In today’s world Project Managers often get tapped to manage several engagements at once. This usually results in them having just enough time to react to the problems of the day that each project is facing. What they are not doing is spending the time to look ahead on each project to plan for upcoming work, thus resulting in more fires that need to be put out. It is my experience that proactive management is one of the most effective tools that Project Managers can use to ensure the success of their projects. However, it is a difficult situation to manage several projects while still having enough time to look ahead. I call this ability to spend time looking ahead the “Proactive Management Capacity Propensity” (PMCP). This article will demonstrate the benefits of proactive management, define the PMCP, and propose ways of increasing the PMCP and thus the probability of success on the projects.
Project Management involves a lot of planning up-front including work plans, budgets, resource allocations, and so on. The best statistics that I have seen on the accuracy of initial plans says there is a 60% positive or negative variance from the original plans at the end of a project. Therefore, once the plans have been made and the project has started, the Project Manager needs to constantly re-assess the project to understand the impact of the unknowns that will occur.
The dictionary defines proactive as “acting in advance to deal with an expected difficulty.” By “acting in advance” a Project Manager has some influence over the control of the unknowns. However, without acting in advance, the impacts of the unknowns will be greater as the Project Manager will be reacting to the problem once it has snowballed.
When I drive into work in the morning, I have a plan and schedule. I leave my house, take certain roads and get to work in forty minutes. If I were to treat driving to work as a Project (having a specific goal with a finite beginning and end), then I have two options to manage my commute:
1. By proactively managing my commute, I watch the news in the morning to see the weather and traffic. Although I had a plan, if there is construction on one of the roads that I normally take, then I can always change that plan and take a different route to ensure that my schedule gets met. If I know that there may be snow then I can leave earlier and give myself more time to get to work. As I am driving, I look ahead in the road to see what is coming up. There may be an accident or potholes that I will want to avoid and this gives me time to switch lanes.
2. A reactive approach to my commute could be assuming that my original plan will work fully. As I get on the highway, if there is construction then I have to sit in it because by the time I realize the impact, I have passed all of the exit ramps. This results in me missing my schedule goal. The same would happen if I walked outside and saw a foot of snow. I now have a change to scope since I have the added activity of shoveling my driveway and car. Also, if I am a reactive driver, then I don’t see the pothole until I have driven over it (which may lead to a budget variance since I now need new axles).
Figure 1: Driving Metaphor
The metaphor above demonstrates that reactive management is detrimental to projects because by the time that you realize that there is a problem it usually has a schedule, scope or cost impact. There are several other benefits to proactive management:
- Proactively managing a plan allows the Project Manager to see what activities are coming up and start preparing for them. This could be something as minor as setting up conference rooms for meetings. I have seen situations where tasks were not completed on time because of something as minor as logistics.
- Understanding upcoming activities also allows for the proper resources to be in place. Oftentimes, projects require people from outside of the project team and lining them up are always a challenge. By preparing people in advance, there is a higher probability that they can be ready when needed.
- The Project Manager should constantly be replanning. By looking at all upcoming activities as well as the current ones, it can give a gage of the probability of success which can be managed rather than waiting until the day before something is due to realize that the schedule cannot be met.
- Proactive management also allows time to review current work and focus on quality. Reactive management usually is characterized by rushing to fix whatever ‘mole’ has popped up as quickly as possible. This usually means a patch rather than the appropriate fix. By planning for the work appropriately, it can be addressed properly which reduces the probability of rework.
- Time can be spent on building relationships with team members or stakeholders which can be leveraged when work is requested
- As previously unidentified work arises, it can be planned for rather than assuming that ‘we can just take it on.’
Proactive management is extremely influential over the probability of success of a project because it allows for replanning and the ability to address problems well before they have a significant impact.
There is an obvious relationship between the amount of work that a project manager has and their ability to manage proactively. As Project Managers get more work and more concurrent projects, their ability to manage proactively goes down (and thus a reduction in the benefits listed above).
The relationship between Project Manager workload and the ability to manage proactively is shown in the diagram below. As Project Managers have increased work, they have less capacity to be proactive to and wind up becoming more reactive. This is shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Proactivity vs. workload
Some Project Managers can handle several projects well and some have challenges. I have therefore labeled this factor, the Project Management Capacity Propensity (PMCP). That is, the sum of those qualities that allows a Project Manager to proactively manage projects given a large workload. Figure 3 shows this as the diagonal line and the proactive management is the box created by the intersection of workload and ability to be proactive.
Figure 3: PMCP
Because not all Project Managers are equal, two can have the same workload but be very different in their success. Figure 4 shows how this is possible where the same workload (b) can have differing levels of proactivity (a and c) based on their PMCP.
Figure 4: High PMCP and Low PMCP with the same workload
There are several factors that make up the PMCP which are outlined below.:
Project Manager skillsets are a significant contributor to the PMCP. Having good Time Management and organization techniques can influence how much a PM can focus on looking ahead. A Project Manager who is efficient with their time has the ability to review more upcoming activities and plan for them. Time management can also result in not spending so much time in meetings but rather on proactive activities.
Project Manager expertise is also influential to the PMCP. If the PM is an expert in the business or the type of project, this may allow for quicker decisions since they will not need to seek out information or clarification (all of which takes away time).They will also be able to review current work and look for areas where they may have had pitfalls before.
The PMCP is also impacted by team composition. If the Project Manager is on a large project and has several team leads who manage plans, then they have an increased ability to focus on replanning and upcoming work. Also, having team members who are experts in their field will require less focus from the Project Manager. Inexperienced or high maintenance teams generally result in more time on non-value added activities which take away from current activities (and cause the more moles popping up).
Increasing the PMCP
The good news about the PMCP is that it can be increased. Project Managers can look for ways to increase their skillsets through training. There are several books and seminars on time management, prioritization, and organization. Attending these can build the effectiveness of the time spent by the PM on their activities. PMs should also look at the number of meetings that they attend to prioritize which ones are valuable and which ones may take time away from current activities or proactive activities.
The PM can also re-evaluate the team composition. By getting stronger team leads or different team members, the PM can offload some of their work and spend more time focusing on proactive management. In projects where the team member composition cannot change, the PM should look for training opportunities or reshuffling team members to account for their strengths.
All of these items can increase the PMCP and result in an increased ability to manage proactively. The image below shows how a PMCP increase raises the bar and allows for more proactive management with the same workload (b).
Figure 5: Increasing PMCP
To proactively manage a project is to increase your probability of being successful. There is a direct correlation between the workload that a PM has, their ability to proactively manage their projects, and the success of their projects. Project Managers do have control over certain aspects that can give them a greater ability to focus on proactive management. These items, known collectively as the PMCP, can be increased through training and having the proper team.
Also remember to keep your eyes on the road.