Project management decision making
blending analysis and intuition
The ability to make informed, timely, and effective decisions is a key competency of the project manager. This paper outlines a decision making technique designed to integrate objective fact-based analysis with subjective human-centric input, in order to produce outcomes that potentially satisfy both the practical and emotional project related needs of stakeholders. The technique involves open discussion within a structured framework that enables participants to: 1) define the question, 2) perfect the question, and 3) answer the question. Findings are then quantified and reconciled with intuition based factors to arrive at a result that is both more accurate and supported by the group. Use of the approach described enables response to a wide range of questions having varied degrees of complexity, while providing an opportunity for the project manager to increase leadership skills through the practice of effective facilitation and problem solving.
As project managers, every day each of us is required to make decisions—both large and small. In many ways, the choices we make and the actions we take as a result of our more important decisions can have a profound impact on the well beings and future prospects of ourselves, our customers, and our teams. In short, such choices can shape the very quality of the careers and even the lives of all those who rely on us. Given the potential critical nature of these decisions, it might therefore be expected that great care would normally be taken when identifying the best path forward: sufficient time would be spent researching and weighing a wide variety of alternatives—and a consistent and proven decision strategy would be applied to identify the best of all available options. Only in this way might it be possible to minimize risk and increase the likelihood of success.
Yet, whether through lack of time, knowledge, or interest, few among us resort to such rigor and due diligence when making key decisions. Instead, we may become overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenge before us and follow the path of least resistance. We may choose to focus on some data points and ignore others, or avoid soliciting the opinions of others, rationalizing that adding more information will not necessarily improve the quality of the outcome—even though we may recognize the danger inherent in making choices without benefit of facts or external input. Conversely, we may marshal all available facts and opinion to arrive at a conclusion that still leaves us with a gnawing doubt concerning whether the “human element” has been sufficiently considered. Finally, we may simply do what “feels right” in the hope that our intuition will somehow synthesize both objective fact and subjective feeling into an end result that will satisfy both intellect and emotion.
While each approach described above does try to address one or more critical needs related to the process of decision making (e.g., the need for efficiency, effectiveness, manageability, accuracy, acceptability, intuitiveness), the deficits inherent in each approach almost guarantee that the answer arrived at will be unacceptably flawed. Thus, what is needed is a framework for decision making that not only seeks to meet the critical needs outlined above, but can be applied to a wide range of questions having varied degrees of complexity. Such a framework would also incorporate relevant human experience and input. Following is a technique I use when tackling important questions. The technique is illustrated in a case study designed to demonstrate key concepts and assumptions. It involves a real world situation that any of us might face: that of deciding whether to relocate for purposes of employment. The example is personalized to enable fuller discussion of subjective issues, but the technique described might also be applied to typical workplace challenges, including:
- Deciding whether to bet on a new technology with improved features but unproven track record, or remain with an established technology with fewer features but a proven track record
- Evaluating a candidate for a position on the project team
- Determining the correctness of a response to a cost or schedule overrun, a quality issue, or an instance of scope creep
- Examining the merit of a proposed change in methodology
The following case study considers the deliberations of a family whose members are John, Mary, and Jane—Jane being the child of John and Mary. The family must decide whether Mary should quit her present job and accept a new position in a distant (unspecified) tropical country where a different language is spoken. The salary is so good that accepting the offer will result in John having the option of not having to work (thus presumably leaving time for leisure activities and attention to domestic matters). It should be noted that in the excitement of receiving the job offer, the family has already “let slip” to friends and family that they intend to accept the opportunity. In fact, the family has already begun to plan for the move, but as the time for decision grows near, the family finds itself with “cold feet” as it faces the enormity of this life changing choice. As they sit down to discuss the future, all present are wondering if they should “swallow their pride” and decide not to move forward.
Please note: for the purposes of this example, the three family members constitute all pertinent stakeholders in the decision making process. Before engaging in the process it is necessary to first identify and involve all relevant stakeholders.
