Projects are, effectively, extended exercises in group decision-making. A typical project team faces hundreds to thousands of decisions—large and small. Decisions beget actions which beget the next set of issues and then more decision-choices.
Rinse and repeat.
Of course, as every project manager knows, the decision-making process on most teams is far from smooth:
- Discussions on key issues are filled with a mix of opinions all laced with personal biases and hefty helpings of emotions;
- The data behind many decisions is often limited or suspect;
- Issues of cost and concerns about trade-offs and timing swirl through these discussions exerting their own force on the ultimate choice;
- Political pressures exert a reality distortion field on many schedule and budget impacting decisions.
Given the many variables that stress and distort the decision-making process, the potential for mistakes is high. Effective project managers recognize this risk and strive to eliminate it by teaching their teams how to decide.
Decisions and Neuroscience
The field of neuroscience—how the brain works and how we decide—has advanced a great deal during the past few decades. We now understand how susceptible our brains are to cognitive biases—those biases that arise from our prior experiences, cultures and personal values.
We also know that we are not the “rational actors” economists have described for decades. In reality, we are prone to making very irrational decisions depending upon the circumstances. In a scenario with equivalent outcomes described differently, we are apt to be more conservative when faced with the positive outcome and take more risks when the negative outcome is emphasized.
For example, the statement: 70-percent of patients will survive with this new treatment elicits very different reactions and decisions than the equivalent: 30-percent of patients will die with this new treatment. Amplify these human realities by the number of members in a group and the opportunity for decisions to go wrong is greatly enhanced.
The theory underlying group decision-making suggests that a properly functioning group will make better decisions than the smartest individual member. Reality often falls far short of this lofty expectation. In my own experience, poor group decision-making processes and practices are contributing factors to project delays, cost overruns and team stress.
What’s a Project Manager to Do?
Decision-making is problem solving, and we know it’s not easy but doable. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that you can incorporate into your team development work that reduces the risk from poor decision-making processes. These include:
1. Teach Your Team a New Way to Talk
The guided and parallel thinking discussion process inherent in Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats approach is a must-learn and must-use tool for every project manager. The essence of the process is to reduce discussion swirl and focus the entire group on one core theme at a time.
Instead of arguing the way forward through a topic, teams design their way forward. The facilitator cycles through six key themes (or what De Bono calls “Thinking Hats”), including: process, data/facts, risks, emotions, brainstorming/ideation and positive framing.
Instead of the usual swirl of all of those themes at one time, the team members focus directly on each issue until the topic is exhausted. The facilitator guides the group from hat-to-hat or theme-to-theme, ensuring that all observations are captured and kept visible to the group. A practiced facilitator allows for return trips to the various themes until the group has exhausted its input.
In one recent session surrounding a critical and controversial design decision, my process unfolded as follows:
- I initially invoked the red hat and allowed the team to vent.
- After venting, my instinct suggested that the team wanted to identify all of the risks inherent in the decision choices, so I called on the black hat.
- With the negative emotions and risks momentarily exhausted, I switched to the white hat and encouraged the team to assess the data we had available for this decision. A follow on question challenged the group to think about the additional data we needed to make a fully informed decision.
- It was time for brainstorming so on went the green hat.
- After the brainstorming died down, I shifted to the yellow hat and focused on the positives with the question: what will this situation look like when we get it right?
- I cycled back through each hat and finally invoked the blue hat for process where we defined the way we were going to make the decision.
While this process does not magically generate the ultimate decision for a big issue it prepares the team to make the decision. Following the facilitated discussion, team members are now prepared to re-frame the problem and begin working toward a decision.
2. Using Framing for Fun, Profit and Effective Decision-Making
How we frame an issue—positive, negative or neutral—has a profound impact on the decision options that are developed and selected. Positive frames invoke conservative solutions, and negative frames tend to invite riskier approaches.
For large and controversial topics, consider using multiple frames to stimulate the identification of different solutions.
One project manager drew upon the output of the facilitated discussion to frame the issue first as a positive and then as a negative. In both cases, she carefully controlled the wording of the statement of the problem and encouraged team members to explore and recommend decision options given that wording. Not surprisingly, the positive and negative wording resulted in different choices. She then invoked neutral framing and the group converged upon their final decision for this issue.
3. Bolt, Don’t Weld Your Decisions to the Deck
Part of the challenge with the decision process on many project teams is that decisions are made and then quickly reversed. One team member described the decision churn on his team as a case of everyone grabbing the deck chairs and running to one side of the ship, and then suddenly reversing the process. He desperately wished someone would bolt the chairs down so the team could focus on execution.
While there are occasions where a change is justified based on new facts or customer choices, minimizing churn is an important part of securing process and productivity gains from a strengthened approach to decision making.
A great project leader I once worked around took the idea of the simple decision log to an entirely new level to help with this problem. He encouraged us to log a great deal of information about our major decisions, including: framing wording, assumptions, expectations, individuals involved and anything else salient to that particular issue. He then required all parties involved to sign the log. This simple act of signing raised the level of commitment individuals felt for a decision. As a result, decision churn on this particularly challenging team reduced tremendously.
4. Monitor Quality to Drive Improvement
The best project managers strive to continuously improve team performance around key processes. Given the extensive data captured in the decision log identified above, it is easy to evaluate decision-making effectiveness over time and identify process flaws. By comparing expected and actual outcomes and reviewing key assumptions, teams are able to identify process improvements for future decisions. One group recognized they struggled with overly optimistic estimates. They invited an objective outsider to future sessions to challenge their assumptions and rein in their optimism bias.
The Bottom Line
Teams march forward at the speed of decisions and they succeed by making more right than wrong decisions. The effort to teach your team how to make decisions will reduce critical errors, improve productivity and reduce group stress—all critical factors in your pursuit of high performance.
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