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Simplifying the Complex Decision Making Process

Updated on August 29, 2016

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!?

We make decisions every day that affect our lives and the lives of others. These decisions may involve anything from deciding where to eat dinner to how to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.

Some decisions, such as choosing a dining location, are simple and require a relatively easy process to resolve. This process may involve asking your friends and family for recommendations or using a service such as The Restaurant Finder or Yahoo Local to locate a food establishment. Your decision may also be based on other factors as such how hungry you are, how much money you have, and your current location.

More complex decision, such as preventing a nuclear catastrophe, require a much more difficult and time consuming approach to solve. It must be noted here, that complex decisions typically go hand in hand with problem solving. When faced with a difficult problem, it's best to try to break down the issue into small 'chunks' that can more easily be digested. Before you can do this, you must learn the characteristics that define a complex decision.

Characteristics of a Complex Decision

  • Uncertainty – For every decision we make, it is certain that some level of uncertainty will exist. There are things that we know, things that we don't know, things that we know we don't know, and things that we don't know that we don't know. That is to say that we can never be 100% certain of anything; anyone who says this is probably a fool. The more uncertainty that exists with making a decision, the more complex it becomes.
  • Intricacy – The more interrelated factors involved in a decision, the more complex it becomes. Choosing a barbershop, for example, may only involve such things as cost, time, and location. If a decision leads to another difficult decision, then the original decision must have been a complex one (at least it should have been considered one).
  • Risk – Every decision has a certain level of risk (possibility of a negative outcome) associated with it. Some things, such as accepting a new job offer, may have a relatively low risk of negative consequences. Others, such as trying to drive a seriously injured accident victim to a hospital 20 miles away, have a relatively high risk of negative consequences associated with it. The more risk a decision has, the more complex it is.
  • Alternatives – For every decision there is an alternative choice that can be made. Sometimes the only alternative is to do nothing, but this is rarely the case. The more alternative choices available to you, and thus alternative outcomes, the more complex the decision may be.
  • Interpersonal Impacts - Decisions can be further complicated when people are involved. Sometimes when human emotion gets drawn in, the choices we have to make become influenced. It is often the case that people will make choices based how they feel or how others will be impacted. The more emotionally charged things become, the more complex the decision will be.

How Can You Make a Good Decision?

To effectively make a good choice stemming from a complex decision, you will need to use an organized, logical, and systematic approach to solving the problem. Almost all complex decisions can be tackled using a five step approach.  The five steps are to 1) Create a practical and effective environment, 2) Generate and explore ideas, 3) Choose and Analyze an Alternative, 4) Check your Decision, and 5) Communicate, Initiate, & Evaluate

Step 1: Create a Practical and Effective Environment

The first step in making a complex decision is to create an environment for yourself to foster positive thinking. Find yourself a cozy spot by the fireplace and try to relax and calm your nerves. The fist thing to think about will be to define your goal or objective. Try to visualize the outcome of the decision and what sort of results you want. You will need to truly know the problem that you are solving. Also, figure out what the boundary conditions of the problem are. If the decision involves other people, you may need to consult with them to help you through this first step.

Step 2: Generate and Explore Ideas

Now is the time to start brain storming for solutions and choices. Consider writing down everything that comes to mind, even if it sounds silly. These ideas may help inspire real solutions later on. Often complex decisions will require that you consult with an expert in that particular area. That expert may be a best friend, an experienced father, or even the Internet. An outside perspective will also help you formulate new ideas. They can help you think of things that you didn't or couldn't think of on your own.

Step 3: Choose and Analyze an Alternative

After you have taken the time to devise every possible choice you could think of, it is time to analyze each of them for their consequences.  Consider making a matrix or similar chart and ranking each alternative based on a number of factors.  An analysis of the long term and short term costs involved would almost always be warranted.  Your cost analysis should include such things as, monetary costs, time costs, and human costs (impacts). If the complex decision is particularly risky or will have huge human costs, it would be advisable to perform an ethical analysis on the alternatives as well. Focus on 'what I should do” rather than “what I can do.” Consider such factors as the greater goodness, political correctness, and overall fairness and equality of that particular choice.

Step 4: Check Your Decision

After you have chosen an alternative, you should first give time for the choice to sink in. Give yourself time to 'sleep on it.' You will want to make sure that the decision you are making is really the best one that can be made given the circumstances. If possible, you should run a simulation of the results of the choice you are about to make. Get some friends together to role-play and see if it helps confirm or deny your initial assumptions about that decision. Simulating the decision may help you figure out what the true impacts will be as well has reduce errors in your judgment . If the decision is work related, don't be afraid to consult your supervisor for their opinion.

Step 5: Communicate, Initiate, & Evaluate

Its now time to go forward with your decision. If there are other people involved let them know what choice you have made. Make sure you can confidently answer the who, what, where, when, and why questions that can result from your decision.  If you can easily justify your actions to an impacted individual, it will make it easier for them deal with it. Afterwards, you should attempt to get feedback on the decision you have made.  It doesn't hurt to learn something from making that decision.


Complex decision making can be simplified by using a five step approach. The five steps are: 1) Create a practical and effective environment, 2) Generate and explore ideas, 3) Choose and Analyze an Alternative, 4) Check your Decision, and 5) Communicate, Initiate, & Evaluate. These steps will help you make the best decision that you can possibly make


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