Project Management Institute

Decisions by Design


by Marcia Jedd

By focusing on the ideal outcome, not the whims of decision-makers or attributes of a potential solution, project managers can make solid, strategic decisions.

decision-making is more science than art. Just ask Eric Morfin, PMP, director of the project management office (PMO) at biotechnology firm Chiron Corp., Emeryville, Calif., USA, and founder of Critical Skills Inc., a project management consultancy.

“A common way to make decisions is to look at your limited options at the time which may not even meet the needs of the project,” Mr. Morfin says. “Instead, you can use a proven and logical method to first identify your goals and then analyze your options.”

The article is based on material in the white paper “Consistently Making Strategic Project Decisions,” presented by Eric Morfin, PMP, of Chiron Corp., and partner and founder of Critical Skills Inc., at PMI Global Congress 2004—North America.

executive summary

➜ Well-scoped projects with specific and measurable goals succeed, aided by appropriate risk identification and assessment.

➜ A project profile outlining the ideal outcome reduces decision analysis because proposed solutions are directly aligned to goals, not solutions.

➜ Once adequately identified, the risks associated with particular decisions within a project can be better evaluated or even controlled.

➜ Decisions must be made in full alignment with the project's ideal intended outcome.

As a consultant, he has tinkered with the decision-making process over the last decade, devising a methodology he calls the Strategic Decision Method® (SDM). “At Critical Skills, we've used SDM to address typical weaknesses we encounter when working with clients, providing a systematic framework that individuals and groups can use to select the best choice.” The process is a rigorous, rational way to make strategic and tactical project management decisions because it places a broad eye toward project outcome.

“SDM involves identifying an ideal profile of the project outcome, whether that's selecting a job candidate or a software solution or making any number of project management decisions,” Mr. Morfin says. “At Chiron, we're able to identify faster what options have a chance to make it through the decision-making process and as a result, involve only the relevant people and departments.”

Mr. Morfin breaks out the SDM process into two key phases with several steps:

1 Identification Phase

∎ Determine project parameters, critical path and define the project profile

∎ Map the most important or risk-generating decisions

∎ Determine a title for each decision with measurable goals.

2 Analysis Phase

∎ Analyze the options

∎ Identify risks associated with the leading options or best option

∎ Choose the solution that best matches the project profile.

So rather than performing intense analysis of every option identified in a project and comparing options against the needs and desires of the project, SDM calls for determining the project's parameters and developing a project profile, which is a summary that outlines the ideal project outcome.

“First, forget about your options and ask what it is that's really needed,” Mr. Morfin says. Identify the parameters of a project and its critical path, then map the most important, risk-generating decisions. He gauges risks by the likelihood of an event occurring and its impact on project outcome, using low, moderate and high for each.

Analysis Paralysis

“Evaluate the risks for the leading options or best option if there's a clear winner, or best two or three if they are very close together in terms of results,” Mr. Morfin advises. “Unlikely choices aren't worth spending too much time on risk management.” Then, make the decision based on all available information, as matched to the project profile.

The process has aided Chiron's viability as a developer of blood-testing products, vaccines and biopharmaceuticals (its three main business units), as well as in recruitment. For instance, when selecting a new hire, a profile of the ideal candidate is developed with specifics for background, education and areas of expertise. “Screen candidates against this profile,” Mr. Morfin says. “Once other employees are in agreement on what the ideal profile is, it becomes very difficult to push your own agenda.” The same holds true for making any decision with the methodology.

Mark Van Cleve, Ph.D., principal scientist with Chiron's blood testing division, already has seen dramatic changes, including less deliberation among colleagues over project decisions. Overall, he says, SDM accelerates the arduous process of making decisions in a field where product development cycles can run 18 months to two years. “We're constantly making decisions, often with insufficient information,” he says. “SDM has improved the decision flow for a company trying to get a lot done.”

Mr. Van Cleve recently used the process to make a decision about the chemical composition of a blood-testing product for hepatitis. “When we were looking at assay architecture, we ran the process and the decision popped out,” he says. Compliance and timing are of utmost importance in getting a product to market, and the SDM process aids both. “When the FDA asks, ‘How did you make this decision?' we already have extensive documentation,” Mr. Van Cleve says.

“At Chiron, we're able to identify faster what options have a chance to make it through the decision-making process and as a result, involve only the relevant people and departments.”


Upfront and Personal

All too often, projects aren't fully defined before requests for proposals (RFPs) are sent, and scope creep results. Conversely, SDM emphasizes developing project criteria in a profile to save extensive analysis on the back end. Mr. Morfin put this solution to the test in selecting an enterprise project management (EPM) software for Chiron, spending more than a month to develop a project profile. “We came up with an ideal profile for an EPM solution. Most importantly, we knew we needed an integrated solution that could exchange data with other applications,” he says.


