process is multi-faceted and requires different approaches at certain points of the process. Taking initiative to bring problems to the attention of the team, collect data or lead the solution creating process is always valuable. You might even roadtest your own small scale solutions or brainstorm before a session. Taking initiative is particularly effective if you have good deal of knowledge in that area or have ownership of a particular project and want to get things kickstarted.

That said, be sure to remember to honor the process and work in service of the team. If you are asked to own one part of the problem solving process and you don’t complete that task because your initiative leads you to work on something else, that’s not an effective method of solving business challenges.

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.


A particularly useful problem solving skill for product owners or managers is the ability to remain impartial throughout much of the process. In practice, this means treating all points of view and ideas brought forward in a meeting equally and ensuring that your own areas of interest or ownership are not favored over others. 

There may be a stage in the process where a decision maker has to weigh the cost and ROI of possible solutions against the company roadmap though even then, ensuring that the decision made is based on merit and not personal opinion. 

Empathy map   #frame insights   #create   #design   #issue analysis   An empathy map is a tool to help a design team to empathize with the people they are designing for. You can make an empathy map for a group of people or for a persona. To be used after doing personas when more insights are needed.

Being a good leader means getting a team aligned, energized and focused around a common goal. In the problem solving process, strong leadership helps ensure that the process is efficient, that any conflicts are resolved and that a team is managed in the direction of success.

It’s common for managers or executives to assume this role in a problem solving workshop, though it’s important that the leader maintains impartiality and does not bulldoze the group in a particular direction. Remember that good leadership means working in service of the purpose and team and ensuring the workshop is a safe space for employees of any level to contribute. Take a look at our leadership games and activities post for more exercises and methods to help improve leadership in your organization.

Leadership Pizza   #leadership   #team   #remote-friendly   This leadership development activity offers a self-assessment framework for people to first identify what skills, attributes and attitudes they find important for effective leadership, and then assess their own development and initiate goal setting.

In the context of problem solving, mediation is important in keeping a team engaged, happy and free of conflict. When leading or facilitating a problem solving workshop, you are likely to run into differences of opinion. Depending on the nature of the problem, certain issues may be brought up that are emotive in nature. 

Being an effective mediator means helping those people on either side of such a divide are heard, listen to one another and encouraged to find common ground and a resolution. Mediating skills are useful for leaders and managers in many situations and the problem solving process is no different.

Conflict Responses   #hyperisland   #team   #issue resolution   A workshop for a team to reflect on past conflicts, and use them to generate guidelines for effective conflict handling. The workshop uses the Thomas-Killman model of conflict responses to frame a reflective discussion. Use it to open up a discussion around conflict with a team.


Solving organizational problems is much more effective when following a process or problem solving model. Planning skills are vital in order to structure, deliver and follow-through on a problem solving workshop and ensure your solutions are intelligently deployed.

Planning skills include the ability to organize tasks and a team, plan and design the process and take into account any potential challenges. Taking the time to plan carefully can save time and frustration later in the process and is valuable for ensuring a team is positioned for success.

3 Action Steps   #hyperisland   #action   #remote-friendly   This is a small-scale strategic planning session that helps groups and individuals to take action toward a desired change. It is often used at the end of a workshop or programme. The group discusses and agrees on a vision, then creates some action steps that will lead them towards that vision. The scope of the challenge is also defined, through discussion of the helpful and harmful factors influencing the group.


As organisations grow, the scale and variation of problems they face multiplies. Your team or is likely to face numerous challenges in different areas and so having the skills to analyze and prioritize becomes very important, particularly for those in leadership roles.

A thorough problem solving process is likely to deliver multiple solutions and you may have several different problems you wish to solve simultaneously. Prioritization is the ability to measure the importance, value, and effectiveness of those possible solutions and choose which to enact and in what order. The process of prioritization is integral in ensuring the biggest challenges are addressed with the most impactful solutions.

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

Project management

Some problem solving skills are utilized in a workshop or ideation phases, while others come in useful when it comes to decision making. Overseeing an entire problem solving process and ensuring its success requires strong project management skills. 

While project management incorporates many of the other skills listed here, it is important to note the distinction of considering all of the factors of a project and managing them successfully. Being able to negotiate with stakeholders, manage tasks, time and people, consider costs and ROI, and tie everything together is massively helpful when going through the problem solving process. 

Record keeping

Working out meaningful solutions to organizational challenges is only one part of the process.  Thoughtfully documenting and keeping records of each problem solving step for future consultation is important in ensuring efficiency and meaningful change. 

For example, some problems may be lower priority than others but can be revisited in the future. If the team has ideated on solutions and found some are not up to the task, record those so you can rule them out and avoiding repeating work. Keeping records of the process also helps you improve and refine your problem solving model next time around!

Personal Kanban   #gamestorming   #action   #agile   #project planning   Personal Kanban is a tool for organizing your work to be more efficient and productive. It is based on agile methods and principles.

Research skills

Conducting research to support both the identification of problems and the development of appropriate solutions is important for an effective process. Knowing where to go to collect research, how to conduct research efficiently, and identifying pieces of research are relevant are all things a good researcher can do well. 

