The Difference Between Problem Solving and Decision Making

Decision making and problem solving are two related but different skill sets that apply to distinct business challenges. Sometimes leaders use decision-making techniques when they should be using a problem-solving approach, and vice versa. Knowing the difference between problem solving and decision making and understanding which skill to utilize in a particular situation will help you overcome challenges more quickly.

Seeking a Solution, or Choosing Between Options?

Both decision making and problem solving use information to inform a certain action, but that’s where the similarities end. Problem solving is the process of finding a solution to an ongoing, intermittent, or one-time failure of a process or system to perform at an acceptable level — or perform at all. It consists of identifying the causes through asking basic questions like “where,” “how,” “who,” and “why” to find the solution. Decision making involves choosing between different courses of action by evaluating each based on a set of criteria. It requires implementing an action plan based on what you have learned from problem solving.

A helpful way to illustrate the difference between problem solving and decision making is to consider the difference between a detective and a judge. As anyone who has seen an episode of Law & Order knows, a detective is a problem-solver. Their role is to determine who committed the crime based on evidence. A judge is a decision-maker. They weigh evidence, circumstances, and precedent to arrive at a judgment.

Understanding Differences in Processes and Outcomes

The process of decision making is clear: each option is evaluated based on a set of parameters or criteria. But the outcome is uncertain until a specific decision is made and time tells how well it worked — or didn’t work.

The process of problem solving is not immediately clear. Initially you might not understand the root of the problem, which makes it difficult to know where to start. For example, you can see that the conveyor belt in your warehouse isn’t working, but what made the motor controlling it stop working remains a mystery until you diagnose the problem, system by system. Once the problem is determined and addressed, the outcome is clear: the conveyor belt is again working.

In business, typical problems could be:

  • Customer churn is increasing. Solution: expand product offering.
  • The organization’s carbon footprint is too big and costly. Solution: implement green initiatives.
  • A team is struggling to keep up with leads and organize customer data. Solution: implement a customer relationship management [CRM] system.

The associated complex decisions would be:

  • Determining what new product to launch
  • Selecting the green strategies that best balance cost and effectiveness
  • Identifying which CRM solution is right for your organization

Problem solving and Decision Making: Best Practices

Whether problem solving or decision making, there are some factors you should consider to make the process as successful and efficient as possible. When problem solving, make sure to gather as many facts as you can, which will help make the solution more obvious. For example, app development companies will often take a “test and learn” approach to determine what customers want and need in an app. They’ll create a beta version, provide it free-of-charge to customers, and then analyze that data to develop a paid app that meets customer needs.

 When making decisions, be action-oriented. This means that you should be able to act on your decisions. Many of your decisions, especially those concerning complex issues, should involve other key employees and subject matter experts for the best results. Gather a team with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives to help you consider a wide range of options.  Be open to feedback; even the most carefully made decision may not work out as expected when implemented. And lastly, you should adopt a decision-making framework that enables you to make the best decisions possible on a consistent basis, in a variety of scenarios.

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