Thinking on Purpose for Project Managers

Project management has always come easily to me. These days, I write about it, teach it, consult about it and coach it. Hang around me long enough and you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was born with a spreadsheet clutched in my tiny red fist. However, it wasn’t until almost twenty-five years into my career that I really began to question the way the work I did got done and, most importantly, how I attacked problems and issues. During this same time, I came across Daniel Goleman’s first book, “Emotional Intelligence.” This was the book that ignited my quest for concrete answers about how we think, what role emotions play and how both of these dimensions affected the way we perform in our jobs.

After that, I read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on, and began continuously observing and paying attention to how my colleagues, team members, bosses, and clients behaved, made decisions and solved problems. By this time, I had been blessed with a number of senior project management opportunities and was beginning to manage programs consisting of multiple projects. Looking back, I cringe to see how my “make it up as I go” mindset delivered my success at the expense of my team. Sure, I got the accolades from the top. But I literally wore out my teams because of my steadfast belief in my ability to respond when necessary to any threat or problem (instead of using critical thinking and planning to avoid such problems in the first place).

From the mid-1990s until 2004—when I left banking to pursue my pas¬sion of writing, teaching and speaking on subjects I care about—I was fortunate to be able to refine my thinking and skills in such diverse roles as sales management and commercial account management. These roles really opened my eyes to a critical trait for successful project management: foresight. This period is responsible for the creation of my 30/60/10 rule for success in project management: Successful project management is 30% insight, 60% foresight, and 10% hindsight.

The 30/60/10 Rule of Successful Project Management
Thirty percent of your results should come from insight, which is the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation; in other words, your ability to sift through the information at hand and find the nuggets of genuine value in the mountain of raw data. Sixty percent of your results should come from foresight, which is the ability to focus on and predict what is likely to happen and doing what can be done now to prepare for it. Ten percent of your results should come from hindsight, which is the understanding of the significance and nature of things that have happened in the past.

Unfortunately, while foresight is a logical and desirable key trait for a project manager, my experience, interviews, and research over the past three years indicate that it is vastly underdeveloped in comparison to hindsight. Project managers rely far more heavily on hindsight than foresight in their day-to-day handling of projects. In fact, the granddaddy of all hindsight orientations, the post implementation review, is actually built into most project management methodolo¬gies. As a result, to use a military metaphor, project managers often end up fighting the previous war, instead of the one they’re in.

From my point of view, a project manager who doesn’t actively strive to develop a strong sense of insight and foresight is essentially driving around in a car with a rearview mirror, but no windshield. Without the ability to see plainly what lies ahead of them, and predict and plan for what lies beyond that, project managers are forced to rely on trial and error (acquired over many years of experience run¬ning directly into obstacles at full speed) in order to become successful. And even then, any further success relies heavily on the unlikely reality of the playing field remaining virtually unchanged from previous experiences. Unfortunately, while the PM may be able to wrest some degree of success from this process, the teams that are passengers on these hair-raising rides often pay a hefty price in terms of stress, exhaustion, and discouragement.

Planning Makes Foresight as Clear as Hindsight
Imagine for a moment how much more fun your job as a project manager would be if you were confident in your ability to clearly see the root cause of every problem. Imagine how much more enjoyable your work would be if you had an effective method for identifying problems before they were problems. And imagine how much easier you and your team would have it if you knew precisely where to start looking for solutions, options, and alternatives, no matter what situation you faced.

I believe that insight and foresight are skills we all possess to some degree, and all it takes is a little prodding, some information about how our brains are wired and a little structure to bring these innate skills to life. The key here is structure. Our brains, if left to their own devices without any sort of imposed, structured thinking, will automatically nudge us into taking intuitive, gut-reaction, seat-of-the-pants approaches. On the other hand, we don’t always have the luxury of a completely structured approach, which is where the development of experience-based insight comes into play. The secret is to continually operate between these two polar opposites—intuitive versus structured thinking—based on the situation at hand and the time, people and resources, we have available to deal with it.

Thinking On Purpose
To become more purposeful in your actions, and to expand your insight and foresight, you need to do less of your thinking on autopilot and more of your thinking on purpose. Thinking On Purpose involves a series of specific and deliberate steps:

  • Frame Your Purpose, so that you know exactly what you are trying to accomplish and why.
  • Qualify Your Information, so that you can distinguish between fact, fiction, and everything in between.
  • Identify Your Mindsets, so that you know what types of automatic thinking may be in play and how to deal with them.
  • Structure Your Thinking, so that you can escape the gravitational pull of autopilot thinking.
  • Validate Your Outcome, so that activity and effort are rewarded with achievement of a goal.

To learn more about “Thinking on Purpose” to become a better project manager, read Thinking on Purpose for Project Managers: Outsmarting Evolution. You can get this book directly from the publisher at

About the Author:

Bill Richardson, PMP, PgMP
An internationally-renowned Project Manager Coach and Speaker who teaches professionals to discover their true potential and achieve their personal and professional goals. Through his work, he has helped hundreds of individuals, teams, communities and organizations revitalize and re-envision their companies' project management strategies and create streamlined processes that continue to produce consistent, significant gains. Richardson has over 35 years of experience in Project Management, with extensive insider experience leading major technological and change initiatives in the financial services industry at a major Canadian bank.

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