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A Guide to Proactive Thinking: Tips for Project Managers

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 4/11/2011

Proactive thinking is anticipating things to take charge of situations without making decision making or behavior reactive to the situation or event. Read on for some tips to help project managers indulge in proactive thinking.

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    Proactive Thinking Definition Proactive thinking is a self-initiated approach of anticipating situations to control them, rather than reacting to situations, or waiting for something to happen before responding to the changed situation.

    Proactive thinking, however, is not the anthesis of reactive thinking or passive thinking, and is not the same as “planning ahead" either. Identifying a solution to a possible problem that may occur in future is still reactive thinking. Proactive thinking is much wider in scope, and for instance, entails identifying ways to prevent problems from coming to pass rather than identifying solutions to possible problems.

    Proactive thinking is much valued in management circles. Stephen Covey first explored this topic in his 1989 bestseller “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Is: Be Proactive."

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    Ownership

    The most important characteristic of proactive thinking is taking ownership and responsibility. Proactive people tend to focus their energies on aspects they can control, or their circle of influence and don't worry or spend time on aspects they cannot change, or their circle of concern. As such, reactive people tend to let their decision making and behavior be influenced by external stimuli such as genetics, circumstances, or conditions, whereas proactive people approach matters head on and take independent decisions without allowing such external stimuli to weigh them down.

    Proactive people use phrases such as “I can," “I will," and “I prefer" whereas reactive managers use phrases such as “I have to, if only" “Let's see," and the like.

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    Keep End in Mind

    Project managers with proactive thinking capabilities tend to visualize outcomes and keep the end in mind when making decisions. They anticipate the fallout of situations and find solutions that best serve the end purpose, rather than being bogged down by procedural delays or blinded by the process or the system.

    Proactive project managers anticipate and work around the system to handle supply chain contingencies during times of natural calamities such as a tsunami, rather than blame circumstances for the system breaking down and let the project deliverables get out of control. Becoming proactive requires developing competencies to not just anticipate, but also to handle such eventualities.

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    Correct Priorities

    One important characteristics of proactive thinking is giving priority to what is important rather than what is urgent or pressing. Very often, project managers tend to perform tasks with immediate deadlines, even when more important tasks that make or break the project but with later deadlines remain pending for want of attention. Proactive thinking entails getting out of such a mindset of prioritizing based on deadlines and rather, prioritizing on importance.

    For instance, when faced with a choice of updating a daily spending log into a report, the deadline for which it's is due, or finalizing the project budget on which such spending is tracked, but which can wait till the next day, the proactive project manager will finalize the budget and ignore the deadline for filing the report.

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    Just Do It

    As Nike’s punch line goes, proactive thinking espouses the “just do it" philosophy. Becoming proactive requires giving priority to actions that make a difference rather than dwelling on what happened or analyzing the past. Such analysis and dwellings have their place, but not at the cost of performance when required.

    For instance, when an unexpected machinery breakdown throws the project planning phase haywire, the proactive project manager tries to restore the machinery and draw up a revised schedule. A reactive project manager, on the other hand may try to identify what went wrong.

    Proactive project managers usually require little assistance and usually remain in control of the project regardless of the contingency.

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    Reference

    • Covey, Stephen. "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 1: Be Proactive." Retrieved from https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits-habit1.php on April 08, 2011.
    • Bateman, T. S., & Crant, J. M. (1993). "The proactive component of organizational-behavior: A measure and correlates." Journal of Organizational Behavior, 14(2), 103-118.

    Image Credit: geograph.org.uk/C. Michael Hogan