As Coach Bill Belichick approached Super Bowl XXXVI, he faced one of the toughest decisions any football coach has ever faced: which of his quarterbacks would lead his New England Patriots onto the field for the championship contest? On the one hand, he had franchise player Drew Bledsoe, for whom the Patriots paid a $100 million contract extension. On the other hand, he had bench player Tom Brady, who had taken up the quarterback post after Bledsoe’s ankle injury early in the season.

The high-priced Bledsoe warmed the bench. Brady took the field and led the Patriots to victory. And Belichick? As a manager and decision-maker, he’s a model for us all: he goes with his instincts, he takes the heat, and he always has a good player waiting on the bench.

Trust your people instincts
A professional football team isn’t a stack of recruiting guides and game videos. When making choices, a football coach has to consider a great many factors that have nothing to do with skill. Mutual compatibility among the players counts for much. It’s not just important; it’s crucial.

Similarly, your project team isn’t a batch of skills; it’s a batch of people. While the compatibility issues are different, the IT manager faces a set of questions similar to the football coach, and they have just as little to do with technical ability:

  • Who are the natural leaders on the team?
  • Who are the extra-milers?
  • Who works well in uncharted territory?
  • Who doesn’t mind drudgery?
  • Who freaks out over the unexpected?
  • Who is the calm voice in the storm?
  • Who lacks creativity in problem solving?
  • Who seems to impart energy and enthusiasm when it’s needed?
  • Who needs reassurance from time to time?
  • Who has the intuitive knack for spotting the deeply buried flaw?

None of the answers to these questions is found on a resume, but they are only a few of the many questions a thoughtful manager faces when making assignments on a challenging project. If you can’t draw on your intuition to find answers to these questions—or worse, if you don’t address them up front—you’re headed for trouble.

Tell it like it is, and stand by your calls
In benching the high-priced Bledsoe, Coach Belichick was asking his bosses and the team’s fans to trust his judgment: “This is my best call, and if I don’t stand by it, our success will be at risk.”

That’s a hard message to sell, but facing such a moment with fortitude is preferable to standing in front of the firing squad a year later because the project went off the tracks.

In the world of professional football, a team’s owner might let the coach send an expensive player packing with a payoff. In the IT world, you’ll never see an executive allow an IT manager to do the same with an expensive contracted consultant. What can, and perhaps at some point should, happen instead is that the expensive player will be shifted from one area to another, or the lines of authority and responsibility will shift to remove whatever risk has arisen. As manager, you’re the coach—the one who configured the team or wrote the project plan. You put the lines in place and plugged people into the spaces between them, so you have the authority to rearrange them, and the responsibility to do so if you’ve made a bad decision.

Face that responsibility, and take your lumps if you have to go to the head office and plead for more resources to fix a mistake. In the long run, you’ll have forgiveness born of success. But if you don’t bring the program in successfully, you’ll have nowhere to hide.

Have a backup plan
If, as a manager, you haven’t been hit with the free agency of proficient IT professionals, then you haven’t been managing long. The climate is migratory; truly skilled IT professionals know their options are almost limitless, and few stay in one place very long.

So you’re not doing your best as a manager if you don’t have a stand-by player on the bench for any player that might walk on you. But there’s more to it than that. If you have to bench an important team member in favor of a supporting player, you’re not just patching a hole in the dam. The replacement must not only bring comparable skills into the loop, but also a better working dynamic. You don’t fix the original problem simply by removing the part that doesn’t quite fit—you must also put in a new part that does. And that’s not always about technical skills.

To make these tough calls, you as a manager must have a sense not only of your team members’ skills, but also how their working habits compliment each other and the whole team. It’s about how much growth you feel a particular team member can achieve in a given amount of time, and which players seem to inspire teammates to stretch themselves. It’s a hard thing to do, but not as hard as fixing the mess that can result if you don’t give these factors adequate attention in the first place.

Laying it on the line

Have you stuck your neck out? Did it pay off, or did you get burned? Post a comment below.