Decision making is a vital component of small business success. Decisions based on a foundation of knowledge and sound reasoning can lead the company into long-term prosperity; conversely, decisions made on the basis of flawed logic, emotionalism, or incomplete information can quickly put a small business out of commission (indeed, bad decisions can cripple even big, capital-rich corporations over time). All businesspeople recognize the painful necessity of choice. Furthermore, making these choices must be done in a timely fashion, for as most people recognize, indecision is in essence a choice in and of itself—a choice to take no action. Ultimately, what drives business success is the quality of decisions and their implementation. Good decisions mean good business.
The concept of decision making has a long history; choosing among alternatives has always been a part of life. But sustained research attention to business decision making has developed only in recent years. Contemporary advances in the field include progress in such elements of decision making as the problem context; the processes of problem finding, problem solving, and legitimation; and procedural and technical aids.
THE ELEMENTS OF DECISION MAKING
The Problem Context
All decisions are about problems, and problems shape context at three levels. The macrocontext draws attention to global issues (exchange rates, for example), national concerns (the cultural orientations toward decision processes of different countries), and provincial and state laws and cultures within nations. The mesocontext attends to organizational cultures and structure. The microcontext addresses the immediate decision environment—the organization's employees, board, or office.
Decision processes differ from company to company. But all companies need to take these three context levels into consideration when a decision needs to be made. Fortunately, economical ways to obtain this information are available and keep the cost of preparing for decisions from becoming prohibitive.
Problem Finding and Agenda Setting
An important difficulty in decision making is failure to act until one is too close to the decision point—when information and options are greatly limited. Organizations usually work in a "reactive" mode. Problems are "found" only after the issue has begun to have a negative impact on the business. Nevertheless, processes of environmental scanning and strategic planning are designed to perform problem reconnaissance to alert business people to problems that will need attention down the line. Proactivity can be a great strength in decision making, but it requires a decision intelligence process that is absent from many organizations.
Moreover, problem identification is of limited use if the business is slow to heed or resolve the issue. Once a problem has been identified, information is needed about the exact nature of the problem and potential actions that can be taken to rectify it. Unfortunately, small business owners and other key decision makers too often rely on information sources that "edit" the data—either intentionally or unintentionally—in misleading fashion. Information from business managers and other employees, vendors, and customers alike has to be regarded with a discerning eye, then.
Another kind of information gathering reflects the array and priority of solution preferences. What is selected as possible or not possible, acceptable or unacceptable, negotiable or non-negotiable depends upon the culture of the firm itself and its environment. A third area of information gathering involves determining the possible scope and impact that the problem and its consequent decision might have. Knowledge about impact may alter the decision preferences. To some extent, knowledge about scope dictates who will need to be involved in the decision process.
Problem solving—also sometimes referred to as problem management—can be divided into two parts—process and decision. The process of problem solving is predicated on the existence of a system designed to address issues as they crop up. In many organizations, there does not seem to be any system. In such businesses, owners, executives, and managers are apparently content to operate with an ultimately fatalistic philosophy—what happens, happens. Business experts contend that such an attitude is simply unacceptable, especially for smaller businesses that wish to expand, let alone survive. The second part of the problem management equation is the decision, or choice, itself. Several sets of elements need to be considered in looking at the decision process. One set refers to the rationales used for decisions. Others emphasize the setting, the scope and level of the decision, and the use of procedural and technical aids.
Organizational decision makers have adopted a variety of styles in their decision making processes. For example, some business leaders embrace processes wherein every conceivable response to an issue is examined before settling on a final response, while others adopt more flexible philosophies. The legitimacy of each style varies in accordance with individual business realities in such realms as market competitiveness, business owner personality, acuteness of the problem, etc.
Certainly, some entrepreneurs/owners make business decisions without a significant amount of input or feedback from others. Home-based business owners without any employees, for example, are likely to take a far different approach to problem-solving than will business owners who have dozens of employees and/or several distinct internal departments. The latter owners will be much more likely to include findings of meetings, task forces, and other information gathering efforts in their decision making process. Of course, even a business owner who has no partners or employees may find it useful to seek information from outside sources (accountants, fellow businesspeople, attorneys, etc.) before making important business decisions. "Since the owner makes all the key decisions for the small business, he or she is responsible for its success or failure," wrote David Karlson in Avoiding Mistakes in Your Small Business. "Marketing and finance are two of several areas in which small business owners frequently lack sufficient experience, since they previously worked as specialists for other people before they started their own businesses. As a result, they generally do not have the experience needed to make well-informed decisions in the areas with which they are unfamiliar. The demands of running and growing a small business will soon expose any Achilles heel in a president/owner. It is best to find out your weaknesses early, so you can develop expertise or get help in these areas."
