Blink! Don't be a boiling frog
making better, faster, project decisions
Project managers face hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions in the course of a normal project. Typically, most decisions are made with little concern or anxiety. They are easy to make and implement based on the situation at hand. However, there are certain key decisions that pose such significant concern that they can be very difficult to make because we may not have all the information at hand, there are too many people involved in the process, or we are seemingly incapable of making the decision for emotional reasons.
What Does it Take to Make Better, Faster Decisions?
Decision-making has been studied for more than 50 years, and there are innumerable books, articles and studies analyzing the process. But what many of these studies fail to address are the fundamental elements of decision-making as they would apply to the project manager. In my experience, and in speaking with many senior practitioners in the field, I have come to the conclusion that project managers need to have three things in order to make decisions. They are:
- Good data, at regular intervals, from trustworthy people or sources
- Ability to make a timely decision under uncertain circumstances
- A project governance structure that allows decision-making at the appropriate level.
This paper will address each of these in turn, providing specific examples to help project managers make better, faster, project decisions.
Good Data, at Regular Intervals, From Trustworthy People or Sources
What does, in fact, good data, really tell us and where do we find it? First, good data tells us about the past. We spend a lot of time in the past as project managers analyzing cost, schedule and quality reports to see just what happened. I submit we spend too much time in the past. After all, the past can never be changed. Good data also tells us about the present. We spend every waking and sleeping minute in the present. It's what we are doing right now on our projects that will dictate our future; not what we did in the past. Finally, good data tells about the future. Everyone wants to know about the future of our project. The sponsors, client, user, and other stakeholders all want to know “when is the project going to be finished?” “how will it work?” and so forth.
Finding all this data can be challenging. Data about the past is the easiest to find. We typically find it in reports. We have cost reports, project schedule reports, earned value reports, status reports, and performance reports. There seems to be no shortage of such reports. However, the key is “how old is this data?” In many organizations, project cost data may be as much as six weeks old depending on the accounting system used. So, how valid is that data in making decisions in the present that will affect our future? While we need such information, its utility for our future can be questioned.
I believe its data about the present that we need to pay significant attention to. It's what's happening in our project in the present that will have an impact on our future. But, where do we find it. Let me offer five ways:
- Stand-up meetings—Every day conduct a meeting in your office, cube, or over the phone for no more than 10 minutes with your core team. Do not allow them to sit down. The purpose of the meeting is to gather as much information as possible in a short period of time. Give everyone just a couple of minutes to describe to the others what they are doing that day and any key piece of information they think the group needs to know. You will be amazed at just how much information you will learn in a short period of time.
- Practice Management by Walking Around (MBWA)—This method, which was popularized in the business classic In Search of Excellence in the early 1980's has never gone out of style, although granted, it's challenging to do in a virtual world. Get up from your desk and go talk to people informally. Ask them “how's it going?” “What risks do you see in the next few weeks?” “When will the deliverable be done?” This type of information gathering puts people at ease and you are bound to uncover and discover things about the project that no one would tell you in a formal meeting where most people are worried about protecting themselves from embarrassment.
- Read out to key stakeholders informally—On an occasional basis simply call your client or key stakeholders to ask them how they think the project is progressing, how satisfied are they with the project deliverables, how is the team responding to their needs, etc. People are much more likely to tell you the real truth one-on-one in an informal setting than in any other forum. You certainly do not want to wait to hear bad news from such important people at regularly schedule phase gate review or project review. The earlier you hear bad news, the faster you can respond to it.
- Network—Maintain contact with your peers in the organization, with your suppliers and vendors, with the functional managers to whom your team members report. This is your support group and their help is crucial to successful project delivery. They probably have excellent “grapevine” information that will be useful to you.
