Did you ever have to make up your mind-- take up with one, and leave the other behind?
The Lovin’ Spoonful
Whenever you see a successful business,someone once made a courageous decision.
Gottlieb was funny. The Spoonful was empathetic. Drucker was knowledgeable and dead serious. All three provide windows into the human need for certitude, which is a burden – often a barrier – to successful project management.Good project managers not only live well with ambiguity, they thrive on it. The more rewarding the potential payoff for a project, the more uncertainty and risk there is likely to be. Therefore, the greater is the need for correct decision making.
And there’s the rub. If the information were available for a sure decision, you wouldn’t need all those project management skills we work so hard to develop. But those skills don’t provide certitude. The project manager doesn’t, either, but he/she provides a decision anyway.
This is not a black-and-white matter, despite Gottlieb’s sarcastic insight.Besides the shortage of both time and information characteristic of projects, there also is the frequent reality that the project manager generally does not have direct enforcement authority.
Someone with functional authority must supply the clout, the funds and whatever else is needed to make it happen.
Another huge generator of complexity is that this problem is not presented solo. The project manager typically has dozens of simultaneous demands, large and small, human and technical, professional and practical. Blowing any one of them can make life a lot more time-consuming and frustrating.
The longer you’re in this business, the more tried-and-true solutions you have at your disposal. Hard experience also teaches alertness to one’s own tendency to grab a likely fix and slap it on a situation so you can move on to more important concerns.
All of us do this on occasion, no matter how experienced we are. Often, it works well enough to make the thing go away. Of course, if it turns out that wasn’t the right solution, this previously modest problem now has become a time-consuming headache. And maybe a professional embarrassment, too.
Lou Gottlieb’s advice above – take your pick – reveals a frequent weakness in decision making. That is the assumption that the responsible person has to choose between two unlike alternatives, either of which would block out the other.When you’re in a hurry, that seems to be all you’ve got, so you go for one of them . . . making things worse.
This is a big bugaboo in negotiating. I frequently use a training exercise that shows how accustomed we are to valuing quick results over good results. When a zero-sum game is presented, people tend to go for immediate dominance, or they wind up stuck in a stalemate.
I don’t want to give away my best stuff in a blog post, so I’ll just say conversation, especially open-minded questioning coupled with active listening, is indispensable. When a situation appears to be that of direct conflict involving two or more strong interests, the apparent differences are never inescapable.
It is essential, though, to forgo any sense of win/lose. The Harvard Negotiation Program has long promoted its creative problem-solving approach, which emphasizes issues bargaining over positional competition.
You don’t set out to beat the other party; you set out to explore all angles in concert with the other party, often coming up with a totally unexpected solution that benefits both. The outcome can be more beneficial than either had expected or sought.
Powerful decision making shares the spirit of the Harvard approach. You take nothing at face value, especially anything presented as an absolute. There are no absolutes. Nothing is settled until everything is settled.Something that seemed carved in granite can melt away as more important and valuable factors are discovered or created in a vigorous exploration.
So the project manager faced with an urgent matter, with demands for a quick decision, does not hurry. He/she may act quickly, but the first action is to question, not decide.
Peter Drucker said the best decision is the one that covers the least possible territory. In fact, he insisted that all available time be used for thinking, conferring and information-gathering. The minimal decision contributes to that.
Drucker even went so far as to state that many decisions don’t need to be made at all. Problems just fade away, or really don’t require any action.
A related matter is that of delegating and staff development. Good managers often respond to requests for decision by asking the requester what has been done so far. Did you do everything you could within your own area of responsibility before turning to me?
The moment becomes one of teaching rather than accepting responsibility that could be handled at a lower level.
A lot of factors conspire against the project manager in making the right decision, rather than a safe decision.First of all, there’s the basic human desire to avoid pain and danger – such as that posed by the possibility of being wrong in a very public and important way. Another is the attraction of the protection that comes with doing other others see as logical – so when doing it doesn’t work, it’s seen as just a bad break.
Going the other way by, say, trying something no one else has seen before can earn you instant disapproval if not outright opposition. Sometimes you have to fight your own people before you can deal with the issue. Man, you’d better be right, or else.
The best project managers don’t settle for a sigh of relief once a matter has been resolved. They learn from the experience, and consciously file the lessons, along with an enhanced decision tree, for use the next time.
They approach any decision moment with questions and an open, inquiring, collegial mind.
They’re not at all risk-averse, but they’re not daredevils. When they take a chance, it’s a calculated one. They know their odds might be 60-40, or 50-50, or 40-60. If their decision comes out at the wrong end, they’ll openly take the hit. They’re prepared for that possibility.
They know how to minimize the damage, and the next time they’ll be that much better prepared. The result over time is a net gain.
So decisions – real decisions – aren’t easy. Drucker famously said real decisions are rare, and when they come along, they call for “the C word – courage.” You’ll see that in effective project managers.One way they show it is when they decide to hold off or pass off. No matter how panicked everyone else is, demanding action, one of the available options always will provide an answer to the Lovin’ Spoonful:
“Yes, I’ve had to make up my mind, but not this time.”
Factoids: Junk Food of the Mind