Simplifying Decision Making

“Can you make a decision on this?”
This question can strike terror in the hearts of many!  Does the decision need to be made today?  Will it cause irreparable harm to the project and potentially the company?  Will I be fired if I’m wrong?  If I don’t decide, will it just work itself out?
Decisions.  In writing this article, I found different studies that say we make around 120 informed decisions a day and up to 35,000 total choices per day.  We’re making decisions all the time!

Making decisions can be stressful.  Decisions at work especially so.  As project leaders, or just leaders in general, we need to be comfortable and confident making decisions in often ambiguous environments.  We also need to be constantly learning from the decisions we make, as well as improving our decision making processes.
When it comes to making decisions, here are some of the key points I take into consideration.

Simplify the complex
I was once handed a spreadsheet with a list of proposed projects.  But instead of a narrative about what the project was to accomplish and strategic value, it was all numbers.  It included dollars values of projected development costs, marketing budget, and ROI over a 3-5 year period.  They also had market share percentages and other numbers I had no idea what they meant.  If I were to help prioritize the portfolio, how could I make decisions off of all these different numbers?

Over the course of a couple days and many conversations, I finally talked to the CFO.  He looked at everything and highlighted two numbers for each project.  “These are what’s important to the company.  Ignore the rest.  They’re just noise.”  Perfect!  I created a portfolio presentation focusing on just the two numbers that were important.  I also worked with the project submitters to have a couple bullets about what the project was to accomplish.  The governance committee was able to quickly review and decide which projects we were going to pursue, and which would get shelved.
More often than not, there is a lot of complexity around the decisions that need to be made.  SIMPLIFY!  Cut through the noise and focus on what’s important.  Someone on your leadership team, or your sponsor, has a framework they make decisions off of.  Whether it’s ROI, market share, or some other metric, understand what’s important to the deciding group and cover that information in a simple format.  This is also applicable for decisions you and your team will need to make.

Get Input From Others, But You Own The Decision
As a project leader, you’ll need to make a lot of decisions, but cannot make them in a vacuum.  There are people way smarter than me on my project or in the PMO.  We all work in a chaotic, fast-paced environment, so for the project leader to have all the necessary information is almost impossible.  
Having other team members involved in the decision making process has a couple of key advantages.  First, you get multiple points of view from people with different perspectives and who may be closer to the information.  Second, those who provide input will have greater accountability and ownership once the decision is made.  Ultimately, the quality of the decision will be better with the team involved.  BUT, once the decision is made, you as the project leader own it!  

For example, I was leading a large program implementing a new software that would be used by the global organization for all financial reporting.  Once the vendor was selected, we had to implement a new technology architecture approach never used by the company before.  A key decision with huge expense and time implications had to be made.  The executive sponsor told me to make the call.  I gathered the key team members.  For an hour we discussed, debated, researched, discussed some more, and ultimately came to the best option.  Not everyone agreed, but the majority of the smart people in the room believed it was the best approach.  I made the decision.  I told the sponsor we worked as a team but ultimately I owned the decision and getting it implemented.  We got it done successfully, though with a few hiccups!

Should I Even Make This Decision?
Not all project decisions need to be made by you, the project leader.  I know people who will adamantly disagree.  However, there are others on the project teams who have more information and experience, and can be a better decision than you!
Marketing once assigned a communications specialist to my program to send out regular pre and post release information.  We worked to develop a communications plan and the key messaging we wanted to get across.  Are we aligned?  Yep!  Or, at least I thought.  When getting ready to send the first email to the stakeholder group, I was asked to make a decision on format.  Should we have a bullet point here?  Should there be a picture?  The questions kept coming!  Finally I told the specialist that as long as the messaging was agreed upon, everything else is their decision.  I’m not the expert.  The best decision I can make, is not to make one.  Let others do that.

Decisions Are About Looking Forward, But Also Occasionally Look Back
Whether it’s me, the sponsor, or some other stakeholder, once a decision is made we move forward and execute!  Decisions are forward-facing.  However, once a decision is made and is being implemented, new information can alter its path.  Don’t be afraid to bring new information front and center!  Remember, you made the best decision for the project at the time, but new information can come to light that may make that decision even better, or avoid potential disaster.
Think of it as driving a car.  My decision is to get from point A to point B faster.  So, I put my right foot down a little farther and challenge the posted speed limit.  I’m moving forward.  But, if I’m just looking ahead and not occasionally behind, I may not see the state trooper sneaking up behind me.  Always look behind to see if anything has changed!

