In the vast landscape of project management, decision-making takes center stage. As project managers, we’re constantly making choices that steer the direction of our projects.
However, not all decisions are made equal. They typically fall into two broad categories which I will call practical decisions and design decisions. While the former relates to concrete, typically binary choices with a clear right or wrong, the latter deals with more subjective choices where multiple options could yield successful results. As a project manager, it’s critical to understand the difference between these two and handle them effectively.
The Intricacies of Practical Decisions
Practical decisions often arise in situations where there’s an ‘only way’ or a ‘best accepted way’ of doing things.
WHAT ARE PRACTICAL DECISIONS?
There may be a better term for it, but the concept is easily understood. Practical decisions usually relate to the direct application of set methodologies, processes, or standards. They have a defined ‘correctness’ associated with them.
Easy examples include meeting quality requirements, deciding when to complete scheduled activities, or other such decisions where there’s a clear best or solid answer.
When you’re the decision maker, practical decisions involve having the information (or getting the information) to make an informed choice. When you’re a manager of someone making a practical decision, its your responsibility to provide guidance on reaching the correct decision.
Common Mistakes in Handling Practical Decisions
Project managers often tend to leverage their experience to critique or correct decisions. While this is valuable, the frame of reference should always be “How will this decision affect the outcome?” rather than defaulting to what’s been done before.
Even with practical decision making, the “perfect” answer is based only on the information available. Making a decision is usually more important than holding off until you have all the information. Even with the best information, results aren’t guaranteed. We’ll talk more about this concept (called Resulting) in the next post.
If you’re working with a team-member in making a practical decision, you should use your experience to guide them. If you’re the inexperienced one (remember, even good managers aren’t experts in everything), leverage the knowledge, skills, and expertise of your team.
The Complexity of Design Decisions
Design decisions, on the other hand, involve choices between a subjective array of possible options, where the option chosen bears little to not impact.
Understanding Design Decisions
These decisions are often about conveying information or creating deliverables, where personal style and interpretation come into play. Design decisions give the project manager an opportunity to inject their own perspective and creativity.
The primary upside of design decisions is that the result of the decision is likely to be small, or non-existent. So, while there is value in investing time in decisions, you can be confident that your decision won’t significantly impact the project.
Note: I’ve adopted the term “design decision” because this type of decision often applies to matters of design. But the term is equally useful for any decision with negligible difference in outcome.
For instance, deciding whether to celebrate your team by taking them out for lunch of after-work drinks is a “design decision”, even though its not a matter of design. In the long-term, the different between the two options is negligible.
The Pitfalls of Micromanagement
One common mistake in project management (and management, specifically) is treating design decisions like practical ones.
When you’re the primary decision maker, you may spend too much time on decisions that will not significantly impact the outcome of the project, taking time away from other important tasks and decisions.
When reviewing work done by others, this can lead to unnecessary critique and micromanagement, reducing the confidence of team members and undermining their ownership of tasks. In a future post, I’ll discuss why I believe ownership is the most powerful motivator.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “The Customer is always right!”, you’re likely aware of how it is used by unruly customers to justify their behavior.
You may be shocked to discover that the phrase was actually coined to address matters of design decisions.
Let me demonstrate:
If you worked in a retail store and a customer said “you have to give me a discount because when I was in here last, and employee whose name I don’t remember was really rude to me”, then deciding whether to give them a discount is a practical decision. There is a consequence to the decision.
Either, you could give the customer a discount to keep them around (assuming they’re not lying and that you want customers like that as customers), or you refuse the discount and lose them as a customer but you don’t give away heavily discounted product.
However, if a different customer is eyeing a blue shirt that you think looks horrible on them, you’re welcome to share your thoughts, but the decision rests ultimately on them. The consequence of their decision is non-existent (except maybe some social embarrassment).
My first wage job in high school was at a retail store, and I routinely watched people buy things I would never buy for myself. The store was full of things that didn’t match my personal style. But unless I thought the person was making a life-changing mistake (read: never), I’d happily ring them up and send them on their way.
The ‘Customer’ is your employee
Now imagine instead of being a shop employee, you’re a project manager reviewing a subordinate’s work (this shouldn’t be too tough to imagine.)
Your employee has handed you a report they wrote and, while good, you notice they’ve written entirely in the passive voice. You prefer to write reports in the active voice, as you believe it conveys more authority. You’ve never tested this, but its your personal preference. Do you tell your employee to go back and re-write their whole report?
