When faced with a dilemma, experienced executives can draw on a career's worth of knowledge to make a strategic decision. But for project managers, the decision-making process can be tricky—they must make tough calls while avoiding career suicide. Speed up the learning process by finding a balance between personal vision, stakeholder demands and the needs of the team.
For project managers, it can be easy to focus only on the technical side of things. However, you also must consider the human element—the personalities and opinions that affect project choices. Breaking it down objectively, the best leaders make decisions based 75 percent on their own judgment and 25 percent on input from others, says B. Joseph White, Ph.D., president of the University of Illinois, Chicago, Ill., USA, and former dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., USA. “People want strong leadership and high involvement in decision-making,” he says. In other words, even if you know your own mind and are certain you're making the right choice, seek the input of your team, he says.
EVEN IF YOU KNOW YOUR OWN MIND AND ARE CERTAIN YOU'RE MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE, SEEK THE INPUT OF YOUR TEAM.
Good project managers are confident enough to surround themselves with people “smarter than they are,” says Sander Flaum, CEO and managing partner of Flaum Partners Inc., a pharmaceutical and biotech consultancy in New York, N.Y., USA. They aren't afraid of “push-back” on their decisions, and they even occasionally ask for it from employees reluctant to give their boss negative feedback. To open the floor for alternative—and perhaps better—solutions, Mr. Flaum suggests asking team members, “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
Because a good leader never micromanages, in some instances, it's best to empower the team to make decisions, especially when a decision calls for specialized technical knowledge the manager doesn't hold. For example, when Mike Donnelly was deputy director for project assessment at the Office of Engineering and Construction Management, Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., USA, he relied heavily on his highly trained team for technical insight and uncommon solutions. “They know more about the issues than I can,” says Mr. Donnelly, currently deputy assistant director, Facilities and Logistics Services, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, D.C., USA. His role as a leader is to tap into the expertise of his team by creating a supportive atmosphere in which his employees have no “fear of failure,” he says.
DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
When making decisions that will benefit the project and the company, you will rarely please everyone involved. In gaining the input of your entire team, you increase the likelihood of divergent opinions.
Ultimately, you are responsible for the decision and its outcome, but if you don't manage conflict among disagreeing team members, resentment may fester, regardless of whether the decision results in success. When you know that the right decision will make team members unhappy, ask yourself, “Can we live with some dissatisfied people and move forward?” advises Eric Verzuh, president of The Versatile Co., Seattle, Wash., USA. Depending on the answer, he advocates one of three actions:
1. Make the decision unilaterally, because it is your responsibility. This is the best choice when you are sure that your decision is the most appropriate for the situation.
2. Open the floor for dialogue. Tell your team and anyone else involved, “I will make this decision based on what I hear from you.” Listen respectfully and then make the decision, being sure to rationalize why other decisions were not better. Those who disagree will feel that their opinion was heard and that they were involved, Mr. Verzuh says. With this method, you maintain control of the decision, but you will minimize anger. A caveat: If the listening effort is not sincere, it will show.
3. Share the decision with those who have conflicting interests. Sit them down and work out a consensus. You must be open-minded and aim to reach an outcome that honors the interests of each party, even if that means compromising some of your own vision.
Whichever option you choose, you must use your own judgment. This means making sure the team knows that, although their advice is valued, sometimes the answer will be no. “Never create false expectations,” says Cesar Palagi, reserves and reservoirs manager at Petrobras America Inc., an oil company in Houston, Texas, USA. When saying no, never try to shift responsibility by saying, “the executive sponsor wants this,” Mr. Verzuh adds.
A WHALE OF A DECISION
When you think of office conflict, you don't necessarily expect picket signs and sit-ins. But in the public arena, you do have to prepare for protest.
When Francisco Szekely, Ph.D., now adjunct professor of sustainable development and responsible leadership at the European School of Management and Technology, Berlin, Germany, was working as deputy minister of the environment and natural resources for Mexico—a position he held until 2003—the Ministry developed a proposal to create a whale sanctuary in the Sea of Cortez. Local whale hunters vigorously protested, however, arguing the sanctuary would threaten their livelihoods.
Dr. Szekely and his colleagues decided to meet with the whale hunters to hear their objections. As a result of the meeting, the government group understood the less-obvious social costs of the sanctuary: monitoring law compliance and the need for the navy to patrol the area at sea. The Ministry decided that instead of just pushing through with the sanctuary despite objections, it would offer the protesters an alternative means of earning a living: new jobs in conservation. The offer appeased the protestors, and the project went forward.
As head of the project management office (PMO) at Digicel, a mobile phone company in Kingston, Jamaica, Cheryl McIntyre-Hall, PMP, often balances team input in her decision-making. Because the mobile phone industry is highly competitive, the priorities of her PMO frequently change. Ms. McIntyre-Hall has to make sure her team feels supported, but at the same time keep a strong hand on the wheel. For example, when her group was responsible for obtaining a decision on bonus points for various types of customers, her team had trouble reaching consensus on the options to put forward to the sponsor. Ms. McIntyre-Hall had them list the pros and cons of each and discuss them—then explained her position and asked, “What do you guys think?” Although she encourages everyone on her team to voice an opinion, she makes it clear that the decisions coming from the project team are ultimately her responsibility.
A STAKE IN THE DECISION
Differing opinions and priorities don't always come from the team, however. Inevitably, stakeholder demands may conflict with your opinion, your team's needs or the practicalities of a project's scope. Your job encompasses the role of a skilled negotiator, Mr. Palagi says. “Decisive negotiators understand the values and needs of both the team and the stakeholders,” he says. “They keep all the parties focused on the project goals to enable the decision-making process.”
IF MAKING A STRATEGIC DECISION MEANS OVERRIDING STAKEHOLDERS' REQUESTS, YOU CAN STILL MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR THE PROJECT WHILE DEMONSTRATING RESPECT FOR THEIR WISHES.
Ms. McIntyre-Hall copes with the shifting internal and external demands at Digicel by making the strategic objectives of upper management—her primary stakeholder—the most important factor in every decision. She keeps her team aware of organizational strategy and actively reviews all requests for changes in team objectives and scope with an eye toward final deliverables.
However, reconciling stakeholder input isn't as clear cut as it might sound. Sometimes internal and external stakeholder demands clash with the requirements of the team or the project itself. When there are conflicting valid priorities, strive to find the option that will most benefit the company as a whole, says Dirk Ramhorst, director of solutions business for Siemens AG–Siemens Business Services, Munich, Germany.
If making a strategic decision means overriding stakeholders' requests, you can still make the right choice for the project while demonstrating respect for their wishes. Mr. Ramhorst uses debriefings with stakeholders at project milestones to ensure all parties feel heard. By couching the discussion as more of a workshop than an official business meeting, he is able to draw the parties out on their expectations and needs, he says.
Balancing diverse requests and priorities to make strategic decisions can be difficult, but the process is an opportunity to bring together your team and gain the respect of stakeholders. Making decisions to benefit the organization while maintaining positive relationships with those involved puts you one step closer to the executive suite.
PHOTO BY KEVIN LEE
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