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.
- Who is facing the situation?
- Who are involved in the situation?
- Who or what individuals, systems, organizations, forces in the environment,
etc. could possibly become involved?
- What is happening where and when in the situation?
- What could be of significance to interested parties?
- What could relate to input, to process and to output?
- How are the "What?" factors happening - where and when?
- How could the situation progress in future?
- Are "What?" and "Who?" linked in the situation?
- Why the what/where/when/how factors?
- Why are particular individuals, systems, organizations, forces, etc.,
acting the way they are?
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:
- a sense of what is critical and what is possible in a given situation,
rather than a futile, time consuming search for the best solution;
- a willingness to make firm decisions on the basis of imperfect and limited
data, carry out the decision taken, accept personal responsibility for the
solution, and take the consequences of the decision;
- an ability to convert targets and objectives into accomplishments, and
to create a vision for themselves, their colleagues (through whom the decisions
would be implemented) and the organization and others concerned, for better
- an appreciation or realization that most problems do not disappear even
if tackled well - they recur in some other form, according to the decision
taken this time.
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
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:
- Step 1: List all concerns (symptoms), particularly from the point of
view of the decision-maker in the situation (i.e., the answer to `Who?'
and `What?' of the situational analysis).
- Step 2: Diagnose (from the answers to `How?' and `Why?') the concerns
in order to establish real causes.
- Step 3: Establish decision (problem) areas, and prioritize them in order
- Step 4: Evaluate - if appropriate decisions are taken in these areas
- whether the overall situation would improve particularly from the decision-maker's
point of view. A knowledge of the problems encountered in similar organizations
would be helpful in this exercise. Besides this, holistic as well as logical
thinking would significantly help in understanding the nature of problems,
their categorization into long or short term, and in prioritization.
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.
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:
- holistic skills, for identifying broader aims, goals, objectives and
purposes in a situation, and
- logical reasoning, for deducing the specific criteria and their prioritization
from such higher-order considerations.
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,
- consistent with the requirements of the situation, bearing in mind the
- implementable, and
- convincing to others involved.
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.