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Proactive Vs Reactive Essay

“Be Proactive” is habit #1 from Steve Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Being proactive means taking conscious control over your life, setting goals and working to achieve them. Instead of reacting to events and waiting for opportunities, you go out and create your own events and opportunities.

Being proactive means that instead of merely reacting to events as they happen, you consciously engineer your own events.

Most people think reactively. And reacting to certain events is all well and good. But it becomes a problem when that’s all there is to a person’s life — nothing more than instinctively reacting to stimuli.

Steve Covey points out that there’s a gap between stimulus and response, and within that gap lies the potential for us to choose our response. Four special human endowments give us this power:

  1. Self-awareness – the understanding that you do have a choice between stimulus and response. If someone insults you, you can choose not to become angry. If you are offered a donut, you can choose not to eat it.
  2. Conscience – the ability to consult your inner compass to decide what is right for you. You can make decisions based on unchanging principles, regardless of what is socially favored at the moment.
  3. Creative Imagination – the ability to visualize alternative responses. By using your imagination, you can mentally generate and evaluate different options.
  4. Independent Will – You have the freedom to choose your own unique response. You aren’t forced to conform to what others expect from you.

A lack of proactivity can often be traced to a weakness in one of these four human endowments. Maybe you’re spending too much time in a state of low consciousness and never reaching the level of awareness necessary to make proactive life decisions. Perhaps your conscience has become muddled by societal conditioning, so you aren’t even sure what you want from life; when something doesn’t feel right to you, you look to others to decide how you should feel about it. Maybe you aren’t taking the time to visualize alternatives. Or perhaps your independent will is being restricted by the pressure to conform to others’ expectations.

It can be argued that on some level, we’re always reacting to events, either external or internal. The difference between proactivity and reactivity can then be viewed in terms of what degree of “mental processing” occurs during the gap between stimulus and response. A proactive person will apply the four human endowments to choose a response (or to choose no response at all). But even more than that, a proactive person will invest the time to make conscious life choices and follow through on them.

Reactive people tend to be out of touch with their core values. Instead of running their lives based on unchanging core principles, they pick up temporary values from others around them. If no special opportunities come their way, they’ll stay at the same job year after year as long as it’s semi-satisfying. If most of their friends exercise, they probably will too; otherwise, they probably won’t. They go with the flow of the people and circumstances that surround them, but they don’t direct the flow. Their lives are largely out of their direct conscious control; they tend to only exert their human endowments when they absolutely must, such as if they get laid off unexpectedly (and even then it’s often to a minimal degree). But when things are pretty good, life is mostly on autopilot.

Proactive people, on the other hand, are aware of their core values. They consciously make key decisions based on those values. They create their own opportunities and direct the flow of their own lives. Even when things are pretty good, they’re still making conscious choices. Sometimes that means maintaining the status quo, while other times it means changing directions. Sometimes their values will align well with what’s socially popular; other times they won’t. Proactive people will take actions that often seem mysterious to reactive people. They may suddenly quit their job to start a new business, even though everything seemed to be going well for them. They’ll often start new projects or activities “out of the blue” when it seems like there’s no externally motivated reason to do so. A proactive person will still pay attention to external events, but they’ll pilot themselves to their desired destination regardless of those events.

If a reactive person were to captain a ship, the ship would flow with the currents. This person would be preoccupied with studying the currents, trying to predict where the ship will end up as a function of the currents. If the currents are good, this person is happy. If the currents are poor, this person feels stressed. On occasion this person might attempt to set a destination, and if the currents are good, the ship will arrive. But if the currents are poor, this person will bemoan them and give up the destination for an easier one.

If a proactive person were to captain a ship, however, the ship would go wherever the captain wanted it to go. This captain would still note the currents, but they’d merely be used for navigational purposes. Sometimes the ship would flow with the currents; other times it would steam against them. It matters little whether the currents are good or not; this captain will reach the intended destination regardless of the currents. The currents can only control the time of arrival and the exact path from starting point to final destination. But the currents have no power to dictate the final destination; that is entirely the captain’s choice.

Some examples of reactive [proactive] language:

  • Where is the industry going? [Where shall I go next, and how will I get there?]
  • I don’t have time to exercise. [How shall I make time to exercise?]
  • How much money can I expect to make if I do X? [How much money do I want to make, and what will I do to earn it?]
  • I’ll try it and see what happens. [I’ll do it.]
  • I’m too tired. [What can I do to increase my energy?]
  • I’ve never been very good at math. [How can I improve my math skills and enjoy the process?]
  • Nothing really inspires me. [What would I tackle if I knew I couldn’t fail?]
  • What is the meaning of life? [What is the meaning I wish to give to my life?]

Taking the pulse of others is a big concern for reactive people. They usually want to work at a “stable” job in a “good” industry, and they see themselves at the mercy of market conditions. If they manage to start a new business, it’s because they know lots of others who are already doing so, and they want to join the pack. They want to know what products and services seem to be doing well, so they can do something similar. If they fail, it’s because the industry isn’t doing well, or there’s too much competition, or because of some oft-cited external luck factor.

