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Three Things Project Managers Need to Make Better Decisions

CE6pl5LXIAAQZamAt last month’s PMI Congress, ESI International leading speaker, J LeRoy Ward gave a thought-provoking presentation on Three Things You Need to Make Better, Faster Decisions.

Project Managers have to make a lot of decisions. Every decision they make has an impact on their project. In most cases project managers don’t make decisions alone. They have to involve a number of people for the simple reason they don’t have all the answers. And as soon as we involve others our decision-making slows down.

In his presentation, LeRoy gave pragmatic and concrete ideas as to how project managers can make better, faster, decisions.

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

  1. Accurate information, at frequent intervals, from reliable sources
  2. Willingness to make decisions under uncertain conditions
  3. A project governance structure that pushes decisions down to the lowest possible level

We will take a look at each of these in turn and find out more about the practice steps that can be taken to improve.

1. Accurate Information

Accurate information tells us three things.

What happened in the past, what’s happening now and what’s happening in the future.

With the past, we’re not talking about previous projects we’ve worked on but the current project. What has happened so far that could possibly help us with the present and even predict the future. With the present we often give it short shrift when it comes to managing projects. It’s the present, not the past, that governs our future. It’s what you and your team are doing right now that’ll dictate tomorrow’s results. The question is do you know what your team are doing right now? Accurate information can also tell us about the future.

On projects everyone is obsessed with the future: you, your boss, the client and so on. They want to know when will the project be done.

Yet, we are often times poorly equipped to tell them and we hedge our bets all the time. So, that’s what accurate information tells us

Now, where do we find it?

Past Accurate Information

We find data about the past in project reports or dashboards. And we have all kinds of reports:

  • Cost
  • Schedule
  • Scope (Quality)
  • Resource use
  • Burn down charts
  • Burn up charts

This is helpful, it tells us where we’ve been but doesn’t tell us where we’re headed.

Present Accurate Information

The present is all around you and there are ways to find this information.

Here are five ways to get the information you need to know about your present. But one way you can’t get it is if you stay glued to your lap top and don’t get out and talk to people!

stand-up1. Stand Up Meetings

The first is hold Stand Up meetings. On the 1st day of your workweek, get your core team together and don’t let them sit down.

Have the same format for each meeting..it’s not discussion time..it’s a briefing. Each person answers the 3 question shown here.

You’ll be surprised what you can learn in just a short period of time. By the way, in Agile development, these stand ups are held daily.

2. Management by Wandering Around (MBWA)

MBWA was popularized in Tom Peter and Bob Waterman’s 1982 best seller “In Search of Excellence” talking about HP.

You might think this is old but let me ask, do you think talking to people will ever go out of style as a form of communication?

As you practice MBWA remember the 80/20 rule..listen 80% of the time, speak 20% of the time.

MBWA may be awkward if you’ve never done it, so have a list of questions ready when you do, such as, “What are the key challenges you’re facing” and “Who are you working with most of the time?” and “How does the client like our work?”

3. Speaking with our clients, users, sponsors, executive and team members

When we say speaking, we don’t mean having regular meetings with our clients or monthly reviews and milestone reviews. This is the norm in project management, you should be doing this.

This is about having regular calls and contact with clients that appear ad hoc but are planned e.g., make sure you talk to your client once a month..nothing formal…just call or stop by.

You need to gauge their reaction to your work apart from the formal mechanisms put in place.

4. Networkingnever-eat-alone

Networking comes in many forms and networking here is not suggesting you turn all of life’s events into a networking session!

But you should be bringing the team together, inviting users or clients and talking to your peers about what they may be hearing and about how things are going.

It’s all about business intelligence. You don’t want to be the last to know.

5. Remember, “never eat alone”

Which is not only a great reminder to make the best use of your lunch break but also the title of a popular book.

Highly successful executives are constantly engaging their peers, colleagues and clients to make sure their project stays on track.

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. Humans have been trying to do this for all sorts of reasons forever.

Future Accurate Information

How can we predict the future? One of the best ways is RRA. Relentless Risk Analysis.

You can build risk management into your MBWA, so when you’re asking questions a majority of them are about the future.

After all, what is risk? It is a future event..if we do a good job of risk management we’re always looking out into the future asking, “what could happen?”, “how likely is it to happen?” and “what’s the impact?”

