This 5-minute read provides guidance when the project manager is under pressure to quickly assess, judge, and decide. This is leadership-focused project management, second of a three-part discussion on the Basic Rules of Project Management.
When teaching project management (PM), a very popular student question was to ask me what they should do in a particular situation they were involved in. PM being more an art than a science, my answer was invariably “it depends!”
A very unsatisfactory response, especially for today’s learners who would like a precise answer to every question. But it did prompt some serious thinking on my part, concerning situational rules for the PM game which could be universally applied. This makes the art of PM just a little more straight-forward for the neophyte and led to my first book Ten Commandments of Project Management: A brief guide to the art of righteous project management. I have separated those ten rules into three areas of PM leadership: when and how to commit to difficult but necessary action, learning to recognize and choose the right path (today’s topic), and building project direction and momentum (alignment).
The three rules for good judgment
A good leader knows that an essential part of the role involves difficult decision-making sometimes risking disagreement, adding to project complexity, or losing useful options. It is tempting to take the path of least resistance in these situations. Complicating matters further, the right response can often be at variance with our natural impulse. Wrong responses can easily set a precedent, allowing the PM to repeatedly make the same mistake, thus seriously endangering the project.
Three rules can be relied on to keep your judgment sound. They are, in terms that Moses might have used: 1 Thou shalt Speak thy Truth, 2 Thou shalt not say Yes in Haste, and 3 Thou shalt not Present a Single Point Estimate.
1 – Be truthful
I think there are two broad aspects to the question of project honesty. The first is personal: a matter of integrity. Pressures to manipulate project status, to overstate earned revenue, to provide misleading references, to misstate project impacts; these must be deflected with political dexterity.
The second is less distinct; it’s the issue of applying professional judgment to project conditions and protecting project objectives without deception. Some common project behaviours can easily slip into deception unless critical modifications are made. These three models help illuminate correct PM behaviour.
Models bordering deception
- The ‘Need to Know’ model operates at the individual level and easily morphs into a justification for withholding information. If information affects the individual, they should be told.
- The ‘Grey Scale’ model, familiar to politicians, operates on groups and offers a perspective that can be manipulated depending on the interests of the group being addressed. Ask yourself when addressing one group of stakeholders – “Would I say this to all stakeholders?”
- The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ model is a project-wide phenomenon in which fantasy (very often a schedule demand) is accepted as reality because any other reaction is unacceptable to the sponsor. Speaking truth to power needs an impersonal framework, as well as guts. Use risk factors, probabilities, and analytics to disable politics and move the fantasy project onto more constructive ground. Commit but don’t promise.
2 – Don’t be too agreeable, too quickly
People, generally, like to be agreeable and according to behaviourists about 25% of us have that embedded as our natural style. And saying ‘yes’ to a request is almost certainly easier (short-term) than saying ‘no’. Whoever you are on the team, there will be pressure to agree to something ‘right now!’ Salespeople, for good reason, can be especially agreeable. A phenomenon I call the lure of the big deal can operate on both salespeople and PM alike – “this deal is too big to walk away from”, and the insidious “with this budget we could do it, whatever the scope is!” PMs are obviously exposed to project requests to add function, improve quality, change work assignments, approve time-off and training, and satisfy miscellaneous demands from stakeholders. And the team is not immune – when informally approached they may agree to make ‘small’ changes, or they may work on covert operations, or overtime work on approved tasks may not be reported.
So remember: there are no project situations so drastic, other than an act of God, that require an immediate response. This is the model to apply: Pause, reflect, respond.
Pause, reflect, respond
- Take the time needed: An absence request needs 15 minutes over coffee; a scope change maybe 1 day with consultations.
- Follow agreed procedure. Ensure the procedure is in place early (before you need it!).
- If a decision is urgent, find out why.
- Think out options. Remember, management prefer choices rather than ‘no’.
- Adopt the stance of ‘our’ problem (not mine or yours). Ask – how can project objectives still be met and your request accommodated?
- Understand your relationship – being agreeable is a judicious PM prerogative, so long as impacts are discussed.
- Recognize your natural style and make sure it is not influencing your decision.
3 – Qualify all estimates
It seems inevitable that when a number is put on the table, even if emphasized to be a ballpark estimate, it is remembered infallibly by those with the budget. I don’t need to dwell on the headache this causes for the incoming PM.
As the song says, the future’s not ours to see. Although other factors contribute, the phenomenon of risk, or uncertainty, is the main culprit. So, the best approach is to use risk assessment techniques early in the game, and become adept in the language of probabilities. According to Commercial Project Management, a low-risk project possesses a narrow range of estimates for which completion can be expected, and a high-risk project exhibits a larger range. The ‘standard deviation’ of the estimate (sigma) can therefore be used as a logical and defensible base for consistent qualification of estimates.
- Consider alternatives for expressing uncertainty – an estimate plus or minus an amount, a low to high range, or an estimate together with a confidence factor. There are pros and cons for each.
- Generally, the best choice is the ‘most likely estimate’ plus a contingency derived from sigma.
- As the project proceeds, risks are eliminated or are better understood and the estimate range tightens.
- Estimating is a formal process – keep history, compare actuals, document risks and assumptions.
- Don’t confuse estimating and negotiating. Re-estimate if scope or quality changes, or negotiate contingency if uncertainty can be removed.
There is a truism that goes like this: you need the experience to develop good judgment and experience is gained by living through a lot of bad judgment!
Judgment covers a lot of ground, and you may feel that condensing it down to three rules is optimistic. I would agree. Standish Group does an annual survey where they list the ten most frequent causes for project failure, all of which must implicate the PM to some degree. However, in this discussion, I have treated PM judgment as a factor in its own right. An urge to take the path of least resistance, to agree hastily to changes or requests, and to provide an unqualified ad hoc estimate; these are three common examples of misjudgment. I am sure there are more, so please let me know your thoughts below.
In stressful situations, we are often instructed to trust our intuitive response. Unless specifically ethical in nature, this advice does not hold. Combined with pressure from senior individuals, the possibility of deteriorating relationships, and the risk of acquiring a reputation for intransigence, it is easy to allow a lapse in judgment to occur.
In these situations, I am not suggesting self-immolation or ‘leading with your chin’. I am just proposing three ground rules to assist or reinforce your judgment, which should always be delivered with diplomacy and carefully considered words. But in responding to these pressured situations, don’t fall too readily into a defensive posture. Remember your role is significant. You are not a servant of the stakeholders but in a position of influence and responsibility. Stakeholders may need to be politely reminded that your job is successful project delivery, according to mandate and charter.