Step 1: Define the Question
The first step in tackling the above decision is to clearly write down the question that must be answered from the perspective of those who must answer it. Given what is known so far, the question can be stated as follows:
“We're planning to relocate, but we're getting cold feet. Should we swallow our pride and decide not to go?”
Step 2: Perfect the Question
The next step is to analyze the question and remove any elements that are not viewed as germane to the core decision to be made. This includes factors that are viewed as inappropriate to the issue at hand and/or do not reflect the values of the decision makers. In this situation, the family identifies pride as just such a factor, because of its potential to adversely influence the decision making process. They decide at the outset to eliminate this factor on the basis of a shared understanding that pride should never be a reason for doing or not doing anything. Their rationale is that something is predominantly right or predominantly wrong to do. Either it is advised or it is ill advised. Either they will have the strength to act appropriately regardless of how they are viewed by others, or they will not. If relocating is the right thing to do, then they should consider doing it, whether or not it might bolster their pride. If relocating is the wrong thing to do, then they should consider not doing it, even if it might invite some less than flattering judgments from others.
Looking further at the original question, the family chooses to retain the issue of “cold feet”, deciding to view this factor as a potentially good thing: a wakeup call in which their collective “sixth sense” might either be alerting them to potential danger or preparing them for a great challenge. They consider this element as a useful indicator that the family has realized that the decision to relocate may possibly be a wrong one. And finally, they recognize that “cold feet” may also be a predictable and natural response to a growing awareness of the enormity of the venture—even though a decision to move forward might, in the end, feel right. As a result of the above analysis, the family rephrases the original question as follows:
“We're planning to relocate, but we're getting cold feet. Should we decide not to go?”
Step 3: Answer the Question
A key understanding is to acknowledge that there are three important dimensions to be examined:
- Whether the family should or should not be relocating based on facts
- Whether the family can or cannot relocate based on feelings
- Whether those involved in the decision are in a position to make decisions independently
Investigation of the above areas will lead to a better realization of what the right thing to do might be, as it meets the critical requirement of integrating both objective and subjective elements into the final decision, while also recognizing the existence of constraints to unilateral decision making. To achieve these goals, the family proceeds as follows:
- Facilitator (can be any family member – John fills the role in this example) opens up the floor for discussion, stating, “What facts, feelings, opinions, etc., are relevant to our decision to relocate?”
- Facilitator writes down exactly what each person says in exactly the way they say it. No value judgments are made at this point. No prioritizations are made. The goal is simply to get every thought down as it arises. (Exhibit 1) A table like this might be used:
Exhibit 1 – Decision Support Table, First Pass
Please note that the above discussion might result in many more statements being expressed (e.g., Mary might raise concerns about job security in the new location, or express fears and/or hopes related to her enjoyment of her new duties), but these are omitted for the sake of brevity. To continue:
- Facilitator then leads the family in examining each statement to determine if a statement is verifiable as a fact or represents a feeling. If it is agreed to be a fact, it should be written as a fact. If it cannot be substantiated, then the family can decide to defer rewriting the statement until the assertion has been validated. If it cannot be validated, but is still important, it should be written as a feeling. Examples (with John as facilitator):
John: Does everybody agree that the weather is always warm where we are going?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
John: OK, we'll leave it as it is written.
John: Does everybody agree that we will be able to build our dream house for less money?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
John: OK, we'll leave it as written.
John: Does everyone agree that John will be able to go fishing every day?
John: Why not?
Mary: I believe that building the house will use up most of your time.
John: I agree. Let's rephrase it as, “John will be able to go fishing from time to time.”
John: Does everybody agree that utilities will be relatively more expensive?
Jane: No – I‘m not sure I know if this is true.
John: I‘m pretty confident from my research that they will be more expensive. Are you willing to trust me on this?
John: OK, we'll leave it as written.
John: Does everybody agree that we will not have a car?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
John: OK, we'll leave it as written.
John: Does everybody agree that Jane will not be able to make new friends?
Mary: No – there's simply no way for Jane to know this ahead of time, so it can't be written as a fact.
John: Let's rewrite it as a feeling, something like, “I am afraid I will not be able to make new friends.”
