Getting a Decision Made

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Image: Richard Croft (Source, Creative Commons license)

The second (and final) installment of my Get More Done class was this morning. I had a lot of fun putting the class together, and was pleased with how it turned out. I’ll probably offer it again in the fall, and if you want to get in on that, consider signing up for my new Management Monthly newsletter, so that you’ll get notified when registration opens.

One of the most fun things about putting together the class was the way it forced me to think through how I do some things that are so second nature to me now that they feel like instinct. One of those things is getting decisions made.

Project managers like to complain/joke that the job comes with a lot of responsibility but not much authority. That is true, and it makes the ability to get other people (or worse, groups of other people!) to make a decision one of the key skills a project manager needs to develop. I wanted to touch on this briefly in the class, and to do so, I needed to think about how I get people to make decisions.

I realized I have three key techniques.

The first is to understand what the decision-maker (or makers) need to make a decision. This can also be useful if you are the decision-maker and are unable to make a decision. Most people have some sort of decision-making trigger. For some people, it is data: provide them with some data, and they can decide. Other people need to have a discussion with a wider group of people. Others need to sleep on any important decision.

None of these needs are necessarily unreasonable or wrong, but all of them can lead to delay while a team waits for a key decision to be made. A really good project manager will see that delay coming and know how to avoid it by having the data on hand  or the decision-making discussion scheduled… or by just knowing that any big decision is going to take at least 24 hours to allow for “sleeping on it,” and including that time in her plans.

My second technique for getting decisions made applies particularly to decisions that need to be made by consensus of a group of people. It is to try to figure out what questions can be asked to make the decision easier to make. Essentially, try to find the questions whose answers will make the correct course of action obvious.

I used making Thanksgiving dinner as an example in my class, so I’ll continue that here. If you and your family are trying to decide whether or not to make cranberry sauce for the big meal, the first crucial question to ask is: how many of us like cranberry sauce? If the answer is that no one does, then your decision is made: don’t make the sauce. If everyone likes it, the decision will probably be that you should make it, although in some situations further analysis might be required. If only some people like it, then move on to more questions. How hard is the sauce to make? How much do the ingredients cost? Do the people who like cranberry sauce consider it a crucial part of the meal, or is it just a “nice to have”?

You get the idea. This is very similar to providing the data someone needs to make the decision, but focuses more on what the group needs to understand about itself to make the decision.

My final technique is to define the default option, and make it clear that failure to make a decision is still a decision. This is a classic “managing up” technique, but it is another one that you can also use on yourself if you’re having trouble making a decision. Essentially, you spell out what the team will do (or what will happen) if no decision is made. Here are some examples:

“If we don’t hear differently by Thursday, we’ll proceed with option 1.”

“If we don’t take action by Tuesday, the current supplies will run out next Friday.”

Sometimes, you’re saying that you’ll proceed with a specific plan unless the decision maker tells you to do something else. Sometimes, you’re just making it clear that the laws of the universe will continue to act and will produce a specific result unless a decision is made to intervene.

I’ll give a final example, to show how you can use this technique on yourself. My sister lived in New York City for awhile, and in a city like that, the dining options can sometimes get overwhelming. She had a friend who would flip a coin to determine where to go eat- with a twist. Once the coin flip picked an option, if she was disappointed with the result, she knew she should choose the other option. Adding a default clarified her preferences for her.

You can do something similar in your work. I’m not recommending that you make important project decisions by flipping a coin, but you can try to think through what the actual default result would be if you don’t make a decision. There is always a default. Sometimes, clarifying that will help you choose what you should do.

If not, there’s always the coin flip option.

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