Moving at a snail’s pace?

Jun 2, 2023

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll know that the NZ government recently unveiled plans for a second Auckland harbour crossing, with construction due to start in 2029. Sound familiar? I’m not surprised. Since the mid-1970s, there’s been chatter about another bridge — and an ever-growing list of potential options. At this stage, the old saying ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ comes to mind. But the announcement got me thinking. 

One of the most significant risks to any project is ‘inaction’. If decision makers are glacial in making decisions, it can be the death knell for a project. Despite this, broken decision making processes are just as prevalent as the common cold. According to one McKinsey survey, fewer than half of the 1,200 managers questioned said that decisions are timely. Decision making is a high–stakes poker game. The slower you are to place your bet, the more likely you’ll have your bluff called. And in project land, it’s a costly move. 

The opportunity costs of slow decision making

Slow decision making can trigger significant problems on several fronts. Let’s first talk about the money side of things. Weekly cash burn can be in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for larger projects. What might only be a few days of pondering can be massive in budget terms. Secondly, there’s over-optimism. Projects are often based on tight schedules, sometimes with zero contingency for slippage. So, a delay caused by sluggish or apprehensive decision making not only compounds ‘the budget problem’ but also puts the delivery of other projects in jeopardy too. For example, other projects may depend on a vacated test environment, a specialist resource to be freed up, or a system component to be delivered to allow e2e testing. Fail to make a decision fast enough and you risk multiple projects grinding to a halt.

Make faster, better decisions

You can only make good or fast decisions, not both. Really? Not really. There’s a strong correlation between quick decisions and good outcomes, and based on experience, I know you can have the best of both worlds.

If your project manager has ticked off these three things at the start of the project, they should have no compunction holding decision–makers to account:

  1. Set the correct project roles, responsibilities and expectations at the beginning of the project.
  2. Establish decision making and escalation protocols.
  3. Make sure everyone is committed to those protocols. 

Sponsors – read the tea leaves

Leadership around decision making doesn’t just sit with the project manager. Sponsors who sit on the sidelines are just as responsible for the deluge of costs that come with slow decision making. So if your project manager isn’t making the decisions they should, and you can see hidden issues getting in the way of your project team meeting their objectives, as a sponsor, you must step in. That foresight requires reading the tea leaves and can help sponsors act quickly before the problems fester and rot. 

So, who makes the decision?

Devolve decision making to the people best equipped for the job. Who those people are will depend on the impact of the decision being made and the authority level required to make the final call. But ultimately, make the decision fast — and execute it immediately. You may end up tacking like a sailboat, and you may not have unanimous agreement, but at least you’ll keep moving forward. 

The real cost of slow decisions in a project environment

The opportunity costs of slow decision making are staggering; hundreds of thousands of hours are lost yearly — the equivalent of millions of dollars in wages. I wonder how much the Harbour Bridge debate has racked up in opportunity costs since the mid-1970s?

There are ample opportunities for companies to improve their decision making processes and drive both good and quality outcomes. Establish decision making protocols right at the start, ensure everybody is on the same page, and make it crystal clear when decisions need to be escalated and to whom.