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How does planning differ from decision-making?

by Dan Power

Are these two concepts synonyms, or highly interrelated concepts or superordinate/subordinate concepts? Does planning involve decision-making? Does decision-making involve planning?

George Strother at UW-Madison conceptualized planning as "anticipatory decision-making". Herbert Simon (1947, 1960) argued "Decision making comprises three principal phases: finding occasions for making a decision; finding possible courses of actions; and choosing among courses of action (p. 1)." Some authors expand or reinterpret Simon's concept to include implementation as part of decision making, but that is an inadequate reconceptualization. Decision making or decision-making is a much more complex concept and it subsumes planning. Planning is "anticipatory decision-making". Plans are preliminary decisions that may be adjusted and changed by circumstances before an action is actually executed. A need for action termed a contingency is anticipated and various courses of action are then evaluated prior to the time when a final commitment to act must be made.

What differs in action-oriented decision making and in planning situations? One factor that seems salient is the time pressure to act. In a planning situation decision making proceeds without extreme time pressure and then on a continuum time pressure increases as crisis decision making is triggered. Planning assumes a decision maker has anticipated a relevant contingency. Action-oriented decision making occurs in the context of a more pressing need for a decision. Also, the potential impact on future behavior of the relevant players differs, plans and anticipatory decision making can change emergent behavior even if the plan is not eventually enacted. Action-oriented decision making may actually often be reactionary and because action closely follows decision, the time for reflection is limited.

Action-oriented decision making is about action in the "here and now", the present, and planning decision making is about anticipated action in the future. Action-oriented decision making often focuses on evaluating and approving a "single" course of action that may extend during implementation over a significant period of time. Then incremental adjustments in a decision may occur during implementation.

Anticipatory decision making, called planning, often focuses on designing and evaluating a set or sequence of actions that may be implemented over a period of time at some point in the future either in response to a specific contingency or as part of a broader intended strategy.

Both planning and decision making can be conceptualized as skills for individuals and as processes completed by a single individual, a group, an organization, or by a collection of stakeholders. Some authors use planning and decision making as synonyms; some authors emphasize procedural and quantitative approaches when defining decision making; other authors emphasize behavioral and process elements of an ambiguous "decision making process". The two concepts are highly interrelated.

According to Shull, Delbecq and Cummings (1970), "Man's life is an ongoing stream of decisions, a continuum of choice-making imperatives. ... A significant part of man's life reflects the decision process -- even some habitual behavior can be viewed as automatic responses to choices previously made. For this reason alone, decision making merits study and evaluation (pps. 3-4)."


Harrison, E. F., The Managerial Decision-Making Process, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

Huber, G. P., Managerial Decision Making, Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1980.

Shull, F. A., jr., A. L. Delbecq, and L. L. Cummings, Organizational Decision Making, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

Simon, H. A., Administrative Behavior, New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1947.

Simon, H. A., The New Science of Management Decision, New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1960.

from Power, D. J., "How does planning differ from decision-making?" DSS News: Vol. 5, No. 11, May 23, 2004 (edited for this website).

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