John: Does everyone agree with Jane that we all will hate the food?
Mary: I think I might love the food.
John: Let's rewrite it as, “Jane will hate the food.”
Statements 8 – 10:
John: Well everybody, there's no question that we are all going to miss our family and friends, so let's leave these as written.
John: Does everyone agree that the people there are friendly?
Mary and Jane: No – we haven't been there and can't say for sure if this is true.
John: Ok, let me check into this. Would it be alright if I search out some people who have been there and ask them what their experiences have been? Would you be comfortable accepting their answers?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
John: OK, let's move on…
And so on…
Note that documenting and discussing assumptions quickly clarifies what is really known and what is simply thought to be known. The process brings out into the open thoughts and feelings that might previously have been subconsciously creating that feeling of “cold feet”. It helps reduce associated feelings of anxiety. The list also validates for each person that their input has been recognized and valued. It serves as a living record of critical considerations that can be updated and re-evaluated throughout the decision making process and even following the relocation (should it occur). It is not necessary at this stage to score or weight the items. This comes later. (Exhibit 2) Now the table looks like this (changes are in bold):
Exhibit 2 – Decision Support Table, Second Pass
- Facilitator then leads the family in deciding whether each statement is a “pro” or a “con” (Pro/Con). This involves soliciting feelings and subjective opinions about each statement from each participant. Examples:
John: Is the warm weather a pro or a con?
Mary and Jane: A pro.
John: I‘ll note that.
John: Is the fact that we can build our dream house for less a pro or con?
Mary and Jane: A pro.
John: I‘ll note that.
John: Is the fact that John will be able to go fishing from time to time a pro or a con? I think it is pro.
Mary: I don't agree?
Mary: I am worried that you'll never be around to help around the house.
John: That's understandable. What if I promise that I will make time to help around the house?
Mary: No offense, John, but I don't believe you.
John: OK, how about we note this as a pro, because it is one for me, and we add another item to the list, “John may not be around the house as often as needed because he will be fishing.” We'll note that as a con. Alright?
Mary: Works for me.
John: OK, let's move on.
John: Is the fact that utilities will be expensive a pro or a con?
Mary and Jane: A con.
John: I‘ll write that.
John: Is the fact that we will not have a car a pro or a con? I think it is a con, because we'll have to rely on taxis to get everywhere.
Mary: I don't agree. We will save money because we won't have car insurance payments or other car related expenses.
John: OK, let's change this one to, “We will not have a car to get around”, and list it as a con. Then, we'll add another item to the list—“We will save on car related expenses”—and list it as a pro. Does everyone agree?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
Statements 6 – 7:
John: There's no question that Jane is afraid she will not be able to make new friends and will hate the food. We'll list these as cons if everyone agrees.
Statements 8 – 10:
John: There's also no question that we'll all miss our family and friends. These are all cons.
John: If I learn from our friends that the people are friendly, this would logically be a pro, so I‘ll note that now.
And so on…
(Exhibit 3) Now the table looks like this:
Exhibit 3 – Decision Support Table, Third Pass
Notice how the previous step allowed the family to apply subjective interpretations to the factual statements made. One might be tempted to argue that Jane's statement, “I am afraid I will not be able to make new friends”, is not factual, because it involves an emotion, and therefore should not be included and accorded equal status with factual statements. I would argue that Jane's statement is a factual statement concerning Jane's emotions. It is written specially to reflect the subjective nature of the statement, but the fact remains that there is no doubt that Jane feels as indicated. At this stage, all statements are included and given equal status. When weights and scores are applied on a statement-by-statement basis (see below), the family can decide the relative importance of “feeling” versus “fact”—either in general or in specific cases. In general, there should be no presupposition that feelings are less important than facts, given the important roles that feelings often play in the outcomes of decisions. The approach described ensures that this critical component is not ignored.
