How many times have you experienced 20/20 hindsight? “Man, when she said that I should have said this.” How many times have you placed judgement on others as to what they should have done? “Do you believe he forgot to include the VP in that email?”

As Project Managers we are trained, and make an effort to execute, on the thinking that the more proactive we are the more successful our projects will be.

We identify project team roles and responsibilities to eliminate confusion as to who is responsible for what during project execution. We identify who our project stakeholders are so that we can determine their needs and concerns ahead of time. We develop the ultimate proactive tool, risk management plans, which anticipates what might go wrong and how we should handle it. We create communication plans to systematically determine how we will communicate, with whom we will communicate and when that communication will happen. Our project schedule tells our teams what they should be working on out into the known future!

The above are all proactive activities. In the context of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits, we narrow proactivity down to a more personal level – which I’ll then broaden back out to project management.

Covey presents two main concepts in this habit. First, he reminds us that in stimulus-response behaviour we as humans have the ability to control our response when presented with a stimulus – that between the time that we are exposed to a stimulus and the time in which we provide a response, we can make a choice. We can be proactive in our response. We can choose if we will provide a positive or negative response to any particular stimulus. Covey, of course, encourages us to keep it positive and take responsibility. Remove language of blame and victimization.

As a project manager, we use a number of tools to aid in responding to stimulus. We can hold status meetings, we send out project status, we talk individually with team members and other stakeholders. Think about a time when a stakeholder or project sponsor came to you during a particularly difficult time in your project. For example, you were not meeting your milestones, or the delivered functionality was not meeting the project requirements. How did you respond? Did you start listing out all the things that others were not doing that caused these problems? Or, did you take responsibility? Did you say “There’s nothing I can do” (reactive.) Or did you say “I’m aware of the problems and this is what we are doing to address them” (proactive.) Your use of language and your ability to stop, take a breath and respond proactively can have a significant impact on the success of the project and your relationship with the entire proejct team.

The second idea presented by Covey in the Habit 1 is the idea of Circle of Concern\Circle of Influence. Reactive people spend more time and energy in their Circle of Concern. Things outside their realm of control. Business examples include the direction of the organization, decisions on promotions, worrying about why someone else got selected for a project and not them. Whereas, proactive people focus on their Circle of Influence. These are areas that you can directly control. For example, you control how you react to the announcement of a peer’s promotion. You have control of your attitude each morning when you walk into your office. You control whether or not you will join in the commisserating about how horrible the customer is. As you behave proactively within your Circle of Influence, your circle will expand and start to include areas that were previously within the Circle of Concern.

As project managers, we need to to focus on our Circle of Influence. We shouldn’t be spending too much time and energy worrying about external events in which we have no control. What we do have control of is how we will respond to external events and help influence the reaction of our team.

Being proactive is the first habit on the continuum and the first habit in establishing personal independence. It is the “I” versus the “You”.