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 crucial matter of good governance.
There are two requirements for good project decision-making:
In this article, we are going to focus on the need for good, robust, accountable project decision-making. In our follow-up article, I take a look at how to satisfy the need for speed and make a good decision in a hurry. So, here is our agenda:
And then, there’s our follow-up article, ‘Rapid Project Decisions: Do You Know How to Make them with Confidence?’
On the face of it, the project decision-making process is simple:
But as the process overview below shows, there are more steps involved.
In the sections that follow, I shall divide this process into three principal stages:
Then, of course, it is time to implement your decision. But, of course, that is a whole other matter!
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.
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:
It may be you. It may be your project sponsor, client, or boss. Or it may be a decision-making group, like your Project Board, Steering Committee, or Design Authority. A decision can only be a good decision if it is taken by the right person or group of people. So you need to consider the:
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:
The challenge comes when we recognize that what one stakeholder thinks is the vital element, is not the same for the next stakeholder. So all project decision-making is an exercise in balancing the needs, desires, and expectations of your various stakeholder groups. Often, there may be some negotiation at this stage.
A common approach is to evaluate options against a number of criteria and to determine, before the decision itself, the relative weighting of each of the criteria. For example, you may weight the criteria:
You can’t make a decision without options to choose from. So set out the alternatives that will best address your problem or issue. There are two things to be careful about:
Before you make your decision, you need to evaluate the options. There are two ways of doing this, using different kinds of mental processes:
This is an effortful, thoughtful, and 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 and accountability.
Choose one or two appropriate decision-making tools to use. And then apply them with rigor.
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. We are balancing here the twin pulls of :
Perhaps the most thorough assessment of when we can trust our intuition has been done by Gary Klein. His books Sources of Power (technical reading) and The Power of Intuition (business reading) are excellent and I recommend them both. This work also appears in the popular book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. To understand the power of biases in our thinking, one of my Top 5 business book recommendations is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow.
However, the broad conclusion of Klein’s research is simple. We can best rely on our intuitive judgments in situations where:
Let’s go back to those biases that Human beings are so prone to. They create all manner of 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 flavor of some of the ideas, check out an earlier article of ours, The Problems of Probability. As I mentioned, the best book (bar none) you can read today on this topic is Thinking: Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
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:
By the way, Kahneman is a psychologist. And I strongly advocate that all project managers take an interest in psychology. We spend a lot of our time working with people – often under pressure. I consider an understanding of psychology to be an essential skill! Take a look at:
What’s it to be?
Decision made: job done!
Not so fast, Project Manager.
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 notes 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:
So, what decisions 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.
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 effects on your stakeholders, so don’t take their support for the decision for granted.
Be aware, by the way, that most decisions are a compromise. It may be the right decision for the project, taken as a whole. But, for an individual stakeholder, this may be a disappointing – even disastrous – choice!
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 rumors to fill the information gap.
Of course, it’s tempting to get on and implement your decision straight away. But you’re a Project Manager. So, I hope you wouldn’t dive straight into implementing anything without an appropriate level of planning.
But, once you have a plan: knock yourself out!
The art of getting project decision-making right is something most project managers evolve over their careers. We get better at it as we do more of it.
They keep records, and they review their decisions. The best decision-makers record every decision they make, along with the thinking process behind those 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 their future decision-making.
Will you do this?
Please use the comments section below to share what you have learned, and I will comment on all contributions.
For more tips and ideas, take a look at our video, Better Decision-making and More Robust Choices – Top 10 Tips.
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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