Follow Your Heart, but Listen to Your Gut
by Sharon Flemings
published by WITI (Women in Technology International -

Have you ever been working on a project, with everything running fairly smoothly when you realized there was a little knot in your stomach? Some little nagging, aching feeling right in the pit?

So many of us  - especially we women - are caught up in the pressures of meeting customer expectations, commitments to deadlines, and dealing with the stresses of a project that we fail to listen to that inner voice. I’ve had the experience described above on many occasions, but only recently learned to listen to it. I had to learn the hard way.

Several years ago, I was working away on a web development project for my internal customer. This project was a terrific opportunity for me – I had the luxury of prototyping a new development methodology and new development tools for the IT organization. We were exempt from the normal processes and documentation customarily developed for a systems project, provided we could map everything we did to the accepted, standardized documentation set (practically unheard of in an organization regulated by Uncle Sam).

We were about one month away from implementation of the system, when I realized I had been experiencing this little sinking feeling in my stomach. Over the previous few weeks it had been getting stronger, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on the problem. So far, the project was going well – I had terrific developers, the customer was a bit of a challenge but manageable, the development process and tools were working well, and I had the confidence of my management. What could be wrong?

One day, as I was feeling an especially strong sense of impending doom, I took all the project documents and spread them out around me in a conference room. I had user specifications, design diagrams, workflow models, screen shots and snippets of code. I stood there just absorbing it all – what was it that was bothering me? After about 45 minutes, all of a sudden it hit me – we had a serious design flaw in the application that would not allow our customers to produce a particular workflow in the system. Instead of optimizing their efforts, we would actually be slowing them down. Obviously, we couldn’t implement the system with this flaw, so we made the appropriate decisions to delay the implementation in order to introduce the necessary design changes.

After this experience, I learned how important it is to listen to this little voice – there really is such a thing as a “gut feeling”. I had previously never recognized that this was my subconscious speaking to me about the fact that something was very wrong with the situation. I had felt it previously, but chose to ignore it – much to my peril. Since that experience, I vowed to pay attention to those feelings.

I was recently working with a client on a vendor software selection project, and we were nearing the end of the process. My client wanted me to continue with the implementation phase of the project; however, I had this feeling in my gut again. This would be a great opportunity to learn new software and make a significant impact on the organization, but something was definitely wrong with the situation. It was frustrating, as I couldn’t articulate what the problem was – it was just a very bad feeling that this wasn’t the right thing for me to do.

As a result, I turned down the offer of implementing the selected software and immediately felt a sense of relief. What remained frustrating to me was that I still didn’t have a way to articulate what was bothering me so that I could explain my decision to others. All I knew was that there was something wrong with the project – it was a prime candidate for failure.

After thinking about the problem and analyzing my feelings for several days, I finally realized that I had a tool which measured the likelihood of success in an IT project. I pulled that out of my notebook and started evaluating this implementation project against those criteria. Once completed, I realized that of the top 10 reasons for project failure, this project was at high risk for 4 of the top 5 reasons. No wonder it felt so wrong to me!

While I felt better about the ability to articulate my concerns to my client, I also realized that I had previously highlighted most of these concerns to management. My gut was telling me that the real problem I was having with the project was that my words of caution hadn’t been heeded, and this client was headed straight for failure. Once again, I shared my concerns and project evaluation with management and reiterated that I could not continue with such high risks. It would not have been in my best interest to do so, and more importantly not in my clients’ best interest.

The lesson to be learned from these experiences is that it’s okay to follow your heart, and take on the challenges and opportunities presented to you. At the same time, beware the feelings and listen to your gut.

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