Anticipation: A Project Manager’s Secret Weapon

We all know - and love - the project managers in our lives. (And I’m not just saying that because I am one. 😉) They’re the people who keep our projects organized, keep our workloads as steady as possible and help keep our work lives on track. 

When you think about those who excel at project management, a few key skills and characteristics may come to mind: organization, time management, strong written and verbal communication and so on. However, the top of the pack excels at one additional thing: 



Rather than simply reacting to a challenging situation, the best project managers are those who anticipate a problem before it happens and are able to stop, avoid or diffuse it. If you have to react, it means the problem has already occurred, and it may be too late to avoid any negative consequences - such as the use of unanticipated resources, time, money or stress.

A project manager is able to utilize anticipation to avoid conflicts that can be foreseen based on their past experiences with a client or project team. Simply put, it’s problem-solving before the problem presents itself. This can range from straightforward scenarios such as avoiding the use of a term in a deliverable that the client doesn’t thoroughly understand or more complex issues like grasping the actual intricacies of what may appear to be a “simple” impromptu client request. 

A key benefit of anticipation is the ability to make your clients happy by understanding their ultimate needs before they’re even aware of them. For example, perhaps you are on a client call, and the client references an upcoming high-priority presentation that will be given to the c-suite of their organization that’s related to the work you do together. Proactively speaking up and offering an idea of how your team can support the client with this presentation could make them both happy and appreciative. 

Alternatively, you may hear about an upcoming project that will have an impact on your client’s company as well as the work you do together. Here, you can offer to provide the client with resources from your engagement - such as reports or a summary of insights - to help them easily get started on their new initiative. 

Anticipation is certainly a skill that develops with time as you gain experience within a project management role. However, there are several hard and soft skills you can focus on developing to increase your ability to anticipate: 

Risk Identification (Hard)

Risk identification skills are developed through gaining experience with your client, your team and the project itself. By thoroughly understanding each aspect of the engagement, you are able to identify what exactly will pose potential risks to the project. 

It’s important to exert humility when building this skill. Remember to ask for your team’s input and encourage them to share their knowledge of the client and specific service. By doing so, you are able to absorb key information to assist with risk identification.  

To state the obvious, the earlier you identify a potential risk, the better chance you have of it not becoming a problem at all. 

Risk Mitigation (Hard)

When mitigating risks, you will want to use a strategy that is applicable for the specific scenario and the communication style of the client or the team when things do go wrong. 

Create a plan to mitigate the risk (such as assigning an owner) ahead of time. This way, depending on when the risk was identified, you already have a pre-set plan in place to eliminate the risk. 

Active Listening (Soft)

Active listening includes the ability to interpret verbal and non-verbal messages from the client or team members. While important in many aspects of life, it’s imperative for project managers to master active listening. 

In listening to others, try to understand the intentions beyond just the words being used, and listen for the actual meaning behind them. Ask questions to drive additional conversation. This will help you find out what is really needed, what it will take to complete the task at hand and allow you to get an idea of potential bottlenecks by having a clear vision of the progress on a project.

In turn, this will lead to increased cooperation with the client or team as you become trustworthy and create a more meaningful relationship. 

Critical Thinking (Soft)

We all know what it’s like to be in a challenging situation and have the need to make a game-time decision. Developing skills around critical thinking is important, especially if you are able to use them to anticipate a potential future problem and diffuse it. 

Critical thinking is all about deciding what is best in the moment based on what you know at that time. Be confident in your knowledge of what would be ideal, and be agile in order to make it happen.

Of course, you can’t anticipate everything (nobody’s perfect!). However, developing skills to increase your anticipation of future events - and building strong relationships with your client and team members - can help avoid the need to react to risks more frequently. 

And while some may tell me that what I’m calling ‘anticipation’ is really my consistently high levels of anxiety at play, I’ll choose to use it to my advantage to help my clients and team feel confident that I’ve got their back - always. 

Written by Alyssa Armstrong on September 3, 2020


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Alyssa Armstrong