- “Never eat alone”—This is the name of a very popular book by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz who place great emphasis on the need for professionals to establish a strong professional network of peers and cohorts. You may be thinking “I don't have a large expense account to take clients, team members and stakeholders, to 5-star restaurants. My project budget is already too “thin.” However, do you have a few dollars, euros, pounds, Swiss francs, crowns, etc. to buy someone an espresso or a latte or a plain cup of “joe” as we say in America? Of course you do, and it is money well spent. There's nothing like exchanging news in an informal setting.
Data about the future can be challenging as well. Here are four ways I have used to collect such valuable information without resorting to using a “psychic.”
- Rampant Risk Analysis—A risk is a future event. If we constantly ask questions about our future, especially when we are practicing MBWA, then our team members and other stakeholders will, too, start thinking about the future more. Start every meeting with the top ten risks on the project. I do not like the idea of having a risk manager as a separate position on a project team. Every team member is a risk manager. If we have identified the risk triggers for each risk we can be constantly on the lookout to see if the risk is going to occur. There's no report on earth that will tell you that.
- Use the common tools and techniques—Tools and techniques such as strategy meetings, Delphi method, and Monte Carlo Analysis, are proven, acceptable ways to try to determine what the future holds for your project.
- Establish your project's “leading” indicators—Economists using leading indicators to make predictions about the prospects of growth and overall business health in a society. We can identify certain indicators on our projects as well for roughly the same purpose. For example, one indicator may be the level of customer satisfaction at any given time on the project.
Regardless of the data we're collecting, we need to do so regularly. A project has a “pulse” in much the same way a living organism does. If we check our pulse regularly then we can detect trends than if we do it just every once in a while. Additionally, it instills a discipline in the team and the other stakeholders that the data you are collecting is the key to making decisions and you are more likely to gather the right information at the right time. Moreover, everyone will become used to looking at the same reports at the same time so that there is transparency with respect to everything going on in the project.
Finally, people must be encouraged to provide you with accurate and complete information. If you are receiving incomplete data, or data that has been “filtered” you are not getting the real picture of what is going on in your project. In fact, it is your behavior that will dictate just how honest people will be with you. For example, if your team members are afraid to provide you with the unvarnished truth because you tend to have an extreme emotional reaction to them, lashing out at them in front of their peers, then you will never receive the whole truth from that person again. Therefore, the key to honest reporting is to establish a high level of trust between you and the people providing you with the critical information you need to make the best decisions possible.
Ability to Make a Timely Decision Under Uncertain Circumstances
Certainly, obtaining all this information is critically important, but your ability to make timely decisions under less than ideal conditions will separate you from mediocre project managers. Too many people in our business require too much information to make a decision. In decision theory they are called “maximizers.” They tend to have technical, scientific, or engineering backgrounds where data gathering and analysis is a large part of their work. While no one would argue that having a sufficient amount of information is not a good thing, understand that you will never have 100% of the information you think you need to make a decision.
The United States Marine Corps operates under the principle of the “70% solution.” Marines are taught that in the heat of battle, you will never have enough information to make the perfect decision. When lives are on the line, having 70% of what you need is “good enough.” While most project managers do not operate in a life or death environment, we can adopt this strategy to keep our projects moving forward. There is nothing more frustrating to the team than a project manager who constantly “wrings his hands” and agonizes over making a decision. Project management is about execution and the project manager who forgets that is doomed to fail.
If you have a difficult time making a decision, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is doing something better than doing nothing?
- What's the worse than can happen?
- Will I lose my job if it doesn't work out?
For most project decisions doing something is better than doing nothing and chances are you are not going to get fired or “made redundant” if the decision is less than perfect.
Also, remember that you are not alone. Use your network of colleagues, peers, friends and acquaintances as a “sounding board.” Too often, project managers, being the independent lot that we are, try to do everything on their own. They pride themselves on their independence and “can do” spirit. In this world, we are all interdependent, and this is especially true in a project environment.
Following is a decision framework that “works” which was compiled from several of the leading thinkers in the field of decision-making.
