The emotional cost of having options

There’s a principle in modern project management called “the last responsible moment”. Or, more precisely, delaying a decision until the last responsible moment. There’s sometimes some semi-mathematical talk around this issue regarding cost of delay, but as a general rule of thumb I think it’s a sensible idea. To express it as a negative, I regard this as saying “let’s not commit ourselves too early”, and I often find myself saying out loud something like, “well, we don’t need to decide now, so let’s come back to this next week.”

A traditional project management mindset values firm plans, but a more agile, current approach values flexibility.

But what is often not talked about with “last responsible moment”, and exploiting options more generally, is the emotional change needed either when introducing multiple options, or when we shift from early decision making to late decision making. It’s very easy to get emotionally attached to a plan or direction, and when it gets challenged, or needs to change, it can come as a disappointment to the team or wider stakeholders. The physical manifestation of that is complaints, questions or grumblings, and hence extra time remotivating, explaining and appeasing, going back over past discussions, and reassuring stakeholders about the stability of the project.

A couple of years ago I was working with a team where exactly this happened. We had a solution for our project, which was based on research and evidence. However, one of the senior stakeholders insisted that other solutions might also be consistent with the evidence, and even suggested one. This intervention was not received well by the team. It was interpreted as a lack of trust in their choices, and as someone senior telling the team how to do their job. But it was, objectively, a fair challenge: there were other options, we didn’t need to take the decision so early, and it was possible that other solutions might provide better outcomes. Nevertheless, despite the sound logic, the team was knocked back, and there were low-level threats of a mutiny. For a short time productivity and motivation dropped off a cliff.

As with so many changes in working practice, especially when those practices come from outside the organisation, there is a meaningful difference between understanding them intellectually and being able to work with them effectively. In the case of the team above they did soon appreciate the wisdom of the challenge, did take on the job of comparing options, and they became a better, more experienced, team as a result.

Photo by xiang chen