If you’ve learned anything from this post so far, your answer should be “probably not’. Unless this is a marketing report and your company has a defined style guide, its likely that every report you’ve issued has its own unique characteristics.
Who’s to say whether passive or active voice is better?
Can the report title be green to standout or should it be black and professional?
Should sentences be long and thorough or short and concise?
While you have may have an opinion on each of these matters, they ultimately affect very little and the cost of changing them is greater than the return.
Balancing Practical and Design Decisions
Striking a balance between practical and design decisions is a delicate dance that requires an understanding of the potential impacts of both types of decisions. If you spend too much time critiquing design decisions, you’ll waste a lot of time and make it difficult for yourself and your employees to succeed. If you treat practical decisions like design decisions, you risk making dangerous missteps.
THE OUTCOME-LIKELIHOOD FRAMEWORK
This where I use something I call the “outcome-likely” framework. The framework is simple: when making a decision or analyzing decisions made by others, consider the possibly likely outcomes of this decision over an alternative decision.
Challenge yourself to think of a few possible, likely outcomes of sticking with the decision that’s been made. Then consider some alternative options and the likely outcomes of those decisions. If the outcomes are similar, then the decision is likely a design decision.
This framework is an effective tool for distinguishing between practical and design decisions. It involves assessing the likely outcome of a decision and the possible variations in outcomes. Over time, with feedback and repeated application, the accuracy of the likelihood estimates will improve.
Also, this framework can be used a teaching tool. There have been times when I’ve submitted work to a boss, thinking my decisions were design decisions. “The client didn’t give us any criteria for this, so I just used my best judgement”, I’d say. Only to find out that my boss had dealt with this client before and knew exactly what they wanted to see. With this new information, there was a consequence to my decision. If the client had an expectation (even though I didn’t know it), we might get pushback for providing something different.
If you know something to be a practical decision, but your coworkers and employees believe its a design decision, you can educate them on the possibly outcomes.
CREATING A CULTURE OF OPEN FEEDBACK
In order for this work, you have create a culture of open feedback. In the previous post, we explored the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. No one should be free of honest, constructive critique, and no decision should be free from scrutiny.
We have a tendency to take feedback personally regardless of the source. But, a healthy feedback culture is crucial. It helps team members grow and encourages a diversity of thought. Managers should be able to provide constructive feedback without requiring rework, thus recognizing the value of different approaches and allowing room for improvement without punishment. And employees should be free to give constructive feedback on decisions without fear of retribution.
Implementing this understanding in real-world project management situations can significantly enhance your decision-making processes. You’re going to spend a lot of your time deciding, and you’ll be surprised by how much of your time is spent agonizing over design decisions.
Implementing the Outcome-Likelihood Framework
To start making better decisions this week, use the Outcome-Likelihood Framework. When faced with a decision ask yourself about the likely outcomes of the options you’re weighing.
If you’re someone who reviews the work of others and you notice they’ve made different design decisions than you might have made, feel free to give feedback, but don’t punish with rework. Having to do work over because of a subjective design standard damages trust and relationships and robs employees of ownership.
BUILDING A FEEDBACK CULTURE
Feedback culture is critical to effective decision making. The best decisions are made when we have the freedom to make design decisions without undue scrutiny and the freedom to participate in practical decisions without the fear of retribution.
Over the last decade, I’ve seen workplaces increasingly moving toward a feedback culture, which is great to see. But, many still struggle with open and honest communication, especially if the company has (or had) a manager who rejected feedback, punished speaking out, or just generally created a hostile environment.
Building a feedback culture is a slow process. It will take a continuous effort of small, subtle acts. These will mainly include:
- Openly asking for feedback on your work and decisions (from people in every direction, bosses, coworkers, direct-reports)
- Rewarding those who offer feedback, even negative feedback (reward can be something as simply as public gratitude and praise)
In this case, a project manager encourages open discussions about decision-making, fostering a feedback culture that values varied approaches without undermining team confidence.
Understanding and effectively navigating the distinction between practical and design decisions is a critical skill for project managers.
It will save you time, foster creativity, and promote a healthier, more productive working environment. By focusing on the potential outcomes of decisions and fostering an open feedback culture, project managers can strike the right balance and lead their teams more effectively. Remember, it’s not about right or wrong; it’s about choosing the path that best serves the project and the team.