The most significant driver of cost and schedule variance in the execution of any project is indecision. While most projects can absorb a few bad decisions or even course-correct without a hitch, delaying a decision almost invariably creates damage. Agile practitioners will typically defer decisions until required to move forward so that the Decider has as much information as possible, but a lack of information isn’t always—or even usually—the problem. Sometimes the Decider just doesn’t feel empowered, and sometimes they are having trouble reconciling input from different Influencers. And there are several common types of Influencers.
SME: The Subject Matter Expert
The SME understands the business process, constraints, data records, information security concerns, and so on. In a lot of cases, the SME is the person who owns—or will own—the results of the decision, but doesn’t have the authority to make the decision. So the Decider—rightly—looks to the SME for input, trusting that the expert opinion will not be influenced by the impact of the decision. Usually, it isn’t. Usually.
The wise Decider will usually align with the SME, unless something else comes up. Usually, this takes the form of another Influencer.
HiPPO: Highest Paid Person’s Opinion
Inviting a very senior person to weigh in on a decision they aren’t being asked to make is like prospecting for uncertainty and doubt. Numerous studies have verified the existence of the HiPPO effect—junior team members defer to the expressed opinions of the Highest Paid Person, because they assume that they are paid so much due to their greater knowledge. And the Highest Paid Person may actually have greater knowledge in some area—but that doesn’t mean their Kung Fu is the best for this particular decision.
An even worse situation can occur when the Highest Paid Person asks a clarifying question, which nearly always raises doubt in the minds of the Decider and SME. I once saw a SVP of Human Resources stop a presentation cold by asking whether a bullet point referred to something that was done, or that needed to be done. I had to help the stunned Decider find her car.
“It’s the Heisenberg Principle…me asking the question changes the answer.” – Barack Obama
BOGSAT: Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table
It’s good to network, but parents worry about peer pressure for a reason. I once worked for a guy who used the term “strap-hangers” for those he perceived were just along for the ride. As he put it: if they didn’t have any skin in the game, their opinions shouldn’t matter. I used to think that was a bit extreme, but as I’ve come to understand the dynamics of making choices under conditions of uncertainty, it’s become plain that not all points of view are valuable. I had a client defer a decision until she could reach out to confirm whether the passing comment from a friend in another company was relevant. It wasn’t.
Uncertainty, Assumptions, Influence, and Decisiveness
Uncertainty is a given—we are rarely asked to make decisions with all the facts. Usually, at least some things are unknown or even unknowable. So we have to make assumptions in order to close the gaps. Those assumptions represent risks, which have to be managed. We seek out the opinions and counsel of those we trust and respect in an effort to assess the risks and proceed with a decision, and in many cases that additional input makes the issue and choices more clear. But reconciling different opinions and different points of view should not take precedence over making a timely decision.