How to make better, faster project decisions

J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM

As project managers we are paid to make decisions. When our decision-making ability is impeded we can slow things down causing delays, frustration, and customer dissatisfaction. But what does a project manager need to make better and faster decisions? This presentation will describe the three things that are needed; namely, good data, at regular intervals from trustworthy people (or sources); the ability to make timely decisions under uncertain conditions; and a project governance structure that allows for decision making at the appropriate level. The presentation provides pragmatic and practical advice as to how to gather the type of data required, presents valuable decision-making techniques to help make better, faster decisions, and discusses how to implement a governance structure that enables fast decisions. The presentation concludes with the five things a project manager can do to improve, and speed up, his or her decision making.

What does a project manager need to make better, faster, project decisions?

A few years ago the author was contacted by a key client from the pharmaceutical industry who was the head of global drug development and who wanted to improve decision making in his organization. The situation was one where he was working with scientists and medical personnel responsible for a portfolio of global drug development projects. Such projects produce enormous amounts of technical data that need to be reviewed and analyzed so that key decisions could be made as to whether to move forward with the project or not. The client believed that these project managers were taking too long to make decisions and that they always seemed to require additional data in order to make the necessary decisions regarding their projects. Such requests increased the time and cost, of completing the projects. Accordingly, he wanted some advice and guidance as to how these project managers could make decisions faster.

In order to provide recommendations for improvement, the author relied on his more than 38 years of project management and professional experience, spoke to other clients in a wide variety of industries regarding their decision-making practices, and consulted key publications authored by industry experts to provide the global head of drug development with pragmatic and practical advice.

The author identified three things that a project manager needs in order to make better, faster project decisions. These are:

  1. Accurate information, at frequent intervals, from reliable sources
  2. A willingness to make decisions under uncertain conditions
  3. A project governance structure that pushes decision making down to the lowest possible level Following is a description of each of these areas.

1. Accurate Information, at frequent intervals, from reliable sources

What does accurate information tell us, and where do we find it? Accurate information tells us three things:

  1. What happened in the past. The author is not referring to lessons learned from previous projects; rather, he is referring to the past on a current project. Project managers spend a lot of time in the past on projects, probably more than they should. Every project report that a project manager reads is similar to reading a history book. The questions is, is it recent or ancient history? The key is how “old” is that information and how useful is it to help us predict the future?
  2. What's happening in the present. Although project managers spend all their waking and sleeping moments in the present, oftentimes they give it short shrift when it comes to managing projects. It's the present, not the past, which governs our project's future. It's what the project manager and his or her team are doing right now that will dictate tomorrow's results. Ask yourself this question: What is your team doing right now as you are reading this paper?
  3. What might happen in the future. On projects, everyone is obsessed with the future: you, your team, the boss, and the client. Everyone wants to know when will the project be done? How will it work? There's a lot of anticipation. Yet, we are oftentimes poorly equipped to tell them. We hedge our bets all the time, and we do so because we don't regularly employ a good tool kit of techniques to help us do the hard work of predicting the future.

So, that's what accurate information tells us. Now, where do we find it?

Information about the past

We find information about the past in many sources, primarily through project reports. We receive reports on cost, schedule, quality, resources, and other information such as burn down charts if you're using the agile approach. This information is helpful. It tells us where we have been, but doesn't necessarily tell us where we are headed.

Project reports are the “tip of the iceberg.” As we learned in elementary school, an iceberg has more ice under the water than on top. Yet, on projects, just like icebergs, it's what we don't see that can be problematic. For example, many project managers complain that time and cost are problems on projects. I disagree. Time and cost problems are results; they are outcomes. They are not the causes of the problems. They're the tip of the iceberg. It's what is moving the iceberg, the part we don't see, where the issues are. Cost and schedule problems are likely the outcomes of increased scope, or the requirement for more resources than we initially estimated.

If we see information on these “history” reports that we do not like, we can get mad, or maybe even terminate someone. The one thing we cannot do is change it. That's why information about the past is of limited use in the active management of our project. Thus, we need to focus on the present.

Information about the present

The present is all around us. Here are four ways to get the information you need to know about the present.