There are also many tools and techniques which help us with future information such as:

  • Strategy meetings
  • Delphi technique
  • Monte Carlo Analysis
  • Earned Value Management

You should also establish your own project leading indicators.

In U.S. and other countries economists use Index of Leading Indicators to predict the future. In the U.S. for example, there are 10. One of them is the Consumer Confidence Index—a measure of consumer expectations. This is important for the U.S. because 70% of the U.S. GDP is driven by consumer spending.

Le’t take that concept and create a “stakeholder confidence index” for our project. You would ask your key stakeholders on a regular basis how it’s going. While you may judge progress and performance based on time, cost and scope, chances are your stakeholders are measuring success in other ways as well and you need to know what they think.

Now, you need to do this on a regular and frequent basis.

It instills a discipline in your management and control system and it enables you to look at trends. As a result you will be able to make faster decisions if you understand the trends of the data.

You need to make sure people are reporting fairly and honestly. It does you no good whatsoever to have your team or stakeholders embellish or exaggerate the numbers.

You want, and need, the unvarnished truth.

What is the key to honest reporting?

The answer is simple, don’t punish people when they bring you bad news

If you do you won’t get the truth

How we filter our information down to a more manageable level

We need to be looking for those nuggets, those vital signs, those metrics that really tell us what’s going on with our projects.

Leading indicators are one way, there may be others you can use as well.

It’s about quality, not quantity.

Be careful what you measure…it may be accurate but completely worthless!

Now let’s take a look at the second way a project manager can make better, faster decisions.

2. Willingness to make decisions under uncertain conditions

Do you work with some people who never have enough data or time, and how frustrating that is..and how it slows things down?

You can collect all this wonderful data but some people struggle to make decisions don’t they?

So, here are 3 tips or suggestions for those who struggle.

1. Employ the US Marine Corps 70% solution

In critical situations doing something may be better than doing nothing. You will never have 100% of all the information you need..but if you have 70% that’s probably good enough

2. Ask yourself such questions:

  • Is it better to do something, or nothing?
  • How bad can it be?
  • Will I get fired if my decision doesn’t work?
  • What’s my “track record”?

3. Use your network and all those tools and techniques

By all means use your network. Get out and see what others think. If you convene a meeting don’t waste time on endless conversations. Do the Crawford Slip technique to get a lot of information from people without the need for talking. Get the information, talk later.

But even with these suggestions they still struggle. So what do they do? What would you do?

Hopefully you wouldn’t resort to soothsayers, palm readers, energy healing and aura analysis to help you make a decision regarding your project.

So here are a few more tips for those who still struggle.

decision-frameworkThe Decision Framework

There has been plenty of research on decision-making. Most can be distilled into a simple decision framework.

  1. The first step is to define the problem correctly. Are you certain you have articulated the right problem to solve?
  2. Frame the decision by asking Who is impacted? Who needs to provide input? Who should be part of the discussion? Who should make and review the decision?
  3. Implement the decision. Who needs to know? Can the people identified for implementing the decision actually do it?
  4. Finally, once the decision has been made and implemented you’ve got to monitor the actions to see if it had the intended impact.

I think you can see that decision-making encompasses more than just making the decision.

Finally we take a look at the third area that helps project managers to make better and faster decisions.

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

When you consider your project governance structure do you let team members make decisions? Do you hold productive meetings? Do you support the escalation process?

The Law of “First Knowledge” often works against us when we want to change the way we have always done things. It’s summed up nicely here.

If we want to make better and faster decisions we need to think about the project environment we are creating as project managers.

Here’s a recap of how project managers can make better and quicker decisions.

5 Ways to Speed Up Decision-Making

Project Managers rely on the people around them to help them make decisions about the project every day. Project managers are not the only people who have to make decisions in a project environment too. One thing that good decisions need is good information. The project manager has access to all kinds of formal and informal information that needs to be quickly understood so a decision can be made and the project can move on. These are the five practical areas that project managers can start to utilise to help them get better and faster at making those decisions today:

  • Put real choices “on the table”
  • Focus on decisions not discussions
    • Information sharing
    • Discussions
    • Decisions (make them stick)
  • Apply risk management through MBWA
  • Establish a “lean” governance structure
  • Identify your project’s leading indicators


LeRoy Ward

You can read more articles and insights from J LeRoy Ward here on the ESI International blog. LeRoy is also the opening keynote speaker at next week’s PMO Conference in London.







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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

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