Problem solving vs decision making – what is the difference?

Written by
Changeboard team

Published
30 Jul 2019

30 Jul 2019 • by Changeboard team

The key difference between problem solving and decision making is that solving problems is a process, whereas making decisions is an action based on insights derived during the problem-solving process. Many people use the terms problem solving and decision making interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Problem solving vs decision making

Problem solving is an analytical process used to identify the possible solutions to the situation at hand. Making decisions is a part of problem solving. Problem solving is a complex process, and judgement calls – or decisions – will have to be made on the way.

Decision making is a choice made by using one’s judgement. The art of making sound decisions is a particularly important skill for leaders and managers. You may need to make numerous decisions as part of the problem-solving process. And, of course, leaders and managers will need to use their decision-making skills to determine which solution to pursue. They will also typically need to confirm and set into motion next steps to fix the problem.

Problem solving or decision making – which is most important?

Both problem solving and decision making go hand in hand, but success in one doesn’t automatically lead to the other. Those in leadership and management roles need to understand the difference between the two and aim to make lifelong improvements in both skillsets.

Decisions are made when multiple opportunities for action present themselves. You can make decisions, yet never solve the problem.

You can be adept at problem solving, or finding the root of an issue, and still lack the decision making skills to choose and action viable next steps to bring about a successful outcome.

Quick decisions don’t always lead to best-case solutions. A purist approach to problem solving doesn’t take into account that sometimes a business needs to make the best decision under the existing circumstances (where budget, time and resource constraints might play a factor).

How does problem solving involve decision making?

Decision-making is part of the problem-solving process. A business may have multiple problems that all demand time and resource. A key role in management and leadership positions is deciding which problem to treat as a priority.

Decision making in 3 steps:

  1. Use problem solving to identify potential solutions – this may involve decision making, such as deciding to hold meetings with stakeholders or assigning team members to tackle particular areas of the problem
  2. Determine which solution is the best fit for the problem at hand
  3. Make a decision on next steps to action the chosen solution

The similarities between problem solving and decision making

Problem solving and decision making are not synonymous with each other, but they are both important skills for leaders to have. People often use the terms problem solving and decision making interchangeably specifically because they have elements in common.

Both problem solving and decision making involve critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a process by which you question your own assumptions – as well as those of others - in order to decide on next steps to solve a problem. Critical thinking often results in using a mix of research, analysis, questioning and exploration of new ideas in order to gain rich insight into a situation, becoming informed in a way that isn’t restricted by the subjective perspectives of peers or the status quo.

See our critical thinking tips for HR managers and leaders for a deep dive into critical thinking, or take an eagle’s eye view with our 3 golden tips on how to improve your critical thinking.

How to use decision making in solving problems

It all boils down to one thing: When faced with a challenge, break the problem down into manageable components that require decisions to be made.