Decision-making techniques - how to make the right choice

A skilled project manager has the ability to set clear priorities and make sound decisions. Ideally, all decisions made by a project manager should be based on a comprehensive set of facts, always using logic and reason. Unfortunately, a project manager is often faced with situations where the mere existence of "hard" facts is not enough to make wise decisions.
Road signs with directional arrows in a desert.



The plethora of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis requires the project manager to listen to their intuition, their "gut feeling", and make decisions accordingly. Intuition can be an important indicator of the correctness of a decision, because sometimes one solution simply seems more attractive than another. However, it is essential to systematically weigh up the pros and cons in order to live up to your responsibilities as a decision-maker. Even with gut decisions, it may be necessary to make a reasoned statement that can stand up to critical scrutiny.
However, especially when making important and far-reaching project decisions, you should not rely solely on your gut feeling. To minimise the risk of making the wrong decision, project managers have a number of decision-making techniques at their disposal.

Example from the world of project management

A project manager has a choice between two equally qualified project members. However, the "gut feeling", based on a mixture of professional experience and knowledge of human nature, is clearly in favour of one candidate.

Efficient decision-making

A project manager has a choice between two equally qualified project members. However, the "gut feeling", based on a mixture of professional experience and knowledge of human nature, is clearly in favour of one candidate.

Efficient decision-making
Many decisions have to be made every day in the project. Some examples of classic project decisions are:
  • "Do we tell our client now that the costs are exploding or do we continue as before without informing until the next status meeting?"
  • "Do we hire this project staff member or wait until we find someone better qualified?"
  • "Do we buy the tool from supplier A or B?"
Systematic decision preparation significantly reduces the likelihood of making the wrong decision. The process of systematic decision preparation consists of eight steps:

1. Justify the need for the decision
2. Describe alternatives
3. Reduce alternatives to one clear statement in writing
4. Compare alternatives and their consequences in a matrix
5. Weight the consequences (e.g. according to severity, assign points according to the school grading system)
6. Make a decision
7. Justify the decision in writing
8. Document the decision

Decisions of minor importance, which do not have serious consequences if they turn out to be wrong, are good for practising.
It is very important to write down the different alternatives. This makes it easier to keep track and gives a sense of control over the problem. A useful method is to make a two-column table with the advantages and disadvantages listed in the appropriate columns.
A reasoned and documented decision suggests that thorough research and careful consideration have taken place. However, if the decision is wrong, the question is how to deal with it. It is well known that it is not always possible to make the right decision, but almost every wrong decision can be corrected. So there is no need to worry.

Gather information and ask those affected

In order to make informed decisions, it is often necessary for the project manager to conduct extensive research into facts, figures and data, and to carefully weigh up the pros and cons. Both internal and external sources of information can be used. However, when preparing decisions, the effort involved should always be weighed against the expected benefits, as extensive research not only takes up a lot of time, but often creates more confusion than insight. The structured approach outlined above minimises the risk of getting lost in the chaos of information.
The project manager can avoid problems with stakeholders such as project staff, departments within the organisation or the works council by consulting them before making decisions. This involves asking them how they are affected by the issue and how the decision might affect them. In this way, decisions can be made on a broader basis and potential resistance to certain options can be identified and addressed at an early stage. Involving stakeholders strengthens the decision-making process and highlights the leadership qualities of the project manager.

Conduct a pro and contra analysis

Pro-contra analysis is a decision-making technique used to identify the advantages and disadvantages of a proposal. Participants are divided into two groups: One group collects the arguments in favour of the proposal, the other the arguments against. The collected arguments are then presented in plenary and each group discusses the arguments of the other group. In a joint discussion, an attempt is made to refute the arguments of the other side. Finally, all arguments are evaluated by people from both groups.

Building a decision-making framework

The decision-making process is strongly influenced by the cultural environment. For example, in a collectivist culture, consensus is often sought, whereas in authoritarian societies the final decision rests with the most senior member, even if this is against the group interest. The task of the project manager is to make the team aware of the cultural diversity in the project and to prepare them for possible cultural differences.
In international projects, a specific decision-making process can be developed with the team that is understood and supported by all team members. It is important that the decision-making process is transparent and comprehensible to all team members. It should be regularly reviewed whether the decision-making process needs to be adapted due to changes in the framework conditions - this applies not only to cultural differences, but in general.
Ideally, this can be done by building on the existing sequential decision-making framework:
  • Determine the initial situation
  • Gather the necessary information
  • Develop alternative solutions
  • Evaluate solutions and select the most appropriate alternative
  • Communicate the decision
  • Implemente the decision


Non-decisions are also decisions. Making decisions is often an unpleasant task, because it can lead to wrong decisions and thus jeopardise the success of a project. This is why decisions are often delayed. However, if a project manager waits too long to make a decision, the consequences of the delay can be more serious than the consequences of the wrong decision. A common example is the delay in abandoning a project, because a project that is doomed to fail if it continues too long ties up resources and is a waste of money. To understand the widespread phenomenon of decision procrastination and how to avoid it in your own project, two questions need to be answered:
1. What are the benefits to individuals and committees of delaying or avoiding decisions?
From the point of view of those who should be making decisions, there are some advantages to not making decisions:
  • Avoiding an uncertain future.
  • Keeping options open.
  • Avoiding negative consequences.
  • Avoiding hurting others. 
2. How are decisions delayed or avoided?
Those who avoid decisions give a wide range of excuses for their behaviour:
  • More information is needed.
  • All available information must be carefully considered.
  • Contradictions must first be resolved.
  • In supposedly unclear situations, security and orientation must first be created. 
If, as a project manager, you have to deal with representatives of higher hierarchical levels and notice that decisions are being delayed, you should address this as early as possible and make clear the consequences, e.g. for costs, schedules, performance and effects, e.g. on other projects, the image of the company, both verbally and in writing. Decisions should be explicitly requested. This should be done sensitively so as not to put the senior decision-makers in an uncomfortable position, e.g. by withholding your own opinion in a meeting with the client present. 
A one-to-one meeting or phone call is a good way to secure the support of key people before the crucial meeting. Power promoters, such as a committed board member, or specialists, such as a technically skilled member of the project team, can help you as the project manager to represent your concerns well, for example to top management, the customer or the supplier. At the same time, as a project manager, you must not hide, but take a clear stand yourself, but always in the right environment and in the right language. It is all about how and where you say something.


As a project manager, you can use the methods and tools of project management, directly or in a slightly adapted form, to support the decision-making process and to bring about decisions. You don't have to decide everything on a gut feeling or let the project go into crisis or even disaster with your eyes wide open.

Decision-making techniques - the author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Decision-making techniques

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