Decisions Are Words Needing Action
Congratulations!  A decision has been made!  You’ll probably update a decision log and breathe a sigh of relief.  But, making a decision is only half the equation.  The other half turning it into action.
As I mentioned before, the people involved will have greater accountability and ownership of the decision since they were involved.  But my guess is only a small portion of your team was involved.  The rest need to be informed.  As the project leader, you need to paint a very clear picture of the decision that was made and how it benefits the project.  I’ve seen a lot of project managers communicate a decision and leave it at that.  Sometimes it works. However, I’ve found that to be an effective leader, I need to communicate benefits and the impact to project team members.  They can align pretty quick if you can do that.

Decisions.  You’ll be making a lot of them, but they don’t need to cause stress and anxiety.  Simplify the decisions to be made so they can be done quickly.  Don’t belabor the decision in search of a perfect solution.  Perfect takes time, which there is a cost to.  Move forward and improve.  Decide on what, not necessarily how.  Leave the how to the people or team doing the actual work. Once you decide, execute!

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Training for a Race IS a Project

The Wooden Wolf.

There it was, the finish line. After thousands of feet of climbing up and down countless hills, I rounded the corner and saw the blow-up arches with the word “FINISH” emblazoned across the top. Beyond the arch was the large wooden wolf that race organizers always have at the finish (you “Kiss the Wolf” when you finish).

The Moose Mountain Marathon is a 26.2 mile trail race on the Superior Hiking Trail in norther Minnesota along Lake Superior. Though I participate in a number of races and events each year, this is by far my favorite, not to mention one of the toughest! I entered the lottery in January and got confirmation in February I was accepted. Project Trail Run – BEGIN!!

When we think of projects, we think of tasks we do at work in support of a bigger picture. Or, a project can be something we need to get done around the house. We seem to be doing projects all the time. But, especially for those who compete in various sports, have you ever thought of participating in a race as a project?

In my opinion, yes, it is a project. The definition of a project is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result. Let’s get into what makes racing a project:

Temporary: Projects have a start and end date. My project starts when I click the “Submit Payment” button when signing up for a race. When I pay, the clock starts. The end date of this project is when I cross the finish line. Sometimes that’s a couple months from the start, other times it’s almost a year away. In any case, I have a start and an end date. Yeah, it’s temporary.

One of the many views from the trail marathon along Lake Superior in northern Minnesota

Unique: Since I’m not creating a product or service, we’ll go with result. When you finish a race, you’ll have a result, usually measured in rank of how you finished and time. But in addition to result, I would also include experience. At least for a lot of the races I do, I love to experience the sights and sounds of the course (i.e. I just climbed a 200′ hill and got one hell of a view!). My time and my experiences during the event are unique to me. Yeah, it’s unique.

Now that I’ve made my case for a race to be a project, let me share some of the functions I perform during my temporary endeavors.

Selection and Initiation: Every year I make a list of events I’d like to do. Out of the 20+ I list out, I get to choose about 5-8 (depending on location and race distance). So, I need to prioritize. Once prioritized, I find out when registration opens and am Johnny on the Spot to sign up (most of them fill up within a half day).

Plan: When people tell me they can’t find a training plan I laugh. Google just about any event and someone’s created a plan. Use that as a baseline to create your own. Just about every plan I’ve seen or used talks about modifications. At the end of the day, have a training plan you can align and commit to.

Risk Mitigation: I’m in my late 40’s. I don’t bounce back from injuries like I used to. Any soreness or small problem is quickly addressed. Stretching is a requirement before and after every workout. A massage gun has become a necessity. Strength training is vital. All in the name of mitigating risk and injuries!

Execution: Once you have a plan, time to execute. Check off the days and keep track of the miles. Plot your progression, understanding some days are going to be a lot harder than others. Rain sucks, but get out there anyway. It may rain on race day too. Continually execute and monitor your progress.

Go-Live: I say my last day of training is race day. It’s also go-live. You’ve trained for this. All those hours (probably many of which were alone) boil down to this moment. Enjoy the excitement of the start, the experience of the event, and the celebration of finishing.

