How to use your sixth sense to detect and prevent project disasters

A well-developed intuition can be a valuable management tool. Here's when to pay attention to that nagging voice that's telling you something's awry with an IT project.

5 ways to be a better manager

Most of us have experienced sixth sense perceptions--like backing out of a parking spot, sensing we should stop, and seeing someone pull out behind us whom we didn't see at first.

Sixth sense perception also applies to sound project management. Great project managers can sense when something isn't right in a project or in IT operations, even though the status reports that they get don't tell them anything is wrong.

Some experts in project management explain the sixth sense as people "soft skills" but it is more that that.

The sixth sense is that sense of intuition in your own mind that warns you about something even after you've exercised all of your people skills as a manager.

What are some common project or IT sixth sense situations that astute managers detect?

They are told everything is okay in the status reports that they receive, but they don't sense this is true.

  • Users stop calling.
  • Routine operational tasks are left undone.
  • Vendors that were responsive suddenly aren't.
  • Staff absenteeism rises.
  • Sudden performance changes are seen in top performers.

It is human to initially overlook some of these circumstances, and even prudent to give them a little time to see if they will work themselves out before you take action--but seasoned project managers also know that it becomes imprudent if you wait too long to act.

How do you approach these different scenarios that are telling your sixth sense that a project, an operational area or a person or team might be in trouble?

Here are several approaches that have stood the test of time:

Check in with your people

Some years ago when I was a junior programmer in IT, my immediate manager was telling the IT director that an order entry system we were writing was on time and in some cases, ahead of schedule. The project had a "go live" date the following month, but those of us on the staff knew that only about half of the programs were done and few had been tested. The project manager was afraid to tell the director the true status, so several of us got concerned and decided to voice our concerns to both the manager and the director. The director never left his office to see if our concerns were founded, or to check out actual project work. The project failed, and both the director and his manager were fired. Fortunately, IT managers who have a "sixth sense" and can sense something is wrong--or even managers who don't have this sixth sense but who regularly check in with their staff--can avoid painful situations like this.

SEE: How to keep your staff motivated and engaged (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Check in with the project

If you sense something is wrong with a project but can't quite put your finger on it, you can check in with your staff to see how everyone is feeling about the project--and you can also ask to see the project in action. A good way to do this is to do a little QA on an online application, or to look at a dashboard and to see how well it drills down into supportive analytics data. Actually test driving these apps yourself can tell you a lot about how much of the system is ready and where more work needs to be done.

Take a user to lunch

It's not necessarily good news when one of your most complaining users suddenly goes silent. It's also human to assume that perhaps the user is finally satisfied with the IT service they are getting. Don't fall into this conveniently complacent trap. Instead, schedule a meeting with the user--or take the user out to lunch to discuss baseball, the weather, movies--and how IT is doing, You could find out that the user has given up on IT and has gone to an outside vendor! This isn't necessary a bad thing if the vendor can provide an optimal solution--but it does tell you that you have some work to do as a manager. Why did your system fail? What made the user give up? You need to get answers to these questions if you hope to improve the service and delivery levels of your own department.

Do the night shift

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream that you had about an earthquake striking and your DR plan not working, it might not be that late night snack that caused the nightmare. This could be a signal for you to do a walkthrough of your daily operations, review audit logs, etc., to make sure that backups are being done timely, security updates are being administered regularly, etc. Once when I personally had this nightmare as a CIO, I arranged to stay late so I could spend some time with my night shift staff. I got to know this staff better and to first-hand appreciate the challenges that they faced in their work. It enabled me to work with some of the day crew so we could improve processes that made night work easier.

SEE: IT pro's guide to effective change management (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Schedule a call or meeting with a vendor

Most vendors start strong with new customers, but can quickly fall off in their levels of support and responsiveness once customers are implemented. In other cases, you might have an excellent account representative at the vendor, but then the rep leaves and service isn't the same. For your mission-critical systems, you are likely to notice a sudden drop right away, but for less visible infrastructure systems, a drop in service might take longer to recognize. In these cases, you might sense that you haven't heard anything from a particular vendor for awhile. This is a good time to check into recent records and to give the vendor a call, if for no other reason than to reconnect.

Visit with team members you are concerned about

If you sense a sudden change in behavior or a decline in performance, especially from a consistently high performer, it's time to check in with the individual to see how things are going, High performers in particular take pride in their work and do not like to ask for time off or a lighter schedule if they are experiencing personal challenges. The only way you can help them is to ask.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...