The rational decision-making model describes a series of steps that decision makers should consider if their goal is to maximize the quality of their outcomes. In other words, if you want to make sure you make the best choice, going through the formal steps of the rational decision-making model may make sense.
Let’s imagine that your old, clunky car has broken down and you have enough money saved for a substantial down payment on a new car. It is the first major purchase of your life, and you want to make the right choice. The first step, therefore, has already been completed—we know that you want to buy a new car. Next, in step 2, you’ll need to decide which factors are important to you. How many passengers do you want to accommodate? How important is fuel economy to you? Is safety a major concern? You only have a certain amount of money saved, and you don’t want to take on too much debt, so price range is an important factor as well. If you know you want to have room for at least five adults, get at least 20 miles per gallon, drive a car with a strong safety rating, not spend more than $22,000 on the purchase, and like how it looks, you’ve identified the decision criteria. All of the potential options for purchasing your car will be evaluated against these criteria.
Before we can move too much further, you need to decide how important each factor is to your decision in step 3. If each is equally important, then there is no need to weight them, but if you know that price and gas mileage are key factors, you might weight them heavily and keep the other criteria with medium importance. Step 4 requires you to generate all alternatives about your options. Then, in step 5, you need to use this information to evaluate each alternative against the criteria you have established. You choose the best alternative (step 6) and you go out and buy your new car (step 7).
Of course, the outcome of this decision will be related to the next decision made; that is where the evaluation in step 8 comes in. For example, if you purchase a car but have nothing but problems with it, you are unlikely to consider the same make and model in purchasing another car the next time.
While decision makers can get off track during any of these steps, research shows that limiting the search for alternatives in the fourth step can be the most challenging and lead to failure. In fact, one researcher found that no alternative generation occurred in 85% of the decisions studied.1Nutt, P. C. (1994). Types of organizational decision processes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 29, 414–550. Conversely, successful managers are clear about what they want at the outset of the decision-making process, set objectives for others to respond to, carry out an unrestricted search for solutions, get key people to participate, and avoid using their power to push their perspective.2Nutt, P. C. (1998). Surprising but true: Half the decisions in organizations fail. Academy of Management Executive, 13, 75–90.
The rational decision-making model has important lessons for decision makers. First, when making a decision you may want to make sure that you establish your decision criteria before you search for all alternatives. This would prevent you from liking one option too much and setting your criteria accordingly. For example, let’s say you started browsing for cars before you decided your decision criteria. You may come across a car that you think really reflects your sense of style and make an emotional bond with the car. Then, because of your love for this car, you may say to yourself that the fuel economy of the car and the innovative braking system are the most important criteria. After purchasing it, you may realize that the car is too small for all of your friends to ride in the back seat when you and your brother are sitting in front, which was something you should have thought about. Setting criteria before you search for alternatives may prevent you from making such mistakes. Another advantage of the rational model is that it urges decision makers to generate all alternatives instead of only a few. By generating a large number of alternatives that cover a wide range of possibilities, you are likely to make a more effective decision in which you do not need to sacrifice one criterion for the sake of another.
Despite all its benefits, you may have noticed that this decision-making model involves a number of unrealistic assumptions. It assumes that people understand what decision is to be made, that they know all their available choices, that they have no perceptual biases, and that they want to make optimal decisions. Nobel Prize–winning economist Herbert Simon observed that while the rational decision-making model may be a helpful tool for working through problems, it doesn’t represent how decisions are frequently made within organizations. In fact, Simon argued that it didn’t even come close.
Think about how you make important decisions in your life. Our guess is that you rarely sit down and complete all eight steps in the rational decision-making model. For example, this model proposed that we should search for all possible alternatives before making a decision, but this can be time consuming and individuals are often under time pressure to make decisions. Moreover, even if we had access to all the information, it could be challenging to compare the pros and cons of each alternative and rank them according to our preferences. Anyone who has recently purchased a new laptop computer or cell phone can attest to the challenge of sorting through the different strengths and limitations of each brand, model, and plans offered for support and arriving at the solution that best meets their needs.
In fact, the availability of too much information can lead to analysis paralysis, where more and more time is spent on gathering information and thinking about it, but no decisions actually get made. A senior executive at Hewlett-Packard admits that his company suffered from this spiral of analyzing things for too long to the point where data gathering led to “not making decisions, instead of us making decisions.”3Zell, D. M., Glassman, A. M., & Duron, S. A. (2007). Strategic management in turbulent times: The short and glorious history of accelerated decision making at Hewlett-Packard. Organizational Dynamics, 36, 93–104. Moreover, you may not always be interested in reaching an optimal decision. For example, if you are looking to purchase a house, you may be willing and able to invest a great deal of time and energy to find your dream house, but if you are looking for an apartment to rent for the academic year, you may be willing to take the first one that meets your criteria of being clean, close to campus, and within your price range.
Management 2020 text remixed from multiple sources under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. View a complete list of original sources.