Programmed Decisions and Nonprogrammed Decisions


In the intricate world of managerial decision-making, the distinction between programmed and nonprogrammed decisions forms a pivotal framework for effective choices. The dynamic interplay between structured routine and novel exploration empowers managers to navigate a diverse array of scenarios with confidence and acumen.

Programmed Decisions: Structure and Efficiency

Programmed decisions, akin to well-choreographed routines, are those that recurrently unfold over time, allowing the establishment of predefined rules to guide the decision-making process. These decisions, while varying in complexity, are underpinned by known criteria that enable a logical and systematic approach. A clear set of parameters aids in deciphering the optimal course of action, ensuring consistency and efficiency.

For instance, a programmed decision could involve determining the quantity of raw materials to order based on anticipated production needs, existing inventory levels, and estimated delivery times. Similarly, crafting the weekly work schedule for part-time employees in a retail store necessitates considering store traffic patterns, seasonal fluctuations, and employee availability. The regularity of these decisions allows the development of heuristics—mental shortcuts that leverage past experiences to arrive at effective solutions swiftly.

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The Role of Heuristics in Programmed Decisions

Heuristics, often employed in programmed decisions, expedite the decision-making process by relying on established patterns and recurring scenarios. Although heuristics may not always yield the optimal solution, they harness the power of experience to provide pragmatic outcomes. For instance, a retail store manager might consistently increase staffing by a fixed percentage during large sales events, leveraging past successes to inform current decisions.

Heuristics are efficient—they save time for the decision maker by generating an adequate solution quickly. Heuristics don’t necessarily yield the optimal solution—deeper cognitive processing may be required for that. However, they generally yield a good solution.

Heuristics are often used for programmed decisions, because experience in making the decision over and over helps the decision maker know what to expect and how to react. Programmed decision-making can also be taught fairly easily to another person.

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The rules and criteria, and how they relate to outcomes, can be clearly laid out so that a good decision can be reached by the new decision maker. Programmed decisions are also sometimes referred to as routine or low-involvement decisions because they don’t require in-depth mental processing to reach a decision. High- and low-involvement decisions are illustrated in Exhibit 1.

Programmed and Nonprogrammed Decisions Navigating the Managerial Decision Landscape
Exhibit 1 High-Involvement and Low-Involvement Decisions.

Nonprogrammed Decisions: Navigating Uncharted Waters

In contrast, nonprogrammed decisions encompass uncharted territories, demanding a departure from routine and the application of creative thinking. These decisions arise from novel situations characterized by unstructured criteria, ambiguity, and complexity. The decision maker grapples with incomplete information, requiring thoughtful judgment and innovative problem-solving.

Consider a manager deliberating the adoption of a new technology. In such instances, uncertainties abound: Will the technology surpass existing solutions? Will it gain widespread acceptance? The decision-maker must navigate through unexplored terrain, collating relevant data and leveraging insights to make an informed choice.

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The Decision-Making Process for Nonprogrammed Decisions

Navigating nonprogrammed decisions necessitates a systematic approach. The decision-making process unfolds in a series of stages:

  1. Recognition: Identifying the need for a decision.
  2. Generation: Crafting multiple alternatives.
  3. Analysis: Scrutinizing and evaluating the alternatives.
  4. Selection: Choosing the optimal alternative.
  5. Implementation: Executing the selected alternative.
  6. Evaluation: Assessing the effectiveness of the chosen course of action.

However, this process is not a linear journey; it involves iterative loops and reflective analysis. Skimping on any step can hinder the quality of the decision and its outcomes.

Exhibit 2 The Decision-Making Process.

The Parallel between Cognitive Systems and Decision Types

Remarkably, the cognitive systems employed by the brain mirror the programmed and nonprogrammed decisions. Programmed decisions often align with the reactive system, where heuristics and intuition streamline the process. In contrast, the reflective system comes into play for nonprogrammed decisions, employing analytical thinking to navigate ambiguity and complexity.

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Mastering the interplay between programmed and nonprogrammed decisions empowers managers to optimize outcomes across diverse scenarios. The structured efficiency of programmed decisions complements the thoughtful exploration of nonprogrammed decisions, creating a harmonious equilibrium in the realm of decision-making.

As managers traverse the managerial landscape, the astute utilization of both systems—akin to a skilled conductor orchestrating a symphony—allows them to navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and lead their teams toward success.


You may notice similarities between the two decision-making systems of our brain and the two types of decisions (programmed and unprogrammed).

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Unprogrammed decisions will usually need to be processed through our brain’s thoughtful system to arrive at a good decision. But with programmed decisions, heuristics allow decision makers to switch to the reactive and fast system, and then quickly move on to other problems.

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