Solution (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

A decision maker tries to select a course of action that produces an outcome he desires, one that is efficient relative to what he values.

(Ackoff, 1987, p. 12)


Problems are goals (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

Choice or decision making consists of taking a course of action defined by values of one or more controlled variables. There must be at least two courses of action available, otherwise there is no choice and therefore no problem. There may, of course, be an unlimited number of courses of action available. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 11)

Not every choice situation is a problem situation, but every problem involves a choice. A problem arises when the decision maker has some doubt about the relative effectiveness of the alternative courses of action. The solution process is directed at dispelling doubt. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 12)

Using the conception of a problem set forth above we can consider problem solving with respect to what the decision maker does about each of these components:

  1. Objectives: desired outcomes
  2. Controlled variables: courses of action
  3. Uncontrolled variables: the environment
  4. The relationships among these three (Ackoff, 1978, p. 17)

It is apparent that what we want, our ends, influences our choice of means. Not so apparent is the fact that the available means influence our choice of ends. Our conception of possible outcomes affects what outcomes we desire. Our ability to solve problems is thereby limited by our conception of what is feasible. Furthermore, even our conception of the nature of the problem may be lImited in this way. However, such limits are often self-imposed. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 25)

Principle of least effort def (Fisher, 2005)

17 October 2010

The Principle of Least Effort, is probably the most solid result in all of information-seeking research. Specifically, we have found that people invest little in seeking information, preferring easy-to-use, accessible sources to sources of known high quality that are less easy to use and/or less accessible.

Ease of use and accessibility of information seem to be more important to people than quality of information. But what is the explanation for this phenomenon? Why are people unwilling to invest that little bit of extra energy in order to get information that they themselves would acknowledge is of better quality?

1) People “satisfice” in all realms of life, including information seeking. The idea of satisficing comes from Simon (1976), who argued that in decision-making, people make a good enough decision to meet their needs, and do not necessarily consider all possible, or knowable, options. Translated to the language of LIS, for example, using Dervin’s concept of “Sense-Making” (Dervin, 1983, 1999), we could hypothesize that people make sense of their situations based on what they know and can learn easily. Their Sense-Making need only be adequate to continue with life; it does not need to be so perfect or extensive as to enable them to make sense of everything.

2) People underestimate the value of what they do not know, and over-estimate the value of what they do know. People have difficulty imagining what the new information would be that they do not know, while what they do know is vivid and real to them. Consequently, they under-invest in information seeking. See Gilovich, Griffin, & Kahneman (2002) and Kahneman & Tversky (2000) for work on distortions in decision-making and choice.

3) Gaining new knowledge may be emotionally threatening in some cases. Gregory Bateson once described what he called “value-seeking” and “information-seeking” (Ruesch &. Bateson, 1968, pp. 178-I79). In value, seeking, a person has an idea in mind of something that he or she wants. Suppose one wants some eggs and. toast to eat, for example. One then goes out into the world, does various things involving chickens, grain, cooking, and baking, with the end. result that one has a breakfast of eggs and toast. Thus, one has done things to parts of the world in order to make the world match the plan one has in mind. In information seeking, on the other hand, according to Bateson, the directionality is reversed; one acquires information from the world in order to impress it on one’s own mind.

However, new knowledge can always bring surprises, sometimes uncomfortable ones. If “we are what we know,” if our sense of self is based, in part, on our body of knowledge of the world, then to change that knowledge may be threatening to our sense of self.

4) Information is not tangible, and objects are. Intangible things seem less real to us, therefore less valuable. Consequently, we invest more in acquiring tangible than intangible things.

Each hypothesis above is not a complete explanation … For instance, Simon’s satisficing may be, in effect, another name for Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort (1949). Poole (I985) believed his results fit well with Zipf’s earlier work. Zipf had a more extensively conceptualized understanding of least effort, one that constitutes a preliminary explanation, i.e., theory, and which contributes to a better understand_ ing of least effort than we usually articulate in LIS. To Zipf, according to Poole, least effort was technically the “least average rate of probable work” (Poole, 1985, p. 90). That is, people do not just minimize current work associated with some activity, because they could eventually do a total of much more work in the end. Rather, they make a considered estimate of all likely work associated with a given effort, now and in the future, and do the amount of work now that they estimate will best reduce their overall effort, now and later combined (Poole, 1985).


“Principle of Least Effort” has been so widely observed that we were able to make confident predictions about where else it might appear as well. But we still had no explanation, no theory as to why this phenomenon occurs (except possibly in Zipf’s original research, 1949). We hypothesized four possible explanations, and considered ways in which these theories could be tested. Testing might then lead to further tentative theories that would explain this phenomenon still more deeply.

(Fisher, 2005, s. 4ff)

Problems are goals (Hicks, 2004)

15 October 2010

Is decision-making a different process from problem solving; is one part of the other, or are we really talking about two aspects of the same thing? If we described problem solving as something like “finding ways of getting from a situation perceived as unsatisfactory, to one that we would rather be in”, and decision-making as “making a selection between various courses of action”, these processes might be thought of as separate. However, as we consider the full implications of what is involved, perhaps by expanding these “definitions” into a number of stages, the fallacy of considering them as discrete processes becomes apparent.

