There’s an old samurai saying that goes something like this: “No decision should take longer than the time required to draw seven breaths.” While you may think applying this adage to your project management work would be a recipe for disaster, it illustrates three crucial aspects of the job:

  • Knowing when a decision is required is important.
  • Choosing an appropriate time frame in which to make the decision is critical.
  • Accepting responsibility for your decisions is vital.

We’ve all worked on projects where the project manager refused to acknowledge that a decision was needed. And we can all admit that we’ve made decisions that were either irrational or too hasty to be effective. These errors usually arise from a fear of failing or concern about making the “wrong decision.”

Let’s focus on these so-called wrong decisions. Although we project managers pride ourselves on the ability to anticipate problems, in truth, none of us has a project management crystal ball. We can’t predict the future with any degree of precision; the best we can do is to make intelligent use of the information we have. There are, however, bad approaches to making decisions, including jumping to a quick choice or taking forever by waiting for divine inspiration.

It’s a hard lesson to learn. I recently got into hot water by making a decision that was based on my own anxieties; instead, I should have held off and taken a longer view of the whole process. I was faced with choosing between two candidate strategies for creating a Web interface for an important client’s intranet. I allowed an entire week to pass with this question in limbo. Then, rather than appear uncertain when I was put under pressure by one of my senior developers, I hastily plumped for “option B” instead of measuring the issue. In hindsight, I made my decision in an ill-considered way. (I usually never make such decisions on a Friday afternoon because the upcoming weekend can create a feeling of relaxation, which is unlike my normal state.) The result was that I got to spend a couple of extra weekends working to remedy the downstream effects of my ill-timed decision.

Good decisions make good projects
So what makes a good decision (and, hence, a good project)? The answer is, one that’s well planned. But then you run into the question of how long the decision-making process should take. Well, the last thing we need is a new formal methodology for decision-making—nothing would ever get done. That’s why I’d like to propose several useful rules you can apply to decision-making:

  • Consider the importance of the decision. To determine the importance of a decision, ask yourself: What are the consequences for both the project and for you? In reality, how urgent is the decision? (Note that there’s a difference between important and urgent.)
  • Ask yourself if there are more options. In other words, if you’re choosing between three options, ask yourself if there’s also a fourth option.
  • Think about stakeholders’ opinions. Have you listened to the opinions of stakeholders in the decision? You should. Even though they may not like your ultimate decision, they’ll have to live with it.
  • Concede the fact that you’re going to make some irrational decisions. We often make decisions almost by reflex, using a combination of experience, data analysis, gut feelings, fear, personal preference, and peer pressure. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take into account your sense of self-preservation, the views of your team, or your recollections about why a previous project caused you grief. You just need to be aware that each new situation demands a clear point of view and a fresh decision; otherwise, the same mistakes will recur.
  • Remember that even some small choices can have big consequences. Don’t underestimate the possibility that major consequences could result from seemingly insignificant choices you make along the way.

The old “man vs. machine” fear
A slightly disturbing trend in connection with decision-making is emerging in other areas of IT. Management is now becoming more dependent upon business intelligence tools, which attempt to answer important questions like, “Why are our biggest customers not buying product X?”

I consider this trend worrisome because there’s a danger that we’ll come to expect machines to make hard decisions for us. For instance, any analysis tools we use may make it seem like a forthcoming decision is obvious. Keep in mind that, until someone creates genuine artificial intelligence, you’re still held accountable for the project. As such decision-support tools become more available to project managers, be careful before you decide to accept the recommendation generated by a machine.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is reflected in the samurai code that is based on loyalty, justice, and honor: When a decision is required of you, set an appropriate deadline, make your decision, and accept responsibility for the results.