The prudence of being proactive is always at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to budget setting season. There are ten urgent issues of varying degrees that are screaming for your time, attention, and funding … AND THEY NEED IT NOW! On the other hand, there is one looming problem on the horizon that is feared, but uncertain. The ten Urgencies of Now have immediate costs that are known, and can reverse engineer some math to conjure a worthy ROI in support of their case to swallow your problem-solving budget whole. The pain they produce is visible on the surface, and throwing your resources at them promises immediate, sweet relief. They pound the boardroom table commanding attention, and the advocates to support their cause are many.
Meanwhile, sitting quietly in the corner is the Crisis that isn’t here yet — the one that could truly do serious damage to you and your organization. It rarely has advocates offering a full-throated, impassioned case for the measures needed to prevent it from arriving. Somebody tried once, but couldn’t present a business case with cost projections and financial impact options with any level of specificity or confidence. In a competition of data, proactively preparing for what hasn’t happened (and may never actually happen) always loses to the documentable benefits of reacting to the problems in the here and now. It is impossible to prove a negative, and thus even proactive steps taken in the past can’t really prove the value of the problems that were avoided. It’s hard to measure something that never happened for use in a spreadsheet. “Maybe those problems would not have even occurred at all, even without doing what we did,” say the reactive opponents of Proactivity. How do you disprove that?
Being proactive is never the right thing to do on paper. It just happens to be the right thing to do in principle.
Everybody knows this, of course. Amazon’s limitless shelf-space is littered with books advocating proactivity as a key to success in business, leadership, relationships, and life in general. Being proactive is The First Habit of “Highly Effective People,” of all things! But, there are few gaps larger in the human experience than the gap between what we say and what we do — between what we say is important, and what we actually treat as important.
Getting enough information to be proactive and avoid problems is fairly easy, especially in this day and age. The hard part is acting on the information you have. Truly being proactive means taking hard, costly steps before they actually appear absolutely necessary. In a competitive world with limited resources, it takes courage to take from today and give it to an uncertain tomorrow. (We are so adept at doing the opposite.)
With your team/your boss/your investors screaming from the back seat demanding that you drive faster to get them to their destination, Waze tells you there is a traffic jam in your near future, even though the freeway you are on is open and free of traffic. The road you are on is indisputably the fastest route to take, and getting off the highway means dealing with fewer lanes, traffic lights, and a longer route. Perhaps the information is wrong, or perhaps it is right but the traffic will have cleared up by the time you get there. The choice is yours:
- Stay on your current path, because the indisputable data in your present view justifies it, or
- Proactively respond to the imperfect information you have about an uncertain future, and deal with the protests from the back seat demanding answers for taking the slower, longer route.
Choose wisely, but don’t delay: as time marches on, it takes from you the privilege of making the decision.