I’ve mentioned previously that the word, decision, is used with 2 distinct meanings. First, a decision is a fundamental question or issue that demands an answer or solution. Second, a decision is the alternative that I’ve committed to implement. In Decision Driven® Solutions Framework (DDSF), I always use the first definition for a decision and am careful to call alternatives, alternatives (or options, ideas, solutions).
The term, problem, is even more over-loaded. We use it to describe situations beyond our control, risks, lack of resources, defects (deviations from expected behavior) and also decisions. When someone states that they are engaged in problem-solving, they most often really need to make a decision, i.e. generate a creative solution to a set of demanding requirements. In a few cases they mean something very different; they don’t understand why something has failed (to behave as expected) and they need to do problem analysis (aka root cause analysis) to explain “Why?”
This is a very important distinction in human thinking patterns. Problem analysis looks at past or present “out-of-spec” behaviors and seeks to explain why in terms of cause-effect analysis. It doesn’t generate any “fixes” for the problem. Its output is “confirmed root cause”; once the “Why?” question is answered its job is complete.
Problem-solving implies generating solutions (aka alternatives) that meet stakeholders’ requirements. This is occasionally in response to something being broken (a corrective or adaptive action), but more often is just the desire for something new and better.
Creative problem-solving and decision-making are the same thought process. They both stand in the present and look forward to a better future. They are accomplished by the same steps (although this is often obscured by terminology). They have the same basic information model:
- Decision/problem: Frames the question, issue or concern to be attacked
- Criteria: stakeholders’ requirements, goals, constraints that define success
- Alternatives: ideas, options, solutions (possible answers)
- Performance estimates: How well the alternatives satisfy the criteria
I’ve heard it said, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck”. Problem-solving is almost always just another word for decision-making; problem analysis is a very different animal.
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