Beyond Bad Feelings: How to Sense Trouble Is Coming

Strategic optimists walk around thinking that everything is going to be fine. Defensive pessimists walk around planning for the world to end. But project managers and ScrumMasters understand uncertainty, plan for failure and try to create a culture where risk is recognized and contained.

So how do you sense trouble coming without being alarmist? Here are some thoughts.

Trust data

W. Edwards Deming famously said “In God we trust; all others bring data.” If you’re an atheist — or you just feel like it’s inappropriate to bring religion into the workplace — you can drop the first part and only trust data. Data isn’t a good way to sense whether trouble is coming, but it’s one of many fabulous tools to validate your gut feeling and intuition.

Trust history

As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If you sense trouble is brewing, you’re probably right. Look to your past and explore the queues that alerted you to problems and issues. And, more importantly, have a look at how you managed your microfailures and glitches. What did you do right? What could have gone better? What remains unresolved? Sometimes the best person to teach you a lesson about failure is you.

Trust postmortems

Companies around the world spend countless hours and millions of dollars on complex postmortems to understand what went wrong. And, because we’re human, most of us ignore postmortems. We think that every obstacle is a new and unique challenge in the world. If you sense trouble is coming, hit your company’s wiki page or corporate library. Talk to your training department, or spend some time with an internal knowledge management colleague. If you sense trouble is coming, someone else probably has had the same exact experience. Find the documentation that tells you how to avoid the problems looking on the horizon.

Trust premortems

Although not as common, a premortem can help you think through projects and issues before you take on the risk of launching a project. If you sense trouble is coming, ask yourself, “How will this fail?” Write those responses down. Fix the things you wrote down. For an even quicker way to do a premortem, try our new GlitchPath app. It’s still in beta, but we would love your insights. Please send us an email with feedback!

Trust what people tell you

Oprah Winfrey once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” I think she took it from Maya Angelou, who probably got it from an Eastern philosopher. But the bigger point is that people will tell you exactly who they are and what they’re doing in life; it’s up to you to listen and take heed. So if you sense trouble is coming, and someone tells you that trouble is coming, believe them.

It’s important to go beyond bad feelings, but it’s also crucial to trust your skills and expertise as a seasoned business professional. You’re not an impostor. You’re not a charlatan. Challenge assumptions, validate your suspicions with external data points and head off problems at the pass.

But when you sense trouble is coming, don’t ignore it.

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