Proactive vs Reactive Project Management

Ted Williams, a left-fielder for the Boston Red Sox, is widely considered to be one of the best baseball hitters ever. In 1941 his batting average was .406, an accomplishment that has not since been matched.

There is something else unique about Ted Williams. He was known to have had amazing eyesight. When he entered the military, his official measurement was 20/10. Among rumors of his being able to read license plates before others could see the plate, or of his being able to read labels on a playing phonograph, Ty Cobb once said, ”Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive”.

Perhaps Ted could see where the ball was going a split second before others could. Perhaps Ted’s eyesight contributed to a significant advantage over other batters.

I attended a training recently where the topic of proactive vs reactive project management was discussed. I thought of Ted Williams.

The difference between the two concepts is massive and deserves more attention than it currently gets. The difference between proactive and reactive management is the difference between a home run and a strikeout. Its the difference between predictable success and unpleasant surprises at the conclusion of a project.

Reactive Project Management
All too often project managers are backward looking. They determine where they are going this week based on what happened (or didn’t happen) last week. This is observed in status meetings where last week’s data drives upcoming plans.

Project managers resolve problems. They apply resources in areas that need fires put out. The project manager with the Ted Williams’ vision is not asking “What went wrong last week?” Rather, he or she will be asking, “What is about to go wrong?”

To have this kind of vision, one must employ proactive project management practices.

Proactive Project Management
“What is about to go wrong?”. The answer to this question lies in one’s ability to see the impact of current progress (or lack thereof) on FUTURE activities in projects.

For discussion’s sake, lets look at a simple project that is four weeks long comprised of four one-week tasks chained together. If we are four days into the one-month project, the progress on Task 1 should be 80% complete (taking a simplistic view here). For our example, we’ll suppose that Task 1 is only 20% done on day four.

At this point in the game, the reactive project manager probably doesn’t do anything. Why? The simplest answer is that the project manager probably hasn’t been notified. Perhaps the data for the weekly status meeting hasn’t been compiled yet and nobody is about to volunteer the news that they’ve been doing something else unless they are forced into it.

In a typical reactive situation, the bad news will come out on Monday morning and a plan will be made to address the problem.

We don’t like that. We want the manager to be proactive. We want the manager to do something on day four, not on day six. This is akin to ‘seeing more of the ball’.

What will help our manager accomplish this? At AtTask, we rely on two key components of our project management software to turn reactive management into proactive management: Automatic Projected Dates and Automatic Status Indicators.

Automatic Projected Dates
The concept behind projected dates is that in addition to the planned dates of a project’s tasks, there is a parallel projected date. The projected date looks at current progress and the amount of remaining effort to complete it along with the person’s schedule who is doing the work and computes a date by which that task is likely to be done.

This takes Earned Value Management one step further. In EVM, only the task in question is affected. With projected dates, the effect cascades through the entire timeline. Suppose our example Task 1 is three days behind schedule. The projections will show that Task 2, which depends on Task 1, will be three days behind and so on down the critical path. Furthermore, let’s suppose that the person doing Task 3 has a planned vacation in week four. In this example, Task 1 being three days behind schedule would result in a projection of 8 days behind schedule for the project. See Figure 1 for the example.

Automatic Status Indicators
We’re familiar with Red/Yellow/Green status indicators in project management. In reactive situations, these indicators are controlled by project managers and team members and often do not change until its too late. If you want to be proactive, manually controlled indicators are not enough. When status indicators automatically change based on a task’s projected versus planned completion dates, then a project manager can be proactively notified and can use his or her skills to step in and avert problems.

Imagine in the situation above, that the project manager realizes extremely early in a project that a delay of a day or two early in the project could result in a longer delay later in the project, is able to make appropriate changes very early on, and saves the project. Utilizing Automatic Project Dates and Status Indicators will go a long way toward giving any project manager the Ted Williams advantage.

Figure 1: Sample Project Gantt showing 20% Task 1 on day 4 with Task 3 being assigned to someone who will be on vacation in week 4. The light-blue ovals are projected dates.

One Response to Proactive vs Reactive Project Management

  1. Nick Talent says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great that you have a tool that helps people in a team or work group be more proactive. Much needed!

    I wonder what you think of this graphic:

    (Covers the soft side of things!)