So far, the above process has produced a table containing the “raw material” that will allow the group to determine:
- …whether the family should or should not be relocating based on facts
- … whether the family can or cannot relocate based on feelings
To do this, it is necessary to quantify each statement's degree of importance relative to all other statements. This will be the statement's “weight”. It is critical to understand the difference between weight and score. The weight addresses whether a question as a question is important relative to the other questions and to the core decision. The score reflects the degree to which the statement itself is true. For example, the statement, “Utilities will be expensive”, might be considered to be a very important issue relative to the overall question of relocating. Thus, it might receive a weight of 9. However, if it is felt that the difference in cost will probably not pose a serious problem for the family's budget, it might receive a score of 4. The Value is simply the product of both numbers (36). Because the statement in question is a “con” statement, this number (36) will be added to other con values to produce a cumulative con value, which will then be subtracted from the cumulative pro value to produce a number indicating whether relocation is generally indicated or not indicated.
- Facilitator asks the family to decide how much importance each statement has relative to the overarching question of relocating (i.e., to determine each statement's weight). The end values assigned reflect the opinions of all participants. Example:
John: On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highly important, 1 being almost not important), how important is the issue of warm weather to the overall decision to relocate?
Mary: I‘m sick of the cold winters here and consider the weather to be a critical factor. I suggest a 10.
Jane: I like the cold and suggest a 1.
John: I feel it's important, but not terribly so. I‘d give it maybe a 6. Does a 5 about capture it for everyone?
Mary and Jane: Yes.
John: Good. I‘ll note that.
And so on…
(Exhibit 4) After detailed discussion, the table looks like this:
Exhibit 4 – Decision Support Table, Fourth Pass
This family has interesting priorities, don't they? John has heard back from his contacts and has confirmed that the people are indeed friendly. He has therefore removed the conditional statement from item 13. Also, during the discussion, everyone realized that the question of buying new furniture was really not relevant to the overall decision, and so this item was removed from the table. All that is left is to determine the score for each statement…
- Facilitator asks the family to decide the degree of truth of each statement (i.e., to determine each statement's score). The end values assigned reflect the opinions of all participants. Example:
John: On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being very true, 1 being almost not true), how true is it that it is warm all of the time there? Doesn't it rain? Are there any cold days where we will be?
Mary : I’ve heard that in the city where we will be the air can get quite chilly at times, but the weather is generally very mild. I feel that a 6 is accurate.
Jane: I don't know for certain what the weather is like, so maybe it's best if you omit my score.
John: I agree with Mary about the climate and will note a 6.
And so on…
(Exhibit 5) After detailed discussion, the table looks like this:
Exhibit 5 – Decision Support Table, Fifth Pass
Let's imagine that when the family tallies the “con” statements—many of which are not listed above for brevity's sake—they arrive at a cumulative value of 514. When they tally the “pro” statements, the value is 752. They subtract 514 from 752 and get a Decision Value of 238. Because the number is positive, the family realizes that—all things considered—the basic opinion of the group is that they should relocate. The family also considers whether the value of 238 is convincingly high to indicate that they “really believe” they should relocate. If the Decision Value had been 23, for instance, this would not have been considered a resounding mandate to go: the positive final value when compared to the total range of value—1266 (the sum of 752 and 514)—is only ~2% of the total. If the value had been negative 13 (-13), the family might have interpreted this as meaning variously that they should not go, or that there wasn't much reason not to go. If the value had been negative 400 (-400), it would likely have caused them to consider to rethink their plans entirely.
Simply having arrived at a Decision Value, however, is not enough to make a decision. At this stage, something very important must be done: the family must decide who will make the final decision. This step will address the issue of whether each participant is in a position to make decisions independently. It is often the case that not everyone in the decision making process will have an equal say. For instance, a person may be involved whose opinions matter but might carry less practical weight relative to the final decision. In such circumstances, openly establishing the ground rules allows the person to understand that there is a difference between whether their opinions matter (and to what extent) and whether they get to make the final decision. This helps manage expectations and validates their need to understand why something is happening. In our example, this description might apply to Jane, who as the junior member of the family might not be a logical choice to make the final decision (even though her input was treated equally because her opinions merited this consideration). In the workplace, this description might apply to a junior member of the project team. In any case, the final interpretation of the Decision Value (and other gut level factors—see below), as well as subsequent actions to be taken, will lie with the individual or individuals designated by the group to decide.