Close-Out: After the race, take time to reflect. What went well? What didn’t? What happened that was unexpected and didn’t occur during training? How will you handle it differently next time? These lessons learned can only make you stronger in the future.

Finally, don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t a team event. Sure, you’re putting in the miles training and on race day. However, without the support (and understanding) of family and friends, events like this would not be possible. Give kudos to those who’ve supported you along the way. Without my team, success would not be possible.

Next time you sign up for a race, think of it like a project. Maybe even give it a name (i.e. Project: Marathon or 13.1). Initiate by signing up, put a training plan together, train, and successfully complete! These temporary and unique endeavors will test you, but you got this!

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Influence Without Authority

Congratulations, you’re a Project Manager! You’re accountable for getting a project from initiation to completion. You’re responsible to get your team to do the work. But, your team has been assigned to this project and does NOT report to you! You have ZERO positional authority! YEAH!! Now don’t screw up.

Influence without authority. This has been an ongoing paradox for as long as the project management profession has been around. A project professional is tasked to take a group of assigned individuals (sometimes who are unhappy to be on the project), and turn them into a dynamic team who deliver business value.

Authority comes with a job title. People will dutifully follow their managers or those in authority. If not, they can find themselves without a job! Project managers, however, need to be able to influence their project teams without having formal authority. This has been a long-standing issue. We (almost) never have authority. So, how do you get a project team member to play nice on your team and get their work done?

Influence is the ability to have an effect on the behavior of someone or something. In this instance, that someone is your project team member and the behavior is them doing the work when they don’t report to you. It’s not easy and takes time. But, it’s worth the effort!

The following are five tips on influence based on lessons I’ve learned throughout the years.

Who are you as a person? As project professionals, we’re geared for action! As soon as we’re assigned a project team, we want to jump right into planning and progress. That’s all well and good, but would also challenge you to get to know your project team members as people.

I learned to make it a priority to meet with as many team members as possible and get to know them. What do you do for fun? Kids. Weekend hobbies. This can be over a cup of coffee (in person or virtually), lunch or a beer. Understand their background and ask questions about how best to work together. This builds trust and relationship capital. Yes, it’s time consuming, but it’s an investment that’s paid off. If your team is too big to meet with everyone, identify who the lead for a specific group is and meet with them.

Understanding the Big Picture and how each member contributes. “Why the hell are we doing this project and why am I on it?” I’ve heard it asked lots of times when people were told they were going to be on a project team. If your answer is “Um, well, you see…” you’re going to lose them!

Every company has a strategy (if it doesn’t, well, good luck). To realize those strategic goals takes projects. Team members are more motivated when they know the project they’re working on contributes to a greater purpose. So, be able to tie the corporate strategy to the project, and how each individual team member contributes to that big picture. Being able to clearly articulate this will help you influence team members, especially when there is greater demand on their time.

Recognition. Whether they say it or not, team members want recognition. Sometimes they want it done publicly, others privately. In any case, as the project leader, you can help build the team member’s brand and influence them by giving the proper recognition for their efforts.

For example, I had a sharp technical lead on a program I was leading. She could take the most technical speak and communicate it in a way everyone understood. She was my right hand and success would not have been possible without her. But, she never wanted public recognition. Ever. I was to never highlight her contributions in meetings or written status reports. However, I did talk to her functional manager and others in one-on-one conversations, praising her efforts and abilities. At the end of the project, she was promoted.

She was one example of someone who didn’t want public recognition, but recognizing her in a one-on-one capacity with her boss and others created visibility and built her brand. Others will want more public recognition. Be careful here, though. Remember you have a whole team doing great work. Be sure to highlight everyone’s accomplishments.

Clearly define roles and responsibilities. You can’t influence someone to fill their project role if they don’t know what it is. If you hear the words “I don’t know my role”, you got a problem. I take it as a personal failure not clearly defining and articulating the roles and responsibilities required to make the project successful.

I’ve written before about identifying roles first, assigning people second. Once people are assigned, it’s deflating to team members when they don’t know what purpose they serve on the project. If they don’t know their purpose and responsibilities, how would they be motivated and influenced to do great work?

