We tend to view situations that require decision making as problems. Decisions are thrust on us by circumstances (recessions, natural disasters) or the actions of others (competitors, customers, government, stakeholders). Typically, we face these decision problems by identifying alternatives and only then considering objectives or criteria to evaluate them. I call this standard problem-solving approach alternative-focused thinking. It is reactive, not proactive. Furthermore, it is backward; it puts the cart of identifying alternatives before the horse of articulating values.
Values, as I use the term, are principles for evaluating the desirability of any possible alternatives or consequences. They define all that you care about in a specific decision situation. It is these values that are fundamentally important in any decision situation, more fundamental than alternatives, and they should be the driving force for our decision making. Alternatives are relevant only because they are means to achieve values. Thus, although it is useful to iterate between articulating values and creating alternatives, the principle should be “values first.” This manner of thinking, which I refer to as value-focused thinking, is a way to channel a critical resource — hard thinking — in order to make better decisions.
Value-focused thinking is designed to focus the decision maker on the essential activities that must occur prior to “solving a decision problem.” The central role of thinking about values is illustrated in Figure 1. Value-focused thinking helps uncover hidden objectives and leads to more productive information collection. It can improve communication among parties concerned about a decision, facilitate involvement of multiple stakeholders, and enhance the coordination of interconnected decisions. For example, people who have developed alternative air pollution standards have usually focused on air quality as measured by parts per million of various pollutants. But if they were to probe stakeholders for values, they would discover a range of other issues to address, such as health effects, visibility, and impacts on jobs. Addressing these fundamental values would lead to a more insightful evaluation of alternatives and improve communication among stakeholders.
The greatest benefits of value-focused thinking are being able to generate better alternatives for any decision problem and being able to identify decision situations that are more appealing than the decision problems that confront you. These better decision situations, which you create for yourself, should be thought of as decision opportunities, rather than as decision problems.