Project Management

Helping Project Managers to Help Themselves

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I'm all about Building Thriving Leaders™ This blog is based on over 35 years of project management and leadership successes and failures. Get practical, concise nuggets on both hard and soft skills to help you deliver projects successfully with minimal friction.

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Intentional Decision Making

The Scenario: 

Esther walked into the conference room and saw Grace sitting there, head in hands.

“What’s wrong, Grace?”

“It’s Paul, he still hasn’t decided on authorizing me to hire SysCon. He owed me a decision last week and now we’re going to slip our code-complete date.”

Esther smirked. “Sorry about that Grace; it doesn’t surprise me. He’s a disaster at making decisions.”

“Don’t you know it. He not only doesn’t make decisions when I need them, he doesn’t even give me the courtesy of letting me know when the decision will be made. Then he blames me if something slips. I’m tired of it.”

Esther leaned over to Grace and whispered. “Grace, I haven’t told anyone yet, but I just accepted a position at Miconal this morning. They asked me if anyone else was interested in coming over. You’d be a great addition there.”

Grace perked up. “Hmm. Do you have a contact there?”

“Sure do.”

“Send it on to my personal email. Thanks Esther.” Grace smiled, packed up her things, and left the conference room.

The Message:

Grace’s frustration with Paul is something many of us have experienced. If you were a Grace, you got frustrated with a leader who couldn’t make decisions, didn’t make them in a timely manner, or acted impulsively. To put some meat on the bones, I’d like to contrast what I call intentional decision-making with reckless decision-making. Intentional decision-making means decisions are made on time, based on available information, by the right person, and with the good of the organization in focus. Reckless decision-making is the inverse; decisions not made in a timely manner (or at all), not based on available information, made by someone not authorized or informed to make the decision, or driven by some agenda not focused on the good of the organization. Intentional decision-making balances speed with decision quality, while reckless decision-making unduly emphasizes either speed or quality at the expense of the other.

Are you a reckless decision-maker who wants to be more intentional? Consider these 12 tips:

