Project Practitioners > Labor and Delivery: Project Decision-Making, Part 1

Labor and Delivery: Project Decision-Making, Part 1

By Michael Aucoin

A very pregnant woman very much in labor pants and screams while sitting in the passenger seat of a car – its hood up on the side of the road. Outside, her partner implores her to breathe in rhythm while he worries at the steam coming from the engine. Along comes not one but two cars that stop to help, each driven by a famous Formula One racing car driver. While relieved at the sudden turn of good fortune, the couple can’t decide which driver will be the fastest to the hospital.

Let me guess… at five years old, the kid born at the roadside still won’t have a name.

A clever commercial for Mercedes-Benz reveals the challenging truths of project decision-making. How can we make good decisions as a project team? On projects, how do we fulfill the big picture – hey guys, that baby’s going to pop out while you fuss over irrelevance - when faced with an endless stream of details to iron out?

Does your team “labor” over the “delivery” of project decision-making?

With this pregnant vignette, we begin a mini-series on project decision-making.

What is the big picture on project decisions? Actually, there are several “big pictures” to consider, and we will address the first in this post. Here it is: decision-making is an emotional thing.

I can already hear the scoffing – project managers have rational and sophisticated tools and processes to gather information from stakeholders, weigh the various options – oh, yeah, there’s that Monte Carlo thing, too – then they carefully turn the crank, and, voilà, out pops the “right” direction. What could go wrong?

After all the information-gathering, pro-and-conning, number-crunching, and stakeholder-informing, you know what will happen? One VIS (Very Important Impudent Stakeholder) will say, “Nah, let’s take this other road.” Or, the core team can’t converge on an answer. How is it that when presented objective, dispassionate data and evidence, different individuals can reach substantially different decisions? How can a project manager make sense of it all? One way to make sense is to understand that we make decisions based on emotion – how we feel about the available alternatives. While we do rationally consider information, as well as pros and cons, the act of deciding happens emotionally.

Dr. Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California is a leader in the study of emotion in the human brain, and its relation to decision making. He has studied a number of patients, who because of injury or surgery, lost function in the area of the brain that processes emotion. They were “normal” in all other aspects of brain function – they only lost the ability to feel emotions.

His research led to a fascinating observation: all these individuals had a serious impairment in their ability to make decisions. They could recite factual information about the available options, and they could even logically describe the decision that should be made. Nevertheless, they were unable to actually make a decision on even the most trivial of matters – what to eat, or what to wear.

Why on earth would there be some reason to throw emotion into the “rational” act of decision making? I’m convinced that there is a strong evolutionary reason, but we’re more interested in what it means for our projects.

You know how we’re all supposed to engage in a “Lessons Learned” activity at the close of a project? Heck, it’s in the PMBOK Guide. Well, right there is the reason that decision making is emotional – it is the part of the brain that reinforces what we have learned from past experiences that are similar to the one that presents. What happened the last time I presented bad news to the sponsor? Was she reasonable and understanding, and helped to brainstorm solutions? If so, I have a good feeling about doing so again. Or, did he throw a tantrum and threaten to fire me? That pain might cause me to keep the news to myself. In both cases, the factual information is the same – I rationally know that I must keep stakeholders fully informed, (it says so in the project communication plan), but the associated feelings will ultimately make the call. Emotion is critical to making decisions because it is the means by which we care about the outcome.

When presented with these findings, a cynical reaction may be tempting, largely because emotion seems to be nebulous and unpredictable. I suggest a different approach: embrace the reality, and use it to your advantage to make great project decisions. Here are three ways to do so, but they all stem from the strategy of making our emotions more present and accessible in the decision making process. These strategies are most helpful toward the later stages of the process, after essential facts are known, and they often help move the process along if it is stagnating.

  1. When discussing the present situation, ask project actors if they have faced similar situations before, and allow them to explain. Then ask, “How did you feel about the outcome?”
  2. At the appropriate time, go through the various options and ask the actors how they might feel about each option under consideration becoming reality.
  3. I particularly like to ask people individually, and as a group if they are “all-in” for an option. This question helps us get past feelings that are sometimes ambivalent or conflicting, and it serves as an important signal to the emotional part of the brain. When there is resolution and commitment, there is a desire to move forward; when emotions align with the objective, projects become rewarding. You know you are in good shape when the entire group is enthusiastically behind a decision.

On the third strategy, what if there is not a sense of direction, either for an individual or as a group? Try flipping a coin! No, seriously. But don’t base the decision on the result of the flip – determine the feeling that comes immediately upon seeing the outcome. That’s your decision. For more on this little trick, see my column, "This Is Where The Cowboy Rides Away".

Are you “laboring” with a project decision? The “fastest” way to “deliver” a great solution is to get emotional!


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at


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