Making Effective Decisions: What is the Truth and How Important is it?
Effective decisions are central to project success.
Making effective decisions relies on the ability to manage conflicts among the decision makers and to weave together objective facts (truth) with opinions, analysis, risk assessment, and feelings.
There is nothing new about lying, manipulating the truth, and/or using rhetoric to influence decisions while ignoring objectivity and analysis. There is also nothing new about people buying into a “truth” because it reflects what they want the truth to be.
Many people seeking profits, safety, certainty and security will get behind anyone who promises to deliver these, even when they know deep down that they are being lied to. For these, truth is confused with wishful thinking rather than an objective assessment of facts and other factors.
While there are many newsworthy examples of blatant lies and hiding or misrepresenting facts, we will consider the ones that directly impact projects. Let’s look at an example.
In a process improvement project, the project’s costs and risks were significantly under stated. Senior management was provided with a highly detailed project description with functional specifications and plans, along with a simplified executive overview including high-level estimates. The executives wanted the project to succeed and were quick to sign off – probably without reading the detailed document and relying on the word of the project’s proponents.
The project’s proponents may not have purposely lied. They may have been influenced by their desire to make long needed process changes and by unconscious optimism or other biases. The project team and some functional managers grumbled, but no one paid attention to them. Risk analysis was getting in the way of approval, so risks were downplayed. Then, later during the project, problems, lateness, and overspending management softened the truth to spare key stakeholders from stress.
The result was a late and over budget project that delivered positive results that more than paid for the overrun. The project could have just as easily been a failure.
So, we have misrepresentation and, maybe, even straight-up lying; sometimes purposefully to sway decisions, sometimes out of fear of telling the truth, sometimes because the project control process is broken with inaccurate or inadequate data and reporting.
In our process improvement scenario, even though the project was late and over budget, the benefits outweighed the costs. One could argue that the misrepresentation of estimated costs and risks was justifiable – the ends justified the means. Project proponents thought “the bureaucrats and bean counters would never have authorized this needed project. We had to build an case they couldn’t turn down.”
The absence of truth telling is destructive, even when things turn out well. In the long term the organization and its inhabitants suffer. The absence of truth promotes subjective decision making based on special interests, bias, and power.
Executives are both robbed of their prerogative to make well informed decisions and cannot be held accountable for poor decisions. Performance is unlikely to be accurately measured and therefore less able to be improved. Because of schedule overruns other efforts’ schedules are impacted. Budget overruns can lead to other projects being cancelled for lack of funds. People are unnecessarily stressed and spend much time and energy covering things up. Paranoia, distrust, confusion, conflicts of interest, and increased uncertainty become characteristics of the culture.
Truth is the foundation for performance improvement and trust. Relying on truth, as supported by facts, data and objective analysis, leads to a self-improving culture.
Science relies on truth and scientists rely on peer review to keep one another honest. When we take a scientific approach to performance management, we get a self-correcting system. The truth comes out (if people are interested enough to check). When data indicates that performance is not in-sync with the plans and promises that set things in motion, causes of short-falls can be identified and addressed. Then, the process can be improved.
How To Know What is True
The dictionary says “truth is the property of being in accord with reality.” We will stay away from philosophical and religious Truths like the way the universe was created or whether people have free will. Project managers are interested in truths that effect performance on a practical level and that they can verify as being in accord with reality through objective analysis based on data.
In some cases, checking the facts and realizing that alternative facts are lies, will uncover the truth. For example, the financial cost of a project can be objectively determined through proper accounting, as can number of people attending an event, dying from a disease, making an error, or using a product.
However, it is not always that easy. The numbers may not be available. Estimates are predictions based on assumptions or beliefs. They are subject to uncertainty. Decisions about methodologies are important but easily subject to unfounded assumptions and beliefs. For example
- Is it true that an agile approach to project management is better than a waterfall approach? It might be. But is it always better? Probably not.
- Is it true that the decision-making executives in our example above would not have decided to go ahead with the project unless they were duped? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
- Were the project’s proponents justified in influencing the decision by hiding risks and underestimating?
To know the truth look at the evidence, assess the data, the facts – and make sure they are accurate. Distinguish between facts, opinions, assumptions, and beliefs. And, take multiple perspectives.
We cannot rely solely on the facts to make decisions. Meaningful decisions rely on a combination of factors. The facts are a foundation but there is a need to take multiple perspectives to build the case for an effective decision. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats model is a methodology for making well informed decisions and avoiding bias. It recommends taking six perspectives:
- Facts – data, evidence, probabilities,
- Positivity – optimism. value, benefit
- Judgement – criticism, risks
- Feelings – hunches, intuition, emotions
- Creativity – ideas, alternatives, possibilities, thinking outside of the box
- Process – managing the thinking and decision-making process, analysis and syntheisis
Taking these multiple perspectives is more likely to lead to an effective decision, particularly, when multiple competent players are collaborating in an open and well managed process in which there is clarity about fact, opinion, bias, truth and lie. One can “speak one’s truth” while acknowledging that it may be an opinion and/or influenced by biases.
Project success is achieved because hundreds of effective decisions are made. The more those decisions are based on a realistic, fact based analysis, the better.