Proactive vs. Reactive Urgency

While sipping frosty alcoholic drinks, a colleague remarked on what he perceived to be a significant opportunity in his leadership team – the need for urgency. I asked him to explain.

He observed that while his team did everything he asked them to do, he wished they were more proactive in identifying for themselves what could or should be done and then to take steps to address those issues. The problem, he said, was that when his staff did exactly what they were told to do, the results were often not what was needed. He said, “I’m just not smart enough to be able to think for everyone, let alone get it right all of the time.”

I asked my friend to explain how that behavior connected with urgency. After another long sip on his beer, he explained that in his vision of an ideal leader, each individual would be so passionate about achieving the goals of the team that they would be driven to do anything and everything needed to accomplish them. This would include having a clear-eyed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his or her organization, identifying high leverage opportunities for improvement, planning and implementing corrective actions, noticing the results of those actions, and standardizing any improvements while setting the stage for future advances. We both smiled, recognizing that he had described the Lean PDCA loop.

After commenting to the server that there must have been holes in the bottoms of our respective glasses, I offered a counterpoint – that his team showed a high degree of urgency; that they were willing and able to react brilliantly to crises. They responded very well to deadlines; to meeting the urgent pleas of their internal customers. “In fact,” I continued, “I would bet that that it is precisely this behavior that helped many of them to become managers in the first place.”

Saluting the waitress who plugged the holes in our empty glasses, my colleague nodded his head in agreement. “That’s true – and a problem,” he said. “We have created a culture that rewards firefighting, crisis management, and over-and-beyond individual heroic efforts. For decades, that has been the behavior that has helped people get promoted.”

I commented that it was a typical pattern found in many organizations, not just ours. Each of us was silent as we reflected on how to change that deep-seated pattern. Several ideas ensued out of the conversation that followed:

  • Name the game. Acknowledge to the team the organization’s history of rewarding firefighting and announce our intention to behave differently in the future. One of the elements of game theory is, “when you name the game, the game changes.”
  • Ask for what you want, not what you don’t want. When I teach goal setting, I challenge workshop participants with the following short thought experiment: “In the next 30 seconds, whatever you do, do turn on NOT think of a pink elephant with a purple flower on its left year.” I ask participants by show of hands to indicate whether they had in fact pictured a pink elephant with a purple flower on its ear and a majority of hands are usually raised. The challenge is to clearly state what “good” looks like, so that those words become the point of focus.
  • Teach them how to fish. In order to minimize dependence on a higher tier leader, it is critical to focus on patterns of thinking; of “simple rules” that provide “just enough structure” to enable leaders to deal with complex, rapidly changing situations that demand their judgment and decisions.
  • “There is no failure – unless you fail to learn.” Given the complex nature of humans and human systems (teams and organizations), it is impossible to “guarantee success” when dealing with the continuously changing, self-organizing nature of complex systems. A gardener can’t (or at least shouldn’t) guarantee that s/he will produce 20 identical roses, even if all twenty plants receive the same amount of light, food, and water.The challenge for the gardener – and for leaders – is to pay close attention to the effects of their actions; to be curious about what worked as expected and what didn’t; to be thoughtful about what “experiment” to try next – and perhaps most importantly, to maintain their sense of self-worth.
  • Reward the behavior you want. Stop rewarding the behavior you don’t. “You get what you measure.”  “What gets measured gets done.” These, and other statements like them, speak to an essential truth that measures serve to establish priorities and focus our attention. 

    So if we want more proactive urgency than reactive responding to requests; more fire prevention than firefighting; more intelligent risk taking with a higher potential for failure than low-balling, playing it safe, “sure wins” – it is critical to establish metrics and recognition consistent with what we want.

A final thought: We tipped our server well, reinforcing the positive behaviors she exhibited in checking in with us; asking if we wanted another drink before our current one was empty; proactively telling us about snack foods she thought might complement our drink selections – and doing all of this with a smile.

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