  • Stand up meetings. On the first day of the workweek, get your team together and don't let them sit down. Keep the meeting short and use the same format each time; it's not a discussion, it's a briefing. You'll be surprised what you can learn in just a short amount of time, say 15–20 minutes.
  • MBWA. Management by Walking Around was popularized by Peters and Waterman in their classic business book, In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman, 1982). As you engage in MBWA, remember the 80/20 rule: listen 80% of the time and speak 20% of the time. It's not the time for you to pontificate! This may be difficult if you haven't done this regularly. Therefore, have a list of questions prepared such as, “What challenges are you facing this week?” or “How does the client like our work?” While more difficult in a virtual environment, given the wide selection of communication devices and techniques, it's not impossible. A simple phone call works wonders.
  • Speaking to clients, sponsor, executives, team members, and other key stakeholders. The author is not referring to the regular meetings that you should be having with key stakeholders. Rather, he is referring to having regular contact that appears ad hoc, but that is actually well planned in advance. For example, have lunch with your sponsor once each month. You will find out much more information through such informal communication than through formal means as a general rule.
  • Networking. Networking comes in many forms. The author is not suggesting that you turn every one of life's events into a networking function. However, you should be bringing the team together and reaching out to your peers in the functional organization. Networking is all about business intelligence; you should never be the “last to know” critical information about your project.

Information about the future

If we have accurate information about the past and the present, this will certainly improve our ability to predict the future, and predicting the future is tough business. However, there are ways we can do so. Here are three main techniques:

  • Relentless risk analysis (RRA). The author suggests building RRA into your MBWA so that when you're asking questions, a majority of them are about the future of the project. After all, a risk is a future phenomenon. The more we ask our team about risks, the more we encourage them to think about the future.
  • Other tools and techniques such as strategy meetings, Delphi technique, Monte Carlo analysis, and Earned Value Management. Seeking advice from experts, using sophisticated quantitative techniques, and formulating the Estimate at Completion information are all ways you can gather the information you need for making sound decisions.
  • Project “Leading” Indicators. Many of the metrics used on projects to measure progress are lagging indicators. They tell us what happened in the past. What metrics could you employ to help tell you about the future? One client used the number of tasks added to a project schedule every two weeks as a leading indicator, thinking that the more tasks that were added, the more scope that was being introduced, which could impact the project's cost and schedule.

You need to gather all this information on a regular basis at frequent intervals. This not only instills a discipline in reporting, it enables you as the project manager, and others, to detect trends. If you are keeping track of trends, decisions can be made faster.

We also need to make sure that the information we receive is credible. That means it is being provided by people who are trustworthy and who are telling the truth. It does you no good whatsoever to have your team members providing overly optimistic reports. You want the unvarnished truth.

2. Willingness to make decisions under uncertain conditions

Some people can have a great deal of high-quality information, yet still struggle to make a decision. What we see at work in such instances is called the organizational uncertainty principle. This says that the faster your decision-making cycle is, the less assurance you have that you're making the right decisions. However, if you strive for low uncertainty, you will take longer to make decisions. Accordingly, you've got to reach a balance; unfortunately, some project managers find that difficult to do.

Following, are three tips and suggestions for those project managers who struggle with making decisions under uncertain conditions and who always feel the need to have more information.

Use the USMC 70% solution approach. The United States Marine Corps teaches its troops that if you have 70% of the information you need to make a decision that's good enough. Why? Because the war fighter will be in a critical situation where 100% of the information is never attainable, lives are at stake, and that doing something is probably better than doing nothing. As a project manager, do you reasonably believe that you will ever have 100% of the information you need? Probably not.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it better to do something or nothing?
  • How bad can it be (if I make the wrong decision)?
  • Will I get fired if my decision does not work?
  • What's my “track record” (have I made more correct decisions than wrong ones)?

Use your network and available tools and techniques. By all means, use your network. That's why you've created one, to help you in tough times. Do not feel the need to “go it alone,” or that by asking for help you will be perceived as a weak leader. The best leaders seek advice and counsel from others on a regular and recurring basis.

Another way to analyze a problem is to use a decision framework. There has been a considerable amount of research done on decision making. The author read three highly respected publications in the field; specifically,

  • Harvard Business Review on Decision Making (Drucker, Keeney, & Hammond, 2001)
  • Smart Choices (Hammond, Keeney, & Raiffa, 1999)
  • Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (Highsmith, 2004)

Based on their collective content, the author derived the following four-step decision making process-

Step 1: Define the problem. Are you certain you have articulated the right problem to solve?

