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Decision Simplification Techniques

Robert Harris
Version Date: July 3, 1998



This is a list of techniques used to simplify decision making. You will notice that many of them work by reducing the number of alternatives considered. Others work by using premanufactured decisions, and still others use miscellaneous methods. Depending on the nature and importance of a given decision, some techniques will be preferable to others. Some techniques, while popularly used for many decisions, are suboptimal or even harmful in many circumstances.

1. Criteria Filter. Establish a fixed set of criteria which all alternatives must meet. Potential alternatives which fail to meet even a single criterion are excluded from the pool of alternatives. For example, in buying a car, certain criteria might be established before considering any particular vehicle. Only vehicles meeting all those criteria would be considered in the decision process.

2. Best of 3. A more accurate name for this would be "best of few" because it involves limiting the number of alternatives to three or four or five or six. This is a common technique used when the decision is under time pressure and many of the alternatives are somewhat similar. If, for example, you must buy a new toaster or popcorn popper or stereo this week, you might use the best of 3 technique. Rather than attempt to investigate every possible toaster, popper, or stereo, you choose just three or four and pick from among them.

3. Cursory Exclusion. This alternative-reducing technique is often used in conjunction with other decision-making techniques. Here, a potential alternative is rejected on the basis of a single flaw. Rather than looking at potential alternatives with a mind to choosing them, they are looked at with an eye toward rejecting them. Employment officers (and sometimes popular people hunting for spouses!) often use this technique. When a prospect comes in, the manager asks, "What reason might I find for rejecting this person?" The more who are rejected after a cursory (brief and superficial) examination, the fewer the manager has to think about in his decision making. (Thus the importance of making a good impression at such interviews.) Cursory exclusion can be suboptimal or even harmful in some situations where a really excellent choice is rejected because of some superficial flaw or atypical presentation.

4. Routinization. Many decisions are made along the lines of previous decisions. "When this happens, do that." Standardized policies for handling recurring events or choices help to make life more efficient. Procedure manuals are essentially catalogs of previously solved problems. The manuals tell how to respond when the same or similar problem arises. Thus, they might be called books of programmed decisions.

Habitual behaviors might be seen as forms of decision simplification, also. For example, some people have a standard or favorite area to park at the shopping mall or grocery store they visit most frequently. By using such a standard parking spot, a new parking decision need not be made each trip and the mind can run on automatic when the shopper approaches the mall or store. A potential problem with routinization, the "use what worked before" approach, is that new problems tend to be pressed into the mold of problems that will fit the standard procedures. Remember, then, that new problems may need new solutions.

Routinization might be broken down into rules and guidelines. A rule is a specific requirement that must be followed, while a guideline is a principle of operation. To use examples from the Bible (which has many guidelines and some rules), we could say that a rule might be "Do not steal," while a guideline would be, "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

A subcategory here might be rules of thumb. These are guidelines based on past experience or on the experience of others in the field.

Examples: Keep 30 days inventory on hand. Don't stay up all night before an exam. Don't buy unbranded merchandise. A typical paragraph should be from a third to half a typed page long. A man should marry a woman half his age plus seven years. Spend one percent of your proposed spending making sure you will be spending the money well.

Many times such rules do not result in the best decision, because individual cases vary so much. Rules of thumb do have the advantage of leading to a decision in a short time.

5. Satisficing. As we mentioned in the previous chapter, in this technique, the first satisfactory alternative is chosen rather than the best alternative. When you want to write a note, you just grab the first suitable piece of paper rather than looking all over to find the very best one in your room or office. Looking for the very best would be the optimizing strategy, which is decision complicating rather than decision simplifying. Satisficing is preferred for decisions of small significance, when you're in a hurry, or where most of the alternatives are essentially similar.

6. Delegation. Perhaps this technique is only apparently simplifying, since the person given the decision to make may have complexity enough. But for the person doing the delegating, it is a very good simplification technique. Let someone else do the research, consider the alternatives, and make the decision.

7. Parameter Delegation. One of the most common decision simplification techniques, this method involves delegating to others the research and development of alternatives from which the decision maker will then choose. We use this method in our everyday lives by walking into a store, where the managers have chosen to carry 10 of the scores of washing machine available, by ordering from the mail order catalog listing six of the dozens of word processing programs available and so on. We assume that these people have used some method of useful decision making to select the group of alternatives presented to us. We hope the criteria included quality, performance, value, and so on, rather than profit margin, but we are sometimes deceived.

In a company, an executive may delegate to a committee or a subordinate the basic research into a decision and ask to be presented with three or four alternatives from which to choose.

Another example of parameter delegation is the reliance on recommendations from others. When we buy something or go see a movie based on a favorable review, we are exercising this method of decision simplification. The newest term for this version of parameter delegation is collaborative filtering.

8. Random Choice. Here, just any alternative is chosen. The choice may be the first alternative available or simply one picked without analysis or ordering. When you need to use a towel, or put clean sheets on the bed, or choose some fruit to eat, you might decide that any will do. "Just grab one" might be another name for this technique. It certainly makes the decision easy and simple. Analysis requires a lot of mental effort, and some people, especially those who spend much of their working lives performing complicated analyses, want to reduce the level of analysis in the rest of their lives. You will sometimes see them walk into a stationery store and rather nonchalantly grab a notebook or pad to use. Random choice can produce a fun adventure in restaurants, too.

9. Conformity. Follow the crowd; do what others do; go with the flow. In this technique you attach yourself to a preexisting decision stream and accept the decisions that most other people have made. When most other people in your subgroup have put on acid-washed jeans, you do too. We like to think of ourselves as rugged and independent individualists, but in reality we adopt many pre-made decisions through social conformity.

10. Reaction. Rebel; do the opposite of the majority; go against the flow. This technique is used by those who want to appear to be making decisions. It is easy and automatic, just like conformity.

11. Feelings. Follow your heart; go with your emotions; use your intuition; trust that gut feeling. Choices presented by your feelings are ready and apparent. Once again, this is a way of avoiding the hard mental work of analysis. And, of course, there is some evidence that some preferences of the feelings may actually be subconsciously performed analyses. Other preferences of the feelings are simply irrational lusts.

12. Idleness. Do nothing. Let others decide for you, or let circumstances dictate the choice. You must face the consequences of making no decision, however. Someone has said that making no decision is really a decision. If you do not decide whether to vacation in France or England, you will in effect be deciding to stay home.

13. Adoption of a short-range view. Choices are simplified if the consequences are considered only insofar as they involve today. This strategy leads to quick decisions, but it can also be very dangerous.


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com