Most decisions on a project do not require a formal meeting to discuss alternatives and determine solutions. Instead decisions are made in real time as part of the daily interaction patterns between project managers, stakeholders, and team members. With that said, I do feel that a formal decision making process should be at the ready, and the project manager should promote it and use it whenever though decisions are to be made.
For example, as a result of a routine “how’s it going?” question, a project manager discovers that a mechanical engineer is stuck trying to meet the performance criteria for a prototype he is responsible for building.
The project manager and engineer go down the hallway to talk to the designers, explain the problem, and ask what, if anything, can be done. The designers distinguish which criteria are essential and which ones they think can be compromised.
The project manager then checks with the marketing group to make sure the modifications are acceptable. They agree with all but two of the modifications.
The project manager goes back to the mechanical engineer and asks whether the proposed changes would help solve the problem.
The engineer agrees. Before authorizing the changes he calls the project sponsor, reviews the events, and gets the sponsor to sign off on the changes.
This is an example of how, by practicing MBWA (management by wandering around), project managers consult team members, solicit ideas, determine optimum solutions, and create a sense of involvement that builds trust and commitment to decisions.
Still, projects encounter problems and decisions that require the collective wisdom of team members as well as relevant stakeholders. A group decision making process should be used when it will improve the quality of important decisions. This is often the case with complex problems that require the input of a variety of different specialists.
A group decision making process should also be used when strong commitment to the decision is needed and there is a low probability of acceptance if only one person makes the decision. Participation is used to reduce resistance and secure support for the decision.
A group decision making process would be called for with controversial problems which have a major impact on project activities or when trust is low within the project team. Guidelines for managing a group decision making process are provided below.
Facilitating the Group Decision Making Process
Project managers play a pivotal role in guiding the group decision making process. They must remind themselves that their job is not to make a decision but to facilitate the discussion within the group so that the team reaches a consensus on the best possible solution.
Consensus within this context does not mean that everyone supports the decision 100 percent, but that they all agree what the best solution is under the circumstances. Facilitating the group decision making process essentially involves four major steps. Each step is briefly described next with suggestions for how to manage the process.
The Four Steps Decision Making Process
Problem identification. The project manager needs to be careful not to state the problem in terms of choices (e.g., should we do X or Y?). Rather the project manager should identify the underlying problem to which these alternatives and probably others are potential solutions. This allows group members to generate alternatives, not just choose among them.
One useful way of defining problems is to consider the gap between where a project is (i.e., the present state) and where it should be (desired state).
For example, the project may be four days behind schedule or the prototype weighs two pounds more than the specifications. Whether the gap is small or large, the purpose is to eliminate it. The group must find one or more courses of action that will change the existing state into the desired one.
If one detects defensive posturing during the problem identification discussion, then it may be wise to postpone the problem-solving step if possible. This allows for emotions to subside and members to gain a fresh perspective on the issues involved.
Generating alternatives. Once there is general agreement as to the nature of the problem(s), then the next step is to generate alternative solutions. If the problem requires creativity, then brainstorming is commonly recommended. Here the team generates a list of possible solutions on a flip chart or blackboard.
During that time the project manager establishes a moratorium on criticizing or evaluating ideas. Members are encouraged to “piggyback” on others ideas by extending them or combining ideas into a new idea. The object is to create as many alternatives as possible no matter how outlandish they may appear to be.
Some project managers report that for really tough problems they have found it beneficial to conduct such sessions away from the normal work environment; the change in scenery stimulates creativity.
Reaching a decision. The next step in the decision making process is to evaluate and assess the merits of alternative solutions. During this phase it is useful to have a set of criteria for evaluating the merits of different solutions. In many cases the project manager can draw upon the priorities for the project and have the group assess each alternative in terms of its impact on cost, schedule, and performance as well as reducing the problem gap.
For example, if time is critical, then the solution that solves the problem as quickly as possible would be chosen.
During the course of the discussion the project manager attempts to build consensus among the group. This can be a complicated decision making process. Project managers need to provide periodic summaries to help the group keep track of its progress. They must protect those members who represent the minority view and ensure that such views get a fair hearing.
They need to guarantee that everyone has an opportunity to share opinions and no one individual or group dominates the conversation. It may be useful to bring a two-minute timer to regulate the use of air time. When conflicts occur, managers need to apply some of the ideas and techniques discussed in the next section of the decision making process.
Project managers need to engage in consensus testing to determine what points the group agrees on and what are still sources of contention. They are careful not to interpret silence as agreement; they confirm agreement by asking questions. Ultimately, through thoughtful interaction, the team reaches a “meeting of the minds” as to what solution is best for the project.
Follow-up. Once the decision has been made and implemented, it is important for the team to find the time to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision. If the decision failed to provide the anticipated solution, then the reasons should be explored and the lessons learned added to the collective memory bank of the project team.