Communications! This goes way beyond me talking or writing stuff down. You want to be able to influence your project team members, you’ll need good communication, including:

  • Listening: This is an underrated skill in my opinion. Listen to understand. Devote your attention to whomever is talking to you and ask questions.
  • Be Descriptive: “We need to get this done by EOD Friday” may get the point across, but may not be the most effective. Instead, be descriptive and say something like “We need to complete this task by Friday so the next group in line can start first thing Monday.”
  • Outcomes Instead of Actions: Team members want to know what they should accomplish, not told how to do the work. As a project leader, I get work done through others, so I talk about what we’re trying to achieve and let those smart than me figure out how.
  • Identify Different Communication Channels: Everyone communicates differently, so don’t approach every project and team the same. Allow for 1:1 conversations, small group discussions, and large team meetings. Talk about how best to communicate with me and others. You can’t influence team members by having one approach to communication. Have multiple.

Influence without authority is hard, time consuming, and tough to measure if you’re successful or not. But is it worth it? Heck yes! As project professionals, this is a skill we must acquire and continually hone. Very few of us will ever have authority, so we need to work on our ability to influence.

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Get Emotions Out, Then Get Them Out of the Way

What the hell just happened?

One minute, the project is moving along. The next, chaos. Some issue suddenly rears its ugly head and throws a wrench in progress. Whether this issue started as a known or unknown risk, a once happy team is suddenly stressed. Patience is frayed. Fingers are pointing. Blame is creeping in. The project issue is fading from view. The real issue now is the negativity of the team as “we” and “us” language turns more “you” and “me”. Emotional responses are taking over as morale slips. This ain’t good!

Emotions. Oxford defines it as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.” Emotions are reactions people experience in response to events and situations. When issues arise, especially in our business and projects, our emotions can immediately get triggered. It’s natural. Whether anxiety, fear, blame, anger, or combination, there will be an emotional response.

What I’ve learned is no two people’s emotional response to a situation is exactly the same. Whereas I can take a deep breath and say OK, let’s figure this out, someone else may panic. Others will go to worst-case and some want to talk it out in great detail. Everyone has their own emotional response.

Here’s what I’ll tell you; acknowledge yours and the team’s emotions and feelings. Though everyone responds different, you may find commonalities in the feedback. Let grievances air. Bring awareness to people’s perceptions. Then, get emotions out of the way and FOCUS on the problem!

I’ve had project and other business-related situations where there was a lot of negativity in the room. Emotions ran high and everyone was blaming everyone else. There was no collaboration or coming to alignment. Instead of letting emotions take over, the team had to be focused on the right thing, which was the PROBLEM.

Emotion vs. Problem Focused Coping. Emotion-focused coping can be appropriate when a problem can’t be solved and each person needs to regulate their emotional reactions to a stressor. For example, my friend called the other day to say he has cancer (thankfully, a very curable one, but cancer nonetheless). My reaction was sadness as he and I are the same age with kids near the same age, also. Since I couldn’t change the outcome, I asked what I could do to support him and his family. Then I went to the gym and sweat it out with some battle ropes.

But in business, venting emotions needs to happen quickly and then move on.  That energy needs to be saved for problem-focused coping. With problem-focused coping, the team confronts the stressor head on! Sorry something bad happened. Take a few minutes to get emotions out, then let’s solve it. The team works together to come up with solutions and takes action to eliminate it. These problems can be solved, so go solve them!

Leadership plays a large role during this time. Teams are looking for decisiveness and level-headedness from their leaders. Leaders have to bring the team from chaos, to problem solving, to solution. They understand how to balance allowing emotions to be expressed and then get the team to focus on the problem.

A former colleague of mine owns a small business doing network wiring for offices 4,000 square feet or less. Started in 2016, things were going good, until they weren’t. COVID cancelled or put on hold all contracts. Layoffs were probable if things didn’t change. He talked to his employees about the situation and naturally, there was sadness, frustration, and anxiety about the future. Once those emotions were out of the way, they brainstormed other ideas. Within a couple months, they were a successful home office wiring company. Through leadership and focusing energy on finding a solution, they were able to stay in business and are again thriving.

We can’t stop people from having emotional responses to situations. If you do, they’ll not like you for it. Instead, get emotions out, then get them out of the way. Problem-focused coping will help take that energy and find a solution to the problem you’re facing. Use emotions to your advantage!

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