In larger groups, not everyone has to demonstrate this ability in order for a problem solving workshop to be effective. That said, having people with research skills involved in the process, particularly if they have existing area knowledge, can help ensure the solutions that are developed with data that supports their intention. Remember that being able to deliver the results of research efficiently and in a way the team can easily understand is also important. The best data in the world is only as effective as how it is delivered and interpreted.

Customer experience map   #ideation   #concepts   #research   #design   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   Customer experience mapping is a method of documenting and visualizing the experience a customer has as they use the product or service. It also maps out their responses to their experiences. To be used when there is a solution (even in a conceptual stage) that can be analyzed.

Risk management

Managing risk is an often overlooked part of the problem solving process. Solutions are often developed with the intention of reducing exposure to risk or solving issues that create risk but sometimes, great solutions are more experimental in nature and as such, deploying them needs to be carefully considered. 

Managing risk means acknowledging that there may be risks associated with more out of the box solutions or trying new things, but that this must be measured against the possible benefits and other organizational factors. 

Be informed, get the right data and stakeholders in the room and you can appropriately factor risk into your decision making process. 

Decisions, Decisions…   #communication   #decision making   #thiagi   #action   #issue analysis   When it comes to decision-making, why are some of us more prone to take risks while others are risk-averse? One explanation might be the way the decision and options were presented.  This exercise, based on Kahneman and Tversky’s classic study , illustrates how the framing effect influences our judgement and our ability to make decisions . The participants are divided into two groups. Both groups are presented with the same problem and two alternative programs for solving them. The two programs both have the same consequences but are presented differently. The debriefing discussion examines how the framing of the program impacted the participant’s decision.


No single person is as good at problem solving as a team. Building an effective team and helping them come together around a common purpose is one of the most important problem solving skills, doubly so for leaders. By bringing a team together and helping them work efficiently, you pave the way for team ownership of a problem and the development of effective solutions. 

In a problem solving workshop, it can be tempting to jump right into the deep end, though taking the time to break the ice, energize the team and align them with a game or exercise will pay off over the course of the day.

Remember that you will likely go through the problem solving process multiple times over an organization’s lifespan and building a strong team culture will make future problem solving more effective. It’s also great to work with people you know, trust and have fun with. Working on team building in and out of the problem solving process is a hallmark of successful teams that can work together to solve business problems.

9 Dimensions Team Building Activity   #ice breaker   #teambuilding   #team   #remote-friendly   9 Dimensions is a powerful activity designed to build relationships and trust among team members. There are 2 variations of this icebreaker. The first version is for teams who want to get to know each other better. The second version is for teams who want to explore how they are working together as a team.

Time management 

The problem solving process is designed to lead a team from identifying a problem through to delivering a solution and evaluating its effectiveness. Without effective time management skills or timeboxing of tasks, it can be easy for a team to get bogged down or be inefficient.

By using a problem solving model and carefully designing your workshop, you can allocate time efficiently and trust that the process will deliver the results you need in a good timeframe.

Time management also comes into play when it comes to rolling out solutions, particularly those that are experimental in nature. Having a clear timeframe for implementing and evaluating solutions is vital for ensuring their success and being able to pivot if necessary.

Improving your skills at problem solving is often a career-long pursuit though there are methods you can use to make the learning process more efficient and to supercharge your problem solving skillset.

Remember that the skills you need to be a great problem solver have a large overlap with those skills you need to be effective in any role. Investing time and effort to develop your active listening or critical thinking skills is valuable in any context. Here are 7 ways to improve your problem solving skills.

Share best practices

Remember that your team is an excellent source of skills, wisdom, and techniques and that you should all take advantage of one another where possible. Best practices that one team has for solving problems, conducting research or making decisions should be shared across the organization. If you have in-house staff that have done active listening training or are data analysis pros, have them lead a training session. 

Your team is one of your best resources. Create space and internal processes for the sharing of skills so that you can all grow together. 

Ask for help and attend training

Once you’ve figured out you have a skills gap, the next step is to take action to fill that skills gap. That might be by asking your superior for training or coaching, or liaising with team members with that skill set. You might even attend specialized training for certain skills – active listening or critical thinking, for example, are business-critical skills that are regularly offered as part of a training scheme.

Whatever method you choose, remember that taking action of some description is necessary for growth. Whether that means practicing, getting help, attending training or doing some background reading, taking active steps to improve your skills is the way to go.

Learn a process 

Problem solving can be complicated, particularly when attempting to solve large problems for the first time. Using a problem solving process helps give structure to your problem solving efforts and focus on creating outcomes, rather than worrying about the format. 

Tools such as the seven-step problem solving process above are effective because not only do they feature steps that will help a team solve problems, they also develop skills along the way. Each step asks for people to engage with the process using different skills and in doing so, helps the team learn and grow together. Group processes of varying complexity and purpose can also be found in the SessionLab library of facilitation techniques . Using a tried and tested process and really help ease the learning curve for both those leading such a process, as well as those undergoing the purpose.

Effective teams make decisions about where they should and shouldn’t expend additional effort. By using a problem solving process, you can focus on the things that matter, rather than stumbling towards a solution haphazardly. 