Scope and Level
Finally, attention must be paid to problem scope and organizational level. Problems of large scope need to be dealt with by top levels of the organization. Similarly, problems of smaller scope can be handled by lower levels of the organization. This is a failing of many organizations, large and small. Typically, top level groups spend much too much time deciding low-level, low-impact problems, while issues of high importance and organizational impact linger on without being addressed or resolved.
Procedural and Technical Aids
In recent years, a number of procedural and technical aids have been developed to help business managers in their decision making processes. Most of these have taken the form of software programs that guide individuals or groups through the various elements of the decision making process in a wide variety of operational areas (budgeting, marketing, inventory control, etc.). Leadership seminars and management training offer guidance in the decision making process as well.
Whatever decision making process is utilized, those involved in making the decision need to make sure that a response has actually been arrived at. All too often, meetings and other efforts to resolve outstanding business issues adjourn under an atmosphere of uncertainty. Participants in decision making meetings are sometimes unsure about various facets of the decision arrived at. Some meeting participants, for example, may leave a meeting still unsure about how the agreed-upon response to a problem is going to be implemented, while others may not even be sure what the agreed-upon response is. Indeed, business researchers indicate that on many occasions, meeting participants depart with fundamentally different understandings of what took place. It is up to the small business owner to make sure that all participants in the decision making process fully understand all aspects of the final decision.
The final step in the decision making process is the implementation of the decision. This is an extremely important element of decision making; after all, the benefits associated with even the most intelligent decision can be severely compromised if implementation is slow or flawed.
FACTORS IN POOR DECISION MAKING
Several factors in flawed decision making are commonly cited by business experts, including the following: limited organizational capacity; limited information; the costliness of analysis; interdependencies between fact and value; the openness of the system(s) to be analyzed; and the diversity of forms on which business decisions actually arise. Moreover, time constraints, personal distractions, low levels of decision making skill, conflict over business goals, and interpersonal factors can also have a deleterious impact on the decision making capacities of a small (or large) business.
A second category of difficulties is captured in a number of common pitfalls of the decision procedure. One such pitfall is "decision avoidance psychosis," which occurs when organizations put off making decisions that need to be made until the very last minute. A second problem is decision randomness. This process was outlined in the famous paper called "A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice" by Cohen, March and Olsen. They argued that organizations have four roles or vectors within them: problem knowers (people who know the difficulties the organization faces): solution providers (people who can provide solutions but do not know the problems); resource controllers (people who do not know problems and do not have solutions but control the allocation of people and money in the organization) and a group of "decision makers looking for work" (or decision opportunities). For effective decision making, all these elements must be in the same room at the same time. In reality, most organizations combine them at random, as if tossing them into a garbage can.
Decision drift is another malady that can strike at a business with potentially crippling results. This term, also sometimes known as the Abilene Paradox in recognition of a famous model of this behavior, refers to group actions that take place under the impression that the action is the will of the majority, when in reality, there never really was a decision to take that action.
Decision coercion, also known as groupthink, is another very well known decision problem. In this flawed decision making process, decisions are actually coerced by figures in power. This phenomenon can most commonly be seen in instances where a business owner or top executive creates an atmosphere where objections or concerns about a decision favored by the owner/executive are muted because of fears about owner/executive reaction.
IMPROVING DECISION MAKING
Business consultants and experts agree that small business owners and managers can take several basic steps to improve the decision making process at their establishments.
Improve the setting. Organizing better meetings (focused agenda, clear questions, current and detailed information, necessary personnel) can be a very helpful step in effective decision making. Avoid the garbage can; get the relevant people in the same room at the same time. Pay attention to planning and seek closure.
Use Logical Techniques. Decision making is a simple process when approached in a logical and purposeful manner. Small businesses that are able to perceive the problem, gather and present data, intelligently discuss the data, and implement the decision without succumbing to emotionalism are apt to make good ones that will launch the firm on a prosperous course.
Evaluate decisions and decision making patterns. Evaluation tends to focus the attention, and make individuals and teams more sensitive to what they are actually doing in their decision making tasks. Evaluation is especially helpful in today's business environment because of the interdependency of individuals and departments in executing tasks and addressing goals.
Determine appropriate levels of decision making. Business enterprises need to make sure that operational decisions are being made at the right level. Keys to avoiding micromanagement and other decision making pitfalls include: giving problems their proper level of importance and context; addressing problems in an appropriate time frame; and establishing and shifting decision criteria in accordance with business goals.
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Cohen, M. James, G. March, and J. Olsen. "A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice." Administrative Science Quarterly. March 1972.
Graham, John R. "Avoiding Dumb and Dumber Business Decisions: Why Even the Experts Make Mistakes." American Salesman. April 1997.
Gunn, Bob. "Decisions, Decisions." Strategic Finance. January 2000.
Karlson, David. Avoiding Mistakes in Your Small Business. Crisp, 1994.
Magasin, Michael, and Frieda L. Gehlen. "Unwise Decisions and Unanticipated Consequences." Sloan Management Review. Fall 1999.
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