Chiron selected six software solutions and based on the project profile, easily narrowed down its candidates to three solutions. Next, it performed in-house testing with each solution. Mr. Morfin says the PMO avoided performing decision analysis on all three options, including time-consuming weighing of risks, because ultimately, after the test phase, two solutions became unlikely choices. The EPM solution was implemented early last year, and at least 375 employees throughout Chiron have been trained on the application.

five dos and don’ts

1 Compare options against your ideal profile of the project outcome and characteristics of the project profile. Compare options and risks against each particular solution.
2 Make your decision based on facts and all information available at the time. Hide any risks you know exist.
3 Include a measure and a target in identifying goals associated with each decision. For example, “increase customer satisfaction by at least 20 percent within six months” is measurable. Gather too much information about desires; instead, focus on needs. Options for desired goals often drop out in the screening process against needs.
4 Include the decision-maker's preferred options in your presentation if you are recommending a decision. Pursue intangible or subjective goals.
5 Make decision-making a visible process that includes documentation. Charts and graphics support the process. Wait too long to make a decision. Instead, set a timeframe for making project decisions after the project profile, options and risks have been evaluated.

In other large projects, such as developing a pharmaceutical drug, myriad decisions are required, often involving schedule, cost and compliance. Some of those decisions include selecting a test method, choosing a package design and picking a label appearance. In the case of package design, Mr. Morfin identified eight goals, such as “maximize consumer sight appeal,” based on consumer focus group test scores. He then determined if each goal is an essential need of the project outcome or simply a desire. Lastly, each goal is ranked: needs come first, followed by desires.

Typically, a clear winner rises to the top as the best option, but the analysis isn't done yet. “Once the best choice is identified, we start to look at the consequences of implementing this choice in the near future,” Mr. Morfin says.

“You actually have to become negative in your thinking to try to destroy the best choices.” SDM allows for careful consideration of the consequences of implementing a particular choice in a project with diligent analysis and backup.

Better Alignment

SDM aids the enterprise to better align mission with the project portfolio. “It's transformed how we define the organization now in going from a research-oriented organization to a product-making one,” Mr. Van Cleve says.

Improved employee productivity is one outgrowth from that smarter decision-making. Before implementing SDM two years ago, Chiron had eight major projects underway. Chiron's portfolio since has grown to 12 projects, with only one project cut, supported by the same amount of staff.

The decision to eliminate a project involving a bacterial detection product became increasingly clear when Chiron assessed its needs and desires against its commercial and technical goals—in this case, the goals act as a project profile. “Some 50 full-time staff were cut from the project, which freed up their time to work on projects more in line with the company's goals,” Mr. Morfin says.

There's less need to involve large groups of people in meetings and defend each option against the others because there's agreement about the best profile. Overall, the company has reduced its meetings by 20 percent or more as a result of leveraging SDM techniques. “People don't spend much time arguing about how to make decisions; they simply make them on a better informed basis,” Mr. Morfin says. PM


Marcia Jedd is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based supply chain and business writer.

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.




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Battle Plan

    By Mustafa, Abid At a time of increasingly complex business problems, it's natural for project teams to turn to war rooms to solve those challenges. The war room concept gathers all key stakeholders and critical…

  • Project Management Journal

    Contingency Release During Project Execution member content locked

    By Ayub, Bilal | Thaheem, Muhammad Jamaluddin | Ullah, Fahim Risk is inherent in construction projects and managed through contingency. Dynamic management of contingency escrow accounts during project execution poses decision-making challenges. Project…

  • Project Management Journal

    Identifying Project Factors that Affect an Investor's Escalation of Commitment in Public-Private Partnership Projects member content locked

    By Liu, Jiaqi | Liu, Jicai | Gao, Ruolan | Gao, Huanzhu Oliver | Li, Yahui The study comprehensively discusses 18 project factors affecting investors' escalation of commitment (EOC) in a public-private partnership (PPP) project. Using factor analysis, five factor groupings…

  • PM Network

    Human Nature

    By Grgurich, Hayley At a time when creative problem solving can make or break a business, design thinking is fast moving beyond the fringe and squarely into the mainstream. By focusing on the people for which projects…

  • PM Network

    A Journey to Solutions

    By Espy, Leigh Having the right information at the right time can make or break a project's success. But it's a mistake for project managers to assume this means that they have to have all of the answers at the…