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How to make better critical project decisions

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Want to improve your decision-making? Start by understanding your dominant decision style and then align it with your project situation, says Natalie Marguet, author of the APM research on the topic.

‘Critical’ project decisions are those that respond to either a disruptive and unexpected event or a short decision timeframe. Such decisions are not made in an environment that can be controlled or standardised. They are characterised by a combination of time pressure, lack of information, conflicting and shifting goals and multiple stakeholder perspectives.

In this context, critical project decisions are no longer about certainty and making the best decision. Instead, they become about making a good enough decision according to a pre-established minimal criterion.

Understand your dominant decision style

When making critical project decisions, we each have a particular style, which differs across two interacting dimensions. The first relates to cognitive complexity, measured on a continuum from ‘a need for structure’ to ‘a tolerance for ambiguity’. The second relates to values, measured on a continuum from ‘a concern for the technical or task’ to ‘a concern for people and the social’.

Fundamentally, this influences how information is used and options processed. This is what constitutes a decision-making style, and it is generally learnt and reinforced over time. Decision-making styles are a good way of understanding why project professionals, when faced with a critical decision, approach it so differently.

Combining the dimensions of cognitive complexity and values yields four basic decision-making styles. Which is yours?

  1. Directive. Those who favour this style trust their own senses. Their decisions are rooted in their own knowledge and experience. This style is often quick, ownership is clear and extra communication isn’t needed. It lends itself to situations characterised by stability, repeating patterns and consistent events.
  2. Analytic. Those who prefer this style tend to acquire information, carry out careful analysis and seek a clear conclusion. They are willing to invest time and effort into reaching the optimal solution. They will seek information and advice from others to confirm or deny their own knowledge. This style is useful in situations where several options or solutions need to be explored.
  3. Conceptual. This style is used by those who tend to focus on creative and big-picture thinking, considering many different possibilities. They take a more collaborative approach, gathering and evaluating information from many different perspectives to identify emerging patterns. This style works best in situations characterised by unpredictability or with no immediate solution.
  4. Behavioural. Those who favour this style are group-oriented, focusing on relationships and ensuring that people work well together. However, rather than brainstorming potential solutions, they take a more introspective approach by discussing solutions that have worked in the past. This style is useful when it’s not possible to impose a single course of action and when harmony and engagement are required.

Note that people are not expected to fit neatly into a single decision-making style. Instead, they are likely to have one or more dominant styles, with at least two backup styles.

Adaptability is key

The most influential project professionals know how and when to adjust their style to suit the situation. And by understanding the decision-making styles and the factors influencing the situation at hand, project professionals can learn how to make better critical project decisions.

Adaptability is a key attribute here, particularly when responding to the demands and interactions of both the decision-making style and the situation, as well as any changes in these. 

Critical project decisions are social phenomena involving many individuals, groups and organisations. There is little question that project professionals with similar styles understand one another more easily than they understand those with a different style. For example, those with a preference for directive and behavioural styles demonstrate little tolerance for the lengthy explanations used by individuals with an analytical style.

Understanding decision-making styles helps us to understand decision-making behaviours and the complexity of managing them within a diverse team. Project professionals must understand the obstacles that can hinder effective decision-making and overcome them by adapting their communication.

The three levels of decision-making

Project professionals should engage with three levels of decision-making practice if they are to improve the alignment between decision-making styles and situations. As complexity and uncertainty increase, greater emphasis will be placed on a project professional’s ability to:

  • Detect the factors influencing the decision. This involves gathering the available information and responding; assessing decision outcomes against performance measures (eg time, cost, quality and stakeholder satisfaction); and building on expertise, prior experience and information.
  • Reflect on the interactions between factors. This requires focusing on what is occurring, plus any emerging patterns, through an emphasis on connections and relationships; self-critiquing the cognitive aspect of decision-making, including attitudes, beliefs and constructs; and embedding micro-debriefs and lessons learnt within the decision-making process.
  • Adapt decision-making strategies to fit the situation. This means engaging with and responding to social dialogue, dynamics, distinctions and ongoing dilemmas; engaging in the iterative decision-making process with a focus on feedback; and pinpointing how, why and when certain features of a decision situation trigger and shape project professionals’ behaviour.

The key to success is to engage in all three levels within a decision-making process. That should help create an awareness of both project professionals’ different decision-making styles and the decision situation at hand, and how they fit together.

Effective decision-making involves more than just selecting an optimal result – it is concerned with selecting an optimal approach that is aligned with both the decision task and those within it.

This article is an edited extract of a feature that appears in the winter 2020 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

Read the research and explore other resources:


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