Project Practitioners > Project Management and Decision-Making.

Project Management and Decision-Making.

By Sinikka Waugh

Project Coach, Your Clear Next Step

Every project team faces countless decisions along the way, and as project managers, we can help make sure the decisions our team makes are good ones by following a few simple steps.

Step 1 - Identify the decision owner, including their assets & liabilities for the project.
Start with the "who."  Ultimately, who has the power, authority, and accountability of making the decision?  It may be someone in a position of authority over the project team, such as a sponsor or steering committee; it may be you; or it may be a team member within the project. 

Once you know who owns the decision, take a moment to understand their assets and liabilities in the decision-making process:  Does the individual have all of the information they need to make a good decision?  Do they have a track record of making good decisions?  How long do they usually take to reach a decision?  (Is it usually a snap judgement, or something they mull over for an extended period, or something in between).  Are there organizational, political, or other influences that might bias the decision-owner in a particular way?  Spend a little time understanding the decision-owner and what they have at their disposal to make their decisions.

Here are a couple of examples...

Perhaps your organization is deciding whether or not to implement a new process or a new technology, using your project as a pilot.  This is likely a decision made outside of your project team, one over which you don't have as much control as you would probably like.  So figure out who owns the decision.  Is it your project office?  Senior leadership?  In these cases, there are likely monthly or biweekly meetings where options are reviewed and assessed, and decisions are discussed for a period of time.  Become familiar with their meeting schedule, and the types of decisions they usually make.  Look for signs of risk aversion or risk tolerance.  Look for trends or patterns to their decisions and stay tuned to their buzz words or hot topics, so that you can present the decision options in a way that meets their timeline and decision-making style.

Perhaps one of your team members is deciding whether or not to participate in a company-sponsored training or development opportunity.  This is likely a decision that is ultimately owned by the individual.  Do they have all of the information they need about the project and your expectations for them as well as the information about the development opportunity?  How have you seen them decide on these kinds of opportunities in the past?  Do they jump at the chance to grow, with minimal thought to the immediate needs of the project, or do they often forego long-term growth under the "tyranny of the urgent"?  Listen for indicators of their current mood - are they overwhelmed by the amount of work they have on their plate?  Are they bored?  Are they a flight risk?  Be aware of the individual's mood and the environment they're currently working under so that you can present the decision options in a way that they're most likely to hear.

Step 2 - Identify the options, including the benefits and drawbacks to each.
Whether you're making the decision or you're helping someone else to do it, you need to understand the possible options.  Many project-related decisions have no clear right or wrong answer.  And more often than not, there's not even a "better" or "worse" option.  Usually, these kinds of decisions involve a couple of different options that each have their own sets of risks and rewards.

Back to our examples...

If your organization chooses to pilot a new process or a new technology during your project, you may encounter short term delays with learning curves and additional scrutiny, but you may have the added benefits of additional support (yes, even financial support!) from those who want the piloted technology to succeed, and efficiencies over the long term.

If your technical lead chooses to attend a three-week training class, you may have a gap in forward progress or hours logged by that individual, but you may wind up with a back-up person who learns the ropes as well as the lead.  If they choose to forego or delay the training, you may miss out on the benefits of the increased knowledge that they would have gained, but you may have their focus at a critical moment.

Step 3 - Get the decision made & communicated.
Be careful with this one - don't make a decision sooner than you need to, (Agile and Lean models have been positing that options have value since the beginning with the concepts of real options), and I don't disagree.  But when the time comes to make a decision, get the decision made.  Ask for a clear, firm decision.  As soon as you can, share it with those who need to know.  Even those folks who are really great with uncertainty and ambiguity eventually face burnout when faced with indecision for too long.

In a recent example I encountered, a team lost a ton of momentum and had a full week of "churn" because the project manager had made a decision but hadn't communicated it to everyone.  A handful of people knew, but they weren't clear on who knew what and what they were allowed to share. 

It's true, sometimes information needs to be protected and not widely distributed, but tell the project team what you can tell them, and tell then when you'll tell them the rest.

Step 4 - Champion the decision and don't look back
Here's another one to watch closely.  I'm not saying we should live with bad decisions forever (see Step 5 below). But I am saying is don't waste time, energy, or project team resources rehashing a decision that's been made, second-guessing the decision owner (even if it's you), and griping about what you think should have happened.  Simply embrace the decision, and adjust your plan (your time line, your budget, your scope, your communications, your team, etc.) accordingly.  When a decision involves change, there's always some pain associated with the transition.  But don't mistake the transitional pain as an excuse to go back and revisit a decision.  Life is short, time is precious, accept the decision and move on.

Not long ago, I worked peripherally with a team where the project manager and a key stakeholder didn't see eye to eye on the decision that was made.  Every chance the stakeholder got, they brought the decision back up in conversation, and chided the project manager for what the stakeholder believed was a bad decision.  In fact, as it turned out, it was a very good decision, but the team wasted about two and a half months of project health because under the stakeholder's pressure, the project manager kept going back and second-guessing the decision.  Eventually, after multiple examples of "waffling" back and forth, that project manager lost the respect of the team as a leader, since the team now questioned the project manager's ability to make and stick to a decision.

Step 5 - Monitor the new path, and be alert to signs you need to make a new decision.
Decisions don't have to be permanent.  Sometimes we get down the road a little ways, and realize that a decision that was made will harm the project in some way.  Once you're sure you're not just second-guessing the decision out of transitional pain, look for signs that you need corrective action.  Here are a couple of examples: 

  • Deadlines or deliverables get missed (such as if you select one vendor over another and the selected vendor begins falling short on their promises);
  • Team morale suffers (in-fighting within the project team becomes more frequent and more wide-spread).
  • New "observers" appear (steering committees grow or increase in frequency suddenly, you start fielding more calls from folks outside the project, etc.)

When you find yourself in that position, identify the decision that needs to be made about how to correct the issue, and start over at Step 1.

Set an example of good decision-making:  identify the decision-owner and help them make good, timely decisions, communicate decisions well, embrace decisions and move forward, and stay alert to when new decisions need to be made.

Sinikka Waugh,

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