Create a feedback loop

Some skills gaps are more obvious than others. It’s possible that your perception of your active listening skills differs from those of your colleagues. 

It’s valuable to create a system where team members can provide feedback in an ordered and friendly manner so they can all learn from one another. Only by identifying areas of improvement can you then work to improve them. 

Remember that feedback systems require oversight and consideration so that they don’t turn into a place to complain about colleagues. Design the system intelligently so that you encourage the creation of learning opportunities, rather than encouraging people to list their pet peeves.

While practice might not make perfect, it does make the problem solving process easier. If you are having trouble with critical thinking, don’t shy away from doing it. Get involved where you can and stretch those muscles as regularly as possible. 

Problem solving skills come more naturally to some than to others and that’s okay. Take opportunities to get involved and see where you can practice your skills in situations outside of a workshop context. Try collaborating in other circumstances at work or conduct data analysis on your own projects. You can often develop those skills you need for problem solving simply by doing them. Get involved!

Use expert exercises and methods

Learn from the best. Our library of 700+ facilitation techniques is full of activities and methods that help develop the skills you need to be an effective problem solver. Check out our templates to see how to approach problem solving and other organizational challenges in a structured and intelligent manner.

There is no single approach to improving problem solving skills, but by using the techniques employed by others you can learn from their example and develop processes that have seen proven results. 

Try new ways of thinking and change your mindset

Using tried and tested exercises that you know well can help deliver results, but you do run the risk of missing out on the learning opportunities offered by new approaches. As with the problem solving process, changing your mindset can remove blockages and be used to develop your problem solving skills.

Most teams have members with mixed skill sets and specialties. Mix people from different teams and share skills and different points of view. Teach your customer support team how to use design thinking methods or help your developers with conflict resolution techniques. Try switching perspectives with facilitation techniques like Flip It! or by using new problem solving methodologies or models. Give design thinking, liberating structures or lego serious play a try if you want to try a new approach. You will find that framing problems in new ways and using existing skills in new contexts can be hugely useful for personal development and improving your skillset. It’s also a lot of fun to try new things. Give it a go!

Encountering business challenges and needing to find appropriate solutions is not unique to your organization. Lots of very smart people have developed methods, theories and approaches to help develop problem solving skills and create effective solutions. Learn from them!

Books like The Art of Thinking Clearly , Think Smarter, or Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow are great places to start, though it’s also worth looking at blogs related to organizations facing similar problems to yours, or browsing for success stories. Seeing how Dropbox massively increased growth and working backward can help you see the skills or approach you might be lacking to solve that same problem. Learning from others by reading their stories or approaches can be time-consuming but ultimately rewarding.

A tired, distracted mind is not in the best position to learn new skills. It can be tempted to burn the candle at both ends and develop problem solving skills outside of work. Absolutely use your time effectively and take opportunities for self-improvement, though remember that rest is hugely important and that without letting your brain rest, you cannot be at your most effective. 

Creating distance between yourself and the problem you might be facing can also be useful. By letting an idea sit, you can find that a better one presents itself or you can develop it further. Take regular breaks when working and create a space for downtime. Remember that working smarter is preferable to working harder and that self-care is important for any effective learning or improvement process.

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Over to you

Now we’ve explored some of the key problem solving skills and the problem solving steps necessary for an effective process, you’re ready to begin developing more effective solutions and leading problem solving workshops.

Need more inspiration? Check out our post on problem solving activities you can use when guiding a group towards a great solution in your next workshop or meeting. Have questions? Did you have a great problem solving technique you use with your team? Get in touch in the comments below. We’d love to chat!

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What Are Your Decision-Making Strengths and Blind Spots?

  • Cheryl Strauss Einhorn

approach to decision making and problem solving

Understanding your style will help you identify which biases that may get in your way.

Many of us approach decision making from the same perspective over and over. We use the same tools and habits every time, even if the decisions are vastly different. But following the same strategy for every problem limits your abilities. To make better decisions, you need to break out of these patterns and see things differently, even if it is uncomfortable.

First, you need to understand your own decision-making strengths and your blind spots. You must identify the mental mistakes or cognitive biases that tend to get in your way. Once you do that, you can better check and challenge those biases, adjust your approach, and bring out a more holistic understanding of a situation, better ensuring that you are solving the whole problem.

What do you do when you face an important but complicated decision? Do you turn to experts? Dig for data? Ask trusted friends and colleagues? Go with your gut?

approach to decision making and problem solving

  • Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is the founder and CEO of Decisive, a decision sciences company using her AREA Method decision-making system for individuals, companies, and nonprofits looking to solve complex problems. Decisive offers digital tools and in-person training, workshops, coaching and consulting. Cheryl is a long-time educator teaching at Columbia Business School and Cornell and has won several journalism awards for her investigative news stories. She’s authored two books on complex problem solving, Problem Solved for personal and professional decisions, and Investing In Financial Research about business, financial, and investment decisions. Her new book, Problem Solver, is about the psychology of personal decision-making and Problem Solver Profiles. For more information please watch Cheryl’s TED talk and visit .

