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John P. Reling, PMP: Two Ways to Make Decisions…and What’s Best

There are basically two ways to make decisions – by thinking extremely carefully and thoroughly, or not thinking at all. Well, of course, there are also varying combinations of these two extremes in the vast area between.

The message here is that the extremes are bad…and you need to find the optimal place to be in between!

Simple, but not too helpful – yet. But please bear with me a bit.

First, let’s look briefly at why the extremes don’t work too well for making effective decisions.

Obviously, not thinking at all about decisions – and just “pulling the trigger” – is irresponsible, ineffective…and just plain dumb! But it does have its benefits! You eliminate a lot of pain, and maybe a lot of cost, of sweating over the details. And you may actually make a good – or at least good enough – decision! But of course you can also make a very bad decision, especially if the impact of the decision is high. all of this indicates that some decisions simply are not worth as much effort as others. But YOU need to use your judgment and decide that.

Way on the other side of the decision making spectrum is where you are thinking carefully about the decision – to an extreme! This is often called “analysis paralysis”. It’s where no amount of thinking, consideration, debate, or information is enough. In addition, seeking more information and continuing the analysis actually begins to become an activity that shields us from having to make the decision at all! Indeed, many people within organizations use this to protect themselves from the consequences of making a bad decision, with no thought to the benefits of making a good decision, or of just making a decision at all!

In between these two extremes is the decision making territory most inhabited by all of us, but optimizing our effectiveness is not easy. So I want to describe an observation, and then suggest an approach to help you make better decisions easier.

The key is to build good “decision making muscle”, and here’s how. You know that if you could only be certain of the outcome of a decision, it would be easier to make! But that would put you at the extreme described above, and that’s impractical. So consider the following, which relates to honing your ability to deal with uncertainty as part of the decision making process.

In the book “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a sort of sixth sense, or “gut”. To illustrate, Gladwell told a story about fine art experts determining whether a painting was a forgery or an original. The interesting part is that the experts could not always prove that a particular painting was genuine or not, but they did assert that something just did not look and feel right. While they could not put their finger on anything specific, they reported a “gut feel” that something was not quite right.

Similar to decision making, they did not have enough specific information to validate their decision that they were looking at a forgery, but they could look in a “blink” and draw on their gut feeling to make the judgment.

This idea of being able to tell in a blink, or use your gut or sixth sense, was developed over time. The people making the judgments on the paintings in Gladwell’s story were, in fact, experts. They had a finely trained eye for genuine works of art, honed by deep study and experience over time. While they could not tell exactly what it was…why a painting was not authentic…something in their vast body of knowledge told them in a blink that something was not right.

The message is that, when your business is project management, rather than fine art paintings, you can develop the sixth sense…for what might be wrong on a troubled project,…or what that one key project success factor is,…or whether someone will be an effective team member,…or which stakeholders are critical to your project’s success,…or whether a project even has a chance of success…and on and on and on….

You can develop that sixth sense in the project management field…that will take your project decision making to ever increasing levels of effectiveness over time. Like the art experts above, you need to hone your skills over time with education and practice. And in the process, you too, will be able to make tough, expert, “from the gut” decisions in a blink.

John Reiling, PMP
PM Training Online



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