Managers make problem‐solving decisions under three different conditions: certainty, risk, and uncertainty. All managers make decisions under each condition, but risk and uncertainty are common to the more complex and unstructured problems faced by top managers.
Decisions are made under the condition of certainty when the manager has perfect knowledge of all the information needed to make a decision. This condition is ideal for problem solving. The challenge is simply to study the alternatives and choose the best solution.
When problems tend to arise on a regular basis, a manager may address them through standard or prepared responses called programmed decisions. These solutions are already available from past experiences and are appropriate for the problem at hand. A good example is the decision to reorder inventory automatically when stock falls below a determined level. Today, an increasing number of programmed decisions are being assisted or handled by computers using decision‐support software.
Structured problems are familiar, straightforward, and clear with respect to the information needed to resolve them. A manager can often anticipate these problems and plan to prevent or solve them. For example, personnel problems are common in regard to pay raises, promotions, vacation requests, and committee assignments, as examples. Proactive managers can plan processes for handling these complaints effectively before they even occur.
In a risk environment, the manager lacks complete information. This condition is more difficult. A manager may understand the problem and the alternatives, but has no guarantee how each solution will work. Risk is a fairly common decision condition for managers.
When new and unfamiliar problems arise, nonprogrammed decisions are specifically tailored to the situations at hand. The information requirements for defining and resolving nonroutine problems are typically high. Although computer support may assist in information processing, the decision will most likely involve human judgment. Most problems faced by higher‐level managers demand nonprogrammed decisions. This fact explains why the demands on a manager's conceptual skills increase as he or she moves into higher levels of managerial responsibility.
A crisis problem is an unexpected problem that can lead to disaster if it's not resolved quickly and appropriately. No organization can avoid crises, and the public is well aware of the immensity of corporate crises in the modern world. The Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in the former Soviet Union and the Exxon Valdez spill of years past are a couple of sensational examples. Managers in more progressive organizations now anticipate that crises, unfortunately, will occur. These managers are installing early‐warning crisis information systems and developing crisis management plans to deal with these situations in the best possible ways.
When information is so poor that managers can't even assign probabilities to the likely outcomes of alternatives, the manager is making a decision in an uncertain environment. This condition is the most difficult for a manager. Decision making under conditions of uncertainty is like being a pioneer entering unexplored territory. Uncertainty forces managers to rely heavily on creativity in solving problems: It requires unique and often totally innovative alternatives to existing processes. Groups are frequently used for problem solving in such situations. In all cases, the responses to uncertainty depend greatly on intuition, educated guesses, and hunches — all of which leave considerable room for error.
These unstructured problems involve ambiguities and information deficiencies and often occur as new or unexpected situations. These problems are most often unanticipated and are addressed reactively as they occur. Unstructured problems require novel solutions. Proactive managers are sometimes able to get a jump on unstructured problems by realizing that a situation is susceptible to problems and then making contingency plans. For example, at the Vanguard Group, executives are tireless in their preparations for a variety of events that could disrupt their mutual fund business. Their biggest fear is an investor panic that overloads their customer service system during a major plunge in the bond or stock markets. In anticipation of this occurrence, the firm has trained accountants, lawyers, and fund managers to staff the telephones if needed.