Maintain productivity by tracking the intangibles

A project that appears to be on track could be derailed if you don't consider intangible threats. Here are some surprising, and sometimes hidden, risks that you should be tracking.

If there’s a single hands-on skill that defines a manager, it’s reporting. Managers are required to generate frequent reports that are clear and concise for their managers, their peers, and their reports. But you should consider generating another report: to yourself.

Author Robert Heinlein mentions a device called the Farley File, a simple collection of master records on all the individuals with whom a professional interacts—but it includes not a single professional detail. If I maintain a Farley File and it has a record on Matt Osborn, for instance, it might mention that he’s an editor for, but it would omit mention of anything he’s done in that role. It would instead contain his birthday, his favorite rock band, what kind of pizza he likes—the sort of information that offers a sense of who a person is.

Now take a variation of the Farley File concept in your day-to-day experience as a manager. I first applied this concept as a consultant, after getting bitten by a rival on an ERP implementation. That uncomfortable situation inspired me to write down some details about the players involved in that IT shop—and I kept writing, project by project, IT shop by IT shop—and expanded my notes to include a number of areas not usually covered in progress reports.

The importance of intangibles
What are you already recording and reporting? Most managers generally are capturing who did what and how long it took them, garnished with opinion on how well it has been done. Properly done, this kind of reporting will also include precise tracking of resources, projections of near-term resource consumption, and enable the identification of production bottlenecks before they occur.

But there are many intangibles that can derail this objective that do not fit nicely into Microsoft Project. As a development manager, you’re aware of them, even if only passively. Performance in your team members is more than a distillation of number-of-hours-by-task against plan. Countless other factors influence the success or failure of your project. You can hit all your projections right on the money, be on time and on budget, and still wind up with an inferior product. These factors can include attitudes, levels of cooperation, and outside influences on team members; shifts in corporate politics; competition for resources with other departments; and, believe it or not, the evolution of your own point of view.

How do you track these intangibles?

Try a new kind of project log
As a consultant—and later, as a manager—I have always kept detailed project logs, to give my reports continuity beyond day-to-day detail. Many managers do so; but I began keeping a second log (a private one, only for my use) that gave me the picture beyond the project tasks, hours expended, and technical difficulties encountered and solved.

I began making a note when a team member went out of their way to help another member root out a tough bug. When a problem came back again and again, I wrote it down. I began recording things I saw in the team, from overtime hours to anxiety to the tendency to gossip. The idea wasn’t to be looking over their shoulders, recording every mistake or negative tendency; on the contrary, the whole point was to create an objective reference, to allow me to look back later and see with less biased eyes than I normally might what had actually transpired among the team.

Follow the politics
In-house politics are often complex, especially when it comes to wrangling over huge budgets, shifts in the placement of senior managers, and motivations behind corporate partnerships with other companies. These factors often make very little sense from the inside of the IT department. However, IT is very frequently impacted: How many times have you had to conform to an outside partner’s communications protocols, or buy software compatible with theirs, or had some idiot vice president who can’t spell ERP placed over your department? By recording details in the politics, you can see patterns emerging over the long term. This will give you insight into changes that might occur in the future, and—most importantly—a glimmer of insight into the indecipherable mentality of senior management.

Track your team’s growth
We’ve all had a team member crash out from time to time, with weeks of productivity, team spirit, and thoughtful contributions, followed by flameout. Often, these events seem sudden. But little details, such as increased time on the telephone or a decline in meeting participation, can be seen as an emerging pattern if you make note of them as they occur. This can give you a heads-up if one of your team is having some problem that may affect performance, and give you a chance to intervene before it becomes critical.

There are many other factors you can record and track. For instance, you may over time see signs in a team member that signal the emergence of a really good mentor or potential leader, and it will be useful later to note the various qualities that point to this. You’ll find yourself developing a deeper awareness of personal goal setting within your group, and be more on top of things when someone is slipping. If you don’t write these things down, you’ll have a hard time remembering what and when, and sometimes even who, and be less motivated to take your own observations seriously—and less inclined to act.

Is it dumb? Write it down
Even insignificant things can have importance. Is your resident class clown no longer funny? Could be a sign of growing anxiety in the group. Are the donuts vanishing much more quickly in the morning? Stress levels could be rising, even if no one is outwardly showing the signs.

Whatever the idiosyncrasies of your department—and some are surely unique—making daily notes of their fluctuation will heighten your awareness, even if the details themselves don’t seem significant. And that heightened awareness can’t help but increase your ability to spot emerging problems, and to note subtle improvements in performance.

You are your own best subject
Those who have kept a journal for years invariably have a strong sense of the evolution of their own point of view. When your thoughts three months ago, six months ago, a year ago are all written down, you can look back and realize just how far you’ve come. Sometimes it’s hard to believe you actually felt the way you did about a particular issue, event, or individual. Very frequently, things that seemed huge in the past are far less traumatic in hindsight. It’s an indication of your evolving perspective.

If you get into the habit, not only of reviewing the changes in your team, but the changes in you, you’ll find that this sense of calm and balance will become more and more the rule, and not just the consequence of hindsight. One of the best favors you can do for yourself as a manager is to track your own evolving point of view, with respect to company goals, your relationship with senior management, your department’s growth and your sense of your own career. Not that you aren’t already aware of these things—but how much better if you have objective conversations with yourself, across periods of months.

Nothing takes the place of cold, hard numbers when measuring performance. But tracking the intangibles can make you much more than a diligent and insightful reporter; you can begin to see your shop as a living, growing organism, and guide its growth—and your own—much more effectively.


Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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