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Managing BI Projects by Expediting Key Decisions

Project managers are responsible for moving many decision makers toward a single goal. Continuously expediting the next key decision is critical to moving a project forward.

By J. René Russell and Max T. Russell

French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte managed big projects, the most notable of which was his war against continental Europe. Each successful advance involved the coordination of large numbers of troops and equipment as well as timely decisions by his officers.

Napoleon looked back on his career at one point and concluded, "Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than being able to decide."

Whether you're trying to conquer Europe or trying to keep a BI implementation on target, great project management requires a constant awareness of the next step in planning and execution.

Much of your time will be spent getting other people to make decisions, which often will include getting approvals. Progress often waits for approvals relating to budgets, resources, designs, and other issues that call for resolution. You must anticipate every obstacle that could stand in the way of progress, and you must believe that the solution to any obstacle lies in the resources of the enterprise and its allies.

Six rules of excellent communication will help ensure that all key stakeholders fulfill their responsibilities for your project's outcomes.

Rule 1: Document Responsibilities for Planned Decisions

Stakeholders as a rule do not work for the project manager and are often more senior in rank. This is all the more reason to approach them with diplomacy and tact.

Imagine that you're facing the daunting possibility of failing to deliver a much-anticipated data visualization with responsive design for your company's traveling sales force. The project team agrees the endeavor is off schedule. Some say there's no way to get it back on track. Others lack the sense of urgency needed to succeed. On top of that, the whole team has other pressing obligations.

They must be held accountable for this project's outcomes.

Here we can tap the insight of another wartime leader -- President Abraham Lincoln. As commander-in-chief during the Civil War, he recognized that his generals and other key decision makers had minds of their own. To be more certain that they followed his orders, he made every attempt to personally and clearly communicate his plans to them.

He gave them verbal orders in person and then left them a document -- carefully prepared in advance -- containing the same information.

Using Lincoln's method today might include a personal visit or phone call followed by an e-mail that restates your message. We'll illustrate the e-mail shortly.

Rule 2: Identify Key Decisions and Approvals

By definition, a project has a beginning and an end. The target must be definite -- even if it's eventually modified beyond recognition in response to feedback. To hit the target, you have to take time to identify all key decisions, as far as they can be known at the time.

Starting at the planning phase -- and regularly along the way -- thoroughly think through the whole project (TDWI Premium members can read more at here.). How might stakeholders impact each step? Exactly which decisions will they need to approve?

Whenever appropriate, the project plan should include a detailed schedule for approvals as well as for when the approvers will be out of office or on vacation. Knowing these schedules allows you to take countermeasures, such as early approvals, delegation to another approver, or even elimination of the approver, if necessary.

The detailed, early project definition requires a full team that can successfully identify the key stakeholders. If the resources are not available to assist at the planning phase, the project should be put on hold.

Of course, some redefinition may be necessary. Returning to the stalled data visualization project, let's say you're approaching the end of it and you realize one essential deliverable is still not completed. You tell your team, "We'll be at least three months late if we don't decide to change our approach." Your team appears unconcerned.

You may need to take a risk without insulting them. You must find someone somewhere who can help you solve the impasse. We know a project manager -- we'll call her Amy -- who sought the opinion of a non-degreed app designer in another of the company's facilities because her team said her project was headed for failure because time did not allow for sufficient product testing. The app designer turned out to know a way to perform the testing.

Amy then spoke privately with the engineer in charge of product validation and explained the urgency of trying what seemed a plausible solution. He agreed to support the effort. The rest of the team fell in line, and the product was delivered on time.

Amy didn't win any recognition for leadership, but she gained a better understanding of the importance of making the next decision.

Rule 3: Precisely Define the Decision to Be Made

Avoid the mistake of vague decision. Amy could have asked if anybody knew someone who might have an answer to the problem. She could have asked the engineer if he minded her looking into the non-degreed app designer's idea.

Such vague action would have left her with no final decisions and no forward movement.

Because she had enough technical understanding to ask the right questions, she was able speak intelligently to the app designer, obtain precise approvals, and keep everyone on board with an unconventional solution. The validation engineer benefited by avoiding a reprimand for failing to validate on time, and the team was given credit for an achievement they had thought impossible.

Rule 4: Identify All Key Decision Makers

Project managers are taught to identify all key stakeholders, but they don't always do it. It's not enough to specify key decisions. You have to know who the true stakeholders in charge of making those decisions are. Otherwise, you probably will not get their approvals, which are fundamental to success.

Certain people can make or break your project. If you leave them out of the communication loop because you don't like them or are uncomfortable with them for any reason, your disconnection will come back to haunt you. You have to respect their opinion and the power and influence of their position.

Even in a hostile environment, it's best to be show integrity and bear any pain of unfairness. The pain of acting without integrity is worse than the pain of being criticized unfairly, humiliated, or having guilt on your conscience for acting unprofessionally.

Rule 5: Conduct Polite Follow-Up about the Next Key Decision

Your key stakeholders are busy people with many responsibilities. We find that most of them truly care about projects and want to know how they can help in order to be part of the success. You must get their attention boldly, politely, and quickly.

Polite means sending an e-mail message or making a personal visit with a message such as: "I know you're busy. When is a good time to talk today?" Briefly provide the agenda. Put it on a note and leave it with them if you're making a personal visit.

Notice that you are asking for a specific time and you are asking to talk today -- not tomorrow.

In your message, as in all your communication:

  • Be calm, hold your ground with diplomatic tact, and look reality in the eye while maintaining your self-respect. That way, the stakeholder relaxes and doesn't adopt your same negative posture

  • Do not blame, even if you're taking heat for what somebody else did

  • Convey that the agenda is worthy of the stakeholders' time. Let them know their work has value. You can say to them individually, "Your input means a lot to me personally," or "I don't know where this project would be without you," or "I just don't see how we'd be moving this DW project along without your assistant's help."

This soft skill includes e-mail messages that can be read and understood at a glance. The subject line must match your message in simplicity and urgency. Within your e-mail include a simple plan for how recipients can contribute a decision or approval to that part of the project.

For example:

Subject: [URGENT] Your approval needed for Protocol #5164 for Project Bravo


Please approve Protocol #5164 for Project Bravo.

Many thanks.


Jack Russell Project Manager, Project Bravo

Rule 6: Keep Decision Makers Up to Date

You need to believe that your key decision makers want to help, and they need to sense your belief that they will cooperate. Keep them up-to-date throughout your project, because if even one step is skipped, everything stops.

Projects are failing all the time when they don't have to. People have many reasons to disengage from them. Maintain momentum by following the six rules described here. Then all stakeholders and team members will enjoy success because you held them together by continuously expediting optimal decisions that had great impact on the project's critical path. You did your job.

J. René Russell is a certified project management professional in the medical device industry. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions about future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 19 years. You can contact the author at [email protected].

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