Every project is made up of decisions and tasks. And every project management professional has to make decisions on how to choose among a variety of options to move a project forward. How often do you think about—and work on—your decision-making skills, as you focus on juggling your project schedule, manage resources and other job demands?
Improving your ability to make decisions is simple. Psychologists, economists, philosophers and other scholars have been studying how people made decisions for ages. The good news is that improving your ability to make smart decision is mainly a matter of avoiding mistakes.
Here are 10 essential best practices to make decisions—and take action—in the project management field.
Making better decisions: the foundation
1. The two-minute rule
Can you complete the action in less than two minutes? Do it right now and stop thinking about it any further. This classic piece of guidance comes from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It’s classic advice that deserves to be repeated and put into action.
2. Make minor decisions fast
For small decisions, spend a small amount of time. For example, I recently had several discussions about the right way to handle a $15 invoice from a supplier. Given this supplier sends over $50 million in invoices per year, it simply is not worth it to spend much time on these invoices. Make a decision fast and move on.
3. Pick up the phone
Do you use email a lot? I do! Email is fantastic in many ways (especially as a memory aid). Unfortunately, email can slow down decision making. The next time you need more information in order to make a decision, make a short phone call. You will make many decisions faster this way—just try it.
4. Establish criteria for major decisions
When it comes to allocating resources, assigning major project tasks and spending large amounts of money, it’s important to be thoughtful. That doesn’t mean you should spin your wheels.
Try this: Take 20 minutes and write a one-page document summarizing your decision making criteria for major decisions. I suggest using the Iron Triangle for most project decisions. Evaluate major decisions based on time, scope, quality and making the client happy. You can deliver a quality project on deadline but still leave the client feeling frustrated and dissatisfied because of other unmet areas. This achieves nothing.
5. Avoid big decisions before lunch
Never appear before a judge right before lunch. According to a study reported in Discover Magazine, experienced Israeli judges evaluating parole requests were statistically more likely to deny requests right before a meal break:
“All repetitive decision-making tasks drain our mental resources. We start suffering from ‘choice overload’ and we start opting for the easiest choice . . . The [judges’s] training, their experience, and the weighty nature of their decisions do not insulate them from the sort of problems that plague our everyday mental abilities.”
This research shows that nobody is immune. Each decision you take drains your resources. Well-trained and focused professionals like judges and project managers are influenced. So, after you read this article, take a short break. It might prevent you from getting sent to project jail.
Mastering mental blind spots: Advanced secrets for better project decisions
6. The halo effect
Star performers are in high demand. Many project managers fight hard to get the team members with the best reputations on their projects. However, there’s a hidden danger to placing stars on your project team without knowing more about how their strengths relate to your project.
The halo effect is a cognitive bias where we develop opinions of people based on overall (and popular) impressions. Take the time to realize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses on your project—first impressions can lead you astray. Make your decisions accordingly and base them in the reality, not reputation.
7. Availability bias
We’re swimming in oceans of information. How do you decide what to pay attention to? Psychological research finds that many people focus on information that feels available to them. The availability bias is typically influenced by the emotional association of the memory.
To combat the availability bias, you need to rely on your project team. By regularly asking, “What else can we do about the situation?” or “What other options are there?” you’ll go a long way to fighting this bias.
8. Escape the curse of knowledge—act like a beginner
Our advanced economy is filled with experts with deep knowledge. In fact, many projects are staffed with subject matter expertise on topics ranging from privacy to database development.
Have you ever yelled at a project stakeholder because they didn’t understand technology? If so, you’ve fallen victim to the curse of knowledge. Until you free yourself from this curse, your communication with stakeholders will suffer.
To escape the curse, act like a beginner. Think back to the time before you knew the application inside out. Do you remember what it felt like when you didn’t know all those technology acronyms? Do you remember how confusing that felt? Thinking back to those days will help you explain project requirements and tasks more clearly.
9. Endowment effect: loss hurts
Like or it not, we tend to get attached to our possessions. The endowment effect makes it harder for us to make trades that would improve our well-being. For example, we’d keep our current car or favorite shirt instead of swapping it for its monetary value.
This concept applies directly to project management. When you make a decision to cut a feature from a project, stakeholders may feel the pain of that loss keenly. Of course, cutting the feature is sometimes the right decision.
Before you cut a feature or function from the project, ask yourself, “Are there any stakeholders who directly asked for this?” If so, go talk to that stakeholder before making a final decision. They may have helpful ideas or resources that enable you to keep the project scope intact.
10. Fundamental attribution error
“He’s just plain irresponsible and unprofessional—that’s why he’s ignoring my requests.”
Watch out for these types of assumptions. Relying on personality-based explanations for behavior is the heart of the fundamental attribution error. Yes, personality matters. But it’s not the only factor to consider. You also need to look at the person’s environment. Did you ask for a big favor late on Friday afternoon? That context may explain the lackluster reaction you received.
To avoid falling victim to fundamental attribution error on your projects, ask yourself what else could be influencing a team mate’s actions. This exercise will make you more empathetic and better at delivering projects.