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Valuable and Effective Decision-Making in Project Management

written by: Ed Gurowitz • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 7/3/2012

Decision-making is critical to project management.In a complex project that will mean delegating decisions. This article discusses critical factors in effective delegation and decision-making, decision criteria, decision methods and decision roles.

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    The goal of effective project management is to coordinate the actions of a group so that the intended outcomes of the project are achieved effectively and efficiently. For projects of any complexity, this will entail a host of decisions, most of which will be delegated by the overall project manager to others on the team.

    Delegation is often poorly understood, and is confused on the one hand with abdication and on the other with pseudo-delegation. Abdication occurs when a manager hands off decision-making authority without also building in accountability for the decision. Pseudo-delegation is when there is a pretense of handing off decision-making, but the person to whom the decision is apparently delegated cannot actually make the decision – the authority to make the decision stays with the delegator. Both of these false delegations cost the project in efficiency and effectiveness.

    True delegation means handing off the decision-making power to a person who is willing and able to be accountable for the decision and who can coordinate the decision for which they are accountable with the project as a whole. True delegation requires that the delegator and the delegatee be aligned on three areas:

    • Clear decision CRITERIA
    • Clear decision METHOD
    • Clear decision ROLES
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    Criteria are a basis for comparing various decision options. By providing clear criteria and obtaining the delegatee’s commitment to those criteria, the delegator ensures that the decisions that are made will meet his or her requirements and the needs of the project as a whole. The foundation of decision making is a simple, actionable statement of the overarching strategy for the project, for example “we are committed to being better, not bigger" or “we are out to be the lowest cost provider in our industry."

    Once the strategy is clear, decision criteria fall into three main areas:

    • Principles – what rules are we committed to following in executing on the strategy? For example, maintaining the integrity of the brand or excellent customer service
    • Measures – what are the key metrics that will tell us if this decision succeeded?
    • Constituents – whose interests must be considered in making the decision? For example, customers, investors, suppliers.

    Once these criteria are known and agreed-upon, the delegate can compare how different decision options (including the option of not making a decision) will impact on each of the areas identified, confident that he or she and the delegator are on the same page.

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    In their book, The Communication Catalyst, Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek describe four types of decision-making methods:

    • Authoritative
    • Democratic
    • Consensus
    • Contributive

    Each of these yields different outcomes on two critical measures: engagement or buy-in on the part of those who will carry out the decision and speed with which the decision is made. Different types of projects will require different balance points between these two. For example, a project with a “burning platform" will emphasize speed over buy-in. Said another way, a project manager on a “burning platform" project will be willing to settle for compliance over engagement as long as the project is done quickly. On the other hand, the project manager on a complex, mission-critical project may be willing to tolerate a longer time-to-decision to obtain a higher degree of engagement. The four decision-making methods listed above (and described below) have roughly the following relationship on these two measures:

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    The Four Decision Making Methods

    Authoritative: Decisions are dictated by leaders. Even with a good decision, execution is not always rapid nor acceptance always high. Authoritative decision-making creates dependence on authority and works best where the consequences of non-compliance are high (e.g., emergencies, prisons, military).

    Democratic: The right people participate in the decision through discussion, input, and fact-gathering and then vote, with the majority making the decision. Democratic decision-making is often used to reach a quick decision, but it increases the chance of non-supporting factions during execution. Works best with groups that don’t work together over a long period of time.

    Consensus: The right people participate in and make the decision together. Decision-making requires everyone’s agreement or support. The weakness of consensus decision-making is that one person can stall the process by withholding their agreement and consensus may break down over time. Works best in more stable environments where speed to decision is not a big requirement.

    Contributive: The right people participate in the decision-making process in clear roles. The decision owner makes the final decision after listening, learning, and taking all interests and views into account. The roles here are critical and will be described in Part Three of this article.

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    Decision Making Roles

    For each of the four methods, there are distinct Decision Roles:

    • In Authoritative decision-making, there is only one role, the Decider, who makes the decision on his or her own, consultation optional.
    • In Democratic decision-making, those participating are Deliberators and Voters, in an agreed-upon protocol for how decisions are made (majority, plurality, etc.).
    • In Consensus decision-making, everyone is a Deliberator, and decisions must be made unanimously.

    There are many forms of what we are calling Contributive Decision-Making, e.g. RACI. In this article, I am following Connolly and Rianoshek’s classification called DEARS). The roles in Contributive Decision-Making are Decider, Executors, Advisors, Recipients, and Sponsor. We will discuss these in detail in the next section.

    As we discussed in Part Two, each of these decision-making methods has different outcomes for engagement (execution) and time-to-decision. Work with thousands of project teams across a number of industries around the world has led me to the conclusion that for complex projects in a fast-changing environment, Contributive Decision-Making is the best approach, maximizing the wisdom of the team while at the same time not sacrificing speed of decision. A number of writers, notably James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, have noted that, under the right conditions, any group will reliably come up with smarter answers than its smartest members or a group of experts would have come up with on their own. Contributive Decision-Making combines a single accountability for making the decision with maximum opportunity for learning on the decision makers part and input from all involved.

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    Roles in Contributive Decision-Making

    As we've noted, every complex project will involve delegation, and for delegation to work there need to be clear roles. Here are the roles in Contributive Decision-Making.


    The Decider (and there is only one Decider for each decision step) has the ultimate authority to decide and Is in the best position to assess the system value at stake for customers, stakeholders and employees. The Decider is accountable for learning from every issue raised by the Executors and Advisors and making a decision that maximizes system value. The Decider is also accountable for the consequences of the decision


    The Executor is the person or persons accountable for executing the decision. Executors have the duty of giving input about feasibility, consequences and value of the decision. Executors must be skilled at raising issues with the Decider in a way that clearly serves the business purpose at stake.


    Advisors are subject matter experts who have important perspectives granted by their specific skills and experience. Advisors have the duty to raise issues related to their areas of expertise; they, too, must raise issues that clearly serve the business purpose. Frequently an Advisor can help design the decision team to ensure the right participation relative to business risk.


    The Recipients are those who needs only to be informed of the decision to be able to act accordingly. Recipients play no role in the decision-making process.


    The Sponsor has a dual accountability: To connect with larger system issues that inform the decision and to escalate the path for resolving stuck issues

    Clearly delineating these roles ensures that the right people are involved in the decision-making process (and that no one who does not need to be involved is involved), that everyone who needs to be informed of the decision is informed and that different parts of the project are coordinated, and that organizational support and resources are able to be accessed.