Friday, October 14, 2011

Instincts – Making the Right Moves

Many people believe that good project management instincts can’t be taught. However, there are simple ways that any PM can improve their game. One definition of ‘instinct’ is a “complex pattern of behavior present in every specimen of a particular species, that is innate, and that cannot be overridden”. In simple management terms, it can be thought of as a person’s natural reflex. Just like an animal in the jungle, a really good PM relies on their instincts to navigate through the unknown.

A PM with good instincts, and good natural reflex, knows when to make a move and when to hold steady. They know when to communicate, and when to protect information. Their instincts tell them who to talk to, and whose talk can’t be trusted. For a good PM, reviewing an org chart is like a doctor reading an x-ray, as it often quickly reveals the true inner workings of any project.

If you’ve ever tried to hire a PM then you know how tough it is to find individuals with that magic combination of clear communication skills, strong project management fundamentals and decisive instincts. The question for young PMs, and organizations looking to make their PMs better, is ‘how can one develop better PM instincts’?

The Bad News

Generally speaking, truly good instincts seem to be a product of one's cumulative life experiences. So, in many ways, you either have it or you don’t. Everything from your earliest social skills learned as child, combined with your work/travel/fun experiences, tend to play into the amorphous concept known as ‘instinct’.

The Good News

On the other hand, it is possible to hone your instincts through experience, mentors and reflection. Being mindful about developing better instincts is the first step to improve. A conscious decision to seek improve your instincts will pay benefits greater than any PM course, university degree or expensive new suit. Developing good instincts will simplify your life, lower your stress and make your projects run better.


There is nothing like real project experience to help a person understand how the world really works. In each new project, we tend to come across many of the same characters/challenges and experience helps us to react with a more immediate knowledge of likely outcomes. Many times, it really is true that ‘what doesn’t kill you, make you stronger’. PMs that are able to learn from their mistakes will increase their success when faced with similar future challenges. Experience teaches us that there are only so many different ways to approach the same problem, and that no single solution is the correct solution. Instincts improve with experience as we learn to think before we leap, and consider possible ripple-effects of what we do before we do it. Experience is truly innate and it can’t be substituted by any other skill. This is why experienced project managers tend be more trusted, and often have greater project success.


A good mentor can help one make sense of confusing, or conflicting, information. The ability of a mentor to sit outside of a situation, and draw on their own personal well of instinct and intuition, can really help younger PMs hone their own instincts. Learning from those that have been in tight spots is a great way to collect valuable intellectual capital that can only come from a one-to-one connection with a senior PM mentor. A good mentor can review various possible ways of handling a situation, apply their own instincts and make go-forward suggestions. This allows the young PM to learn ‘risk free’ by discussing various scenarios, reviewing pros and cons, and then choosing an informed path.


Daily reflection is a simple way to improve instincts. A good PM will use a few spare minutes every day, perhaps on way home from work, to engage in some realistic self-review to assess notable daily interactions, decisions and challenges. This assessment will focus on what went right, what went wrong and what could be improved in similar situations next time. This type of self-feedback loop is an ideal way to exercise one’s instincts, like flexing a muscle, every single day of the week. The key benefit to reflection is comprehension. Learning never stops and daily self-reviews are a great way to truly digest the instinctual challenges we have daily.

A PM with good instincts will have more successful projects, receive great respected from their peers and be in high demand. Project managers that leverage the benefits of project experience, mentors and daily reflection will hone their instincts and further grow to become true leaders.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at