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Education competencies: Decision quality and problem solving

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies .


Uses analysis, wisdom, experience, and logical methods to make good decisions and solve difficult problems with effective solutions; appropriately incorporates multiple inputs to establish shared ownership and effective action.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Uses a combination of logic, analysis, and experience to make decisions and solve problems Uses a combination of logic, analysis, experience, wisdom, and methods to make sound, timely decisions and to solve problems Uses a combination of logic, analysis, experience, wisdom, and advanced methods to make sound, timely decisions and to solve problems. Demonstrates the ability to solve difficult problems; creates effective solutions Uses a combination of logic, analysis, experience, wisdom, advanced methods, and other resources to make sound, timely decisions and to solve problems. Demonstrates the ability to solve complex, difficult, and intractable problems, creates effective and innovative solutions
Seeks relevant information and answers to key questions from several sources. Understands levels of inclusion in decision making Probes appropriate sources for relevant information and answers to key questions; demonstrates persistence and skill in gathering information. Understands levels of inclusion necessary for ownership and effective action Probes all appropriate sources; demonstrates advanced skill and insight in gathering and sorting key information. Demonstrates persistence, skill, and resilience throughout the process. Identifies and manages the appropriate level of inclusion indicated by the situation Skillfully probes all appropriate sources; demonstrates advanced skill and keen insight in gathering, sorting, and applying key information. Demonstrates deep resolve and resilience throughout the process. Identifies the appropriate level of inclusion indicated; builds and leads coalitions and teams to facilitate the work when indicated
Has solutions and suggestions that are effective in addressing the problem at hand Has solutions and suggestions that are effective and turn out to be correct and accurate when judged over time Delivers solutions and decisions that are effective and turn out to be correct and accurate when judged over time and constructively impact the whole organization Delivers solutions and decisions that have a positive, far-reaching, and comprehensive organizational impact, influencing future events and directions
Involves others in the thinking and decision-making process Is sought out by others for input and process support Is well respected and sought out often by others for input, process support, and direction Is well respected inside and outside the organization; is often pursued as a consultant for input, analysis, process support, and direction

Overdoing decision quality and problem solving

  • May see himself or herself as overly wise or close to perfect, as someone who can’t or doesn’t make mistakes
  • May be seen as stubborn and not willing to negotiate or compromise
  • May get frustrated when advice is rejected; may tend toward analysis paralysis and wait too long to come to a conclusion
  • May not set analysis priorities and do too much of the analysis personally
  • May get hung up in the process, miss the big picture, or make things overly complex

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • Have I adequately analyzed and defined the problem at hand?
  • What sources do I use or need to use to acquire all the relevant data needed to make a decision or solve the problem?
  • Whom can I involve to give input or to act as a sounding board to solve a problem?
  • Have I been pursued by others as a consultant for input, analysis, process support, or direction?
  • Are my statements verifiable facts and not assumptions or opinions?
  • What is my track record for making correct assessments and decisions?

To avoid overdoing decision quality and problem solving, ask yourself:

  • Am I getting paralyzed by overanalyzing?
  • Am I too focused on detail and missing the big picture?
  • Am I too stubborn and unwilling to compromise?

