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When is a Decision Final?

This article addresses the question, when can a decision no longer be changed?

Everything we do results from a conscious or unconscious decision. When it comes to anything important, it is better to make firm conscious decisions.

In projects, changing decisions about objectives, requirements, designs, staffing, and vendor selection is disruptive and costly. Not changing them may also be disruptive and costly.


When is a Decision Final?

A decision is final when it can no longer be changed. It can no longer be changed when the decision has been completely implemented or when authority, rules, and regulations say the decision cannot be changed.

We can’t revoke a decision to build a house once the house is built. It is physically impossible (in the absence of time travel) to go back and not build it. While it is physically possible to change a decision that has been deemed final by authority, there are political ramifications.


Models, Beliefs, and Relationships

Models and beliefs about sticking to decisions influence the decision-making process. Relationships among stakeholders are affected. Some expect that once a decision has been made the decision-making ends. They believe that going back to reassess a decision is a sign of poor decision making – being sloppy, wishy-washy or indecisive.

Consider the relationship between executives, clients, requirements analysts, and implementers.

  • Clients and executives love decisiveness and hate ‘analysis paralysis’ – they want to ‘get on with the work’
  • Clients often change their minds
  • Requirements analysts are charged with avoiding the need for changes and communicating changes to the implementers
  • Implementers are often ‘annoyed’ by the changes, thinking that the clients are indecisive and oblivious of the impact of their changes and the analysts are not doing a good enough job when eliciting requirements
  • Analysts feel that they are not given sufficient time and do not have sufficient access to decision makers.

We value both firm decisions and the flexibility to change them.


Expect Change

Change is inevitable. Consider a conscious decision-making process:

“1) Define values, goals, objectives and specifications underlying the issue or question

2) Define the decision making and target environments

3) Agree upon decision criteria

4) Identify solution options

5) Analyze and compare solution options vis-à-vis the decision criteria

6) Decide

7) Implement the decision

8) Monitor and adjust

9) Reflect on the process for lessons learned.”[1]

We see that step seven, Implement the decision, is not the finish line. We acknowledge the need for adjusting decisions whenever conditions change.


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Decision Making and Change Management

This question of when a decision is final links decision making and project change management.

The heart of change management is deciding whether to change previously made decisions.

A change management process decides whether to allow change to earlier, frozen, decisions. Changes are costly. Changing a requirements or design decision before it is implemented costs far less than changing it afterwards. Changing a decision that has been baked into a contract can require legal proceedings. Changing a screen design in a website less costly than changing the design of a physical product, like a bridge or building once construction is started.


A Middle Way

Enable and minimize change.

We want to be flexible, open to changing our minds, and we want to avoid wasting time and effort caused by having to unnecessarily revisit decisions.

Let’s look at a case. A design team decided on the use of a certain type of handheld device. Based on that decision a procurement process was started. A couple of weeks into the procurement process for the devices, the design team changed its mind. They decided that a handheld device would not work. They changed the design to use work stations instead. This wasted the time and effort of the procurement team and the vendors they reached out to for bids.

Was the change warranted? Yes, it was recognized that use of handheld devices made operational costs excessive.

Could the design change have been avoided? Maybe. If the team avoided unnecessary changes by spending more time and effective effort to better understand the decision factors – objectives, work environment, criteria – using checklists, and making sure people speak up with ideas, comments and criticisms.



In this case, the design team became aware that they had not consider the operational issue of the loss, damage, and ‘shrinkage’ of the devices when a member spoke up to bring the operational issue to light.

Why hadn’t he/she/they spoken up earlier? Maybe the idea just dawned, or out of fear to speak up during the design sessions. Either way, it was a good thing the issue was raised and that the design team and leadership accepted the change, even though it disrupted schedules and wasted effort. The up front loss was miniscule compared to the expenses saved.

Imagine if design team leadership didn’t support the change, saying that it was too late or too politically dangerous to question the earlier decision. Not only would there have been an inferior outcome, but some members of the design team would also be demotivated, thinking that their leadership was unprofessional and cowardly.

If this kind of thing happened frequently it would be a sign that the design team’s process needed some improvement.



Adapt an approach that dynamically balances enabling and avoiding changes.

Any project decision can be changed until the decision has been completely implemented. Minds change when information regarding decision factors change. While you may never be perfect, make sure your decision-making process addresses all the factors that influence the decision. Take the time to get it as right as possible the first time.

Consider how often stakeholders change their mind after having decided, and how many decisions end up being poor ones.

Do you need to devote more time and focused effort to the decision process? Do you need more formal facilitation, brainstorming, checklists, and input from experts regarding objectives, decision criteria, environmental considerations, and options?


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.