The PM Podcast


Project Management for Beginners and Experts

Episode 365: Proximal Decision Making Model (Premium)

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Joseph Flahiff
Joseph Flahiff, PMP, PMI-ACP

Decision making in project management can be hard. That is of course especially true if your decision making process is such that every decision you have to make must be passed up the command chain in your organization until finally someone up there has the time to review your input and make that project decision.

But what if there were an easier way for project management decision making?

There is. It is called the Proximal Decision Making Model and I’m welcoming back Joseph Flahiff (www.whitewaterprojects.com -- www.linkedin.com/in/josephflahiff) to discuss it with us.

We begin with a definition, look at what’s wrong with today’s decision making process, offer a way to make decisions simply by flipping a coin and then look at the proximal model in detail with lots of examples, tips and tricks. All with the goal that you can improve your project management decision making process.

This interview is in part based on Josephs's article titled "The best approach to leveraging change".

PDU Tip

This interview is 29:45 minutes long. This means that you can "legally" only claim 0.25 PDUs for listening to it. However... if you first listen to the interview and then also read the article on which it is based, then you can go ahead and claim 0.50 PDUs!

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner:     Hello and welcome to this Premium episode #365. I’m Cornelius Fichtner. Premium means that this interview is reserved for you, our Premium subscribers. Thank you very much for joining the Project Management podcast today and for supporting it. Decision-making and Project Management can be hard. That is of course especially true if your decision-making process is such that every decision you have to make must be passed up the command chain in the organization until finally someone up there has the time to review input and make that project decision. But what if there were an easier way for project management decision-making? Well there is. It is called the Proximal Decision-Making Model and I’m welcoming back Joseph Flahiff to discuss it with us. We begin with a definition, look at what’s wrong with today’s decision-making process, offer a way to make decisions simply by flipping a coin and then look at the Proximal Model in detail with lots of examples, tips and tricks. All with the goal that you can improve your project management decision-making process. And now, come a little closer. Enjoy the interview.

Project Management Podcast Feature Interview

Podcast Interview

Cornelius:   Hello Joseph, Welcome back!

Joseph Flahiff:  Hey Cornelius. Thank you for having me.

Cornelius:   We are going to be discussing the Proximal Decision-Making Model and how it can positively impact strategy in our business. What can our listeners expect to learn from our conversation?

Joseph:   Yeah. You can expect to learn maybe a different way of thinking about how decisions are made and where and by whom decisions are made in your organization in order to create nimble organization.

Cornelius:   OK. Let’s break the topic down. How would you define or describe a decision-making model?

Joseph:   OK. Decision-making model is very simply, the approach or the technique, the method that we use to make decisions within our organization. The interesting thing is, most of us probably don’t even know how decisions are made within our organizations because we haven’t given it very much thought. A decision-making model is just how you go about making decisions.

Cornelius:    And then of course, what is the definition of the word, “proximal”?

Joseph:    Yeah. Proximal, it comes from the word proximity, to be near something. So, proximal decision is the decisions within a proximity.

Cornelius:   Alright. You’ve almost taken away my next question. I wanted to ask you, altogether we get Proximal Decision-Making Model. Can you explain that in twelve words or less?

Joseph:   Twelve words! Proximal Decision-Making Model is an approach where decisions are made closest to the best information to make those decisions.

Cornelius:   I didn’t count but it makes sense.

Joseph: [laughs] I might actually have made it. I don’t know.

Cornelius:   Right. And of course, for all those grammar Nazis out there, it’s twelve words or fewer, I know, I know. Just to stop any emails coming my way. Would you please walk us through how strategic decisions are made in our businesses today without the Proximal Decision-Making Model?

Joseph:    Frequently, decisions are made strategy is defined by an executive or executives. That strategy is broken down then into other elements. Every company labels them differently –initiatives, project, effort, something. And then those are sold out to people who are then -so here’s what you need to execute them. Those decisions are made at the top, they’re handed down. Decisions are made and handed down, decisions are made and handed down and then at the end of that long rope of decisions being made and handed down, is the person at the bottom that executes. So, there’s team members that…

Cornelius:    This has been going on for years like that so what’s wrong with that approach?  

