Using the 5 Step Decision Making Process

In the attempt to analyse decision making, many theorists have created models that outline what they believe is the process for making good decisions. Breaking this down into a number of steps is a frequently adopted way of defining the decision making process, and sequential step models have been created with various numbers of steps.  One of the most popular, the 5 step decision making process, was first proposed in 1910 by John Dewey the American philosopher and pioneering educationalist.

Dewey’s five step problem solving and decision making model is now widely adapted ​as a marketing theory – used by businesses to understand and improve their customer’s “buying journey”.

This is a bit ironic – as Dewey was concerned with encouraging children and adults to develop through learning by doing. His five step model was initially used for decision making that was essentially problem solving, especially group problem solving. But it can be applied to many decisions, including those which have nothing to do with problem solving.

How the 5 step decision making process can help

Following a decision making process through a number of steps can be helpful in making many kinds of decisions because this can provide a reassuring structure. It can help you get down to dealing with the decision, have a sense of where you are in the process and what you need to do next. Like most decision making models it can help you look competent by giving the impression that your decision has been well considered – especially if you need to impress or convince someone else in order to progress or protect your career!

You can also use a step model towards improving your own decision making skills. If you note down what you did at each stage this can be a helpful record to refer back to when reviewing decisions that worked out well and any you came to regret.

Although the five step model is now often used by businesses to analyse how their products are bought or passed over, it can also be useful in reverse.  Many of our important decisions can involve buying something – a new home for example.

The five steps of this process

1. Need recognition

The stirring of a desire or a compelling need sets us off on the decision making process. Although this step may seem ridiculously obvious, getting a good outcome often depends on recognising and being crystal clear on what is prompting you to make a decision. If it’s a problem to be solved can you probe beneath the surface to identify the real root of the problem? If the impetus for your decision is a need or a desire to have something or to change something, can you identify the central core of what you want or need? Clarity about this will save wasting time on the next two steps.

2. Search for Information

The biggest challenge today is often not being able to find enough information; it’s the sheer volume of information potentially available! Where to start and when to stop looking can be decisions to make before you can make the main decision. But the most important thing to clarify is what information is really relevant and to focus on obtaining that. Otherwise you’re likely to waste time following link by link down an endless trail of interesting information you don’t actually need.

For decisions involving certain areas – legal, financial, medical etc. – it’s probably advisable to not only seek out relevant information yourself but to get one or more professional opinions and advice. Communicating your own priorities clearly to any professional you consult is more likely to get you advice that’s tailored to your situation and needs.

3. Evaluate alternative options

The 5 step process only works if there are several options to choose from. Three, four or five possible choices is ideal. Two could become a difficult dilemma. Higher numbers make comparisons harder. Brainstorming to come up with multiple options can be liberating and free your thinking from being stuck in a rut. It’s usually more productive to eliminate less viable possibilities to arrive at a manageable number to compare effectively.

To select your final range of alternatives and to choose between them you’ll first need to get clear on the criteria you’ll use to compare them against.

4. Decide on your preferred choice

This might seem like the most simple and obvious stage, but the act of committing to a decision is something many people struggle with. Sometimes external circumstances make it appropriate to delay making a decision, but far more often our own uncertainty or discomfort leads to procrastination.

Recognise that it takes courage to make a decision, especially important ones. It’s a cop out to delay until the decision is redundant or someone else steps in to make it for you. If you're struggling rather than waste time agonizing go back to step 1 and work through the process again.  Or recognise it can be effective and empowering to get appropriate help.

5. Post decision evaluation

A decision is only as good as its implementation. So step 4 should be accompanied with a plan, or at least an outline of the action to be taken following your decision. It’s helpful to allocate anticipated dates or times for different stages of implementation. This will help you sustain momentum and provide staging posts when you can ​check - are things going to plan? If not it’s better to adapt and adjust while in the process of implementation than risk getting to the end and wondering what went wrong!

However well your decision turns out, however you feel about it with hindsight, it’s worth taking the time to evaluate your decision making process and the results. What you learn will help hone your decision making skills and boost your decision making confidence.

In Summary

The 5 step decision making process follows tradition analytical decision making theory and provides a simple, fairly flexible framework to follow. especially if you need to involve others in the decision making process.

Like many other rational decision making approaches it can be appropriate to use when factual data will be an important part of weighing up options. But it can also provide a helpful framework when other factors – feelings, attitudes, beliefs – need to be taken into account.

It might be rather pedantic and limiting for making some of the big life choices or in complex situations where lining up your options in a row doesn’t seem so appropriate.