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Decision Making and Problem-Solving: Implications for Learning Design

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Practitioners in various domains are often faced with ill-structured problems. For example, teachers devise lesson plans that consider learners’ prior knowledge, curriculum guidelines, and classroom management strategies. Similarly, engineers must develop products that meet safety standards, yet achieve project guidelines that meet client needs. Given the types of problems that practitioners face in everyday decision-making, educators have increasingly begun to adopt inquiry-based learning, which better exposes learners to the types of issues faced within a domain (Hung et al., 2019; Koehler & Vilarinho-Pereira, 2021). This instructional approach includes multiple changes to the educational experience when compared to the teacher-centric classroom approach (Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009). As opposed to a didactic strategy to instruction, students take ownership of their learning and generate questions among their peers, while teachers serve as facilitators (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016; Loyens & Rikers, 2011; Savery, 2009). The central focus of these strategies also includes ill-structured cases that are similar to the types of problems practitioners face. The complexity of these problems often consists of interconnected variables (latent, salient) and multiple perspectives, so there is rarely a single predetermined solution that satisfies all options (Ifenthaler, 2014). Additionally, these problems are challenging because they include multiple criteria for evaluation (Jonassen, 2011b; Ju & Choi, 2017), which makes it challenging to definitively determine when a ‘right’ answer has been achieved.

There are a number of skillsets needed for problem-solving instructional strategies, such as the inquiry process (Glazewski & Hmelo-Silver, 2018), collaboration (Koehler & Vilarinho-Pereira, 2021), and argumentation (Noroozi et al., 2017). Another important element of problem-solving includes decision-making; that is, the process by which individuals make choices as they resolve the ill-structured case. Understanding decision-making is important because individuals engage in a myriad of choices throughout the problem representation and solution generation phases of problem-solving (Ge et al., 2016). Moreover, learners must engage in multiple and interconnected decisions as they select evidence and determine causal chains during various stages of problem-solving (Shin & Jeong, 2021). The decision-making process is also closely linked with failure and the iterative choices needed to overcome errors in the problem-solving cycles (Schank et al., 1999; Sinha & Kapur, 2021). As such, decision-making is key for learners’ agency as they engage in self-directed learning and take ownership of ill-structured cases.

Despite its importance, the field of learning design only minimally addresses theories and models specifically associated with decision-making. The decision-making processes required for inquiry-based learning necessitates a more in-depth analysis because it is foundational to problem-solving as individuals weigh evidence, make strategic choices amidst an array of variables, and causal reasoning. In addition, an advanced understanding of this skill set would allow educators to develop systems that leverage specific decision-making strategies within design. Based on this gap, we survey broad decision-making paradigms (normative, descriptive, and prescriptive), along with case-based decision-making theory (Gilboa & Schmeidler, 1995; Kolodner, 1991). For each category, we then proffer an example that instantiates the theory. Finally, the article concludes with implications for practice.

Literature Review

Inquiry-based learning is an instructional strategy that affords learners with agency as they solve ill-structured problems. Although variations exist (problem-based learning, project-based learning, case-based instruction), the strategy often situates a contextual case to the learners that is representative of the domain (Lazonder & Harmsen, 2016; Loyens & Rikers, 2011). When compared with teacher-centric approaches where the instructor acts as the ‘sage on the stage’ (Reigeluth & Carr-Chellman, 2009), students in inquiry-based learning engage in a variety of learning actions in the problem representation and solution generation stage. The former necessitates learners define the problem, identify variables, and determine the underlying causal mechanisms of the issue (Delahunty et al., 2020; Ertmer & Koehler, 2018). Solution generation requires learners propose a way to resolve the issue, along with supporting evidence (Ge et al., 2016). This latter stage also includes how learners test out a solution and iterate based on the degree to which their approach meets its goals. As learners engage in these tasks, they must remedy knowledge gaps and work with their peers to reconcile different perspectives. Beyond just retention of facts, learners also engage in information seeking (Belland et al., 2020), question generation (Olney et al., 2012), causal reasoning (Giabbanelli & Tawfik, 2020; Shin & Jeong, 2021), argumentation (Ju & Choi, 2017; Noroozi & Hatami, 2019), and other higher-order thinking skills.

Another important aspect of inquiry-based learning also includes decision-making, which describes the choices learners select as they understand the problem and move towards its resolution. To that end, various theories and models that explicate the nuances of problem-solving have implicitly referenced decision-making. When describing the solution generation stage, Jonassen (1997) asserts that learners’ “resulting mental model of the problem will support the learner's decision and justify the chosen solution” (p. 81). Ge et al. (2016) proposed a conceptual model of self-regulated learning in ill-structured problem-solving in which “students not only must make informed decisions and select the most viable against alternative solutions, but also must support their decisions with defensible and cogent arguments” (p. 4). In terms of encountered failure during problem-solving, Kapur (2008) explains how students must “decide on the criteria for decision making or general parameters for solutions” (p. 391) during criteria development. Indeed, these foundation theories and models of problem-solving highlight the importance of decision-making in various aspects of inquiry-based learning.

