by Louise Worsley

Expert PMs make better decisions

Human Resources

Expert PMs make better decisions.
Expert PMs make better decisions

How is it that some people make better decisions than others? 

Is it luck? Is it expertise? Research suggests that experts seem to be able to tap into experiences and intuitions that just aren’t accessible to new-to-the-field practitioners. 

They appear to recognise and react to patterns and signs that other people just don’t see – or if they do see them, they are unaware of their significance.

Experts don’t analyse all the options; they don’t need to

Gary Klein, in his groundbreaking work on decision making, examined how professionals in highly pressurised environments (e.g. firemen, doctors, nurses) made life-saving decisions.

When asked to relate their thought processes – how they analysed and then decided upon the right actions to take – the surprising finding was that they didn’t! Well not in the way we might expect.

The analytical view of decision making suggests that what we do is assess options and then pick the one which is appropriate and the most likely to yield success.

It was found that experts are simply better and faster at doing this than the rest of us. What Klein discovered was that the experts could not actually relate to this process and had no feeling of going through options. 

They merely saw the situation and somehow knew what was the right action to take.

So is analysis helpful in decision making?

The answer is most decidedly yes. Klein found that less experienced practitioners, who are unable to access this “intuition”, are more likely to make use of analysis approaches to assessing options. 

And, more crucially, experts when faced with situations which they had not encountered before or where the situations were unclear or contained anomalies which triggered concerns, did have to access and make use of analytical approaches.

Decision making through ‘intuition’ seems to be developed over time from exposure to a variety of experiences. It is akin to the idea of ‘sense-making’ – the ability to size up a situation. 

'Sense-making' not only allows experts to quickly assess and react to a situation, but it also allows them to recognise anomalies earlier.

It signals the need to seek out further information to confirm or disregard the need to react to issues that others might not even have seen yet. 

It prompts the judgement to apply and draw upon additional decision making analysis approaches.

How do we develop expert decision making?

It certainly seems that we do need an understanding of the process and principles underpinning our discipline area. 

That’s how we grow initial understanding and what supports us when it is necessary to review the situation from first principles.

In the field of project management, methods and accreditation such as PRINCE2, PMP, APMP,MSP are recognised as underpinning understanding, but it is also now generally recognised that these are insufficient on their own to develop expertise.

Experience of projects helps us to further develop our intuition, but we know that it is the range of experiences not simply the years or experience in the field that matters. 

And whether we learn from those experiences is often a rather haphazard affair.

The answer lies in Klein’s assertion: Experts make better decisions because they are better at making sense of their environment and selecting the right decision making strategies.

As we develop ourselves and our project teams beyond processes and methods the focus must be on the practice and improvement of decision making capability in complex environments. 

That translates into a more active approach to capability development - more information sharing and less training; more decision making exercises (1) less process learning, more story sharing (1) less lessons learned reports; more conversations with experts (1) and less show and tell.  I’m sure you can think of many more.

We leave you with some prompt questions for your active learning plans:

-  What are the key decisions I make that make a difference to the success and failure of my projects?

-  What decisions do I find difficult?

-  What decision making strategies am I drawing upon?

-  How can I get better?

Decision making exercises and conversations with experts are both techniques used on the PiCubed Advanced Project Management specialised short course – for more information on this course, contact Sally Pike,

Additional reference:

Klein, G. (1999). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT Press.

Louise Worsley, director of PiCubed

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Issue 29


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