Make a [insert cuss word] Decision!

Over the weekend I was driving on a single lane city street. To my left was an elevated median that has trees and bushes planted on it. To my right was the street curb. And in front of me, a driver doing 12 miles per hour!! I was trapped.

I try to be patient, and admittedly some days it’s a struggle. Today happened to be one of those days. I quickly found my frustration level quickly going from mild irritation to fire coming out of the top of my head in under 10 seconds.

Suddenly, the brakes went on and they started to turn right. Yeah! But just as suddenly, they changed their mind and were back in front of me. They did this a second time, where I got so close to hitting them, I can tell you there are only two screws holding the license plate on. When his happened a third time, all my weight and frustration was pressing full-force on my horn. I could see their head tilt up to check the rearview mirror, and a slow turn to the right allowed me to speed past.

Why the hell couldn’t they just make a decision and stick with it? Were they afraid of making a wrong turn? Did they not want to feel they were wrong in turning too soon? Was Google Maps leading them astray? Did they even know I was behind them? Only the driver could answer these questions, and I was in no mood to ask.

This got me thinking; why in the hell are some people so bad at making decisions? George Patton famously said “A good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan next week.” I think many of us can agree with that (I know I can relate). But others, not so much. Analysis paralysis, decision by committee, and fear of being wrong delay progress. Ever had that happen on your project before?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want leaders and project sponsors to come up with any old answer or solution without regard to whether or not it’s directionally correct. You, as the project manager, need to provide information and options to the person or people making the decision. But in any case, decisions should be made quickly. Here are some of my thoughts on decision making within projects.

Waiting for clear confirmation that a decision is exactly right can lead to delays and potential failure. I once had a vendor tell me they needed my written approval to start their $25,000 network setup. Apparently, the PO was still in the signing process and wasn’t finalized yet. Because the sponsor had to approve any expenditures over $5,000, I reached out to him. Then reached out again. And again.

When he called back, he asked how many bids we’d gotten before selecting this vendor. Did this go through vendor management? Did we check their references? My answer way YES to all. Then he needed to talk to his boss before the final OK. Finally, the vendor had enough and moved onto the next job, delaying the start of ours by 6 weeks!

Bad decisions aren’t always a bad thing if you learn from them. A bad decision can lead to immediate feedback. Take for example Google maps. When I took my kiddo to NYC, we’d look at some things we wanted to do and found them on the map. I’d lock it into Google, and out the door we’d go. But, do I start by going right or left? I couldn’t tell. I stared at the phone. Finally, we took off in one direction. If we were right, Google gave me the blue line. If not, it’d tell me to turn around. But at least I figured it out quick!

Bad decisions aren’t always bad as long as you learn from them. Adjustments can be made, and the team tries again with more information. One aspect that’s very important here is psychological safety. Let the decision maker and team know it’s OK if it doesn’t work out. Use it as a learning opportunity.

Avoid decision by committee. This is a pet peeve of mine. A decision needs to be made. I talk to the sponsor. I feel like we’re about to make a decision when they say, “You know, let’s setup a meeting with the group. Can you schedule that?” Next thing you know, the only time available is three weeks away. Can we do this sooner? No, you have to wait because you have to have certain people there. And oh, add these other people too.

If a decision does require a group, keep it small. My preference is 3-4 people max. Any more and you fall into the analysis paralysis trap and too many opinions.

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Create immediate feedback loops up and down the line. I have a rule with my teams; even if you think it’s a problem, say something. Have you ever had someone delay letting you know of an issue because they thought they could handle it, until they couldn’t?

Don’t try to be a hero and make it work when obviously it’s not! Bring it up ASAP for the team to review. Maybe a quick adjustment can be made. Maybe you have to start over again and make another decision, this time from a place of more experience. Or, it’s possible the decision maker thought of something not previously considered and wants to look at it as an option. In any case, make feedback immediate.

Establish a level of confidence between the project leader and sponsor. I practice and I preach this; give a decision maker options, your recommendation, and why you and the team feel that direction is the best. Have a level of confidence in its success. For example, if you feel you’re 80% confident in the recommendation and work with the sponsor to get them to 80% also, that’s good enough to run with it. Some teams will require more, some less.

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One thing I will stress on all points above is leadership. As a project manager, you will need to give solid leadership throughout the decision making process so it gets made and executed. Don’t fall into the analysis paralysis trap! Help the decision makers make a damn decision! Good luck.

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