Being proactive is a buzzword that goes around from time to time. It usually comes up when someone thinks that a person is just sitting around waiting for problems to surface before they take action.
Being proactive usually aligns with working hard and getting in front of problems. But too often it just becomes another cliché that can be used whenever someone wants to criticize another person.
The reality is that different people define proactive differently. In many company’s it is synonymous with doing the work. It means we don’t sit around; we look into the various work processes and come up with plans to improve in the future.
Some people associate proactive with working hard and associate being reactive to being lazy.
Sometimes reactive is associated with waiting until you see the full picture before reacting. Quarterbacks in the NFL are often criticized if they aren’t able to read and react to defensive formations. But they are also criticized if they don’t make quick enough decisions, as this could be an example of not being proactive enough.
In Corporate Sigma: Optimizing the Health of Your Company with Systems Thinking, authors Answar El-Homsi and Jeff Slutsky say, “To be truly proactive, we need ways to see how solutions or reactions to past problems sustain the current problem or create the seeds of new problems.”
I like this approach to being proactive because it isn’t as simple as asking if we take action or not. It puts the action under the microscope to see if that action is just reacting to a symptom but creating a future problem in the process. Or is the action thought-out and designed to cure a deeper system problem that created the symptom?
Without getting too in-depth on the definition of proactive, I think we can all learn from our brief evaluation. We can all start to see that the symptoms of a problem are often what we see and experience. Then we can work to address the underlying systems and structures that ultimately create the environment where that problem can surface and grow.
But we have to start looking at the interconnected elements that we often ignore. We can’t just focus in on, and isolate, the elements that we dislike. We have to see the full system, the elements we dislike and also the elements that we like and the elements we probably don’t even see.
This will start to help us understand the steps we take. To me this is equal to the quarterback who assesses what the defense is doing and then makes a decision to run a play that gives them the best chance at success against that defense.
We can still be flexible and adjust when we use this systems thinking definition of being proactive. It also helps us avoid thinking that we have to always take immediate action. Sometimes the best approach is to evaluate to decide what action to take regardless of how you view being proactive.