Despite the protestations of PRINCE practitioners and other advocates of project “management” methodologies project management is not all about process. What really separates effective project management from the rest is decision making at all levels of the governance structure.
In my first job after leaving Durham University I was often left in charge of an entrepreneurial small business. This was in the days before e-mail, mobile phones and even fax machines were something of a novelty; we still used a telex service for urgent overseas correspondence! When the owner went away on his occasional overseas business trips his instructions were very clear: “… if a decision really needs taking then you must make it, take using the best of your knowledge and ability. If you do that in good faith there will be no blame if it turns out wrong; I will sort it out, few decisions are irrecoverable”.
He meant it and lived by it, as I have ever since. The point was that delaying a decision is usually worse than not taking the necessary, even if painful, action. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to learn that lesson as they tinker with sticking plasters for the financial crises. The politicians are learning what many project managers have discovered, the consequences of indecision just keep mounting up and make the eventual decision even more difficult.
The lesson is that if a decision needs taking then it should be taken with the best information available. A timely and good enough decision is far better than a perfect but too late decision. The only perfect understanding is with hindsight “what we should have done is…”. A bureaucratic approach to project management is often engendered by project methodologies which hinder speedy and effective decision making. Waiting for more information leads to the old cliché “paralysis by analysis” – an appearance of activity whilst the problem continues to grow.
The other point my old boss made was that few decisions are really final. Indeed, in management generally once action is taken the results of the decision should be monitored and further decisions will be needed to refine the outcome.
In one of my most successful, and enjoyable, assignments I took over a troubled programme from a PRINCE practitioner and tried to use the governance structures he had implemented. The programme was in a recovery situation and the client was a fast-moving start-up business. There was never time to wait a week to get a decision from a project board – even if you could get the board together. As a result I adopted the approach of e-mailing the board members on the basis of “I intend to do X, please advise me if you have any objection.If I hear nothing I will regard that as acceptance”; the deadline for a response was rarely more than 24 hours.
It meant my neck was on the line but sometimes one just has to accept the risk to get the job done; I would have been equally culpable if I had not taken decisions so there was no real choice. We recovered the programme and delivered it on time.
So the message is: do not be half-hearted about making decision, take decisions when needed using the best information available at the time. There are no rewards for completely accurate decisions taken too late.