Despite its importance, very little understanding is known within the learning design field about the specific decision-making processes inherent within problem-solving. Instead, there is a large body of literature dedicated to strategic approaches to self-directed learning (Xie et al., 2019), collaboration (Radkowitsch et al., 2020), and others. However, specific attention is needed towards decision-making to understand how learners seek out information, weigh evidence, and make choices as they engage in problem-solving. A review of theories argues for three distinct overarching theoretical paradigms of decision-making (Schwartz & Bergus, 2008): normative, descriptive, and prescriptive. There is also a related body of literature around case-based decision-making theory (Gilboa & Schmeidler, 1995), which describes how prior experiences are used to inform choices for new problems. Below we define the theory and related literature, along with a design example that instantiates the decision-making approach.

Outline of Decision-Making Theories and Constructs

Normative Decision-Making

Normative decision-making theoretical foundations.

Normative decision-making describes how learners make choices based on the following: (a) perceived subjective utility and (b) probability (Gati & Kulcsár, 2021). The former focuses on the values of each outcome, especially in terms of how the individual assesses expected benefits and costs associated with one’s goals and preferences. Alternatively, probability describes the degree to which individuals perceive that a selected action will lead to a specific outcome. Hence, a key assumption - and potential criticism - of normative decision-making is that individuals are logically consistent as they make choices under the constraints of rationality, which has been called into question.

Another important element of normative decision-making includes ‘compensatory models’; that is, how the benefits of an alternative outweigh the disadvantages. The most common compensatory model described in the literature is multi-attribute utility theory (MAUT), which is used to account for decision-making amidst multiple criteria (Jansen, 2011). MAUT thus aligns well with ill-structured problem-solving because it assumes that choices are made amongst a variety of competing alternatives. In a conservation example, one might select a green energy alternative to reduce carbon emissions, but it may be disruptive to the existing energy sources (e.g., fossil fuels) and raise costs in the short term. In the context of medicine, a surgery might ultimately resolve an issue, but it poses a risk for post-procedure infections and other complications. As individuals consider each alternative, MAUT is a way of “measuring the decision-maker’s values separately for a set of influential attributes and by weighting these by the relative importance of these attributes as perceived by the decision-maker” (Jansen, 2011, p. 101). MAUT component of normative decision-making specifically argues individuals progress in the following five steps (Von Winterfeldt & Edwards, 1993): 

  • Individuals explicate the various alternatives and salient attributes associated with each choice.
  • Each alternative is evaluated separately based on each attribute in terms of the following: complete (all essential aspects are addressed), operational (attributes can be meaningfully used), decomposable (deconstructing aspects of evaluation as to simplify evaluation process), non-redundant (remove duplicates of aspects), and minimal (keep a number of attributes focused and central to the problem).
  • Individuals assign relative weights to each attribute
  • Individuals sum the aggregate weight to evaluate each alternative.
  • Individuals make a final choice.

Rather than pursue a less than optimal selection, MAUT argues that “they [individuals] strive to choose the most beneficial alternative and obtain all information relevant to the decision, and they are capable of considering all possible outcomes of the choice, estimating the value of each alternative and aggregating these values into a composite variable” (Gati et al., 2019, p. 123). Another characteristic is how individuals select the factors and assess the degree to which they can be compensated. Some individuals (e.g., expert, novice) may weigh a specific factor differently, even if the other aspects align with their desired outcomes. Given that individuals are not always rational and consistent in decision-making, some argue that the normative decision-making model is not truly representative of how individuals actually engage in everyday problem-solving (Gati et al., 2019; Jansen, 2011; Schwartz & Bergus, 2008). 

Normative decision-making theoretical application

Normative decision-making approaches applied to learning design make choices and probabilities salient to the learner, such as in the case of learner dashboards (Valle et al., 2021) or heuristics. Arguably, the most common application of decision-making in learning technologies for inquiry-based learning includes simulations, which situate individuals within an authentic context and posit a series of choices, and allow them to model choices (Liu et al., 2021). Systems that especially exhibit normative decision-making often consist of the following: (a) encourages learners to consider what is currently known about the phenomena vs. what knowledge the decision-makers lack, (b) makes probability associated with a choice clear, and (c) observes the outcomes of the decision.

One example of normative decision-making applied to design includes The Wildlife Module/Wildfire Explorer project developed by Concord Consortium. In this environment, learners are tasked with lowering wildfire risk in terms of fires and other natural hazards (see Figure 1). The decision-making is especially focused on choices around terrain and weather conditions, which add to or limit the amount of risk that is posed to each town. As learners make decisions, the interface allows individuals to manipulate variables and thus observe how certain choices will result in higher benefits relative to others. For instance, reducing the amount of brush in the area will better prevent wildfire when compared with cutting fire lines. In another instance, they explore how dry terrain and 30 mile per hour (MPH) winds would increase the potential wildfire risk of an area. The learning environment thus instantiates aspects of normative decision-making as learners select the parameters and discern its effects on the wildfire within the region.

Wildlife Module/Wildfire Explorer as Applying Normative Decision-Making


Descriptive Decision-Making

Descriptive decision-making theoretical foundations.

