Project decision making: a guide for doing it better

Let me tell you about a project decision that was awkward for me — then I’ll share some tips on how to do decision-making better.

We were due to go live with our pilot software launch but things didn’t feel right. We had the go/no go meeting and as I sat in the office, it just felt like we weren’t ready.

My project sponsor was on holiday in Canada. I emailed him, because I wanted to be told that we were making the right decision.

I got a message back: his hotel had burned down. He and his wife escaped with his phone and her jewelry. He sent a photo. It was bad.

That meant the decision was on me. Delaying was the right thing to do, but not an easy choice. We’d been working on this for a year. People were lined up to support the pilot.

Our executive sponsor was sitting in his office; one of those rooms with glass walls. I knocked on his door and explained why no one had heard anything from my boss and what I thought we should do about delaying the launch. He nodded.

Decision taken. We would delay the pilot.

And… breathe.

Taking the decision was the hard part. The easier part is always implementing that decision – after all, isn’t that what project managers do?

As a project manager, you will be used to making multiple decisions on a daily basis. People will rely on you, often several times a day, to provide guidance and to help make important decisions.

Some of those decisions are straightforward. You just decide a path and move on. Other decisions have broader impact and will likely require additional thought and even input from multiple team members and stakeholders.

All of them are part of the project governance framework.

Some of the most common decisions for project managers are related to cost, scope, resources, and schedule.

In the planning phase there are a lot of decisions to make before a project even starts. If I’m being honest, the decisions never really stop.

However, if we make enough good decisions, especially during planning, it can certainly make our lives easier. Who doesn’t want that?

It’s helpful to have a decision-making process or framework to guide you, especially when faced with complex problems that require additional info from others.

Using a framework is important to ensure consistency in how decisions are made, and to help minimize or remove any personal bias around certain solutions or options that might unfairly sway the outcome.

In this article, I will provide more detail on a framework for making better decisions in an effective, rational and ethical way.

Step-by-step decision-making process overview

There are 5 steps in the decision-making process in project management. They are:

  1. Identify decision – someone identifies the need for a decision (project manager, project team member, or another stakeholder).
  2. Gather information – determine what information is available to help make an effective decision.
  3. Evaluate and select option – review available information, potential path forward, and pros / cons of each to determine the preferred option based on agreed criteria.
  4. Take action and implement – implement the selected option.
  5. Monitor outcome – monitor the impact of the decision on the project.
decision making process

Let’s look at each of those in more detail.

Step 1: Identify

The need for a decision occurs at any time during a project’s lifecycle. The first step is to identify that there is a choice that needs to be made – a problem that needs to be solved or something else you need to take a decision on.

The people who determine the need for a decision can also vary – from project leader, to project team member, to a request from key project stakeholders.

It is worth mentioning that the project manager has the option to delegate decisions to the project team (or specific team members) when appropriate. For example, the project manager may rely on a lead for a specific discipline or project area to help manage routine or day-to-day decisions.

The most common example would be what specific task(s) the project team members will work on each day. However, it is appropriate to set some boundaries for escalation so that the project manager can focus on other project responsibilities but still “step in” to help support as needed.

Once the need for a decision is identified, the project team should start to gather information.

Step 2: Gather Information

The next step is gathering information and that’s exactly what you think it is. The team looks at what information is available to help determine overall project status, give some context for the decision, and use that to help facilitate a good result. 

Some examples of useful information would be:

  • the project’s overall financial status
  • financial targets such as profit margin that are set by the business
  • cost benefit analysis of various options
  • planned versus actual progress for ongoing work
  • root causes, if the choice relates to an issue
  • resource availability on the project and within the available resource pool (if applicable)
  • external factors that might make a difference
  • any other relevant data.

If you don’t know what’s going to be useful think about it this way: what are our options? Silent brainstorming, a SIPOC diagram, or using digital tools like Google Jamboard to put down all the ideas could get the ball rolling.

Tip: Part of the decision-making process is to identify the decision-makers. Sometimes you need to know how to make a group decision; sometimes you can make the call yourself.

The purpose of gathering the information is to ensure that the decision is based on the most current project state and information. The type of information that is needed may also vary depending on the decision.

For example, if the decision involves vendor selection to help deliver a specific part of the project, then it would be helpful to have a list of relevant vendors, their status on a preferred vendors list, any differences that may exist in pricing, contract terms, or other relevant factors to consider in the selection process.

Tip: You need all the info in order to make an informed decision. Don’t skimp on this step!

Step 3: Evaluate and Select

During this step, the project manager, the project team, or a combination of these discusses all available and relevant information. They may also pull in other subject matter experts and / or stakeholders as needed.

Here are some options to help evaluate the various options you have identified:

  • Team voting. The team can discuss and vote on the various options. This can be done by a secret vote or open team vote. Open option for voting “openly” is to put various options on a flip chart and have team members put sticky notes, stars, or other indicators of the option(s) they believe would be best.
  • Elimination. If there are options that will not work for some reason (example: extremely unfavorable contract terms) then those options might be eliminated.
  • Multiple criteria. Sometimes it is helpful to identify multiple criteria and score the various options across those criteria (perhaps on a scale of 1 – 10) in terms of how much benefit or value they bring to the project. Then the option with the highest composite score would be the most likely choice
  • Decision tree analysis. Some problems lend themselves to this kind of analysis. Create a tree structure with different paths. That can help you see the options available so the team can select the best possible solution.
  • SWOT analysis. I would use this for portfolio or strategic-level decisions, but it’s not something I used regularly for project-level decisions.

