Project Managers – Learn to Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Project Management Software

If you Google the top characteristics of a good project manager, you’ll get the following results:

  • Effective Communication Skills
  • Team-Building Skills
  • Technical Expertise
  • Decision Making Skill

These are great! 

But, the key characteristic that the list misses out on is being proactive in project management. What's proactive project management, you may ask? Let’s take an example to understand. 

We all know British Airways, right?

It is one airline that is always in the news regarding some or the other glitch. In 2017 alone, there were six different instances wherein a complete IT failure occurred, leading to the cancellation of all flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. That’s massive! Isn't it?

But, with so many recurring IT failures, why couldn’t they pinpoint the problem and solve it?

Well, the core issue here was the 2016 staff layoffs. 

Major layoffs are a typical headline for British Airways, and because of this reactive and cost-saving behaviour, their IT failure rate increased substantially. 

This is a classic example of how a reactive project manager affects a company. From the British Airways example, we can infer that a reactive project manager not only damages a company’s image and perception but also affects the outcome of ongoing projects. 

This makes you think: What’s the solution and what’s the right way to manage your team or projects?

The answer is simple - be a proactive manager.

Being a proactive manager means to “analyze the situation with a calm mind and help your team overcome a problem collaboratively.”

This way, your team not only gets motivated but is also encouraged to deliver quality work. 

  • But how to be a proactive manager?
  • What are the key skills of a proactive manager?
  • What’s the difference between proactive and reactive management?

To give you a better understanding of what I’m talking about, let’s dig deeper into the proactive vs. reactive approach to project management.

What is Reactive Project Management?

Workspirited defines reactive project management in a crisp and simple manner. They say, 

Reactive management is one type of managerial strategy in which project issues and problems are dealt with after they arise. There is no plan-B in place on how to deal with the situation in the long run.

A reactive management approach is most likely to include the following three reactions:

  • Immediate reaction when a project issue arises
  • No alternative plan to overcome the situation
  • Rash decisions taken to solve the problem temporarily.

Following this approach can raise a lot of problems during project execution, and also result in project failure in the long run. 

Let’s define proactive project management and find out how that managerial style is more effective than a reactive approach.

What is Proactive Project Management?

proactive project managementProactive project management is the complete opposite of the former.

Definition:

Proactive project management is a type of managerial strategy in which project issues and problems are dealt with even before they surface.

How to deal with project issues before or as they arise, not as a 'reaction' but as a 'response'?

Reaction triggers out of compulsion, whereas response arises out of a calm mind. And being proactive goes even further - proactive managers prepare to respond even before the problem arises. They foresee it. 

Here’s a scenario to understand the difference between proactive vs. reactive management.

Let’s say you have a product launch next month, and you are responsible for the product marketing. As the marketing team manager, you are requested to come up with strategies that help the organization increase product visibility in the market. 

Your team comes up with amazing ideas that will surely bring attention to the product - except, their implementation requires your team to wait until the product launch. This is what we call a reactive approach.

This is where you need to ask, “Is it okay to wait until the product hits the market to start its marketing or have a different approach altogether?”

Brands like Apple, OnePlus, and Samsung make sure that they create a hype amongst their users before the next product hits the market. Days or weeks before their launch event, these big names make sure that people get to know what’s in there for them.

This proactive project management approach helps them set a benchmark in the market.

This scenario raises a question - “How can you manage projects in a more proactive style?” 

Let’s understand the realities of the project management environment first.

Realities of Project Management Environment

project management environmentA milestone is approaching on a tight schedule, and a dependent task isn't started yet because the specifications are incomplete. What’s more, the client delivers a vital change request. 

Just another day at the office…

How would you react? 

Rush through modifications to the project specs? Agree out of pressure to change without a full review of its implications? 

This type of reactive approach is inefficient. It puts you under pressure to respond to each problem without the time to assess the impact on the whole project. Not least, it creates a stressful environment at the workplace, which can lead to expensive mistakes and is not conducive to the successful delivery of a project. 

A reactive approach doesn't look at the long-term impacts of a decision but is only aimed at solving an immediate problem. It is likely to lead to:

  • Overspending
  • Under-Estimating schedules
  • Agreeing to unnecessary changes 
  • Missing opportunities by not looking at the long-term picture

Reacting to a crisis is so often the norm when managing projects. Yet project management places great importance on creating a project plan, so it should be the profession leading the way in a proactive style of working. A good plan helps you avoid the reactive approach.

Risks Don't Have to Be Negative

Project risk management Problems may not always be problems – there is always a choice to turn them into opportunities. Many senior executives associate the word ‘risk’ with a negative connotation. However, experienced project managers know that a risk perceived to be a threat can sometimes present an opportunity. For example, a risk could highlight improvements that could give an organization a competitive edge or improve internal processes.

Assume a situation:

An experienced team member resigns from the company posing a risk of loss of domain-specific knowledge. However, it also presents an opportunity to preserve that knowledge by implementing a training program. 

This could mitigate the risk when other experienced project professionals leave the organization in the future.

How to Become More Proactive

proactive project managersIn order to become more proactive, plan and prepare for all eventualities; and you need to do this throughout your project lifecycle. Employ a simple project management software to see all your tasks that need to be completed to reach the project goal efficiently. 

Without the use of a project management tool, it becomes convenient to settle into a comfortable routine without considering potential problems that could occur during an ongoing project.

Of course, not all problems can be anticipated, but that doesn't mean you should react under pressure without due thought processing, planning, and preparation.

The proactive approach to a mistake is to acknowledge it instantly, correct and learn from it.
                                                - from Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Time is the most effective weapon in the fight against being reactive. If you have enough time built into your schedule, then it is easy to plan ahead and consider potential solutions instead of being pressured to make a quick decision.

Another effective weapon is the proper prioritization of tasks. When priorities are well-understood, then it becomes a relatively simple step to move resources away from low priority tasks to high priority tasks.

By becoming a project manager with a more proactive approach, you will have greater control over the path your projects take. You will be more efficient and ultimately deliver more successful projects.

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About the author

Paul Naybour

Paul Naybour is Business Development Director at Parallel Project Training. He is a well-known speaker in the APM Branch Network and a Project Management Training Consultant, working for Parallel Project Training. He also runs the PM news site Project Accelerator.

1 Comment

  • P Durrant

    Great article Paul – you are so right that project managers should be leading the way in working proactively. We have all the tools and accumulated knowledge of decades to help us learn lessons from previous failed projects.

    Unfortunately projects, all too often, have tight timescales that don’t allow enough time for proper planning or for building contingency into the schedule to deal with events that weren’t anticipated. Yet we all know those unexpected events almost always happen. Hopefully frank discussions like this will help avoid those reactive situations that don’t help anyone: clients, users or project managers.

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