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Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Decisions That Bleed Projects Dry

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Decisions in project management

From the project initiation to project closure, decisions are an essential part of project management. For simple projects, it will rarely be an issue. The most usual problem would be that project decisions are only made informally. There is a temptation on simple projects to keep processes simple. However, while it is important to keep the processes aligned with the size of the project, it is essential to correctly manage decisions.

You always need a system to obtain and document decisions—it is never a good sign when it is difficult to obtain or retrieve them. A project can be in trouble for numerous reasons, some obvious and others more invisible, and managing decisions is one that can remain invisible until sufficient confusion is established among stakeholders. And then, most likely, the project will need to be rescued.

The importance of managing decisions is amplified by the size and complexity of a project. For complex and long-term projects, numerous decisions will clearly need to be made. They will be gathered from numerous discussions and decisions with different persons, each having a different role and a different perspective on the final product of the project.

Decisions will come from various sources, including these:

  • Discussions with users
  • Informal meetings
  • Emails
  • Project Sponsor
  • Steering Committee
  • Executive Committee

The danger

Let’s take the development of an enterprise IT solution for a business program. The development of the solution will require numerous consultations to gather the business requirements for the application. Data entry users will have a perspective different than a manager, or executive.

Decisions are obtained and saved correctly somewhere in a folder on a shared drive. Everything should be fine. So where is the danger?

The danger can be summarized in one word: confusion. Without a good system, that is the most likely outcome when decisions are not managed effectively.

The essentials of decision management

You need the following three elements to effectively manage decisions:

  • Formal process
  • Decision log
  • Global view

Formal process for important decisions

It is essential to obtain formal approval for key elements of the project. It is bad project governance to let a project evolve without obtaining formal approval. Elements like key milestones or gating processes are too critical to decide informally.

Decision log

Obtaining project decisions is only one part of the task. You also need to implement the decisions. In a long-term project, you will also likely have to remind some stakeholders of the decisions that were made. Honestly, even the project team can get confused in a long and complex project. The decision log will give you the ability to retrieve past decisions.

Without a system to manage decisions, there is a significant risk that confusion will slowly become part of the project. Various persons will have their own recollection of what was decided. Discussions on what should be done will be repeated, even if a decision was already made. Time will be wasted, and the project will start to be delayed.

Global view

You also need to analyze decisions from a global perspective. It helps to maintain a document that will provide a global view of the project, integrating all decisions made during the life of the project. For a small and simple project, it will be less an issue, the number of project decisions being very limited. However, for a complex project, it will be essential. It will fulfill two purposes:

  • Obtaining a common understanding of the requirements
  • Validating that the individual decisions are logical when considered together

Otherwise, it would be like building a house for a family and obtaining the bedroom requirements from each family member, with no consideration for how they fit together. You may end up with a floor impossible to build.

The final deliverable is one solution, not two thousand decisions.

Having individual decisions is part of the dynamic nature of a complex project. However, if these individual decisions have not been integrated into one global view, the analysis is incomplete.

Conclusion

If it is becoming difficult for stakeholders to understand and remember what was decided, then it is a huge risk for the project. It will likely put the project at risk of failure. Each of these decisions is too small to be an issue, but the sum of all of them will create so much confusion that it will be death by a thousand cuts.

Or like someone told me once, we are often good at fighting dragons and then let mosquitoes kill us. Managing decisions well is a bit like that. It does not sound as interesting as coding, and not as sexy as designing the user interface. If well managed, it is mostly invisible work done during the life of the project.

Invisible, yes, but not trivial. Avoid death by a thousand cuts: Establish a good system to manage your project decisions.

 

For more brilliant insights, check out Michel’s website: Project-Aria

Additionally, check out his book, Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve better results in a dynamic world: http://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Toolbox-Project-Managers-Achieve-ebook/dp/B00TMIMRWU

About Michel Dion

Profile photo of Michel Dion
Michel Dion is a CPA and PMP, living in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and 2 kids. He also has a certification in Internal Audit (CIA), Risk Management (CRMA) and Fraud (CFE). Michel has managed in his career many projects, including special initiatives and emergency projects. He is developing a website called Project-Aria, and is very active in the project management community on the web. The key areas of focus of Project-Aria are project management, leadership, productivity, mind and health, and career and training. He has loved technology since the moment he played on the TRS80 a while ago. Despite that, his two sons insist that they know more about technology than him. Sometimes, he will comment on other subjects, as he likes fitness, travel, chess, photography, and music. He also has a goal of mastering four languages: English, French, Spanish and Swedish. Pay Michel a visit at Project-Aria by clicking the button below.

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