Joseph:   What’s wrong? There’s not a whole lot wrong with that approach if everything is nice and swell. If you put that model around, when that person at the bottom comes up with a problem, they have to hand the decision up to the person up and up and up until there’s somebody, like budget authority who makes the decision on that, right? The problem is, either going up or going down, if in today’s organizations things move much too quickly to have that make sense. Organizations are changing so rapidly. They’re the couple or the kids that are lodged somewhere that are coming up with a new business model that’s going to completely put your business out of business. Whatever business you’re in, there’s some kid somewhere doing it. So, we need a faster way of making decisions and Proximal Decision-Making is that.

Cornelius:   OK. There was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that you made in one of your other calls and you said, “Instead of people at the bottom gathering all the information, handing it up and saying this is the decision we have to make, here are the pros here are the cons, would you please give this further up the line until it reaches the line manager in charge and then they can make decision. Instead of doing that, they could just flip a coin, explain that model to us.

Joseph: [laughs] Yeah. That is kind of a sarcastic, flippant remark about the decision-making models that we currently use. The current decision-making model, like I was just saying, when the problem happens at the lowest level, they hand it up so that somewhere up the line, the decision can be made and somewhere at an executive level, someone who has budget authority makes that decision. What happens most of the time is, that person doesn’t actually have enough information to make the decision because of where they are in the org. They ask for the pros and cons that the people who are on the line had come up with and then they make the decision that typically goes along with what the line level people recommend.

 So, what I said was – that takes a lot of time and you’ve probably seen it, I know I’ve seen it in my projects where we’re delayed by days, weeks, sometimes months to get a decision on these things. If you count up the cost of all the people working on that work and the lost time and the people up that line of decision-making and their fully burdened cost, that’s a lot of money. What would the difference be if the people on the line instead of asking, they just flip a coin and I’m going to just do whatever this coin flip says.

Cornelius:   Yeah and 50% of the time they would be right.

Joseph:   Exactly! Half the time they got the perfect decision. And it took them no time at all so you just saved a ton of delay within your organization. Right. I think I followed it up in the article with “You aren’t dealing with coin-flippers”.

Cornelius:   Yes, exactly. Let me read that out to you. Here’s what you said: that it is even better than that, your team is not made of coin-flippers. Your team is made up of smart people who know the product, who know the service they are working on, they know the market and they know the customers, right? So, they don’t have to flip the coin. They can use what’s in their head.

Joseph:    Exactly. And they’re going to make great decisions. They may not make the perfect decision that you would have made every single time as an executive within the organization or a project leader of an organization but they’re going to make really good decisions most of the time. Maybe if 10% of the decisions that you as the leader somewhere up in the org disagree with, of those 10% which ones are you willing to live with? Maybe half of them. So now you’re down to 5% error. What is 5% error worth to your organization? Is it worth all the delay that all those decisions all along the way would cost? Is it really? Because most of the time, we aren’t perfect. I know I’m not perfect. I don’t make perfect decisions every time and I might get 5% error and for the speed—I said it at the beginning that the reason we need this Proximal Decision-Making Model is, things change too fast. If your teams can be making these decisions, they could be happening like this, really fast [sound of fingers snapping]—snapping my fingers [laughs]. That could be happening really fast. Not waiting for the delays and reporting –this is what I did rather than what should I do. That is so many great things for the strength and the empowerment and the speed now you’ve given them something to hope for. [chuckles] I have influence over this project. I’m not just a pawn to be moved around and to do whatever they tell me to do just to execute. But I actually can influence the outcome of this project. When people get involved that way in the works, they become much more invested, much more excited about the work. I’m getting excited just talking about it.

Cornelius:  You mentioned empowerment, right? Basically, you’re saying with the Proximal Decision-Making Model, we are letting the people who are closest to the problem with the right level of understanding make the decisions. How do we empower people to do this? How do we, project managers empower people to do this? Because sometimes, we’re not even empowered.

Joseph:   You cannot. I’m very—I’m a firm believer that you cannot empower anyone. You may only create opportunities for people to…

Cornelius:   Oh Yes. That’s right. You mentioned that in the previous interview.

Joseph:   Yeah

Cornelius:    So, how do we create opportunities for the people on our projects to allow them to empower themselves to make this kind of decisions?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

Tags: PDUs: Strategic and Business Management

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