Project Practitioners > So Many Choices: Project Decision Making, Part 3

So Many Choices: Project Decision Making, Part 3

By Michael Aucoin

In the movie, Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams plays Vladimir Ivanov, a circus musician who defects from the former Soviet Union while visiting the United States. Knowing all too well the travails of shortages, and waiting in line for rations of mediocre food, he is unprepared for the coffee aisle at a store in New York City. Always a master with inhabiting a character, imagine Williams with a thick Russian accent, as for the first time in his life he encounters more choices than he can imagine.

“Taster’s Choice… decaffeinated….” His voice trembles with wonder.

“… Maxwell House… El Pico…” Ivanov’s face is that of a four-year old on Christmas morning.

“… Chock Full O’Nuts… espresso, cappuccino, Café Français…“ The varieties come in rapid-fire succession.

“… Sanka… Fol-ger’s…” He reaches a crescendo.

“Café Caribe!”

“Coffee… Coffee… Coffee… Coffee… Coffee… COFFEE… “

Finally, it is too much, it is too wrong. In a brief tantrum from sensory overload, Ivanov pulls over a stack of cans, yelling in equal parts of confusion, fear and pain, “COF-FEEEE!!!

On the floor, glassy-eyed in a fetal position, he has hyperventilated from the caffeinated cornucopia of capitalism.

So many choices.

Does your project team ever have its own coffee aisle moments? How do we move past being stuck with the paralysis of indecision from so many choices? The answer is to insert filters into the decision making process.

We each have filters that constantly operate, bringing to attention only what we need to address. Without filters, we would be overwhelmed with thousands of details of information every minute. Like Ivanov, our brains would quickly shut down.

To demonstrate a life without filters, do your own Ivanov experiment the next time you go to the grocery store (or any big box store).  Pick an aisle and concentrate on every detail of every product you find so that you can make the best possible purchase decision. Try breakfast cereal - there are probably 200 different varieties at our local store. Now, bring more project realism into the experiment. Try this with your project team and reach the “consensus” that consultants say is so important. Fuss and argue over every detail because the future of your business depends on it. But, for Pete’s sake do it quickly because the project is behind schedule.

Without filters, we lead incessantly stressed out lives. Where filters don’t occur naturally, we must sometimes arbitrarily put them in place. Otherwise, we have coffee aisle moments. Here are some ways to quickly filter choices and help your team make good decisions.

  • End the “tyranny of perfection”. We invite pressure and paralysis when we buy into the concept of an elusive “best” decision. Solutions that are “good enough” ease much of the stress on a team.
  • Focus on a finite few.  Decision making is much easier when there are two or three candidates rather than twenty. A skillful meeting leader can make quick work of eliminating many options that really don’t apply.
  • Take a snapshot. Many people lose sight of the importance of time and the need for action. I find it helpful to use the metaphor of taking a photograph. Here is what we look like at this moment – here is our decision right now based on what we know.
  • Promote rapid prototyping. Some decisions become obvious once a little research or a trial run is made. There is no substitute for a quick taste test to see if we prefer espresso or cappuccino.
  • Deliver the experience instead of the feature. One reason teams get paralyzed is that they elevate “things” over what customers do with the “things”. The deliverable is the experience that comes with the “doing”.

As discussed in the first two parts of this mini-series, your customers will like or dislike your product or service based on the emotions they feel. Make sure that you obsess on delivering good emotions – it will help you to not obsess over things that ultimately matter little. This is the best filter of all.


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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