Whereas the normative decision-making approaches assume individuals make rational decisions that maximize choices, descriptive decision-making illustrates the gap between optimal decision-making and how people actually make choices (Gati et al., 2019). Although it is sometimes criticized for the lack of clarity, there are some elements of descriptive decision-making that have emerged. One key component includes satisficing, which posits that individuals attempt to make decisions based on how choices are maximized and meet specific goals. As outlined in the seminal work by Simon (1972), individuals aspire to engage in complex rational selections; however, humans have limited cognitive resources available to process the information available during decision-making. Because choices for ill-structured problems often have competing alternatives, individuals settle for decisions that meet some kind of determined threshold for acceptance in light of a given set of defined criteria. The theory further argues individuals will likely choose the first option that satisfices the desire; so while the final selection may be satisficing, it may not necessarily be the best and most rational decision (Gati et al., 2019). This is especially true in ill-structured problems that include multiple perspectives and constraints that make an ideal solution difficult. Rather, individuals instead strive for a viable choice that can be justified in light of multiple criteria and constraints.

Descriptive decision-making theoretical application

One example includes the EstemEquity project (Gish-Lieberman et al., 2021), which is a learning environment designed to address attrition rates for women of color in STEM through mentorship strategies aimed at building self-efficacy. Because the dynamics of mentorship can be difficult, the system relies heavily on decision-making and reflection upon choice outcomes (see Figure 2). The first steps of a scenario outline a common mentor/mentee challenge, such as a mentee frustrated because she feels as though the mentor is not listening to her underlying problem as she navigates higher education in pursuit of her STEM career. The learning environment then poses two choices that would resolve the issue. Although no single solution will fully remedy the ill-structured mentorship challenge, they must make value judgments about the criteria for success and the degree to which their decision meets the requirements. Based on the goals, the learning environment provides feedback as to how the choice satisfices given their determined threshold of optimal mentor and mentee relationships.

EstemEquity as Applying Descriptive Decision-Making


Prescriptive Decision-Making

Prescriptive decision-making theoretical foundations.

The aforementioned approaches highlight how individuals engage in sense-making as they make a selection among latent and salient variables. To better support ideal decision-making, the prescriptive approach is concerned with providing overt aids to make the best decisions (Divekar et al., 2012). Moreover, prescriptive decision-making “bridges the gap between descriptive observations of the way people make choices and normative guidelines for how they should make choices” (Keller, 1989, p. 260). Prescriptive decision-making thus provides explicit guidelines for making better decisions while taking into consideration human limitations. For example, physicians may use a heuristic that outlines a specific medication based on symptoms and patient characteristics (e.g., height, weight, age). Similarly, a mental health counselor may select a certain intervention approach when a client presents certain behavioral characteristics. In doing so, prescriptive decision-making outlines a series of “if-then” scenarios and details the ideal choice; that is, the pragmatic benefit of the decision to be made given a set of certain circumstances (Gati et al., 2019).

There are multiple challenges and benefits to the prescriptive approach to decision-making. In terms of the former, some question the degree to which a single set of heuristics can be applied across multiple ill-structured problems with varying degrees of nuance. That said, the prescriptive approach has gained traction in the ‘big data’ era, which compiles a considerable amount of information to make it actionable for the individual. An emerging subset of the field includes prescriptive analytics, especially in the business domain (Lepenioti et al., 2020). Beyond just presenting information, prescriptive analytics distinguishes itself because it provides the optimal solution based on input and data-mining strategies from various sources (Poornima & Pushpalatha, 2020). As theorists and practitioners look to align analytics with prescriptive decision-making, Frazzetto et al., (2019) argues: 

If the past has been understood (descriptive analytics; ‘DA’), and predictions about the future are available (predictive analytics; ‘PDA’), then it is possible to actively suggest (prescribe) a best option for adapting and shaping the plans according to the predicted future (p. 5).

Prescriptive decision-making theoretical application

Prescriptive decision-making approaches arguably are most used in adaptive tutoring systems, which outline a series of “if-then” steps based on learners’ interactions. ElectronixTutor is an adaptive system that helps learners understand electrical engineering principles within a higher educational context (see Figure 3). Rather than allowing the learner to navigate as desired or make ad-hoc selections, the recommender system leverages user input from completed lessons to prescribe the optimal lesson choice that best furthers their electrical engineering knowledge. For example, after successful completion on the “Series and Parallel Circuit” (the “if”), the system prescribes that the learner advance to the next “Amplifier” lessons (the “then”) because the system has determined that as the next stage of the learning trajectory. When a learner inputs the correct decision, they are prompted with the optimal selection the system deems as best advances their learning. Alternatively, a wrong selection constrains the choices for the learner and reduces the complexity of the process to a few select decisions. In doing so, the adaptive system implements artificial intelligence to prescribe the optimal path the learner should take based on the previous input from the learner (Hampton & Graesser, 2019).

Autotutor as Applying Prescriptive Decision-Making


Case-Based Decision-Making Theory

Case-based decision-making theoretical foundations.