Step 2: Frame the decision. You need to ask who-

  • is impacted?
  • needs to provide input?
  • should be part of the discussion?
  • should make and review the decision?

Step 3: Implement the decision. You need to ask: “Who needs to know? Are the people identified for implementing the decision capable of doing so? How long will it take?”

Step 4: Monitor the results. Once the decision has been implemented, you have to monitor the situation to see that the implementation was successful.

You can see that decision-making encompasses more than just formulating a decision.

3. Implement a project governance structure that pushes decisions down to the lowest possible level

The sad fact of life is that we all have bosses and we have some structure in which we do our job. And, it's this structure and how it's implemented that can help or hinder our ability to make better, faster decisions.

Think of the current governance structure under which you work. Is it a lean process, or, one that has multiple layers of hierarchy through which you have to navigate to get anything done at all? Every time we use the word governance, many project managers think of their process and what they need to go through to get decisions made. And many of them have remarked to the author that they feel as if they are on trial. In other words, the governance process places them on the defensive, requiring them to justify any change with what seems to be too much documentation.

The author encourages those executives responsible for project management in their organization to ask themselves the following question: “How onerous is the current governance structure?” But, there's another question to be asked by the project manager. Given the structure that you have put in place with your team, do your colleagues feel the same as you do? Is too much process hindering decision making at the project level?

Even militaries around the world realize that if teams are to make faster, better decisions, then those decisions need to be made at the lowest possible level in the organization. In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Friedman, 2005), Tom Friedman identifies the ten things that are fostering globalization and putting countries on an even playing field. One of those is the “Commander's Intent,” which calls for the head of an organization (in this case the military) to outline the broad objective of the initiative and leave it up to the people “on the ground” to figure out the best way to achieve it.

In today's digitized warfare scenario, the warfighter, armed not just with bullets, but also with real-time data collected by sophisticated devices, has access to as much information as the commander who may be in a bunker thousands of miles away. But they have more information because they are on the ground and are able to size up the situation.

In cases such as this, who has the best vantage point to make the decision? In many cases, it's the warfighter. That's why decision making is being pushed down to the lowest possible level. Can you institute something along these lines on your project? Yes, you can, and you should.

What is the governance structure that you have implemented on your project? For example, do you:

  • Let team members make decisions?
  • Hold productive meetings?
  • Support the escalation process?
  • Quickly execute change?

You may have a burdensome governance structure above you, but that doesn't mean that you cannot implement a lean one for your team.

Five Ways to Speed Up Decision Making

In conclusion, let's look at the five ways you can speed up decision making on your project immediately:

  1. Put real choices on the table. For example, don't say we should do A. Say, we have three alternatives, A, B, and C. If you think A is the right one, then provide the reasons for your opinion. This way people will see you have done all the analysis and there won't be a need for them to ask you when you've already done it.
  2. Focus on decisions, not discussion. Most meetings have three components: information sharing, discussions, and decisions. My personal experience shows that most people spend 90% of the time on the first two and only 10% of the meeting time making the actual decision which is typically not enough time. Do the sharing ahead of time. Send out the information prior to the meeting and require that it be digested before attending. Once you start the meeting, it's all about making the decisions.
  3. Apply risk management through MBWA. Use risk management as a backdrop to all your MBWA activities. By building a strong culture of risk management, you will get everyone thinking about the future all the time.
  4. Establish a lean governance structure. You might not have much control over the things above you, but you have total control (or at least you should) over how you allow your team to make decisions. Don't bind them in “red tape” with unnecessary processes and procedures. You're the commander: make sure they understand your intent and turn them loose to get the job done.
  5. Identify your project's leading indicators. Take some time with your team to think about your leading indicators. That's the future of your project. Don't get stuck in the past. I don't know one person who can change it. Do you?

References

Drucker, P.F., Keeney, R.L., & Hammond, J.S. (2001). Harvard business review on decision making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Friedman, T. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (1999). Smart choices: A practical guide to making better life decisions. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Highsmith, J. (2004). Agile project management: Creating innovative products. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Peters, T. J. & Waterman, Jr.,,R. H. (1982). In search of excellence. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, J. LeRoy Ward
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK

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