  1. Decision speed is based on need – If you see a car coming at you, split-second decision-making is imperative. You don’t take time to gather facts, consult with others, and consider alternatives. You just act. Similarly, leaders need to throttle the speed of their decision-making to the urgency of the situation. Gauge the need to make a quick decision and act accordingly.
  2. Set expectations on decision types – Followers need to know what to expect from a leader regarding what decisions they can make on their own and when to engage the leader. The leader needs to get alignment with followers on four decision types:
    1. Follower presents decision alternatives, leader decides – The follower brings a decision to the leader for the leader to make.
    2. Follower decides, leader concurs – The follower consults with the leader before making a decision.
    3. Follower decides, leader is informed – The follower makes a decision then informs the leader of the decision made.
    4. Follower decides, leader not informed – The follower makes a decision independently, the leader is not informed.
  3. Be clear not only on what decisions need to be made, but when – When a leader is faced with a decision, one of the first questions he or she needs to understand is when the decision needs to be made and what happens if it’s not made by that date. Don’t accept ASAP, TBD, or Yesterday from followers. They are either too vague or, in the “yesterday” case, impossible to achieve. Drive specificity on the need-by date.
  4. Press for consequences of not deciding by the due date Consequences of not deciding are just as important as the due date. Conducting the due diligence on the decision will likely compete for time on your schedule, so the leader needs to have a clear understanding of not only the due date but the consequences of not meeting the due date. It also forces followers to be thoughtful and quantitative about what they are asking you as a leader to do and what happens if you don’t do it by the due date.
  5. Accept that sometimes your alternatives are worse and worser – Leaders are rarely faced with perfect decision alternatives; most times there are negative implications of any alternative and the leader must evaluate which alternative offers the fewest downsides. Don’t be tempted to dismiss an alternative just because you find something wrong with it; it may be your least-worst alternative.
  6. Explain the why – Followers may not agree with the leader’s decision and may think the leader is operating without the facts or has another agenda. When the leader doesn’t reveal the rationale behind a decision, it gives followers the opportunity to create their own version of the why, which may or may not be accurate. Explaining the why behind your decisions exposes followers to your thought process and allows followers to correct any inaccurate factors that guided your decision. While followers may not be happy with a decision, you want them to at least respect its soundness.
  7. Encourage “if you were in my chair” thinking with followers – A secure leader has the courage to ask his or her followers, “If you were in my chair, what would you do?” Asking a follower what decision they would make not only demonstrates that you respect their point of view, but also exposes the leader to how a follower thinks though difficult decisions. Getting the follower’s perspective also helps the leader give the follower additional considerations they may not have thought about.
  8. Be intentional about risks and mitigations – Good sound decision-making involves an understanding of the risks with each decision alternative and the mitigating factors which need to be undertaken to ensure success. I’ve seen seasoned leaders who mentally analyze decision alternatives’ risks and mitigating factors. Then there are others who need to write (or type) them out. As a leader, it’s not only important that you clearly understand the risks and mitigating factors, but that you can also explain them to followers.
  9. Be clear on the constraints – This is particularly important when empowering a follower to make a decision. Any constraints that are present, i.e., “The decision has to cost less than $10,000,” should be well thought out and clearly articulated. It not only helps followers with decision-making, but also forces you as the leader to understand how a decision meets or doesn’t meet constraints.
  10. Don’t let decisions sit on your to-do list – Allowing outstanding decisions to stack up not only frustrates followers, but also takes up your management cycles by putting more on your to-do list. Work to getting decisions off your to-do list as quickly as you can while still being intentional rather than reckless. It’s a great feeling to cross something off your to-do list, and outstanding decisions are no exception.
  11. Articulate the why when changing your mind – One of the constants for a leader is that things will change. What may have been a good decision three months ago can suddenly be a bad decision. As a leader, it’s important for you to be open to reversing a decision that no longer is the best (or least-worst) alternative. Just be clear about the why when explaining your change.
  12. Do what you say you’ll do – If you say you’re going to make a decision by a due date, for Pete’s sake do it, or provide rationale as to why the decision can’t be made by that date with a revised due date. Just as you expect followers to do what they say, they expect you to live up to your commitments.

The Consequences:  Not being intentional about decision-making can result in the following consequences:

  • You’ll make bad decisions – This may sound like a no-duh, but it’s well worth stating. Also, making untimely decisions or not making them at all is the same as making bad decisions.
  • You’ll frustrate followers – As a leader you’re expected to make decisions that pave the way for followers to do their job. Reckless decisions hold up progress and will ultimately cause your followers to question your fitness as a leader.
  • You’ll hurt your business – Reckless decisions will most likely cost time, money, and/or quality. You also risk losing great follower talent (like Grace) who get fed up with you as a leader and decide to leave.

The Next Steps: 

  • Review the 12 tips for intentional decision-making.
  • Decide which ones you need to improve.
  • For any tips you’ve identified as needing work, put an action plan together to address those decision-making areas.
  • Use a trusted advisor who has exposure to your decision-making process to hold you accountable in your intentional decision-making
Posted on: July 22, 2022 08:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Are You a Wisdom Steward?

Brent was having a routine one-on-one with his boss Gail in her office. Over the six months since joining her organization, Brent noticed something different about Gail compared to his past bosses.

“Gail, can I ask you a question?” Brent asked.

“Certainly.”

“When you share your wisdom with others you are so transparent, even willing to admit when you were wrong about something. That’s very different from other bosses I’ve had. How did you get there?”

“Good question,” she said. “I learned a long time ago that wisdom is extremely valuable. Seeking and sharing it can make the difference between success and failure. Because I deeply care about not only my success but the success of others, I decided I needed to be willing to not just seek wisdom from others but candidly share my wisdom with others to improve their chances of success. I adopted what I call a wisdom steward mindset.”

“Wisdom steward?” he asked.

“Yes,” Gail said just as her phone beeped. She looked at the message. “Darn, I need to prep something for the board meeting in an hour. Can we continue the wisdom steward discussion at our one-on-one next week?”

