Key PM Skill: Thinking on Your Feet

Written by lewsauder

August 14, 2020

We often think of project managers being overly organized. Tracking their to do list and checking items off of the project plans, they move the project forward. Getting the project done on time an on budget is the goal.

Things happen on a daily basis that always tend to veer the project off course. A critical skill for any project manager is to be nimble, think fast, and make decisions at a moment’s notice. Thinking on your feet is critical for that. I will review a few approaches that I have found effective in increasing my ability to think on my feet.

Be in the right state of mind

I have always considered myself a routine guy. I like to have my morning routine of working out, a little meditation, and even a little reading. It starts my day out in a way the allows me to clear my head and focus on the day.

I know that doing everything in my routine is not possible every day. Sometimes there is not enough time, sometimes other things get in the way. I have learned that while the routine helps, I have to put myself in the right frame of mind regardless of the things I do for my routine.

It is critical to get enough sleep. This involves getting to bed at a decent time and not eating or drinking alcohol too close to bedtime. If I have a night where I am unable to get much sleep, I still approach the day with an optimistic attitude.

There are always things that I can find to distract me. Family or financial concerns, or just worrying whether the Bears are going to be any good this year. I have learned to compartmentalize my focus. When I am at work, I try to stay focused on work tasks and not worry too much about other items. One tactic I have used for that is to write down something that may be concerning me. This allows to turn that concern into a to do item. I know in the back of my mind that I will not forget about and will eventually address it. I often find that those major concerns that would normally distract me are not that big of a deal once I get around to addressing them later.

In the meantime, I have been able to focus on my work and not let other concerns hinder my focus.

Do Your Homework

A lot of thinking on your feet involves dealing with other people who ask unexpected questions. You may be in a status meeting with an executive or just an ad hoc hallway conversation (hallway conversations still happen, right?)

I have gotten into a habit of making my last to do of every day, to prepare for the next day. I review all of the meetings I have scheduled. I determine the tasks that need to be completed. Then I calculate a rough estimate for those tasks to see how I can fit completing them around my meetings.

For each meeting, I spend a few minutes thinking about each, determining what I need to prepare. Whether I am the meeting lead or not, I assume that I will be responsible for running it. I ask myself, what information do I need to have ready to present if asked? What do I need to do to be prepared for each meeting? This often results in additional to-dos for the day.

Another question I ask myself is, what questions could the meeting attendees ask me? I prepare for any questions I can think of which often prompts me to do a little more research.

By preparing like this, I can appear to be thinking on my feet, when in reality, I thought things out well in advance.

Know your audience

Another form of preparation is to think about who you will be interacting with. This could be a meeting you are preparing for, or maybe you will be in the office and know you may have a chance encounter with someone. Thinking about and preparing for who you may be interacting with can help you be prepared for any surprise questions or requests.

Be creative

One of the key aspects of being able to think on your feet is to have a natural creative side. I am not naturally creative. However, I have trained myself to lean more to the creative side.

I have read some books on how to be more creative. Two that I would recommend are A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, both by Roger Von Oech. These are old books, written in the 1980s. But they are still relevant for helping you think outside the box and develop strategies for being more creative. (Note: I do not receive any compensation for recommending these books.)

By being more creative, you cannot help but be better at thinking on your feet. You come up with better ideas and you come up with them faster.


In addition to being organized, you as a project manager need to be adept at thinking on your feet. The best way to do that is to be prepared. Planning and preparation for any meeting can help you be ready for questions and issues that you otherwise would not have thought of. Having a creative approach to problem solving helps too. Always keep your mind sharp and stay ahead of the curve and you can give the impression that you are always thinking on your feet.

What techniques to you use to be better at thinking on your feet?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of lekkysustdoit at

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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