- Define the problem correctly
- Frame the decision. For example who:
- Is impacted?
- Should be part of the discussions?
- Should make and review the decision?
- Implement the decision
- Who needs to know?
- Can the people identified actually do it?
- Measure or monitor the results
- Monitoring and reporting
- See for yourself
Unfortunately, even the best advice in the world will not be taken and certain project managers may continue to struggle. Sadly, these individuals must be relieved of their responsibilities and be assigned as team members allowing those with fortitude to assume decision-making roles in an organization.
A Project Governance Structure that Allows Decision-Making at the Appropriate Level
In every company I have worked with there is some semblance of a governance structure for projects. I have seen a spectrum of such processes, from very informal ones, to highly structured portfolio management approaches, steering committees, and the like. In short, projects are now seen as investment vehicles that need to be carefully monitored for their return and reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that the return identified at the outset is realized. It is no accident that PPM (Project and Portfolio Management) software revenues are growing at an ever-accelerating rate underscoring the fact that more and more organizations are adopting formal portfolio practices.
But such practices can impede decision-making on the ground. If the extant governance processes call for a steering committee to review a wide variety of decisions on individual projects the cumulative affect will frustrate the project manager and the team, and inevitably delay project performance. If you had to describe the governance process in place in your organization would it look like this? Does your organization make you feel as if you are on trial when defending a change to the project?
I exaggerate, of course, but only to make a point. Even the U.S. military has adopted an approach of “pushing down” decision-making to the war-fighter on the ground. After all, these days, the war-fighter is equipped with sophisticated electronic devices that receive information from a host of various sources such that he or she is receiving the same information, and at the same time, that the generals in the “war room” are receiving. But who is better able to verify that data? In many circumstances it is the person on the ground. “Commander's intent” is the process of decision-making today. In other words, the general and strategic planners identify the overall objectives of the mission and rely on the war fighters in the field, led by field commanders, to make the best decisions to meet the objectives.
What about your project? Are you allowing team members to make regular, daily decisions to keep the project moving forward? Do you hold worthwhile status meetings? Do you support the escalation process in place? And, are you seen by your executives as being able to execute change quickly? Or, are you a micromanager, breathing down the collective necks and looking over the collective shoulders of your team, getting involved in every decision they make? If it's the latter, the time has come to trust your team members to do the right thing. The only message you send them as a micromanager is that you don't trust them. Is that the message you want to convey? I doubt it.
Finally, I would like to offer you five actions you can take right away to speed up decision-making on your project.
- Put real choices “on the table”—Too often when discussing alternative courses of action people will play games and claim there are three choices, when there is really only two, but for political purposes they feel it necessary to offer a third which is not doable. This wastes the team's time. If the third option is not a real option why even bother to talk about it. You should be seen as a “no-nonsense” project manager. These are the people who get things done.
- Focus on decisions, not discussions—Studies have shown that there are three phases to most meetings:
- Information sharing
- How many times have you attended a decision-making meeting where 90% of the time was spent in the first two phases, and only when people realized they were running out of time, and the people who had reserved the conference room you are in are heard shuffling around outside the door, do you rush to make the decision. Information sharing and discussions can be done prior to the meeting to the greatest extent possible. Spend more time making the decision and less time talking about it. Many years ago a more senior colleague of mine once remarked “we spend more time talking about the problems we have with our coffee bar in this organization than discussing key decisions.”
- Apply risk management through MBWA (see previous discussion)
- Establish a “lean” governance structure—As project manager you may not be able to change how you interact with the process above you, but you certainly have plenty of control as to how you and your team mates are going to work together on the project.
- Identify your project's leading indicators
Ferazzi, K., & Raz, T. (2005). Never eat alone. New York: Doubleday.
Freedman, D. H. (2000) CORPS business. New York: HarperBusiness.
Friedman, T. (2005) The world is flat. New York: Picador.
© 2008, J. LeRoy Ward
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Isle of Malta