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Mindfulness, Risk Management, and Proactive Responsiveness

Project Managers must respond quickly and effectively to resolve problems. Projects rarely run smoothly from initiation through closing. There are always challenging situations. 

This article is a reminder of the need to be responsive rather than reactive and to highlight the need for risk management as a means for being proactive. Since there are always going to be events that are out of your control, it is necessary to get really good at responding to each situation in the most skillful, effective way. That is where mindfulness, experience, and risk management come in handy.


Let’s begin with some definitions. When we look in the dictionaries, the words reactivity and responsiveness are not clearly differentiated from one another. For our purposes, reactivity implies action without thought while responsiveness implies a mindfully measured action to address a situation.

Being reactive is like being caught in a riptide and trying to break free of it by swimming against the current, a perfectly natural but completely ineffective response. Responsiveness is having the presence of mind to take a more intelligent approach. You will save your life, in this case, by letting the current carry you out as you swim across the current rather than against it. Either way you are not in charge, the events are in the driver’s seat.

To be proactive is to think ahead. Proactive thinking anticipates the future, it responds to events before they occur. In the example of the riptide, proactive thinking might drive the decision to stay out of the water on a day when riptides are strong or to studying up on how best to handle rip tides if you are caught in one.

Mindfulness is the mental quality of objectively observing whatever is occurring in or around you. It enables both responsiveness and proactivity. It gives you the power to recognize the compelling feelings that come up when faced with a stressful situation. It also gives you the opportunity to step back from the feelings to choose what to do. Without the ability to choose, you are completely driven by your feelings, which are driven by external events.

Cultivating mindfulness is simple. You dedicate some time to practice, say, anywhere from five minutes to an hour at a time. The practice is to focus on the sensations of your breath, notice any thoughts, feelings sensations, sounds, sights or smells that come up and to bring your attention back to your breath. If you become distracted, lost in thought, you just go back to the breath and continue. That’s it. Then, you can add moment-to-moment practice that is integrated into your daily activities. For example, when the phone rings, count three breaths before you answer.

The more you practice, the more mindful you become. The more mindful you become, the less reactive.

Risk management is an integral part of planning. One takes a hard look at uncertainties and consciously decides ways to avoid, reduce the occurrence of, or mitigate the effects of negative events while maximizing the opportunities associated with positive events. Risk management is proactive responsiveness.

Driven by Events

Planning turns things around from being driven by events to driving events through consciously planned action, to the degree that is possible.

Uncertainty is one of the few certainties. In projects, unplanned things happen. For example, a critical resource wins the lottery and gives one day notice of leaving; a fire breaks out in a warehouse where you store the computers you will be using to deploy your system; or a client decides, because of changing market conditions, to make a requirements change that will set you back months.

In the end, you are never in complete control.

Risk Management

Being proactive means taking control by predicting what may happen, knowing what you would like and not like to happen and taking action to prevent it, promote it and respond to it. In project work, risk management is the process that exemplifies proactivity. Being proactive means seeing the big picture and not being surprised by what may occur.

You can be proactive when responding to an immediate event by taking the time and effort to step back, assess what is going on and then deciding what to do to address the situation. In the case of the rip tide, mindfulness will allow the calm thinking required to not panic. A quick assessment of the risk will bring to light the danger of swimming against the tide, and the combination of training, experience, and clear thinking will come together to drive the decision to act skillfully.

You can be proactive well before the event occurs. Risk management, applied when initially planning your project, is thinking ahead to avoid, reduce the probability and impact of a negative event or to accept the occurrence. The skilled PM considers multiple scenarios. Based on the assessment of the probabilities of occurrence and estimated impact, a “Plan A” course of action is set and executed. “Plan B” is available in case “Plan A” doesn’t turn out the way it was supposed to. “Plan B” is a set of risk responses to be taken if and when an event occurs.

However, blindly applying a predetermined risk response is reactive behavior. Bring mindfulness to the situation, step back and assess what would happen if you applied the response. Is it still the right response? Will it make things better? Knowing what you know now, are there better responses?

Apply Mindfulness, Experience, and Risk Management

Mindfulness, experience, and risk management are the three factors that promote responsiveness and proactivity. Experience (your own and the experience of others) is required because that is what gives you the knowledge of what might happen under various conditions. Mindfulness gives you the ability to stop and remember to use the experience to respond rather than react. Risk management provides the framework for applying experience to plan proactively.

Based on the experience based assessment of the scenario and risks, set in motion the action that will lead to the most desirable and realistic outcome. When things change, be ready to change course, mindfully.

Be proactive in seeing the big picture and looking into the future to make the things you want to happen, happen, to the degree that you can. Be mindfully responsive as the project unfolds to address the things you cannot control.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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