Openly agreeing who has final decision making authority before the final decision is rendered is a necessary means of obtaining buy-in from participants. A participant will only truly support a decision made by another when the participant has agreed to cede decision making authority up front. In the absence of such agreement, the participant may feel as if: 1) their opinions were solicited but discounted, and 2) they are being forced to do something against their will. A group may decide to cede final authority to the consensus opinion of the group. The decision concerning who will make the final call can be done before the previous steps or afterwards. Let's assume in this case that Mary is chosen to make the final call. Before this occurs, however, there is one more thing to do…
The Common Sense Test
Let's face it, human beings are not machines, and all of the qualification and quantification described won't eliminate all risk from the decision making process (even though the hard numbers arrived at also reflect, in part, the subjective deliberations of the group). To be sure, the more salient factors are considered, the more reliable the Decision Value may ultimately be. However, no individual or group of individuals can say that they have thought of everything or considered every possibility; and therefore the Decision Value must be viewed as intrinsically flawed (although still useful as a data point). An intuitive counterbalance is needed—one that provides the opportunity for the participants to ignore logic and simply express their gut feelings about what should be done. Thus the following might occur next:
- Facilitator states, “We know what the Decision Value is now and what it might mean relative to our decision to relocate or not relocate. I want to ask each of you to imagine that you had complete power to relocate or not relocate. Then ask yourself this question: ‘If I decided to not go, how strong would be my regret and why?' Really think about this question and tell me the answer when you are ready.”
When responses have been provided, the designated decision maker must take this input, along with the Decision Value and any other factors that might be considered relevant, and make a decision. There is no specific technique I am aware of that can be used to do this. If the entire group will make the decision, then the reflection and analysis required will occur in open forum until closure is achieved. All participants must accept that in either making the final decision or ceding that responsibility to someone else, each and every person must personally accept ultimate and individual accountability for the results: there can be no blaming of others should things not work out later on.
After evaluating the above approach, the reader may consider it to be overly complex and opt to employ a simpler strategy. Indeed, some might argue that the best way to make such a decision is to simply “try something out and see if it works”—and there is much to recommend this approach if a person has the resources and the time to engage in such experimentation. As stated earlier, there are many ways to tackle the challenge of deciding important matters, and it is impossible to say whether any given approach is better than another for any specific person or group of persons. What the best approach might be is up to an individual to decide. In making important decisions, however, I would note the following:
- Truly important decisions often have far reaching implications (either positive or negative) for a person's safety, health, prosperity, and happiness. I suggest that the quality of the decision will reflect the quality of the effort used to arrive at that decision. One's actions in life should be consciously decided whenever possible, not passively accepted or dictated by others.
- Pride goeth before a fall: doing the right thing is almost always better than doing something based on how it will be perceived by others. Whatever has been committed to—or even bragged about—is all in the past. If intervening facts or feelings have changed the equation, there is no shame in adjusting plans accordingly.
- Practice makes perfect. The technique described above is best learned by doing.
- In any important decision, it is necessary to ask the question, “Will I be able to live with the results of my decision?” Not knowing what the results of a decision might be does not prevent a person from making a commitment to how they will psychologically accept (or not accept) an unknown outcome. In addition, answering “no” to the above question can also be perfectly justified and may not mean that a person will not proceed with a given plan. Under certain circumstances, an individual may still decide to move forward despite knowing in advance that they will not be able to live with certain outcomes should they occur.
- Once a choice is made, it is necessary to commit to it and move forward. A decision half heartedly implemented is no decision at all.
The technique described may be used with any number of participants (including only a single individual), and can be applied to decisions of varying degrees of importance and complexity. It can be a very useful means of clarifying issues, achieving consensus, and identifying the right path forward for the benefit of all involved.
© 2004, Clifford B. Cohen
Originally published as a part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Panama City, Panama