“Sure,” Brent said.

“OK, see you later then.”

Brent got up and went back to his cubicle. “A wisdom steward?” he thought to himself as he sat in his chair.

So, what is a wisdom steward? To understand the concept you first have to understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is facts and information learned through a number of sources. You can gain knowledge from a book, a discussion, the news, or personal experience. Wisdom is what you do with that knowledge. You can’t have wisdom without knowledge, but you can certainly have knowledge without wisdom.

Let’s look at touching a hot stove as an example. If you touch a hot stove, you gain the knowledge that it is hot and touching it will burn your hand. Wisdom is making a sensible decision based on the knowledge that the stove burns. Not touching the stove a second time means you’re applying wisdom to knowledge. If you do touch the stove and get burned again, you didn’t apply wisdom to the knowledge you had. So, knowledge is knowing the stove is hot; wisdom is deciding to not touch it.

Next let’s talk about how wisdom is acquired. Wisdom can be gained through first-hand experience or guided experience. First-hand experience is the stove example. Guided experience is gained through learning from others. Bill told me he touched the hot stove and burned his hand, so I won’t touch the hot stove. You gained wisdom not because you did something first-hand; you learned from someone else’s experience. In both cases you made a wise choice not to touch the stove, but in one you learned on your own and the other you learned from someone else.

Now let’s dig into how this relates to wisdom stewardship. For guided wisdom to work there must be two engaged parties. The first is the wisdom seeker. A wisdom seeker is humble and genuinely looks to gain wisdom from others to help him or her make a sensible decision. The second is the wisdom sharer. A wisdom sharer is transparent and candidly offers wisdom gained either first-hand or learned from others to help the seeker make a sensible decision. A wisdom steward is someone who values both genuinely seeking and transparently sharing wisdom. 

Are you a wisdom steward? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom?
  • When faced with a problem, do you genuinely and humbly seek out those who possess the wisdom to help you through the problem?
  • When you seek wisdom, do you seek with the intent to learn from others, or to prove others wrong?
  • Do you make yourself approachable to others who wish to learn from your wisdom?
  • When someone wants to learn from your wisdom, are you transparent and candid in your sharing, even if it means admitting mistakes?
  • Do you care about embracing mutual success, or are you in it for yourself?
  • Do you view wisdom as something that is valuable and deserves to be treated with care and respect?

If you’re not a wisdom steward, then you might be a wisdom boaster, hoarder, poser, hesitator, or pontificator. Stay tuned for future posts on each of those five personas to see if any of them fit you.

Posted on: June 22, 2021 02:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

“Get it Done Yesterday!” Impulsive vs. Deliberate Leadership Decision Making

As an individual contributor, Joe was praised by his management for his speed in delivering results. His management was so enamored with his ability to get things done quickly that he was promoted to a leader role over a team of ten. Joe’s speed in taking action carried over into his decision making. He saw making decisions fast as a sign of getting “real work done,” versus sitting around talking about things. “Great leaders don’t have all the facts,” he would say to his team, as justification for moving forward without a good understanding of a decision’s implications. Joe’s team learned to just say, “Yes, Sir,” and do their best to execute what Joe wanted done by the time expected. His impulsive decision making came to a head with a new hire named Greg.

Joe interviewed Greg for a product management position, who talked a great game and quickly won Joe over. Joe made an impulsive decision to hire Greg without checking his references. After Greg started working, it didn’t take long for others to see he was clearly unqualified for the position. Suspicious of Greg’s claims, Joe did some digging and found he had embellished the accomplishments on his resume. The team and Joe went through several stressful months cleaning up Greg’s messes until he was finally let go. Joe eventually recovered as a leader but learned a painful lesson about impulsive decision making; and he had to earn back credibility with his team.

Before I go further, I want to level-set on what I view as impulsive and deliberate leaders.

