Get out of the information technology reactionary rut

This document explores what being proactive is when it comes to IT, why it's important, and how to get your group back on track when it strays.

We all start out trying to be proactive. We plan to control our lives. We make the plans and somewhere during the execution phase we get off track. We run into some unplanned snag or snarl. We slip into a reactionary mode to address the problem. We try to get back into our planned, proactive mode of operation but sometimes the next issue comes along and we're off to react to it.

Although there are areas of IT that would seem incapable of escaping the reactionary rut, like for instance, a help desk, the truth is that we can all influence our areas into more proactive and therefore less frustrating modes of operation. Let's explore what being proactive is, why it's important, and how to get your group back on track.

Why is proactive is better?

While I firmly believe that control is an illusion, it's a useful one. Assuming a proactive stance to try to control, or at least influence, the future into a positive direction, is effective at reducing the overall workload. That is an addition to reducing stress caused by unforeseen circumstances. While being proactive, like anything else, can be taken to an extreme, in most cases proactive time spent preparing for a problem, developing an approach, or understanding the environment is immensely powerful in terms of its ability to save time in the future.

There are cliché's abound that describes the power of proactive thinking. Perhaps the most famous, "A stitch in time saves nine" and "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" seem to make no allowance for anything but savings when taking a proactive stance. The opportunity to solve an issue before it becomes a problem can be greatly beneficial.

However, the realities of today's economy and the need to maintain a lean organization mean that we can't afford to go to an extreme with being proactive; we cannot be prepared for every eventuality. We must do our best to find a balance between proactive planning and a reactionary fire fighting mode. We know that proper planning can prevent much of the impact of a problem, if the problem comes along. However, if the problem never happens the time spent doing the planning is lost forever.

So when the proactive efforts are focused on understanding, planning, and preparing for situations which will probably happen and ones that can be difficult to be successful in, proactive thinking is essential. In planning for the case that will never happen, it's like buying flood insurance when you live on the top of a mountain. Still, on balance, we as IT professionals don't do enough planning as evidenced by our long workdays, or late schedules and our budget overruns.

Balance or trap

In today's economy every team is expected to have both a proactive planning component and a ready, reactionary component. Team members who are nearly always proactive are seen as unnecessary overhead because they're not solving the real problems of today. They are sometimes seen as idealists who never seem to be around when problems occur. Conversely someone who is always reacting and not proactively planning is seen as someone who is working hard but not necessarily working smart. In other words, their diligence is rewarded but the fact that it is necessary due to lack of planning is shunned.

The trick with being proactive is, therefore, not in being proactive all the time but in finding a balance between proactive periods of time and reactive periods of time. The problem is that being reactive prevents proactive behaviors. Being proactive requires a state of mind that psychologists call flow. It is a deep meditation or focus on the problem or on evaluating what the problem is. In other words, you need "flow" time to be proactive; time to become deeply involved with the problem. When you're reacting to the problem of the moment, you can't develop that flow

In Peopleware Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister spend an entire chapter, Brain time versus Body Time, on the impact of interruptions on being able to get a deep involvement in a problem, called flow. They illuminate the problems caused by continuous interruptions as a common theme throughout the entire book. It's difficult to overestimate the impact of never having a time and place where you can enter flow and be proactive.

That is inconsistent with the reactionary fire fighting mode that most of us find ourselves trapped in. We have little or no time when we can take a step back and evaluate the overall context of the problems we're firefighting to see if there's a way to solve all of them at one time. We don't have a chance to get into the flow of solving the problems.

Here in lies the trap. If you can't ever get into the flow then you can't really spend proactive time working on the core problems that you face. If you can't work on the core problems then you're doomed to chase your tail – spending all of your time reacting to the effects of the core problems that you can't ever identify much less solve.

In the introduction I introduced an area of IT where reactionary behavior is the core of what must be done. Help desks are by their very definition reactive. They receive calls and react to them. However, there is another side of the help desk. It's a pattern finding aspect which seeks to classify the calls that are coming in and devise solutions or partial solutions to reduce the number of calls. Consider how many help desk calls can be eliminated by allowing users to reset their own passwords – or letting managers reset passwords for their employees. Or, how many calls can be saved by simply providing better instructions if there's a problem that many users have when printing a document?

