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The Essential Guide to Robust Project Decision Making

Robust Project Decision Making

One of the challenges a new Project Manager faces is project decision making. It is easy to find the constant stream of small decisions overwhelming. But there’s more to it than that. Some decisions are big, and getting them right is a matter of good governance.

The Twin Challenges of Project Decision Making

Robust Project Decision Making
And so we have the two requirements of project decision making:

  1. The need to get it right, in terms of accountability, transparency, and approach, to satisfy the need for good governance
  2. The need to make project decisions quickly, to satisfy the need for speed, so you don’t hold up progress.

In this article we are going to focus on the need for good, robust, accountable project decision making. In next week’s article, we will look at how to satisfy the need for speed, and make a good decision in a hurry.

Project Decision Making Process Overview

On the face of it, the project decision making process is simple:

  • Define the problem to resolve or the decision to make
  • Make the decision
  • Implement it

But as the process overview below shows, there are more steps involved.

Project Decision Making Process

Project Decision Making Process

Setting Yourself Up for A Robust Decision

Like so much of life in general, and Project Management in particular, good preparation is vital for a successful outcome. So you need to set yourself up to succeed by putting the foundations of a good decision in place.

First, Define the Problem that Needs a Decision

One tip I always recommend is to think of the ultimate outcome your decision must serve. As a result, define your decision as:

How to best…

This way you achieve two things:

  1. You express the decision as a practical exercise: ‘how to…’
  2. You recognize that there may be no perfect solution. So you are just looking for the optimum: ‘best’

Next, Ask Who the Right Decision Makers are

It may be you. It may be your project sponsor, client, or boss. A decision can only be a good one if it is taken by the right person or group of people. So you need to consider the level of authority each project decision needs, and the knowledge or experience that is necessary to inform a sound decision.

Now Consider the Decision Criteria

On what basis will you (or your other decision makers) take this decision. How do you define ‘Best’? Often, this comes down to one or two of the common project concerns:

  • Time
  • Cost
  • Quality
  • Scope
  • Threats
  • Opportunities
  • Value

The challenge comes when we recognize that what one stakeholder thinks is the vital element, is not the same as the next stakeholder. So all project decision making is an exercise in balancing the needs, desires, and expectations of your stakeholder groups. Often, there may be some negotiation at this stage.

And lastly, What are Your Options?

You can’t make a decision without options to choose from. So set out the alternatives that will best address your problem or issue. Beware of having too many options. This can easily cause ‘decision paralysis‘. This means the fear of getting it wrong. Likewise, too few options can leave a concern that you left something out. Three or four is often the right number.

Making your Project Decision

Before you make your decision, you need to evaluate the options. There are two ways of doing this, using different kinds of mental process:

Logical Evaluation

This is effortful, thoughtful, conscious evaluation. We have all sorts of tools available to make rational decisions; many of them numerical. A lot of project decision making must rely on this kind of process. Indeed, without it, you will find it hard to document the reasons for your decisions, and therefore meet the governance requirement for transparency. Choose one or two appropriate decision-making tools to use. And then apply them with rigor.

Intuitive Evaluation

We often jump to conclusions, and nearly as often get them wrong. Yet we all feel a compulsion sometimes to just ‘trust our gut’.

Much research has examined when it is right to do so. A lot has been excellently documented by Gary Klein, and his books Sources of Power (technical reading – US, UK) and The Power of Intuition (business reading US, UK) are excellent and I recommend them both. This work also appears in the popular book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (US, UK).

However, the broad conclusion of the research is simple. We can best rely on our intuitive judgements in situations where:

  • We have deep experience that is highly relevant to the situation, and
  • The situation is highly complex and not easily susceptible to logical analysis

But Wait! Before You Make Your Decision…

Human beings are prone to many biases and decision making traps. And Project Managers are nothing special in this regard. Sorry.

This is too big a topic, by far, to shoe-horn into this article. And I don’t doubt it’s one I will come back to. For a brief flavour of some of the ideas, check out an earlier article of ours, The Problems of Probability. The best book (bar none) you can read today on this topic is Thinking: Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (US, UK). Not only did Kahneman do much of the original work in this area (he won a Nobel Prize for it), but he has observed the field from its start, participated in all its important debates, and he writes extraordinarily well. Not only that, but this book is the closest you’ll find to a comprehensive survey of the field. It’s a book any serious business professional should read.

Common biases and project decision making traps include:

  • Over-confidence in plans
  • Influence by recent, prominent events
  • Mis-estimation of the likelihood of extreme and dreaded risks
  • Basing decisions on the first information we received
  • Mis-attributing expertise in one field to someone who is expert in a related field
  • The very human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist

Okay, so You have been careful…

It is now time to make your decision. What’s it to be?

Following Up Your Project Decision Making

Decision made: job done!

Not so fast, Project Manager.

Document Your Decision

To satisfy the needs of good governance, you will also need to document your decision, and the considerations around it. One thing I recommend you keep is an archive of all critical project decisions. This can take the form of a decision log, meeting minutes, or just highlighted noted in your project notebook. But, one way or another, you need to be able to track back on any important decision, and be able to answer the typical audit questions:

  • When was this decision made?
  • Who made this decision?
  • Under what circumstances?
  • Using what criteria?
  • And what alternatives were considered?

So what decision’s are important enough to require documentation? The tests I would apply are impacts on scope, quality, schedule, and budget. set a threshold for each. And, if the decision could impact any of these at a level beyond that threshold, then document the decision.

Now the Work Begins: Let People Know

Who needs to know the decision you made? And who do you need to persuade that it was the right decision? Project decisions have material affects on your stakeholders, so don’t take their support for the decision for granted.

And even when you may be right in believing people would support your decision, if they don’t know about it; how can they? What they will do instead is gossip and start rumours to fill the information gap.

And the Work Continues

Of course, it’s tempting to get on now, and implement your decision. But you’re a project manager. So I hope you wouldn’t dive straight into implementing anything without an appropriate level of planning. D’oh.

So, there’s More to Project Decision Making than just Making a Decision

Getting project decision making right is something most project managers evolve over a career. We get better at it as we do more of it.

The very best decision makers – in all arenas – do one thing that the rest do not…

They keep records, and they review their decisions. The best decision makers record every decision they make, along with the the thinking process behind the decisions. They then periodically review their decisions and the outcomes. They compare what actually happened with any assumptions they made. And they try to unpick what made their decision either right or wrong in retrospect. Then, they draw lessons that they try to apply to future decision making.

Will you do this?

What are Your Project Decision Making Lessons?

Please use the comments section below to share what you have learned, and I will comment on all contributions.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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 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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