The secret of making it right the first time is proactive behavior. Even though the concept is both straightforward and appealing, it is probably one of the hardest management concepts to sell and implement. And this is why:
The proactive person will always suffer criticism at the outset for having detailed and slow work methods. While it will be impossible to prove afterwards that it was the critical recipe for success.
When push comes to shove, proactivity is lost. You have no proof that the extra effort upstream in the fuzzy front end will pay off. Front-loading the project, or any other activity for that matter, will not happen when the time-schedule is squeezed to a minimum.
Once I visited a manager who had a brass sign on his desk with the following wording – In god we trust, everybody else brings data. And the proactive person will always suffer from a lack of data. Proactivity must, therefore, be built on trust.
Thus, being proactive today is mostly about strength and self-confidence. It is about daring to rely on your own ability, having the strength to swim against the tide, being strong enough to manage all the criticism. And very few are willing to do that.
A cultural change is what is needed if proactive behavior is to be implemented. And this cultural change must happen at three different levels if proactive work methods are to be realized and not just remain a cliché:
Proactivity at the Personal level
People are focused on solving urgent matters which is wrong, they should focus on solving important matters.
Stephen R. Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold more than 15 million copies. He has arrived at the seven habits by studying over one hundred years of management literature. From all these books, he has extracted a form of the lowest common denominator of highly effective people. And what do you think the first habit is?
Habit 1: Be Proactive “Being proactive means that we, as human beings are responsible for our lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.”
On a personal level, we needed to focus on how we utilize our most valuable resource – time. The general idea of time management is that we as individuals, should complete more in a shorter period of time. However, Covey has another approach to time management. He says: “The best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: Organize and execute around priorities.”
A four-quadrant model called the “Time Management Matrix” can explain his theory. Each quadrant represents different types of activities in the following manner:
Quadrant 1 Urgent and Important
In quadrant 1 you will find all the activities that are both “important and urgent”. Things that need your immediate attention and, if not acted upon, will have a serious impact on your life. For example, important deadlines at work or family matters that require your instant attention. Activities of this type will take up the time needed. It is nothing you can neither skip or down prioritize.
Quadrant 2 Non-Urgent and Important
In quadrant 2 you will find all the activities that are “non-urgent and important”. Things that have a significant impact on your lifelong term but don’t demand your immediate attention. For example, planning, recreation, training or relationship building. Both writing and hopefully also reading this post are examples of quadrant 2 activities.
Quadrant 3 Urgent and Non-Important
In quadrant 3 you will find all the activities that are “urgent and non-important”. Things that are acting upon you but don't necessarily have any significant impact on your life. For example, unnecessary meetings or interruptions from other people.
Quadrant 4 Non-Urgent and Non-Important
In quadrant 4 you will find all the activities that are “non-urgent and non-important”. All the time-wasters in your life. For example, getting stuck in traffic or excessive use of social media which can be a huge black hole for time.
Covey’s thesis is that it is easy to become completely swallowed up by quadrant 1 “Urgent and important”, a type of management by crisis behavior. And there are many emotional rewards for that. You feel important, wanted and will have a sense of purpose and meaning with your work and life.
Quadrant 2, “Non-urgent and Important”, in which all proactive activities can be found, is easy to neglect, which means that quadrant 1 slowly but surely grows and occupies more of your time, attention and efforts.
Success lies in controlling and moving time spent on quadrant 3 and 4 into quadrant 2. To succeed here, you must work actively with Habit 1, Be Proactive. Give quadrant 2 enough time and energy and the activities in quadrant 1 will be successively be reduced to a minimum. There is a lot of wisdom in Covey’s Seven Habits. They carry a lot of weight regarding methods to transform our behaviors from being reactive to become more proactive.
Proactivity at the Project level
Traditional project management methods focus on managing activities which is wrong, they should focus on managing deliverables.
The purpose of all projects is to produce deliverables, not to carry out activities. The planning work must, therefore, begin by establishing the result to be achieved by the project, in the form of deliverables. Rather than starting by figuring out what activities need to be carried out. Activities are how’s that describe the internal process. Deliverables are what’s that describe the benefits to the customers.
Compare the project with a factory. Modern production philosophy is based on creating a pull in the factory using systems like Kanban. In the same way, we want to create a pull in the projects. A project is not to produce a whole range of deliverables that someone, someday, might be interested in. It is only to produce those deliverables requested and pulled by the customers. The result of the project planning and customer dialogue must, therefore, be a list of deliverables to be produced by the project and the price the customers are willing to pay for them.
Activities draw costs, but deliverables generate revenues. If you focus on activities, you risk being trapped in the classic triangle of constraints:
How to optimize between time, cost and scope?
By focusing on deliverables, you open the diamond of opportunities instead:
How to optimize revenues, customer value and stepping stone against time, cost and scope.