Research and technology Knowledge

Posted April 1998

Special: Managing Agricultural Research

Management orientation and decision making


Cover page | Overview | The manual | Orientation | Case studies | Course content | Training | Programme planning | Ordering the manual

A MAJOR ROLE of managers and administrators is decision making in each of the specific situations faced by them. To perform this role effectively, the decision-makers should first understand the situation, and then frame the issues or problems requiring decision making. Next, they must have the will to seek programmes of actions which are effective and implementable in the given situation. Finally, for developing action programmes, they should use the problem solving approach. Any training of managers, therefore, should be directed at improving their abilities to perform these three tasks.

Understanding the situation

Managers make decisions in real and not hypothetical situations. They often face new and complex situations, with little resemblance to past or present situations because of the everchanging environment and people around them. Moreover, the situations do not present themselves in neat clean shapes, but unfold slowly. Decision-makers, therefore, needs to improve their knowledge and skills in understanding new and complex situations, even though information may be inadequate and future outcome uncertain. To understand emerging new situations, a manager needs to ask a series of questions: These questions are universal in understanding any idea, process, physical object, abstract thought or a system. In the context of decision making, they help in defining problems, generating alternatives and specifying criteria for evaluating alternative options.

Will to act and action orientation

The will to act or the action orientation of the decision-maker is another important parameter. It has often been seen that some managers can do excellent analysis but are not quite able to take effective and implementable decisions. Action orientation helps in (i) weeding out impractical alternatives, (ii) better assessing alternatives in taking an appropriate decision, and (iii) implementing with requisite responsibility the decision taken. Ability to act and action orientation implies:

Problem-solving approach

A problem essentially means an area of decision making. After understanding the situation thoroughly and realizing the need for action, a manager may find the problem solving approach useful to devise action programmes. The problem solving approach involves problem definition and identification of decision area, generating decision making alternatives, and specifying criteria for selection, assessing alternatives and the optimal selection, and developing an action plan for implementation, including a contingency plan.

Defining the problem

Problem definition is one of the most crucial steps in the problem solving approach. A wrong definition of the problem would not only fail to resolve the issues involved but could also lead to more complicated problems. The following steps have been found to be useful in defining problems:

Generating alternatives

Having identified the problem, the decision-maker needs to generate appropriate alternatives for resolving the problem. An understanding of organizational and external constraints as well as organizational resources helps in identifying the range of feasible action alternatives open to the decision-maker. A proper assessment of what is possible helps them to rule out infeasible options. Sometimes the alternatives for resolving different problems are obvious. However, more often than not, there could be a real possibility of generating comprehensive alternatives, which could address more than one problem area while respecting differing points of view. The next step, after generating alternatives, would be to rank them, before actually evaluating them. The decision-maker should check whether the alternatives generated cover the entire range (collectively and exhaustively) available, and whether each is distinct from the other (mutually exclusive).

The skills which could help in discovering alternatives would be holistic and logical thinking to comprehend the situation, as well as creative skills in generating the options which fit the situation. Knowledge of both the internal and external environments of the organization and the subject matter pertinent to the problem (human relations, how scientists can be motivated, etc.) would also help in arriving at better alternatives.

Specifying criteria

The ultimate purpose of developing and specifying criteria is to evaluate alternatives and select the best one for resolving the problem. Criteria are developed from a proper understanding of the situation and the inherent goals, objectives and purposes of the organization and the decision-maker involved in the situation. They would also be influenced by the goals, objectives and purposes of other individuals, departments and organizations connected with the situation. Criteria could be economic, social or personal. For effective use, criteria should be specific and measurable through quantification or other means. They should also be prioritized to assist proper selection among alternatives. The skills needed for improving the ability to specify criteria are basically two:

Evaluation and decision

Alternatives need to be evaluated against the specified criteria in order to resolve the problem. Also, the outcome of choosing any alternative is not known with certainty. Usually, any one alternative would not be uniformly superior by all criteria. As such, prioritization of criteria could help in identifying the best alternative. The decision-maker might explicitly consider trade-offs between alternatives in order to select the best. Assessments of alternatives among the criteria need to be made, given partial and limited information about the possible outcomes of the alternatives. A final check may yet be needed to see whether adoption of the best assessed option is: The skills needed for improving this phase would thus be the ability to analyse logically, the ability to infer implications based on incomplete information and uncertainty, and the skill to convince others about the decision taken so as to obtain approval or help in proper implementation, or both.

Developing an action plan

Once the alternatives are developed, an action plan has to be developed. This is essentially the implementation phase. In this phase, the decision-maker needs to decide who would do what, where, when, how, etc. The process of arriving at these decisions is just like the steps involved in the problem solving approach, except that the chosen alternative becomes an input to this step. This phase would require coordination skills to properly organize a variety of resources (human, material and fiscal) and develop a time-phased programme for implementation.

Feedback and contingency planning

For a variety of reasons, the original decision (chosen alternative) may not work well and the decision-maker may have to be ready with a contingency plan. This implies devising feedback mechanisms allowing monitoring of the status of the situation, including results of the action plan. It also implies anticipating the most likely points of failure and devising appropriate contingency plans to handle the possible failures.

The additional skills required in this step would be those of devising control and feedback mechanisms.

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