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Making the Right Decision at the Right Time – Don’t Jump to Conclusions

Projects thrive on decisions. They are made by all stakeholders throughout project life, with most being made by individual performers regarding their own work.

All decisions require clear thinking, analysis, information and the participation of the right people. Those decisions that have ripple effects across the project or outside of the project’s boundaries are of particular importance. They often require collaboration by several people, often with one person who will make the final decision.

Avoid BOTH Jumping to Conclusions AND Analysis Paralysis

There is a continuum between making immediate snap decisions (jumping to conclusions) and spending so much time in assessing and communicating about the decision that there is analysis paralysis – spending so much time in the decision process that no decision is made.

Some decisions must be made immediately, to address time critical emergencies – fires. Others can be made over time; how much time depends on the situation. In well-planned projects, the number of decisions that must be made in the blink of an eye are few. Those for which there is time to reflect, analyze and assess multiple options before deciding are the norm. At the same time, analysis paralysis is unacceptable. Closure is needed in decision making. Either there is a decision or a clear statement that there will be no decision.

If you frequently experience emergency decisions, look at the degree to which inadequate planning and short-sighted decisions are a cause of excessive firefighting and snap decisions. If you find that snap decisions made without sufficient analysis are habitual, then break the habit. Decisions made without sufficient information and analysis are likely to lead to rework and unmet expectations.

If on the other hand, analysis paralysis is your norm, look at the fear of making a wrong decision and overcome it by understanding the need for due diligence and the reality that any decision can be wrong no matter how much time you spend analyzing. Monitor the implementation of the decision and be open to change.

Plan for Decision Making

Identify specific decision-making tasks and be aware of the decisions embedded in other tasks. Set time constraints to inform decision makers so they can use the right process and be aware of the impact of delays.


For example, a design task’s duration estimate should include the time required for the team to decide on the issues that arise as alternatives are encountered. Deriving the estimate includes an understanding of the decision-making process. Include the time for making these in process decisions in the design task itself, rather than as separate tasks. The design team must monitor against their target date and assess how decision making is impacting the schedule.

Following the design task is a task for a higher-level decision regarding design alternatives and/or the acceptance of the design proposed by the design team. This task’s duration depends on several factors, among them, the number of decision makers, their bandwidth and the number of decisions they must make, their process, etc. A time box for this task may not fully constrain overly long delays, but it highlights the potential impact of delays and gives the decision makers a sense of what is expected of them. As with any task, the duration should be accepted by the performers and, of course, must be realistic.

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There is uncertainty about how long it will take to make a decision, particularly when there are multiple decision makers working without a clear decision-making approach. To manage expectations, make this uncertainty explicit in the project plan by establishing risks related to excessive decision-making time. In one example approval of a contract for project critical services took six months rather than the estimated six weeks. The result was a delay in the start of the project and a disruption of funding and resource assignments. Learning from this experience, future planning addressed such delays as risks and sought to reduce their probability and impact.

Considering the impact of the decision and time constraints, managers must decide what degree of due diligence is required for each decision.

For example, the decision to include extra, technically ready, features into the next release of a product can have a big impact on the product’s users when training, marketing, organizational change, support services and data preparation factors are considered. A quick decision, driven by the desire to bring more features and functions into the user community, a prejudice against spending time analyzing multiple scenarios, and the fact that the hardware and software are ready, could lead to costly disruption.

The Decision-Making Process

To better manage decision making in projects, understand decision making as a process. While this is not the place for any in-depth process description, here are some fundamental key points:

  • Balance intuition and analysis. “Blink” or gut feel based snap decisions can be very accurate and correct. They may also be completely wrong.
    Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, gives the example of an art expert who immediately and correctly recognized a fraudulent statue after it went through months of analysis by other experts. He also recounts the story of a policeman who shot an unarmed innocent man based on a snap decision driven by fear and bias.
  • Use formal analytical methods such as weighted scoring to make complex and impactful decisions. These require skill, time and effort.
  • Make sure decision makers understand their objectives. For example, is the decision to validate and accept a proposal or to identify an optimal solution, where the proposal is one alternative? Ambiguous objectives will send the decision makers off on a path that may take unnecessary time and effort and result in unmet expectations.
  • Recognize biases, desires and political issues that impact decision-making.
  • To make informed decisions, step back and assess everyone’s, including your own, abilities to be objective.
  • Accept the reality that a good decision may not be the “right” decision. A good decision is one made in a timely manner as the result of a healthy process that has assessed multiple factors (e.g., costs, risks, duration, quality, pros, cons and alternatives) from multiple perspectives. A right decision is one that works out as expected.
  • Involve the right people at the right time. Promote consensus and mutual ownership of the decision. Make sure the people who will have to act upon the decision and those who will have to live with its outcome have a say.
  • Decisions are subject to change. For example, the decision to perform a project can be reversed as it becomes clear that the project is no longer worth doing – even after spending millions of dollars on the project. Monitor the action the decision sets in motion and adjust accordingly.
  • Document decisions and the criteria used in making them
  • Regularly assess your decision-making process to continuously improve it.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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