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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.