Published here October 2010.

Introduction | Book Structure 
What We Liked | Downside | Summary

What We Liked

We found the authors' discussion in Chapter 4 of applying different decision approaches in three types of situation quite valuable. Here, authors Robert Powell and Dennis Buede reference Mintzberg and Westley who suggest that there are three ways to approach decisions:[3]

  1. Thinking first
  2. Seeing first, and
  3. Doing first

These are briefly described as follows:

  • "Thinking first" is the traditional analytical process, i.e. Define the problem; diagnose its causes; identify objectives; brainstorm solution alternatives; perform an analysis; and decide.
  • "Seeing first" is a four-step creative discovery process:
    Preparation >> incubation >> illumination >> verification.
  • "Doing first" involves experimentation by trial and error. In other words try out several options and see which one works out best.

Of course, this last assumes that either the decision is reversible, or the option can be conducted independently and then only applied to the project once it has been performed, validated and selected.

Under what circumstance should you adopt one of these three approaches? The table in Figure 1 provides the necessary guidance to selecting the most appropriate approach in different situations.




Select "Thinking First" when:

Select "Seeing First" when:

Select "Doing First" when:

The problem or situation is simple.

The problem or situation is complex.

The problem or situation requires innovative ideas.

The issue is clear.

Many elements have to be combined into creative solutions.

The situation is novel and confusing.

The data are reliable.

Commitment to those solutions is key.

Complicated specifications would get in the way.

The context is structured, thoughts can be pinned down and discipline can be applied.

Communication across boundaries is essential.

A few simple relationship rules can help.

The outcome is probably not reversible.

The outcome is probably not reversible.

The outcome probably is reversible.

Example: Should we design the structure or the foundations first?

Example: Should we consult all of the stakeholders or only a select few?

Example: Will this novel idea work and, if so, will it be useful?

Figure 1: Selecting a decision-making approach in three different situations[4]

Of course making the decision is not the end of the story. The decision then has to be implemented. On this stage of the overall process, the authors observe that:[5]

"The implementation of the decision is perhaps the most important task for the project manager. Managers are sometimes more interested in making a decision and then evaluating the result to determine if the decision achieved the stated purpose than they are in implementing it. There is often an obsession with making decisions and leaving the implementation to the lower levels in the organization. Decisions often require interpretation by management to be adequately implemented; if management doesn't do that, the decision can be improperly implemented and can fail. Implementing a decision requires as much planning and management oversight as planning the decision and making it."

Assuming that the decision has been approved, goals have been set, personnel have been assigned and funds allocated, then the authors suggest the following four rules should be followed:[6]

  1. Verify that the decision you have chosen is a good decision.
  2. Work out how to implement your decision.
  3. Work out how to monitor its effectiveness.
  4. Commit yourself to your decision and act on it.

What constitutes a "good decision"? The authors are not clear on this point but we suggest that every decision should at least make sense – and "feel" right. Rule #4 is interesting because it implies that many people happily make decisions but fail to act on them!

The Authors' discussion of Framing the Decision in Chapter 6 is also useful because it includes a section: Suggested Decision Frame Format for Project Management.[7] For the uninitiated, the authors explain that:[8]

"A decision frame defines the context for the decision and the elements (alternatives, objectives, uncertainties) that are part of the decision situation ... it is becoming clear to many people that creating some sort of audit trail for decisions is a wise thing to do [for scrutiny by] management, auditors, an Inspector General, regulators, or a court ..."

And of course, having created the decision frame content, keep it as a part of the project's management record. Project managers of construction industry projects in particular take note, because decisions in the light of limited knowledge can look fine, but in the light of subsequent risk events may look much less so and open to litigation!

For those not familiar with the impact of "Biases and Heuristics" on decision-making, Chapter 7 contains a brief introduction to this topic and the impacts that those described might have on the decision-making process. Unfortunately, neither term is defined in the context of project management, nor otherwise, so that some readers may be left a little nonplussed with regard to appropriate action.

Book Structure  Book Structure

3. Ibid, pp90-103
4. Note: The contents of this table have been abstracted from Table 4-3 on p92. The purpose of this transformation is to turn the contents into more useful advice for the reader.
5. Ibid, p104
6. Ibid, p105
7. Ibid, pp145-147
8. Ibid, p137
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