Making Complex Decisions
Many of the decisions we face are complex. For example, problems we are trying to solve often can be approached from different angles, the things we wish to achieve with our decisions often conflict, and the tradeoffs we face are difficult to reconcile. To address these kinds of decision problems in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa (1998) in their useful and highly readable book Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions* suggest that five key elements be considered. Five elements (spelling the acronym PrOACT -- a reminder to be proactive) constitute the core of making a smart decision. They are:
|Problem||Carefully defining the Problem|
|Objectives||Considering an exhaustive list of Objectives|
|Consequences||Understanding the Consequences (of each Alternative)|
Taking each step in turn, consider the problem of managing a common invasive species in the Great Lakes, the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha). How the decision maker defines the problem will provide the basic framework for the remaining steps in the process. For example, the problem may be limited to zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) or expanded to include the management of other invasive species such as the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).
Once the decision problem (or opportunity) has been defined, decision makers must then identify what they wish to achieve with their decisions -- in other words, their objectives. Considering the case of the zebra mussel, these may include preventing the spread of the pest, minimizing the inconvenience for recreationalists and property owners, minimizing costs, and implementing a strategy that keeps other exotic species from being introduced into the Great Lakes system (note: this is not an exhaustive list, there may be other objectives as well).
Then, decision makers would seek alternatives that work to address these objectives -- one option in this scenario might be to introduce a natural predator of the zebra mussel; another might be to use machinery to manually remove zebra mussels from a particular substrate.
The fourth element of a structured decision is to evaluate each alternative in terms of its consequences for meeting the stated objectives. For example, manual removal may be an effective means of controlling the pest in certain areas but it has proven to be costly and disruptive in the areas where it is being implemented. In contrast, introducing a natural predator may be relatively inexpensive and non-disruptive, but it violates one stated objective, namely preventing the introduction of yet another exotic species to the ecosystem.
This potential conflict between alternatives leads to the fifth and final step in a structured decision making approach -- addressing the sometimes difficult tradeoffs associated with selecting among the alternatives. Tradeoffs focus on what objectives the decision-maker is most interested in, or committed to, obtaining while potentially losing-out in other areas (e.g. the most cost-effective alternative may not fully address stated environmental objectives).
Too often, decisions are made without fully exploring these five elements of a smart choice. These steps, therefore, are intended to serve as a prescriptive guide for people interested in improving their decision making abilities when faced with complex or unfamiliar decision problems.
*Source: Hammond, J.S., R.L. Keeney, and H. Raiffa. (1998). Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Life Decisions. Harvard Business School Press. Cambridge, MA. ISBN #0875848575
Teachers tell us...
Example of a PrOACT-based Decision Activity
A flowchart to assist decision making
From Decision Making
Activities for the Great Lakes
Developed by the Ohio Sea Grant Education Program, The Ohio State University
© 2003, updated 11/2010