Projects sometimes feel like the movie "Ground Hog Day"—endlessly revisiting the same decision hoping to get them right. This cycle is frustrating, time consuming and unproductive. Instituting structured decision-making processes improves the project flow and the team’s morale.
Here are six easy steps to make your decision-making process more effective:
- Establish a decision-making process
- Identify the roles and select the decider
- Reduce the time to make decisions
- Engage the logical-thinking brain
- Document and communicate the decisions
- Review decisions for consistency
1. Establish the Process
Many projects do not have a formal or documented decision-making process. It's not clear who makes the decisions or how they are made. Documenting and following a clear process is the first step to making better decisions.
A good process answers the following questions:
- What voting rule is used to make decisions (e.g., majority rule, consensus, or benevolent dictatorship)?
- What are the roles in the decision-making process?
- Who holds these roles?
- Where (e.g., meeting or forum) are decisions made?
- What is the expected timeframe for making decisions?
- How can decisions be appealed or escalated?
- How are decisions reviewed for consistency?
2. Identify the Roles
We don’t usually specify the decision-making roles and who holds them. A 2006 Harvard Business Review article, "Who Has the D? How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance" describes the roles in a good decision-making process. The RAPID framework outlines the following roles:
- Recommend: People responsible for conducting the analysis and making proposals.
- Agree: People that must agree with or veto a decision. This role is usually reserved for governance or regulatory organizations, or those directly impacted by the decision.
- Perform: People responsible for carrying out or executing the decision.
- Input: People consulted in the process and who have input into the recommendation.
- Decider: The person that makes the decision and is ultimately accountable for the outcome.
The project management plan should define the roles and who is assigned to them. Just like acting, participants may need to be coached to stay in their assigned roles.
3. Reduce the Time to Make Decisions
In many organizations, it takes a long time to make a decision. The process may be delayed due to organizational barriers, or structural impediments that prolong the process. For example: consensus and unanimous rule processes generally take longer than single-vote dictatorships. Projects where decisions are only made in weekly meetings will be slower than Agile teams where issues are resolved daily.
There are several ways to reduce the time to make a decision:
- Time box the decision-making process. Set the expectation that decisions are made within a days.
- Use a daily stand-up meeting where issues and blockers are raised. Address issues immediately after the meeting and set the expectation that they will be resolved before the next day.
- Swarm the issue. Disciplined, well-managed teams make better decisions than individuals. Bring the right people together to resolve the problem.
- If the team seems deadlocked, use a skilled facilitator to lead the process.
4. Engage Logical Thinking
The human brain is described as having system 1 (emotional) and system 2 (logical) processing. We often respond to events quickly using our primitive, system 1 flight-or-fight instincts. To make better decisions, we want to engage the logical and thoughtful system 2 part of the brain. To engage system 2 thinking, we should:
- Analyze multiple options: People make better decisions when they compare and evaluate multiple options at the same time rather than making sequential, yes/no choices.
- Don’t make snap decisions: Putting time in the decisions making process results in more thoughtful and well-considered outcomes. Small changes like separating brainstorming from idea evaluation can create this space.
5. Document and Communicate
Decisions must be clearly documented and communicated to the project team and all other interested parties. The first step is ensuring that the decisions and their justifications are clearly written. A well-documented decision must stand the test of time and be understandable by an independent reviewer.
Carefully review the decision log. Will people understand the decision and why it was made six months from now? Is the decision written clearly enough so that a new team member can comprehend it?
Documented decisions also need to be communicated to ensure that the impacts are understood and addressed. The project or program communications plan should outline what needs to be communicated and to whom. The plan should consider what decisions should be communicated to the:
- Immediate project team,
- Related or impacted projects or applications, and
- Project stakeholders or governance organizations.
6. Review Decisions for Consistency
Decisions should be consistent with both past practice and aligned with future plans. Consequently decisions, even seemingly small ones should be considered within this broader context. At the same time, we should regularly evaluate the environment to test our operating assumptions.
Small, seemingly benign decisions such as user interface design can provide fertile ground for ensuring consistency. For example, my mobile banking application uses the numeric keypad for funds transfers, but uses the QWERTY keyboard for deposits. These two components within the same app should have been reviewed for design consistency.
A structured, credible decision-making process improves project productivity and efficiency. A good process reduces the churn and rework that saps the project team’s energy.
© 2016, Alan Zucker, Project Management Essentials, LLC.
Beshears, J., & Gino, F. (2015). Leaders as Decision Architects. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2015/05/leaders-as-decision-architects
Ramis, H. (Director), Ramis, H. (Producer), & Ramis, H., & Rubin, D. (Writers). (1993). Groundhog day [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Rogers, P., & Blenko, M. (2006). Who Has the D?: How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2006/01/who-has-the-d-how-clear-decision-roles-enhance-organizational-performance
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