One of the best things about my job is that I travel around the world working with project managers. This has taught me something:
Managing projects is not the easiest way to make a living.
Project managers easily get caught up in the demands of the team, senior managers, stakeholders, the customer—and then find it impossible to keep all of the plates spinning and everyone happy.
Here’s something that gets project managers into trouble:
In the effort to be highly responsive to all of these people they’re trying to make happy, project managers often cross the line into reactive mode.
Being responsive is good. It means you’re tuned in to the needs of the stakeholders. You can anticipate what’s coming down the line and respond accordingly.
Being reactive is not so good. It means you’re letting someone else dictate your priorities. There are unanticipated surprises and you’re putting out fires.
The real problem with being reactive is once you’ve gone there, it’s difficult to hop off of that hamster wheel. But you can!
Here are four ways to become a more responsive project manager—and shed some reactive habits. Even if you only implement just one of these tips, it can have a dramatic impact on your project and your life.
Filter out the noise
At the risk of sounding like I’m from another planet, those instant notifications on your devices and desktops are not your friend. They give you the quick sugar-rush of micro productivity, but distract from our ability to get into a truly productive workflow.
My personal productivity skyrocketed when I started working two full hours before opening email each day. While it may sound crazy, you may find that it is not as difficult as it sounds.
Instant notifications (aka, “instant distractions”) put us squarely in the reactive camp. They break our concentration, and they let someone commandeer our attention at any time. And this is really only one small part of how we’re reactive across the board. We sit in meetings and get updates from our team (reactive). We reply to emails from our boss and stakeholders (reactive). We fall behind on schedule, and we struggle to catch up (reactive).
Beware the tyranny of the urgent
All of this gets into what Stephen Covey referred to as “the tyranny of the urgent.” These are the activities and tasks that are of low importance but that compete loudly for our attention. As many of us have discovered, if we don’t move beyond the urgent, we never seem to make it to the really important tasks.
Email can be one of the most “urgent” tools we use, but the phone gives it a close run for its money. Project managers want to seem responsive, so when the phone rings, we jump on it. When an email comes in, we drop what we’re doing to reply. As if that wasn’t enough, a little email preview box slides up seductively from the corner of the screen so we can divert our attention to the email right away.
These things are responsible for breaking our concentration and momentum and keeping us perpetually hopping from one crisis to another.
Project management is supposed to be a discipline of planning, executing, measuring and adjusting, but when we get behind the curve and become perpetually distracted, the job devolves into one massive daily game of whack-a-mole.
Silencing as many of these notifications as you can, especially for a dedicated period of time each day, will help you determine what’s truly important, rather than falling prey to letting email or the phone make that call for you.
Implement a basic methodology
A good methodology guides you in what to do next. It prescribes rather than dictates, and the reason it’s so important is that there are things you likely need to be doing that you don’t get around to. These tasks don’t seem that urgent—until they do, and it’s too late. In the early 2000’s I implemented the Rational Unified Process at an organization, and it had a transformative impact. At another organization I developed a custom systems development lifecycle methodology (SDLC), which also proved to be a great help.
The right methodology should make your job easier. Having a process will help guide you on how to do the difficult tasks the right way, as well as guide you to spend time on the more impactful tasks.
Think of it this way: Only a small fraction of workers save for retirement in their twenties. There are simply too many other “urgent” priorities at that time; however, the ones who save when they’re young are universally better off when they approach retirement.
Along these same lines, most project managers whistle past the graveyard when it comes to risk, paying very little attention to it after the initial project plan is done—until a risk event occurs. At that point, all available energy is consumed handling something that probably could have been avoided.
This is where the right methodology can help you be proactive rather than reactive. You don’t want a methodology that necessarily dictates every next move for you. Instead, implement one that guides you and gives you templates and helpful instructions. The right one, whether waterfall or Agile will make your life much easier. The right project management software can help instill a methodology too.
Use your time purposefully
After you’ve silenced (or at least diminished) the ever-present cacophony of chirps, dings, and buzzes, and you’ve implemented a basic methodology, take advantage of your best tool: time.
Here’s one practice to help you be less reactive: Make a to-do list for the week early on Monday morning (or whenever your work week begins). Then break this down into daily lists. In other words, plan out the desired milestones and deliverables a week in advance. And prioritize them.
This seems so simple, but it can be one of the most profoundly ways to make the most of your time. So, make a wish list of what you want to accomplish in a week and post it to your wall or somewhere visible. When you begin work each day, it will be right there in front of you. Award yourself serious bonus points if you arrange it so that you look at that list before you look at your email or phone each morning.
Allocate time to strategy
Becoming less reactive requires you to step back from the details on occasion. To do this, block time off your calendar to work on the strategic elements of your project. This means not being available for meetings or responding to emails, texts, etc. Sometimes, you simply have to make yourself uninterruptible. If you don’t, then it’s a near mathematical certainty that you will be interrupted. In fact, the larger the organization you work for, the more likely you are to end up trapped in a meeting or on a conference call.
For organizations that are highly meeting-centric, this becomes even more important.
If you manage an active project, I recommend that you carve out 45 – 60 minutes per week of undiluted time to take a strategic look at your project. Pick a time where you experience the fewest interruptions, and leverage that. Use this time to evaluate the activities you and your team are doing, and how they’re being executed. Then you can look to the future and plan it.
Give us your best responsive-not-reactive tactic.
Time illustraction by Nadya Ilinskaya