An impulsive leader prioritizes decision speed over decision quality

A deliberate leader balances decision speed with decision quality

Let’s break this down. Impulsive leaders want to move quickly on a decision and tend to use the concept of “imperfect information” as license to not do their homework. They are very action-oriented but run into problems from not thinking through decisions before acting. To an impulsive leader, need dates aren’t as important as moving fast. An impulsive leader may not have the time to do something right the first time, but will need extra time later to re-do or un-do something.

In contrast, deliberate leaders are mindful of decision speed, but only as input into overall decision quality. They understand the concept of imperfect information, but don’t use it as an excuse to not learn what they can about a decision’s implications. They can be every bit as action oriented as an impulsive leader.

What are some warning signs that you might be an impulsive leader? Here are seven:

  1. Reversals on bad decisions are the rule not the exception.
  2. You typically get pushback from followers on your decisions.
  3. Followers execute to your instructions versus owning the problem and figuring out the “how” on their own.
  4. You can’t align decision due dates with a business need.
  5. You’re unable to articulate choices and consequences of decision alternatives.
  6. You regularly use the phrase “failure is not an option,” when asked about the consequences of failure.
  7. You frequently say something like “ASAP,” or “Yesterday,” when a follower asks when something needs to be done.

Do any of these warning signs resonate with you? If so, then give these eight tips a look to help you make the journey from impulsive to deliberate leadership:

  1. Admit you are an impulsive leader – The first step in transforming from an impulsive to a deliberate leader is an introspective admission that you are impulsive. Be brutally honest, even if the answer is something you don’t want to hear.
  2. Be clear on the what, why, who, and when – When faced with a decision, take the time to physically write out the decision, why it’s being made, who it impacts, and when it needs to be made by to seize upon an opportunity or avoid a bad consequence. Unless you’re faced with a decision that requires split-second action, i.e., swerving versus braking to avoid a car accident, taking a few minutes to frame up the decision characteristics is time well spent.
  3. Throttle the decision to the need-by date – I’ve known plenty of leaders who are simply impatient and want something done right away. However, action for the sake of taking action without regard for a need-by date can result in an unnecessarily lesser-informed decision. Know when your decision needs to be made and pace the actions accordingly. 
  4. Write out the alternatives and consequences – Once you’ve framed the decision and when you need it made, be intentional about the alternatives and consequences, including a “do nothing” alternative. Outlining alternatives and what could happen under each one is a forcing function that helps you slow down and be more thoughtful about the decision. Don’t forget the need-by date.
  5. Think about risks as reckless or calculated – If you’re looking for risk-free decision alternatives, you’ll thrust yourself into decision paralysis. Joyfully embrace that there will be some risks to your decision, but be intentional about classifying the risk as reckless (acting without thinking about consequences) or calculated (thinking about consequences and having mitigations in place in case something goes wrong).
  6. Syndicate your thinking along the way – I’ve seen way too many leaders hunker down in an office to think through a problem, then emerge like Moses with the stone tablets to proclaim their answer. Unless the decision is confidential, take the team on the journey with you, letting them know the decision you’re grappling with, and its characteristics, alternatives and consequences. I’ve been most successful with implementing decisions that affected my team when they knew things were in the works and they had opportunities to influence my thinking before the decision was made.
  7. Surround yourself with deliberate people – Great leaders know their weaknesses and surround themselves with people who are strong in those areas. More importantly, they actively listen to them. This isn’t to say the leader always accepts advice given; but they listen and provide rationale as to why they’ve chosen to not accept the advice.
  8. Ask advice of non-stakeholders – Some of the best leaders I’ve known not only possess great first-hand experiential wisdom, but humbly and actively seek out candid wisdom from others who are not directly impacted by the decision. The leader still owns the final decision, but he or she allows others to influence his or her thinking. This takes a bit of courage, because someone could throw cold water on what you may think is a great idea, but it could save you a lot of downstream pain trying to recover from a bad decision.

Remember, impulsive leaders prioritize speed over decision quality, while deliberate leaders balance speed with quality. Keep these eight tips in mind to improve the quality of your decision making and become a more effective leader of followers.

