Project Managers as decision-
Project Managers encounter many situations throughout the project life when choices have to be made and decisions taken. It could be making a decision about a specific way to solve a problem, or having to choose a particular technology to deliver a project, or perhaps selecting an external vendor. Regardless of the scenario, PMs need to analyse a situation, identify and assess options, and make a decision. In theory. Because most of the time (and particularly when it comes to situations that have a significant impact on the project), PMs don’t actually get to make the decision and need to secure it from their stakeholders. Hence, it is critical for a PM to know how to communicate effectively about options so that others can make the right decision.
How to communicate effectively about options:
- Be clear about who makes the decisions: it may sound obvious but sometimes it isn’t so. Many projects have (over)complicated governance models with demands for consensus across a large group of people. Whether you have one decision-maker (lucky you) or 10 (sigh), identify upfront who will need to validate a particular decision. Keep other people informed but only seek approval from those who should (and can) give it.
- Adapt to your stakeholders’ decision-making style (always think about your audience first): find out how your stakeholders actually make decisions and adapt your communications accordingly. Not all decision-makers have the same approach, so look at how your stakeholders like to operate: Do they need lots of details or are happy to rely on the big picture? Do they want to get involved early in evaluating options or expect to validate recommendations? Do they need review/buy-in from others or can they make the decision independently?
- Give people choice…: avoid going with only one option or a Hobson’s choice as this removes people’s ability to decide, and will likely antagonise them. Always propose several options: even in situations where there doesn’t seem to be a lot, it’s actually ok to propose things that you know no-one wants (such as the widely unpopular “do nothing”). Although you shoudn’t overdo it and present unrealistic choices, putting in a “bad” option can actually help you influence your stakeholders in selecting the right one. This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but research shows that we don’t always know our own preferences, and are better at picking something from a list if it includes things we don’t like. Check out Dan Arieli’s talk on TED on this subject; he has some great factual examples showing how our behaviours and decision-making ability can change depending on how things are presented to us.
- … but not too much: don’t come up with too many options though: this can be overwhelming, and it will actually reflect badly on you: as the PM, you should show you have done the groundwork and sieved through the un-SMART choices to actually enable your stakeholders to make a good, informed decision.
- Influence (aka help people make the right decision): you may not be the one making the decision, but you should always be ready with a recommendation and have enough to back it up. If your decision-maker pushes for an alternative, be clear about the impact of going his/her way. Try to remain open and objective though: they aren’t there just to say yes or no; they can also provide insight and input into problem-solving. And they are also the customers, so you need to be ready to support them.
- Make your message clear and simple:
- don’t drown people with details: people don’t need to see all the detailed work that’s gone into analysing, comparing and drawing out conclusions, so keep things meaningful but “exec-summary” style. State the situation you are addressing, and provide a brief, clear description of each option, focusing on why it solves the problem. If people want details, they’ll ask.
- make your recommended option stand out: when discussing options, the position of your preferred option counts: either put it first (this gives you the benchmark to compare other options against) or leave it for last (this works well when you want to introduce an alternative that hasn’t been considered before and when none of the other options are really satisfactory; saving the preferred option for the end allows you to showcase it as “the” solution). Just don’t drown it in the middle.
- make your message visually clear: in addition to keeping words succinct and to-the-point, use good visual presentation to support your message. A simple table showing the options with their key comparison points will be more effective than a long, detailed narrative. Clearly point out pros and cons, and if you use a scoring method to show how options are evaluated, keep it simple and make sure it does not leave room for interpretation (include a guideline or legend to help your readers understand it).
- Follow-up: once a decision is made, communicate it to the rest of the team and the project stakeholders. Be clear about the impact on the project and update your plan and activities accordingly.
And here’s one I made earlier…
The example below shows a situation where a project is impacted by a vendor’s poor performance. Analysis work has gone into the process, and findings are presented to the project sponsor for validation: options are summarised with pros and cons concisely presented, and the recommendation is clearly highlighted.