The literature suggests case-based decision-making theory (CBDMT) is another problem-solving approach individuals employ within domain practice (Gilboa & Schmeidler, 1995). The premise behind CBDMT is that individuals recall previous experiences which are similar to the extant issue and select the solution that yielded a successful resolution (Huang & Pape, 2020; Pape & Kurtz, 2013). These cases are often referred to as ‘repeated choice problems’ whereby individuals see available actions as similar between the new problem and prior experiences (Ossadnik et al., 2013). According to the theory, memory is a set of cases that consists of the following constructs: problem, a potential act chosen in the problem, and ensuing consequence. Specifically, “the memory contains the information required by the decision-maker to evaluate an act, which is specific to the problem” (Ossadnik et al., 2013, p. 213). A key element in a case-based approach to decision-making includes the problem features, the assigned weights of said features, and observed consequences as a reference point for the new problem (Bleichrodt et al., 2017).

The CBDMT approach is similar to the normative approach to decision-making in that it describes how learners make a summative approach to decision-making; however, it differs in that it explicates how one leverages prior experience to calculate these values. Moreover, the value of a case for decision-making is evaluated through a comparison of related acts of other known issues when the new problem is assessed by the individual. Specifically, Gilboa and Schmeidler (1995) propose: “Each act is evaluated by the sum of the utility levels that resulted from using this act in past cases, each weighted by the similarity of that past case to the problem at hand” (p. 605). In this instance, utility refers to the benefits of the decision being made and the forecasting of outcomes (Grosskopf et al., 2015; Lovallo et al., 2012). The individual compares the new case to a previous case and then selects the decision with the highest utility outcome. As one gains expertise, CBDMT proffers one can “combine variations in memory with variations in sets of choice alternatives, leading to generalized versions” (Bleichrodt et al., 2017, p. 127) 

Case-based decision-making theoretical application

Because novices lack prior experiences, one might argue it may be difficult to apply CBDMT in learning design. However, the most often applied approach is by leveraging narratives as a form of vicarious experience (Jonassen, 2011a). In one example by Rong et al. (2020), veterinary students are asked to solve ill-structured problems about how to treat animals that go through various procedures. As part of the main problem to solve, learners must take into consideration the animal’s medical history, height, weight, and a variety of other characteristics. To engender learners’ problem-solving, the case profiles multiple decision points, and later asks the learners to make their own choice and justify its selection. Decision-making is supported through expert cases, which serve as vicarious memory and encourage the learners to transfer the lessons learned towards the main problem to solve (Figure 4). In doing so, the exemplars serve as key decision-making aids as novices navigate the complexity of the ill-structured problem.

Video Exemplars as Applying Case-Based Decision-Making Theory


Discussion and Implications for Design

Theorists of education have often discussed ways to foster various elements of ill-structured problem-solving, including problem representation (Ge et al., 2016), information-seeking (Glazewski & Hmelo-Silver, 2018), question generation (Olney et al., 2012), and others. While this has undoubtedly advanced the field of learning design, we argue decision-making is an equally foundational aspect of problem-solving that requires further attention. Despite its importance, there is very little discourse as to the nuances of decision-making within learning design and how each perspective impacts the problem-solving process. A further explication of these approaches would allow educators and designers to better support learners as they engage in inquiry-based learning and similar instructional strategies that engender complex problemsolving. To address this gap, this article introduces and discusses the application of the following decision-making paradigms: normative, descriptive, prescriptive, and CBDMT.

The above theoretical paradigms have implications for how these theories align with other design approaches of learning systems. In many instances, scaffolds are designed to support specific aspects of problem solving. Some systems are designed to support the collaborative process that occurs during inquiry-based learning (Noroozi et al., 2017), while other scaffolds outline the argumentation process (Malogianni et al., 2021). Alternatively, learning environments may embed prior narratives to model how practitioners solve problems (Tawfik et al., 2020). While each of these theories supports a critical aspect of problem solving, there are opportunities to further refine these learning systems by more directly supporting the decision-making process. For example, one way to align these design strategies and normative decision-making theories would be to outline the different choices and probabilities of expected outcomes. A learning system might embed supports that outline alternative perspectives or reflection questions, but could also include scaffolds that explicate optimal solution paths as it applies a prescriptive decision-making approach. In doing so, designers can simultaneously support various aspects of ill-structured problem solving.

There are also implications as it relates to the expert-novice continuum, which is often cited as a critical component of problem-solving (Jonassen, 2011a; Kim & Hannafin, 2008). Indeed, a body of rich literature has described differences as experts and novices identify variables within ill-structured problems (Jacobson, 2001; Wolff et al., 2021) and define the problem-space within contexts (Ertmer & Koehler, 2018; Hmelo-Silver, 2013). Whereas many post-hoc artifacts have documented outcomes that describe how novices grow during inquiry-based learning (e.g., concept map, argumentation scores), less is known about in situ decision-making processes and germane design strategies novice learners engage in when they are given problem-solving cases. For example, it may be that novices might benefit more from a prescriptive decision-making design strategy given the inherent complexity and challenges of cognitive load presented within an inquiry-based learning module. Alternatively, one might argue simulation learning environments designed for normative decision-making would make the variables more explicit, and thus better aid learners in their choice selection when presented with a case. The simulation approach often employed for normative decision-making might also allow for iterative decision-making, which may be especially advantageous for novices that are newly exposed to the domain. A further understanding of these decision-making approaches allows educators and designers to better support learners and develop systems that emphasize this higher-order learning skillset.