Below we can see two lists typical of those which people come up with when asked to identify the stages in problem solving and decision-making. It is clear that there is at least one decision-making stage – “select the best solution ” – within problem solving, and often many more. Moreover, people tend to find it difficult to make decisions because they have a problem “generating alternative ways of meeting the objectives”, “determining the evaluation criteria/techniques” and sometimes “identifying the objectives of the decision.”

Problem solving

  • Identify and try to understand the problem
  • Collect relevant information and reflect on  it
  • Generate some ideas
  • Develop solutions
  • Select the best solution
  • Implement it

Decision making

  • Identify the objectives (goals) of the decision
  • Find alternative ways of meeting these objectives
  • Determine evaluation criteria/techniques
  • Select best course of action
  • Implement it

Looked at in this way, one process is obviously part of the other and vice versa. But which is the superior process and does it matter? The answers to these questions depend mostly on the view people take of the decision-making process itself …

Decision making is often thought of as a relatively simple choice between several courses of action. This is an oversimplified view because such a definition can imply that the decision-making process is a singe-stage affair, which happens in a fairly short space of time.It is true that some decisions we make, for example, whether or not to have another cup of coffee, do appear to be like this. We make a lot of rapid, simple choices and often are not conscious of doing any complex analysis or comparative evaluation of available alternatives. Some routine decisions (including business ones) may be like this, but many are not.

We could settle for the rational view of decision-making, which has been advocated as an appropriate method for dealing with decisions other than trivial ones such as the coffee example, as our description of the decision-making process. While to a large extent it supports the idea that a decision is a fairly straightforward choice between alternatives, the rational model does identify a number of steps we usually need to go through, and implies that the process is a conscious one. However, it also assumes that the decision-making process can be, is and should be rational. It leaves no room for intuition. You may feel that this is not the way things are with many of the decisions you have to make. If this is the case we need to think of the decision-making process as something rather more than just a choice between alternative courses, but what?

The rational model is difficult to apply in practice and it has been criticized on the basis that it assumes that an exhaustive set of alternatives are readily available along with a full knowledge of their consequences, and that it is also possible to measure the extent to which the consequences of each of these alternatives would achieve the desired objective. Furthermore, the rational model claims that we could then establish a consistent order of preference from these measurements, and could thus choose the alternative that came out the best. Seldom are these assumptions valid in practice.

Herbert Simon (1955) demonstrated that in reality the essential “ingredients” of the rational model were often compromised out of sheer necessity, resulting in an oversimplification of the whole process. He further claimed “there is a complete lack of evidence that, in actual human choice situations of any complexity, these computations can be, or are in fact performed.” In his principle of bounded rationality, he even seems to suggest that the capacity of the human brain is not up to handling the magnitude of the task of making a truly rational decision with complex real-world problems. Most of the time managers were settling for a satisfactory solution that suffices for the time being, rather than pursuing the optimum solution the rational model purported to yield.

Many real-world decisions are highly complex because of:

  • multiple and often conflicting objectives
  • difficulties encountered devising alternatives and deciding or reaching a consensus about what the evaluation criteria should be
  • the personality and prejudice of the decision maker(s)
  • the politics of the situation
  • difficulties in getting reliable and relevant information.

Even if we ignore the issue that many of the factors we might want to consider when comparing alternatives are unmeasurable, things would have to be drastically simplified to make them fit the rational model, even if finding an optimal solution under these circumstances were not virtually impossible anyway. Furthermore, as Cyert, Simon and Trow found (1956), there are many decisions we have to make which involve just a single alternative, usually made by comparing this one possible course of action with som kind of explicit or implicit “level of aspiration”. We are not searching for the best alternative, but deciding whether the one we have is good enough. Ackoff (1983) also notes that what seems rational to one person is not necessarily rational to someone else. Therefore, if objective, rational decisions exist, they must depend heavily on consensus for their validity.

If the rational model of decision-making is often not viable, what can we use instead? Charles Lindblom (1959) says that what managers actually do in practice is to make successive limited comparisons restricting themselves to one (or a few) objectives at a time, often initially disregarding the social issues. They then compare the few alternatives that come easily to mind, more on the basis of past experience than anything else.

This choice involves selecting alternatives and evaluation criteria simultaneously, because the appropriateness of the latter varies between alternatives. Since this process can result only in a partial solution, it is repeated endlessly as conditions and aspirations change and as the accuracy of predictions improve. Decision-making has thus been perceived as a cyclical, incremental learning process. Though still in widespread use, the successive limited comparisons style of decision-making cannot, as Lindblom points out, guarantee we will not overlook potentially excellent potions in our limited search for alternative courses of action, nor can it ensure that we will consider all relevant criteria in our comparative evaluation of alternatives: they are starting to look like problems! The decision-making process appears to be heuristic (guided trial and error, based on past experience) and stochastic rather than rational.

(Hicks, 2004, s. 19ff)

Ett bra beslut (Kepner & Tregoe, 1985)

12 October 2010

Ett bra beslut kan bara fattas med hänsyn till vad det är som behöver uppnås.

Kepner-Tregoe (1985, s. 76)