Following through is a critical skill for managers at all levels—whether you’re working on a seven-figure development project or simply completing your department’s performance reviews.

Managers who are poor at follow-through inadvertently cause a myriad of problems: botched projects, broken trust with employees and higher-ups, wasted money and time, and even layoffs or firings.

Larraine Segil, a Los Angeles management consultant who teaches executive education at the California Institute of Technology, has worked with companies like Sun, Hewlett-Packard, and Starbucks. She defines follow-through skills as interpretation of the goal and implementation.

In her view, failure to follow through results from a communications breakdown. This can happen when the person who initiates a project or goal is not the one implementing it. As the instructions trickle down through the ranks, inevitably, something is lost and the project goes awry or fades away altogether.

Constant initiative shifts can cause a loss of focus
As you well know, managers are being asked to do more (and more) with less. To boot, managers must juggle the ever-changing priorities of their organizations. CEOs often cast a wide net of initiatives across the company, and when they change the business direction, it affects all those projects—including those under the IT helm, explained leadership psychologist Susan Battley, PhD, a Long Island, NY-based organizational consultant.

This attention-deficit workplace is often worse within IT departments, where big egos, aggressive personalities, and top performers can create a culture of demand and instant gratification. Managers are enthusiastic at the beginning of a project, but before the midway point—when they really need to pay attention—they lose interest and move on to something else.

Keeping the house in order
There is no secret methodology to keeping projects on track and following through on them, but it requires energy and involvement. It also involves some specific personality and professional skills.

To become an expert at following through, you’ll first need to get organized. Keeping task lists, holding regular meetings, and learning how to delegate are the basic steps for any manager. And while it sounds simple, this can be a constant challenge for managers.

“It’s often where leaders and organizations fall down, unwittingly,” said Battley.

Along those same lines, according to Segil, to follow through successfully you need to do the following:

  • Organize thoughts and activities well
  • Take time out to reflect
  • Not operate in crisis mode
  • Know who needs to be in the loop
  • Have a fundamental desire to complete things

Mike Hugo, CIO of Chicago-based Network Services Company, is clear on another aspect of follow-through success: Don’t overbook your staff. A common mistake of IT managers, he said, is to blur the lines between development and operations people.

For instance, Hugo would never ask one of his help-desk workers to work “part-time” as a coder—something a CEO might think is a good idea when resources are tight. The IT manager has to be able to explain why that scenario isn’t good for IT or for the company.

It’s also critical to put feedback processes in place, without becoming a micromanager.

“You need to give the people on the business side a quick update every week,” Hugo advised. Hugo asks his team members to complete a five-question form every week, requiring yes or no answers. Here is a sample of Hugo’s weekly status report:

1. Has the scope of any task in the project changed? (Yes/No)

2. Will any major activity or milestone date be missed? (Yes/No)

3. Does the project team need any outside skills or expertise? (Yes/No)

4. Are there any unsolved technical problems? (Yes/No)

5. Are there any unresolved user review or approval problems? (Yes/No)

He also allows space at the end of the form for elaboration. When there is bad news, he encourages his staff to refrain from finger pointing and whining, and instead come up with at least one response to the problem.

“I tell people that the only way they will get in trouble with me is to hide bad news until the last minute,” he said.

How delegating fits in
Since Hugo spends a lot of time crafting strategy with the paper product company’s customers and suppliers, he delegates much of the department’s overall monitoring to the head of the project office, whom he affectionately calls “Radar O’Reilly.”

“It is his job to stay in touch with people and projects and to hear about problems before they hit the fan,” Hugo said.

Earlier in his career, Hugo admits to being a heavy-handed manager who harangued people to get things done. That style not only made him few friends, it didn’t prove effective in getting things done, he noted.

So he discovered a new approach. Now, he asks for commitments on projects in public meetings, and publishes those actions and due dates on the internal Web site or by broadcast e-mail.

“People know that I’m relentless about maintaining a public dialogue and that if they miss a date, they will simply have to commit to a new date, which will in turn be posted to the general public,” he explains. “This way, I keep up the pressure on them but am not easily attacked for being pushy, because I am merely facilitating decisions and reporting what actually happens.”

A few more tips on following through
IT managers need to see how their initiatives are aligned with those from other departments, something that IT managers typically haven’t done very well in the past, according to Battley.

Tech managers, she added, need to learn how to be patient and stay interested in projects. After all, if the boss doesn’t care, who will?

Finally, Battley suggests that IT managers take a hard look at the corporate culture—is it open or secretive? If it’s the latter, work on developing an environment where information sharing is acceptable and risk-free. If you need help or don’t know how to start, ask for advice from colleagues in other companies.

Last but not least, follow-through is obviously tied to time management. Managers should make the time to plan ahead and prioritize goals, experts advised. Hugo followed the advice of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who said that people spend too much time fighting fires (“important and urgent” activities) and not enough time on the strategic, meaningful tasks.

“You need to carve out space in the important-not-urgent category,” said Hugo. “If not, you never get the clarity of mind to do things well.”