On Being Proactive
by Preston G. Smith

"Proactive" is a contemporary buzzword. But like many buzzwords, this one is far easier to recite than it is to apply.

The idea of proactivity is simple enough: consider what negative outcomes might befall you in advance of an event and then take steps to preclude them from happening or at least mitigate the damage they might cause if they do occur. This is appealing enough. But it goes against the styles of many managers. Their style is reactivity or as it is more commonly known, firefighting. The idea of firefighting is to let a problem fester until it becomes a crisis, and then swoop in and fix it. Firefighting is popular because it is exciting. Furthermore, it is a win-win situation for the firefighter. If the fix works out, the firefighter is a hero. If it doesn't, the firefighter can't be blamed, because the situation was virtually hopeless to begin with. Notice that it is to the firefighter's advantage to actually let the problem become worse, because then there will be less blame if they fail or more praise if they succeed.

Most of us deplore the firefighting style, yet we tacitly perpetuate it by rewarding firefighters for the miraculous things they do. The methodical work of prevention done by others goes unnoticed. Consequently, the firefighting style can be difficult to eliminate, especially in cultures that thrive on action and excitement. In contrast, in Japan, a crisis is evidence of failure: Japanese culture favors a more proactive approach to problem solving.

If this weren't enough, there is another, more practical difficulty with proactivity. It naturally focuses on the future. In our competitive environment, many managers are having enough difficulties in the present without looking into the future to find even more problems. The thought of investing now to prevent tomorrow's problems, while attractive, simply will not happen with the overload of today's problems. Today's problems are a certainty: tomorrow's are only a possibility. Of course, ignoring tomorrow's problems today means that there will he plenty of work to do in the future to deal with those crises. The approach of denying future issues is self-perpetuating.

As you can see, being proactive is more difficult than simply wearing a badge with a slogan such as, "Be proactive." However, it is still a worthwhile goal, since the benefits of proactivity are significant. Here are some things you can do to become more proactive:

  • Stop rewarding firefighters and instead look more deeply to reward those who work behind the scenes to defuse potential problems.

  • At management reviews of projects, shift the focus from a concentration on current problems to what is being done about future problems -- shift the discussion from the past to the future.

  • Conduct some analyses of problems that have occurred recently. Could they have been anticipated in advance? Would they have been much cheaper or easier to prevent than to deal with afterwards? If so, advertise these case studies to illustrate the benefits of proactivity.

  • If your organization must undergo a cultural shift from reactivity to proactivity, start small but work persistently. Start with one project having well-trained participants and managers. Collect metrics for this project and compare them to those for other projects that operate more reactively. Then expand to other projects but only at a rate that you can support with trained participants and managers.

This article is adapted from one published under the same title in Product Development Best Practices Report, September 2002.


Preston Smith is a management consultant and trainer specializing in improving product development techniques. He is coauthor of the popular book, Developing Products in Half the Time. For more on proactive management, please see his book Proactive Risk Management .

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Copyright 2003 by Preston Smith. All rights reserved.

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