Proactive reactive

A Thoughtful Rejection of Proactive Versus Reactive

“You should be more proactive and less reactive.” 

How many times have you been given this feedback?  I have many times, and I find it mostly confusing. Hindsight is 20/20 so it’s easy to offer up when looking at the past, but I can’t prepare for every contingency.  And I can’t see the future so it’s mostly unrealistic, especially given the constraints on my time. The kicker though? I’ve run into a number of situations where being reactive feels like the better option. 

So I’m here today to offer up what I think is a more helpful dichotomy.  One that feels more relatable and clear, and today I’d like to make the case for you to adopt it as well:

Be thoughtful rather than ad hoc.

Let’s talk about the sprint review, which I believe to be a reactive conversation.  We don’t know and can’t predict what our stakeholders will say when we meet. We know what we want to show stakeholders at the review, and we hope what we demo will validate our approach.  Still, we won’t know until that conversation takes place.  Someone implementing a “proactive” approach would instead spend an inordinate amount of time formulating the perfect solution so stakeholders gushed over the increment the team crafted.  That’s just not realistic.

When I craft goals or documentation, I do something similar.  I’ll spend the least amount of effort putting together something purposefully incomplete and then sit down with the approver/requestor.  I want us to have something to point to and agree and disagree on as a means to crystalize a proper outcome. If I were being proactive, I’d ask all the right questions at the start rather than constructing this rough draft. Now, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t ask questions before we begin.  We should, but we won’t know all the right questions until we’re immersed in the work.

Now, how ad hoc fit into this equation?  When we operate in an ad hoc fashion, we’re impulsive and treat everything we see as an exception.  And when nothing is standard or repeatable, it exponentially increases cognitive load.  Said differently, when everything is an exception, why have the rule? While working in big tech, I coined the term adhocracy:

The act of crafting organizational process that addresses today’s crisis and disregards tomorrow’s consequence.

I believe we should avoid this adhocracy as much as possible. It doesn’t scale, is wildly inefficient, and adds a great deal of unnecessary complexity to how we get the work done. Admittedly though, exceptions are inevitable so my point isn’t to do away with them. Instead, I suggest that we be thoughtful about when we allow them.  This thoughtfulness allows us to consider the whole rather than optimizing for the local. 

Finally, I believe that thoughtfulness breeds predictability while adhocracy breeds uncertainty, and research from 2016 shows that when uncertainty increases so does stress.  I like how Jeff Weiner frames my notion of thoughtfulness through the lens of consistency:

Trust is consistency over time. There’s no shortcut for either.

Proactive versus reactive had its day to shine.  Now let’s try being thoughtful over being ad hoc.

2 thoughts on “A Thoughtful Rejection of Proactive Versus Reactive”

  1. Remember the concept of balancing the binary trees? Or maximising learning from an experiment? When balanced, the probability of succeeding or failing an experiment is about the same, as is the probability of going left or right in a binary tree.

    I feel like it’s similar concept to the one you described. To maximise value from balancing proactiveness with reactiveness we could probe the right percentage of profilactic actions. Could be 50/50, or could be based on Pareto principle – do 20% of effort that gives you 80% of preparation…

    1. Agreed. But I do tire of people viewing proactivity as a positive trait and reactivity as negative. It’s not that simple so I’d rather have dichotomy that’s a bit more … thoughtful. 😉

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