So even in what would seem to be the perfect trap for reactionary behavior there is the opportunity for proactive patterns. It is this way with every role in IT, especially those which don't at first glance appear to have a proactive component at all.

Climbing out of the trap

In some situations identifying the problem is the hard part. Simply figuring out what the problem is almost makes it evaporate. This is not, unfortunately, the case when you have fallen into a reactive rut. This is a problem that, once identified, will haunt you as you escape its grasp and try to pull you back into its realm again. However, there is hope. There are techniques that will work to free you if you're willing to use them. Some of those techniques for escaping the reactive rut follow.

Creating slack

My son, now four years old, loves Chinese finger traps. You know the little things you get after playing skeet ball and you've selected all of the good prizes your tickets can afford. The Chinese finger traps are a set of webbing that as you pull harder the webbing tries to contract more around your finger. The more you pull the tighter it gets and the less chance you have of escaping.

The solution to the trap is to let go. In other words, to create some slack. When you create the slack the tension holding the trap around your finger is broken and your finger is released.

The same effect happens to folks caught in a reactionary rut. They run out of time to be proactive. Because they're no longer doing proactive activities they end up with more reactive things to manage. So they get deeper into the reactionary rut, needing more and more time to react and never getting any time to be proactive.

The fix is to create some slack. That means creating opportunities to be proactive, even if for only a short while. Bringing in an extra set of hands for a few weeks to give you some time to sit back and assess the situation can be a great help. It can also be a truly short term engagement where someone comes in to pinch hit a few balls while you're coming up with the strategy.

Getting extra help approved may be difficult or impossible but creating slack doesn't necessarily need to take that form. It's possible to create slack without extra help. It is possible even if it does mean allowing a few things to slip through the cracks.

I believe in a concept of selective failure. That is you pick a low priority task to let fail. You simply starve it for resources (most often your time) and apologize when it's realized that you haven't succeeded at it. It's selective failure because you're selecting which thing you're going to fail at rather than taking your chances that it might be something important. Even techniques like this can free up a little time to be more proactive.

Scheduling proactive time

As mentioned above, much of being proactive relies upon entering a state of flow where you become deeply involved with evaluating the situation, trying to understand the problem, or creating solutions. However that time is hard to get. So schedule it. Pick one morning a week where you come in before everyone else comes in and use that for some proactive thinking about how to organize your day, create solutions that will reduce the number of events that you must respond to, or in other ways positively impact your day. Protect this time. Don't spend time doing tasks that were left over from the previous day or accept meetings. In fact, consider doing your proactive time someplace where no one can interrupt you.

I suggest that you start your day earlier – even if you're not an early riser – because it's difficult to disconnect from a reactionary mode of thinking, to let go of unfinished tasks, and to enter a state of flow that will allows you be proactive about your situation. Time you spend after everyone has gone home is more frequently cleaning up the messes of the day than it is preparing for what is to come.

Forcing high return activities

Sometimes it seems like there's nothing insignificant that can be eliminated and it's hard to find a time to come in early. There isn't something that you can safely fail at, which means it's hard to create the slack you need. An alternative is to shuffle the priorities such that the things which are the most important to your daily work are moved to the top of your list. In other words you prioritize some of your needs so that you can help other people in the medium term.

Doing this may be difficult if you're used to being customer focused. Your natural bias would be to help someone else figure out their problem. However, the problem with this is that your items, the ones that might save you time, never seem to happen. So you invest the extra time working around problems over and over again. If you're going to be able to continue to support everyone on a long term basis you must have some level of respect for the things that you need done too. You must find times to prioritize your needs, particularly those things which will start saving you time, over some other important but less urgent tasks.

Sometimes it is necessary to force high-return tasks, such as organizing your office, building a prioritized task list, etc., to get done even though there are many other things that could be done. This prioritization allows you to start capturing the benefits and let them reinforce themselves, much like compounding interest makes even a small investment large over the long term.

Some control

Becoming a reactionary person, one who is consumed by the waves of new tasks washing over them is easy. It happens to the best of us from time-to-time. The skills that we must all learn are the skills necessary to get us back into a position to control, or at least influence, our day.