Power Your Projects with Decision Calendars

A decision calendar?

You’re already drowning in calendars, I know. You maintain your project milestones calendar, your team’s meeting calendar, product launch calendars, the meeting and milestones calendar for every project you support, your own Outlook or Gmail calendar, and that’s just for work.

Over, under, or through

Yet, projects still feel chaotic, and you wonder whether your team is on track. Are we focused on the right issues? Will we meet the deadlines? Are we making the right judgment calls? And, most worryingly, will the rest of organization actually pull the project output all the way through implementation?

That’s why you need a decision calendar.

Date, Decision, Decision-maker

A decision calendar can be a simple spreadsheet with three rows – or, more visually, a timeline across the page with the items for each point in the timeline:

  • Date
  • Decision needed
  • Decision-maker(s)

For example:

  • June 7
  • “Shall we include the Canadian market in the September launch?”
  • Sue, in consultation with Bill and Padma

That’s it. I know you can make it more complicated. I suggest you don’t. Complexity is not your friend, clarity is.

Simple, not easy

Making a decision calendar will ruin your week and save your quarter.

First, you need to map the logic of your project. What result does the project aim to create?  How will you know that the result is successfully achieved? What actually changes so that the result is created? What will you do in the project to create that result?

Of course, you should be doing this anyway. Obvious, right? OK, what percentage of your projects use a smart, robust, agreed-upon logic map to describe what you’re aiming to solve?

You can organize your logic map in a variety of ways – to find an approach that works for your project, you might Google the term and glance through the images. If you’re familiar with Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principles, you’ll find that approach useful in developing logic maps that translates easily to decision calendars.

Second, walk your draft logic map around to the smartest, best-informed contributors and SMEs (subject matter experts). You think together on how to strengthen the logic.

Colleagues, I said walk.  I did not say email. I did not say post to your project workspace. You need their best thinking, and that takes focus. Your focused presence will support their focused thinking. Go see them in person. If you can’t walk to include your team members in Malaysia or Bulgaria, video-conferencing is a great choice to ensure focus.

Third, reframe your logic map as a series of decisions. As in Jeopardy, each decision should be framed as a question. You want the questions to be answerable with a yes or no or other simple response. And, you want the questions to guide action.

Here’s a straightforward way to go about it: Make a sticky (real or virtual) for each step in the logic map. Then replace each of those steps with one or more stickies of a different color, one sticky for decision question needed to address that step. Then arrange that second set of stickies by the date at which you need the decisions to be made. Document it up to create your draft decision calendar.

Fourth, consider what the decision-makers will need to make the decisions. Look beyond the facts they’ll need. As an experienced project manager, you know some of your decision-makers want to consult with others, see market data, or run their own analyses before making decisions.

Fifth (or throughout the cycle), involve your collaborators and decision-makers, whether 1:1 or in small groups, in improving the decision calendar:
– Have we captured all the critical decisions, and in the right order?
– Have we identified the decision-makers appropriately?
If you use a RACI-type model for decision rights, you might identify those responsible and those who will be consulted.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this is all information you want to collect anyway. The difference is framing the issues as a series of decisions over time, rather than just deliverables.  

For example, beyond promising an onboarding plan at a specific date, you now identify who will make by when a series of key decisions:

  • “Who will take primary responsibility for re-designing onboarding programs – HR business partners or divisional HR leads?”
  • “By what criteria will HR resources be allocated to post-hire, pre-start onboarding programs?”
  • “Is our current employer branding guide sufficient for these programs, or will the redesign include employer branding?

So, what does a decision calendar buy you that your typical milestones/deliverables calendar does not?

Decisions – not deadlines – drive projects

I see project teams scurry around producing deliverables, thinking they’re making progress. “Discussion document for OpCom meeting?” “Check.”

But why are we even taking the time of OpCom or anyone else in the organization? Because a decision needs to be made. So let’s focus on the decisions. Yes, you’ll probably still need meeting documents and your other interim deliverables; however, with a decision calendar you’ll know exactly what you need from each meeting and what pre-work is necessary to produce those decisions.

Here’s how decision calendars have been useful to my teams:

  • Keep the project team focused on driving answers to high-impact decisions
  • Force us to identify the tough issues from the beginning
  • Create clarity for everyone on what issues the project does and does not aim to solve
  • Streamline executive engagement: “Here’s the decision we need from you by when; what do you need from us to make that decision?”
  • Shortcut the cycles of lobbying by stakeholders… “That decision has been made. We’re now focused on deciding X.”
  • Simplify project status updates: here’s what’s been decided, here’s what’s next to be decided by whom and by when
  • Know that we’re actually solving the business issues that gave rise to this project.

And, bonus: the project manager becomes seen as a results-focused leader, driving critical business decisions. Sure beats running around with Gantt charts nagging people for status updates!

Give decision calendars a try – and see if they become the first calendar you reach for as you evangelize and implement your project.


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