Decision making chaos organizing techniques for Project managers

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As the project manager I often found myself in the situation when everyone was looking at me and waiting my decision. As they really thought I am an expert or I know what to do. So every project manager should know some facilitation techniques to help team produce the decision or ideas. Because the smartest thing PM can do – allow the people who are really good at thinking to think the problem over and find the decision (I am talking about the team). PM should be a good facilitator and have a list of hand-on practices to help the team.

What do you need to prepare for start:
  • collect the team andante other people involved in the process/issue in one room. If you have the distributed team – collect all of them online in a conference with video, prepare some shared online whiteboard.
  • have a whiteboard and wall ready for the stickers/drawings/etc. Have a lot of paper, stickers, markers, pens, tape, etc. The more you have – the better, as the people should have a large variety to choose from.
  • book not less than 30 min for any of these meetings (better 1 hour).
  • have some snacks for the participants.
Important things to remember:
  • as PM you are not the one to find the solution by yourself. You are here to facilitate and uncover the team’s potential in finding the solution. Forget about management and positions, encourage collaboration, discussions and any ideas. Do not tell your opinion of the ideas, as this may “anchor” the team to me of the ideas and distract from discussing the others.
  • there are usually a lot of introvert in the teams. Try to make them comfortable so they can participate all your brainstorming sessions without feeling nervous. Let them come earlier, describe them the process, make them “get used” to the session place before the meeting begins, do not put them in front of the board expecting they will talk freely. Use some techniques that do not include public talking about your idea in front of the team.
  • Tell jokes. Make everyone feel comfortable. Try not to be too serious. There are too much serious things at work, including the issue you are going to discuss now.

Some of the techniques we often used with the teams:

Multi voting/dot voting

When you have large number of ideas and need to choose a small number of “leaders” among them.

Every team member gets 3-5 “dots” – small stickers. Then everyone comes to the board with the stickers and “vote” for the idea they like by using their “dots”. You can use all your votes to one idea or spread them to 3-5 different ideas. When everyone is done with choosing (that usually takes not more than several minutes) – facilitator announces the “winners” – top 2-3 ideas.

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When to use:

  • We used that technique during retrospectives – the stickers represented “To do” process improvement actions.
  • UI sketches – when team creates several sketches of the same UI screens during the UI brainstorming. Each group/person presents his sketch and the ideas behind it and then everyone votes for the best version.
  • Product managers voting for features ideas or designers presenting several ideas of the logo.

2013-05-07 13.52.48-1Dot voting used during the retrospective

“Silent” Prioritizing

That is an extremely useful technique when working with product managers. Sure they always want everything to be done at once and ASAP. Everything is the top priority. You can argue for hours on what should be in this release and what should not be included.

The approach is very simple: add a sticker for every item to the board(only one per sticker!). Agree on what is the “cut-off line” – it can be a team’s velocity per sprint, for example, or number of steps we can include in registration process, or any other number. For example, the cut off is 5.

The next step is to organize the stickers with items on the board in one column. Everyone should collect around the board. Each person then can do the following one by one in the order: take a sticker from the board and put that in the appropriate position in the column, can change the position of any sticker in the column or do nothing, as all the stickers are placed correctly as he thinks. If he is changing the position of the item in the column – he should explain to everyone why he is doing that. The process ends when the team stops moving stickers and everyone think that the order is correct. You would be surprised that this state can be reached with the reasonable amount of time.

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Real life example – PO tries to put everything in 1 column (as you can see – failed with the cards above the cut-off line)

When to use:
When you have a lot of items to process and a limited capacity, so you have to choose what to process and what to put aside.

2×2(nxn) matrix

Usually this technique is used when you need to “balance” some things you can’t fit in your mind all at once. The first thing you do in all the approaches described up and above – you should put all the items on the cards/stickers. To see what you have. Then you should create the 2×2 matrix on the board. The names you give to the axis depends on the context.

Important/Urgent – the most popular one. If you are trying to figure out what to include in the next release. You have all these new features, requests from the users and bug reports. But you can use the different parameters.

When you are done with the matrix – start placing the stickers inside the matrix. Do that in silence. When all the stickers are on the wall – start the discussion. You can move the stickers now.

Facilitator should prevent the team from creating something like this:

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All the items can’t be above the line, that can’t be the of the same importance! So keep iterating until you have the items spread over all the matrix.
Great! Now you know what to do – top right corner is the first priority!

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When to use:
when you have too many items to choose from and can define the 2 important of you parameters to range the things.

More complex – nxn matrix:

When you have more than 2 parameters to base the decision on – you should use the n-column decision matrix, where the n is the number of parameters. For example, to decide what is the priority of the feature you should take into account: value to the client, technical complexity, tech debt created, alignment with the strategy, any other. You should create the following matrix:

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Then you choose the range for the item to have at the parameter: it can be low-high, or 1-5. The best is to choose the most simple version low-high, as it is usually very difficult to define, if the item is 7 or 8 when you choose 1-10 range.

After you do that team should score every item and the item with the highest score is the winner.

Generating ideas

The problem with generating ideas and saying them to everyone as they emerge is usually that people are too shy to tell their ideas. Especially the craziest ones that can be the best ones. So it is better to remove that step with telling the idea to everyone and use the following approach: set the small time frame during which everyone should put heir ideas on the stickers, one idea per sticker.

You can even set the minimum amount of ideas to be written – 3 or 5. Then you can let each person to choose the top 5 his ideas and stick them to the board or make people exchange the stickers with ideas and choose the top  ones. The goal of this second step is to limit the number of ideas. Then start the discussions.

When to use:

  • when you need to generate ideas quickly.
  • during the retrospective – when you want to collect the ideas on what you are doing wrong/good.

Pareto analysis – rescue plan

We all know this 20/80 rule. It is extremely useful when we are dealing with issues, especially when dealing with the crisis situations, when improvements should be done quickly. So you should find those 20% of actions which improve the situation 80%.

Let’s imagine that you joining the project that is known to be in a bad shape. What you should do?

  1. Identify the list of issues. You can use the silent brainstorming technique mentioned above.
  2. For each of the problems you should discuss and find the root cause. remember about 5 Whys. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys
  3. Score the problems and group them. The scoring method use will depend on the sort of problem that needs to be solved. Here you should understand what the main complaint is – failed releases, slow development, quality, customer satisfaction, budget, etc. The grouping should be then done by the root cause.
  4. For each of the group sum up the scores on the cards. The group with the highest score is the highest priority.

Now you should start acting. The group with the highest scores identify your top root causes you should fix.

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6 thoughts on “Decision making chaos organizing techniques for Project managers

  1. Simply loved the ideas. U make a good pm . how I wish I worked in our team. U give so much importance to brainstorming session and u got unique ideas to tackle the priorities. Awesome

    1. Thank you!
      I think being a PM is one of the most challenging IT jobs, you have to improve all the time and be extremely good in communications. Sometimes I felt like “the Lord of Chaos”, as you just can’t control software development – while your team is exploring the dark matter the only thing you can do – get them some coffee)

      1. I have one request for u. Can you write on resource capacity planning. U might have good experience in that. And u give me lot of wonderful ideas.

      2. Can you specify what exactly you would like to know about resource capacity planning? You have a team to share for several projects? One developer can be shared between 4 or more projects? Need to define the team in the beginning of the project? “How many people I need to do this till Jan 1?”)

      3. a lead a team of 5 . i need to do a forecasting of demand and plan my resource efforts according for next quarter. also i should be taking historical data to analyse who is over allocated and under allocated .. and depending on that i should do resource pooling. so you may be having ideas about this . this is the first time im doing this ..

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