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5 Practical Tools for Getting Decisions Made

pain points people Apr 26, 2024

A lot of project management is getting other people to make decisions.

As project managers, some decisions lie with us, especially when it comes to choosing the right tools to use to move a project forward. The decisions that lie with the project manager can vary depending on how this role is structured at your company. But someone else always authorizes our projects, so some decisions lie with that person, and often there are additional people who must make or take part in many other project decisions.

Decisions are the lifeblood of our projects in that they ultimately determine what “product, service, or result” our projects produce.

Decisions are also the critical force in moving projects forward. If decisions are being made, the project keeps moving. If decisions are stalled, often this means the whole project is stalled.

So we must be adept at getting our teams and stakeholders to make the decisions they need to make. And when a decision is stalled, we need to be able to untangle the stalled decision like we’d untangle a messy knot.

Here are the tools I use to get decisions made on my projects. All are effective, but the higher the tool is on the list, the smoother it will make your projects.

1. Lean on existing roles, or get roles defined.

A lack of role clarity is one of the most common reasons decisions get stuck. Are there pre-defined roles that clarify who needs to be involved in what types of decisions? If so, that’s great! Don’t re-invent the wheel; look up these roles and use them. Common project decision-making roles include “project sponsor” or “product owner.” You’ll want to understand how your company defines existing roles like these and how they relate to your role as project manager.

But often, team and stakeholder roles are loosely defined, or they aren’t defined in ways that apply to your projects or the decisions that need to be made. In that case, the most impactful action you can take is to advocate for clearer definitions of project decision-making roles across your company.

You could make a simple chart like this with all the existing project roles—or it could include some new project roles you believe should exist—and take it to your PMO or the appropriate leadership to get buy-in on who should officially own which types of project decisions.

If you get the buy-in you need, great! If not, at least you’ve started to express the need, and you have some of your thinking clarified as you go on and use the other tools for getting decisions made.

2. Ask about decision-making responsibilities at the beginning of the project.

If you’re missing company-level decision-making roles, you can at least gather the relevant people to clarify who gets to make what types of decisions on this project—and you have a bit more authority in the project sphere to push for discussions and clarifications like these. On the other hand, even if you go into a project with clear decision-making roles generally, you may still be missing clarity on who makes some unique types of decisions your project will require, so a decision-maker check-in at the beginning of a project may be useful regardless.

Once you’re having these discussions at the project level, a RACI chart can be a strong asset. Often these charts are used to clarify people’s involvement in deliverables or sub-projects, but they can also be used to define people’s involvement in decisions. They give you some nuance in that you don’t need to simply assign one decision entirely to one person, but you can identify who is responsible for a decision, who is accountable for the decision, who needs to be consulted (or give input) as the decision is made, and who just needs to be informed once the decision is made. If this sounds useful, check out my post about RACI charts for a lot more detail about how to create one.

Navigating role discussions at the company level or the project level takes some sensitivity, but it is generally a calmer, better experience for everyone to clarify roles in advance, before you’re at the point where the decision needs to be made. The earlier you get decision-making roles clarified, the less tensions your project will have, and the fewer decision-knots you’ll need to untangle.

3. Carefully consider who you ask to make decisions, in what order.

Whether you’re already in the middle of a project with no decision-making role clarity, or whether you’ve worked hard to clarify things in advance, you’ll still need to shepherd a decision from one person or group to the next in a strategic order to get the decision made smoothly with the best people involved at the right points. Doing this well can prevent confusion, hurt feelings, radio silence, or a host of other problems.

Be sure to only ask questions of the people who need to be involved in the decision. Get the right people in the “room,” whether that’s an in-person meeting, a virtual meeting, an email, or a group chat. Consider their “RACI” roles—whether defined in advance or whether you’re making your best guess and confirming in the moment—and ask each person for decisions or input accordingly.

Sometimes I gather input first, and then serve up the question with the input to the person who needs to decide. Sometimes I start with the decision-maker and explain who they should consult before deciding. Either can work as long as your communication is clear.

Sometimes I also talk to people separately if there are stronger and quieter personalities involved. This gives me a chance to amplify the perspective of the person with the quieter personality to balance out influence appropriately.

There isn’t one answer or roadmap here, but the key is to think about all these factors and what you know about the people involved, and make a plan that serves the goal of getting a good decision made. This usually goes better than throwing all possible relevant people in a room and hoping for the best.

4. Don’t be afraid to interrupt people to make urgent decisions.

What about when something’s already “on fire” and you need a solution now, but you don’t know who gets to decide?

When you don’t have time to make a plan, pulling all the possible relevant people into a room might be the best move you can make. And it can work, especially when everyone understands the urgency–in these situations people tend to be more focused on the goal and less concerned about getting their feelings hurt.

The key is not to hesitate…focus less on contacting people in the perfect order, and more on moving quickly. Don’t let someone’s busyness with another task make you wait—if the decision is their job, it also benefits them if you interrupt them with the need to make the decision.

5. Trust your relationship-based instincts.

This principle applies at every stage, whether a decision needs to be made immediately or whether it’s a bit down the road. When we don’t have explicit role clarity, project managers often need to fill in the gaps with our instincts and with context clues on who most likely needs to be involved in a decision.

Sometimes if a decision is minor enough, we can just go with our gut and move forward. Most of the time, I would recommend starting with your gut, but verify: see if the other people involved agree with your instincts on who the decision-maker should be.

Good relationships will also help you smooth things over when you don’t guess correctly, because it will happen. You’ll ask someone to make a decision only to have it overridden later. It’s happened to me in the last week! But it’s okay—good working relationships help you untangle these knots and get the project back to where it needs to be.

We have a lot of places and stages we can intervene to get decisions made properly on our projects, which means many opportunities to keep them on track. Get good at using all of these tools, and decision-points will have a hard time sending your projects off the rails.

 

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