In an earlier article, we looked at how to make robust project decisions. Now, let’s turn up the pressure to look at rapid decision-making in projects. What can you do to maintain the rigor, transparency, and reliability of your decision-making, but also turn up the speed?
Rapid decision-making in projects boils down to two principal strategies. In this article, we will look at each of them, and how to make them as effective as possible, in balancing the need for speed with the requirement for rigor.
We will consider:
In the previous article, we saw that there are two processes for evaluating a decision: logical and intuitive.
However, we can only form reliable patterns that form the basis of sound gut-instinct decisions where we have a strong base of experience to call upon.
So, the two strategies for rapid decision-making are clear:
If you need to make a rapid project decision, your first priority must be to get right to the heart of what the decision is about. What is at stake, and what matters most? There is a wonderful quote from Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius:
‘This thing, what is it fundamentally?’ Marcus Aurelius - great question for #Project Managers to ask. Click To Tweet
“This thing, what is it fundamentally? What is its own constitution? What is its substance and material?”
Understanding what your decision is really about will help you to assess which process to use. And it will also allow you to test your decision before committing to it. Look beneath the surface of the either/or choice that many decisions offer.
Therefore, ask yourself: ‘what matters most here?’ Often there is a fundamental principle, which underpins your choice.
Another element is to understand what the decision is about, in terms of technical matters. If it is intimately about something for which you are a true expert, a rapid gut-instinct decision may be a safe approach. But if you don’t have deep expertise and substantial experience, even a strong gut instinct can lead you in the wrong direction, and you need to set it aside.
There will be plenty of times when you will not have the experience to rely on your gut for rapid decision-making in a project. This is especially true at the start of your career. So how can you speed up rational decision-making?
I’ll describe four approaches:
If you are making rapid decisions alone, it is a recipe for failure. Compelling yourself to hear lots of other people’s views in a short time can open you to the best decision. You are likely to get:
This is the basis of an approach that started at Honda, called Waigaya. It is one I think many Project Managers could usefully adopt. In Waigaya, as soon as a problem arises and you need a decision, you call together a group of colleagues, to work through the problem. Waigaya has four guiding rules.
This works well because you can get two things:
In a relatively short discussion, a sound decision can emerge organically. Learn more about Waigaya from an excellent article: For Honda, Waigaya is the Way.
One way to make a rapid decision that has little risk attached to it is to decide on an experiment. Pilots and prototypes are a way to learn and inform a strong decision. So, if in doubt, commission a test. You will be moving your project forward. And, at the same time, you will also be managing your risks and establishing the basis for good decisions down the line.
And, by engaging the right stakeholders in your experiment, you can get the benefit of:
Decisions often fail when what we expected to happen did happen…
But so too did an unexpected consequence.
Do a rapid survey of how your decision could affect every aspect of your project: each stakeholder, every risk, all the work packages, and any deliverables. Use a simple checklist approach of everything your choice could impact upon. So, for example, use a list like this:
For a more sophisticated approach, consider a scenario analysis, in which you select a number of possible outcomes and play your decision forward in each scenario.
Is there a way that you can cast your decision so that, if it is wrong, the outcome is a safe one with minimal damage? For example, what procedures can you put in place that will catch problems quickly and halt the effects? If you can find a way to fail safely, then you can set yourself up to fail fast and learn quickly.
The alternative approach to rapid decision-making is to rely on your gut instinct; your intuition. This is only going to be reliable when you have a great depth of knowledge and experience to call upon. But if you conclude that this is the case, what can you do to optimize the process?
We’ll answer this from two points of view.
This may not sound like speeding things up, but your intuition needs two things, to process a decision.
First, it needs to be immersed in all of the details of the problem. Malcolm Gladwell* evocatively labels the process your intuitive mind goes through as ‘Thin Slicing’.
When your brain has absorbed a whole raft of detail in a complex situation, it is able to extract the salient elements from the rest, using your accumulated experience to see what really matters.
So, the second step is to allow the process of sifting and sorting the patterns to take time. Allow your brain some incubation space. Soak up the facts and then take a break. Maybe go for a walk, get a coffee, or work on something different.
* In his book, Blink.
One way to immerse yourself effectively is to lace yourself physically where your project decision will impact. The military call this ‘the ground truth’. They recognize that maps and charts, and second-hand reports represent only a part of reality. The truth is on the ground. In Japanese manufacturing, there is a similar concept. To solve a problem or make a decision, the team will ‘go to the Gemba’. The Gemba is the place where it happens.
Who knows what you will spot at the Gemba, that you may not have become aware of from behind a desk?
But now you face a different – and difficult – challenge. Projects are busy affairs. And that makes it very hard, sometimes, for a Project Manager to hear that quiet voice of your intuition. So how can you know what your gut is telling you?
I have two approaches that I use frequently.
Approach 1: Pausing
In fact, I do more than pause. After immersion and incubation, I need the space to hear what my intuition is trying to say to me. So I will stop doing any busy-thinking, or active-doing. Two ways that work particularly well as deliberate approaches are my preferred habits. Firstly, just going for a walk. And second, going for a coffee (rather than taking one at my desk). Anything that separates you from what is going on will give your mind a chance to calm down, and for your intuition to emerge. Of course, I often get the answer in the shower, for just the same reason.
Approach 2: Trial Solution
If you don’t know what your gut wants you to do, make a random choice. And then ask yourself how you feel about it. There is nothing like a coin toss to reveal which option is best. You might make a random choice and then feel ‘yes, okay, that’s good’. Yet this is very different to making a random selection and feeling ‘hmmm. I’m not sure about that.’
Any rapid decision-making needs protection against an error. And the simplest is the cycle of monitoring the effects of your decision, reviewing them, and taking control if you need to. As we discovered in another article about John Boyd’s OODA Loop, a more rapid cycle time gives you greater control. As a result, your decision carries less risk. So it is a better decision, because of the rigor you place around how you implement it.
Finally, there is no substitute for doubt and skepticism. Constantly question everything. For more on this idea, take a look at our video, Truth Decay: Top 10 Reasons to Apply Skepticism and Doubt.
Add your own tips and experiences to the comments section below.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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