Interview questions

  • Think back to the most recent complex decision that you had to make or problem that you had to solve. Describe in detail the process you used to make the decision or solve the problem. What sources of information did you use? How much time did you have, and how much time did you take? What was the result?
  • Part of coming up with a good decision or solution is gathering and analyzing information. Please share a recent decision you made or a problem you solved that required a high level of skill in this area. How did you determine what information you needed? Where or to whom did you go to get the information? Why did you select those specific sources?
  • Think back to a decision you recently made that you knew would have significant impact on the organization, people, or the future. What was your decision, and what did it impact? How effective was it? What factors did you consider in determining its effectiveness?
  • Please provide some examples of times when others asked you for your input when they were making a decision or solving a problem. What input did you provide? What were the results?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Pay attention to your biases: Be clear and honest with yourself about your opinions, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, and favorite or universal solutions. Keep your decision making objective. Consider the nuances of each specific problem, and deal with the facts.
  • Check for common errors in thinking or problem solving: Separate facts from assumptions or opinions. Avoid generalizations, and ask questions. Visualize complex problems using storyboards or flow charts. Take the present set of affairs, and project it to the future to consider where problems may occur.
  • Thoroughly define the problem: Collect, organize, and analyze information. Categorize and look for patterns in data. Think out loud with others, ask questions, and share your views of the problem.
  • Do a historical analysis and use logic: Perform an objective analysis of the success of past decisions. Develop disciplined methods to probe all solutions for answers.
  • Holster your gun: Take the time to define the problem and to consider several solutions before making decisions. Wait for as much data as possible to come in before making decisions. Slow down and ask what questions yet need to be answered.
  • Try incrementalism: Make big problems a series of smaller problems. Make smaller decisions, get instant feedback, correct the course, get more data, and move forward. Play out the consequences in your head to see how each solution you consider fits the real situation.
  • Do your best, and then sleep on it: Avoid analysis paralysis. Come up with patterns and causes to help formulate alternatives. Decrease your need to be 100% right all the time. Give it a rest, do something completely different for a while, and get back to the decision later.
  • Get help and input from others: Enlist the help of a group to make the decision, or delegate it to someone else. Seek advice from someone around you who makes decisions the way you would like to, and ask this person about his or her process. Assess what questions this person asks and what principles he or she follows.
  • Search outside your comfort zone: Resist making decisions based upon how you did it in the past. Come up with fresh ideas. Read the biographies and autobiographies of a few people you respect, and observe how they have made decisions.
  • Recognize opportunities to learn: Realize that mistakes are learning opportunities and that many initial solutions to problems do not work the first time. Learn from what went wrong and try again.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Launch a new project, procedure, or curriculum.
  • Relaunch an existing project or procedure that is not going well.
  • Handle a tough negotiation.
  • Integrate diverse systems, processes, or procedures across decentralized or dispersed units.
  • Assemble a team of diverse people to accomplish a difficult task.
  • Build a multifunctional project team to tackle a common problem.
  • Resolve an issue or a conflict between two people or groups.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Monitor yourself more closely and get off your autopilot. Look at each situation from a fresh perspective. Ask yourself questions consistently, and try new solutions for old problems.
    • Plan backwards from the ideal. Envision what the ideal looks like and the series of events to take you from here to there.
    • Envision yourself succeeding. Visualize what a successful presentation will look like, and aim for that.
    • Look beyond your first solution to a problem. Look further for a second or third.
    • Examine how you think and solve problems. Do more pro and con analysis before deciding and acting.
    • Form an advisory group of people you respect, and ask them to help you.
    • Find a parallel with similar situations and compare or contrast them to see what has worked. Include analysis of past successes in detail. Keep a journal of your new knowledge and lessons.
    • Break up your work routine when blocked on a problem. Try new things (brainstorming, free association, analogies) to spark new thinking. Study something unusual or unexpected, and consider the oddities that don’t seem to fit.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Learn from interviewing others. Ask what, how, and why they do what they do, where they learned it, and how they keep it current and relative.
    • Learn from mistakes. Focus on “why” more than on “what.” Don’t avoid similar situations for fear of repeating mistakes, but learn and try again. Don’t repeat what went wrong more diligently, but try something new. Look for patterns that may be causing the problem.
    • Seek and receive feedback only on the skills that are important to your present and future successes.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Take a strategic course. Stretch your thinking to prepare for and anticipate future challenges.

Recommended readings

  • Bazerman, Max H.Judgment in Managerial Decision Making.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.
  • Ben, David.Advantage Play: The Manager’s Guide to Creative Problem Solving.Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2002.
  • Bernstein, Peter L.Againstthe Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.New York: John Wiley, 1996.
  • Driver, Michael J., Philip Hunsaker, and Kenneth R. Brousseau.The Dynamic Decision Maker.New York: Harper & Row, 1998.
  • Drucker, Peter F., et al.Harvard Business Review on Decision Making.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001.
  • Drummond, Helga.The Art of Decision Making.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.
  • Firestine, Roger L., Ph.D.Leading on the Creative Edge—Gaining Competitive Advantage Through the Power of Creative Problem Solving.Colorado Springs, Colorado: Piñon Press, 1996.
  • Guy, Alexander K.Balanced Scorecard Diagnostics: Maximizing Performance Through the Dynamic Decision Framework.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
  • Hammond, John S., Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffer.Smart Choices.Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Hoch, Stephen J., Howard C. Kunreuther, and Robert E. Gunther (Eds.).Wharton on MakingDecisions.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.
  • Hoenig, Christopher W.The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide for Making Decisions and Getting Results.Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000.
  • Klein, Gary.The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions atWork.New York: Currency, 2004.
  • Nadler, Gerald Ph.D., and Shozo Hibino Ph.D.Breakthrough Thinking—The Seven Principles of Creative ProblemSolving.Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998.
  • Nagle, Thomas T., and Reed K. Holden.The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing: A Guide to Profitable Decision Making.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Nalebuff, Barry J.Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
  • Nanus, Burt.Visionary Leadership.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1992.
  • Nutt, Paul C.Why Decisions Fail: Avoiding the Blunders and Traps That Lead to Decision Debacles.San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc., 2002.
  • Patton, Bobby R., and Timothy M. Downs.Decision-Making Group Interaction: Achieving Quality.Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002.
  • Roth, Byron M., and John D. Mullen.Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice.Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
  • Seglin, Jeffrey L.The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business.Rollinsford, NH: Spiro Press, 2003.
  • Straus, David.How to Make Collaboration Work: Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions.San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • Wackerle, Frederick W.The Right CEO: Straight Talk About Making Tough CEO Selection Decisions.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2001.
  • Watkins, Michael.The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All levels.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
  • Welch, David A.Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making.Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.
  • White, Shira P., and G. Patton Wright.New Ideas About New Ideas: Insights on Creativity With the World’s Leading Innovators.Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.

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