Posted on: March 25, 2021 06:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

“You Did WHAT?!?” Using Decision Guard Rails to Align Decision-Making Expectations

Bill was a newly appointed project manager over a mission-critical systems development initiative. Ann, Bill’s boss, trusted Bill to lead the initiative and gave him the latitude he needed to execute without getting in his way. While the two worked well together, they did struggle in one area: decision-making. They had several instances where Ann was surprised by key decisions Bill made but didn’t inform Ann. Bill also didn’t benefit from Ann’s experience on several issues and made uninformed decisions that hurt the project. Ann asked Bill to include her more on decisions, but Bill took that as him needing to come to her on decisions he could have made on his own. Bill grew frustrated with his perception of Ann micromanaging him, whereas Ann just wanted to ensure she was in the loop on key decisions. The project ultimately got done, but not without a lot of friction between the two.

Friction that could have been avoided.

Key to a leader who empowers followers is the ability for the follower to make decisions without always having to ask the leader for permission. When done well, the follower is able to execute more nimbly and with greater ownership. When done not so well (as the case above), both the leader and follower are likely to be frustrated by missteps, poor communication, and potentially damaging decisions that were made without enough information. I’ve learned through doing this wrong so many times that there are four degrees of decision-making where the leader and follower agree as to the amount of guidance and input provided in decision-making. The degrees, or what I like to refer as guard rails, are as follows:

  • Get Approval – The follower presents the decision with supporting rationale to the leader. The follower asks the leader to decide. Leader is the decider; follower is the informer. Example: A follower must ask permission to hire an employee.
  • Seek Advice – The follower presents the decision with supporting rationale to the leader. The follower asks the leader for advice. Follower is the decider; leader is the advisor. Example: A follower must seek advice before promoting an employee.
  • Inform only – The follower presents only the resulting decision (minus supporting rationale) to the leader. The follower informs the leader. Follower is the decider; leader is the receiver. Example: A follower should inform the leader when taking a day off work.
  • Don’t inform – The follower makes and executes the decision without escalating to the leader. Follower is the decider; leader is not informed. Example: A follower acts without informing the leader when taking time off during a workday for a personal appointment.

 

By creating four distinct decision-making categories, it acknowledges not just the extremes (get approval and don’t inform), but also acknowledges there are some decisions where a leader should provide input into a follower’s decision (seek advice) as well as those decisions where the leader should be kept in loop on the decision (inform only). By slotting types of decisions into these four categories, both the leader and follower are better aligned on the decisions being made and the degree of involvement the leader should have in the decision.

In defining decisions under each guard rail, it’s important to keep a couple of things top of mind:

  • Don’t try to define every possible decision the follower can make. Focus on those decisions that are material in nature and help to set a theme for the types of decisions the follower addresses in his/her normal course of work
  • Great empowering leaders don’t apply a one-size-fits-all decision-making approach to followers. Factors such as follower experience level and degree of subject matter expertise influence the guard rail category for different types of decisions. As example, a follower newly promoted to a leadership role may have some decisions that fall into the seek advice category where a more experienced follower would have those same decisions in the inform only category.

 

To successfully implement guard rails, leaders need to do the following:

  • Categorize typical decisions into guard rails for his/her job – To set an example for followers, the leader should go through his/her decisions and slot them into the guard rail categories. By doing so it not only establishes an example that followers can use, but also highlights potential decision-making conflicts a leader might have with his/her boss.
  • Empower the follower to define the guard-rail decisions – A great step to establish trust with a follower is to ask the follower to define the types of decisions that fall in each of the four guard rail categories. The leader then works with the follower on adjustments until agreement is achieved.
  • Adjust guard rails with capability changes - Revisit the guard rail decisions in each category periodically to make adjustments as the follower’s experience level and subject matter expertise level changes.

 

Take the time up front to get clarity on decision-making expectations using guard rails. It will help reduce friction between the leader and follower and promote a more healthy empowering relationship.

Posted on: November 30, 2020 10:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)
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- Will Rogers

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