As learners engage in information-seeking during problem-solving, it follows that a choice is made based on the synthetization of multiple different sources (Glazewski & Hmelo-Silver, 2018). Future explorations around information seeking and decision-making would yield important insights for problem solving in multiple respects. For instance, the normative decision-making approach argues individuals assign values to various attributes and use this assessment to make a selection. As learners engage in inquiry-based learning, designers can use understanding of normative approaches to determine how individuals search for information to satisfice an opinion, use this to assess the probability of an action, and the resulting choice. From a descriptive decision-making approach, learners weigh various information sources as they seek out an answer that satisfices. Finally, a case-based decision-making theory approach may find learners search for information and related weights for the following: problem (q ∈ Q), a potential act chosen in the problem (a ∈ A), and ensuing consequence (r ∈ R). Although the design of inquiry-based learning environments often overlooks the intersection of information-seeking approaches and decision-making, a better understanding of the role of theory would aid designers as they construct learning environments that support this aspect of problem solving.

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Article • 4 min read

The Problem-Solving Process

Looking at the basic problem-solving process to help keep you on the right track.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

Problem-solving is an important part of planning and decision-making. The process has much in common with the decision-making process, and in the case of complex decisions, can form part of the process itself.

We face and solve problems every day, in a variety of guises and of differing complexity. Some, such as the resolution of a serious complaint, require a significant amount of time, thought and investigation. Others, such as a printer running out of paper, are so quickly resolved they barely register as a problem at all.

approach to decision making and problem solving

Despite the everyday occurrence of problems, many people lack confidence when it comes to solving them, and as a result may chose to stay with the status quo rather than tackle the issue. Broken down into steps, however, the problem-solving process is very simple. While there are many tools and techniques available to help us solve problems, the outline process remains the same.

The main stages of problem-solving are outlined below, though not all are required for every problem that needs to be solved.

approach to decision making and problem solving

1. Define the Problem

Clarify the problem before trying to solve it. A common mistake with problem-solving is to react to what the problem appears to be, rather than what it actually is. Write down a simple statement of the problem, and then underline the key words. Be certain there are no hidden assumptions in the key words you have underlined. One way of doing this is to use a synonym to replace the key words. For example, ‘We need to encourage higher productivity ’ might become ‘We need to promote superior output ’ which has a different meaning.

2. Analyze the Problem

Ask yourself, and others, the following questions.

  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • When is it occurring?
  • Why is it happening?

Be careful not to jump to ‘who is causing the problem?’. When stressed and faced with a problem it is all too easy to assign blame. This, however, can cause negative feeling and does not help to solve the problem. As an example, if an employee is underperforming, the root of the problem might lie in a number of areas, such as lack of training, workplace bullying or management style. To assign immediate blame to the employee would not therefore resolve the underlying issue.

Once the answers to the where, when and why have been determined, the following questions should also be asked:

  • Where can further information be found?
  • Is this information correct, up-to-date and unbiased?
  • What does this information mean in terms of the available options?

3. Generate Potential Solutions

When generating potential solutions it can be a good idea to have a mixture of ‘right brain’ and ‘left brain’ thinkers. In other words, some people who think laterally and some who think logically. This provides a balance in terms of generating the widest possible variety of solutions while also being realistic about what can be achieved. There are many tools and techniques which can help produce solutions, including thinking about the problem from a number of different perspectives, and brainstorming, where a team or individual write as many possibilities as they can think of to encourage lateral thinking and generate a broad range of potential solutions.

4. Select Best Solution

When selecting the best solution, consider:

  • Is this a long-term solution, or a ‘quick fix’?
  • Is the solution achievable in terms of available resources and time?
  • Are there any risks associated with the chosen solution?
  • Could the solution, in itself, lead to other problems?

This stage in particular demonstrates why problem-solving and decision-making are so closely related.

5. Take Action

In order to implement the chosen solution effectively, consider the following:

  • What will the situation look like when the problem is resolved?
  • What needs to be done to implement the solution? Are there systems or processes that need to be adjusted?
  • What will be the success indicators?
  • What are the timescales for the implementation? Does the scale of the problem/implementation require a project plan?
  • Who is responsible?

Once the answers to all the above questions are written down, they can form the basis of an action plan.

6. Monitor and Review

One of the most important factors in successful problem-solving is continual observation and feedback. Use the success indicators in the action plan to monitor progress on a regular basis. Is everything as expected? Is everything on schedule? Keep an eye on priorities and timelines to prevent them from slipping.

If the indicators are not being met, or if timescales are slipping, consider what can be done. Was the plan realistic? If so, are sufficient resources being made available? Are these resources targeting the correct part of the plan? Or does the plan need to be amended? Regular review and discussion of the action plan is important so small adjustments can be made on a regular basis to help keep everything on track.

Once all the indicators have been met and the problem has been resolved, consider what steps can now be taken to prevent this type of problem recurring? It may be that the chosen solution already prevents a recurrence, however if an interim or partial solution has been chosen it is important not to lose momentum.

Problems, by their very nature, will not always fit neatly into a structured problem-solving process. This process, therefore, is designed as a framework which can be adapted to individual needs and nature.

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