Sometimes you’ll want to use a variety of techniques so you can look at a problem from all angles. However, that can extend the time period for actually getting on and doing the work. Ideally, you’ll have documented the decision-making process in the project management plan because it’s relevant to project governance and quality, so hopefully you can look back at that for some guidance on how to keep things moving.

Tip: Avoid dragging out this process over a long time. Failure to decide can block progress – sometimes the best approach is just to choose and move on.

Once the team has completed the discussion and evaluated the various options, one option is usually a clear winner. If that is the case, then that’s the best choice and that option can be implemented.

In some cases, if two or more options are considered equivalent (or close to it) then perhaps additional criteria might be considered. If that is not the case, then some options may be equivalent and other factors like ease of implementing and least impact on the project may also help narrow the selection.

Step 4: Take Action / Implement

Once there is a clear choice, that option can be integrated into the project plan. The team should take necessary action to carry out the decision as described.

In addition to the implementation, there are other steps to take for completeness and adherence to good project management practice.

In general, stakeholders should be kept informed of the different decisions even if they aren’t directly involved in the choice itself. For a more important decision, it is a good idea to send a general communication on the challenge, the outcome, and the rationale for the decision.

Using a Decision Log

To ensure that decisions and outcomes are also properly documented, add them to the Key Decision Log (which you might call the Project Decision Log). This is the best place to record any critical project decisions that occur during a project’s lifecycle.

If someone, including a project stakeholder, questions a decision later, you can always revisit the decision log to explain what was decided, the relevant context at the time, and who agreed. This is particularly helpful in cases where stakeholders may tend to change their minds.

Keep in mind that the most influential stakeholders may have their own expectations in terms of updates and when they should be involved. It is always a good idea to discuss this at project kickoff to ensure that they are always appropriately informed.

Step 5: Monitor Outcome

Once the best solution is implemented, monitor the impact on the project. For example, if a decision is to add new team members during a project, it would be a good idea to monitor their efficiency and work quality to spot potential issues early (or validate that there is no impact).

Tip: Use this step to learn for next time. What can you take from this experience that will help you on future decisions?

What decisions can you use this process for?

There are several types of decisions you’ll be making on projects.

Programmed and non-programmed decisions

Programmed decisions are the kind you have a formula for: can we approve this request for leave? Do we organize the project board meeting for Tuesday or Friday? There’s a process or a set of norms to follow, even if you can’t predict when the decision will need to be made.

Non-programmed decisions don’t follow the program. They have more variables and are typically more complex. Shall we buy or build? Should we launch these new products or improve these processes first?

Operational and strategic decisions

Some decisions affect the operational running of the project: routine decisions about who gets assigned to which task, for example.

Strategic decisions relate more to the direction the project needs to take. They typically affect the budget, benefits, or key deliverables for the project – and sometimes the project manager doesn’t have the authority to make them. You’ll have to present recommendations for major decisions to the project sponsor or project board, and they will normally make the final decision.

Risk and decision making

Risk management is an exercise in decision-making. Once you’ve identified a risk, you need to come up with a plan to manage it. There’s normally a bunch of ways you can mitigate against a risk, so you need to apply all your analysis skills to make the right choice.

One of the factors in making a choice is risk. If you have online tools and the skills to do it, Monte Carlo simulation can give you a picture of what the impact of any particular course of action will be through risk modeling. I love the idea of it, but I’ve never worked anywhere that has taken a proactive approach to simulation.

Project management software also has decision-based modeling built in to help you see the impact of a choice on project tasks and timelines — if that feature is important to you, choose the a tool that will let you model the outcome of your decisions.

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An ethical model for decision-making

In some cases, a decision may have ethical considerations. You should always be mindful of conflicts of interest, working with other ethical companies, responsible use of company resources, adherence to established company policy, etc.

Some project decisions may even negatively impact others, create bad press for the company, or harm the environment. Although the specifics may vary by project, the ethics of a decision should always be considered.

Skills for decision-making

There are certain skills to help a team make effective decisions. Those skills vary by team member and role. Here’s what I mean:

  • Stakeholder: demonstrate trust by letting teams make decisions independently as often as possible
  • Project manager: provide meeting facilitation, emphatic listening, stakeholder engagement, asking probing questions, using the 5 Whys
  • Team members: provide subject matter expertise.

In summary

Making decisions is a normal part of managing projects. Although some decisions may seem complex, you can also rely on input from team members, subject matter experts, and stakeholders.

As decisions get more complex, using a framework or step-by-step guide can make things much easier – and positively influence the project’s success. Once a decision is made, don’t forget to document, tell the relevant people, implement what was agreed, and monitor the outcome.

Your next steps

Good luck and happy decision-making!

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project decision making