Do you think that anything that happens “out there” will determine how successful you’ll be in your endeavors? Not if you’re proactive. If you’re proactive, external events can only affect your time of arrival and the exact path you take to your goal. But they cannot dictate your goal for you. Proactive people still get knocked around by the currents at times, but they’ll just keep readjusting their course to retarget their goals, goals which are ultimately attainable by their own efforts.

Of course everyone has a mixture of both proactivity and reactivity. Pure examples of the two extremes are rare. You may find that you’re extremely proactive in one area, while letting other parts of your life slip into unconscious autopilot. So take the time to use your human endowments of self-awareness, conscience, creative imagination, and independent will to shine a light on those neglected areas of your life and consciously choose to get things moving. If you don’t like where the currents are taking you, then change course. Don’t wait for an opportunity to arrive; engineer your own. The reactive people in your life will often throw a fit when you do this, so let them, and exercise your independent will anyway. Even when everyone around you seems to be reactive, you can still be proactive. Initially that will probably feel like swimming against the currents, but if the currents of your life are leading in the wrong direction anyway, that’s a good thing.

Although “going with the flow” is often considered a wise admonition, the level of wisdom in this advice depends on where that flow is going. For example: in the USA going with the flow of our current state of health means becoming overweight or obese, living a sedentary exercise-free lifestyle, and then dying of either heart disease or cancer. Going with the flow financially means gradually sinking into debt and then dying broke. Going with the flow of our marriages means getting divorced (67% of Americans who were married in 1990 can ultimately expect to divorce, sources = Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and John Gottman’s What Predicts Divorce). Going with the flow of our educational practices means never reading another nonfiction book after high school. Going with the flow of our environmental practices means … believe me, you don’t even want to go there.

If you wish to live an extraordinary life, you often have to go against the flow that everyone else seems to be following. You can choose not to be one of the “XXX billions served.” In a way you’re switching over to being guiding by the flow of your own self-awareness and consciousness. You tune into your inner flow instead of being dragged along by the flow of external stimuli. Sure you may win the lottery or receive a big inheritance, but most likely you won’t just flow into wealth… or health… or fulfillment. You have to consciously choose these things and then follow up with committed action.

Where is the flow of your life taking you? If you continue flowing along with the currents of your life as they are now, where will you end up? And what will you never experience because those currents just don’t stop at certain destinations? How can you exercise your proactivity and your human endowments to direct the course of your life (regardless of the currents), so that you intentionally create the kind of life you want instead of just drifting along?

Proactivity has many names. Tony Robbins refers to it as using your Personal Power. Brian Tracy states, “Those who don’t set goals for themselves are forever doomed to work to achieve the goals of others.” Denis Waitley juxtaposes winners make it happen vs. losers let it happen. Dr. Wayne Dyer refers to the proactive as no-limit people. Roger Dawson calls them achievers. Barbara Marx Hubbard labels them cocreators. David Allen uses the terms ready for anything and having a mind like water. The exact terms aren’t important. What matters is making the decision to start consciously directing your own life instead of being pushed along by external currents.

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I consistently stand in front of customers wanting the same thing from their performance monitoring tool sets.  “We want to be more proactive,” they proclaim in desperation.  “We need to have a tool that will automatically alert us to a problem” they demand.  “We want to address a problem before it becomes a problem.”  This is a constant challenge for Operations.  Think about it.  How many times have you said, “I will change the oil in my car when the motor locks up and smoke is pouring out of the dash.” Yet this is how companies treat revenue-generating applications that they depend on every day.  Pushing features and functionality through the application delivery chain often results in performance problems that are missed, bringing down applications in production.

In this blog I share the struggle I’ve seen with companies that buy a performance management product in the belief it will make them more proactive. In fact it requires much more than tools to make the transition from reactive to proactive.

The Status-Quo: Faster in being Reactive – but not yet Proactive

Companies that I deal with have to solve the same problems and questions as described in the intro when it comes to performance management.  Let’s have a look at the typical process when pushing a new release into production. Each team has a different way to react to problems as fast as possible in case anything goes wrong:

  • The Operations Team may use as many as fifteen different tools to watch every aspect of the application.  As soon as something is seen amiss everyone springs into action to try and identify the problem.  Once the issue is isolated the deployment change is backed out.  A feedback loop is started as teams try to determine the root cause.
  • The Development Team gets data from Ops but soon demands more as standard log output is not deep enough and they are typically not allowed to get direct access to these machines for debugging. Additonal tracing code is hastily written into the application to get more information out to logs.  These logs are combed over to try and understand where the problem is really coming from.  Once the root cause is isolated new code is written to address it.
  • In haste the Testing Team attempts to use load generators to check and see if the problem is really solved.  That only works if the problem is able to be recreated in a controlled environment.  When a level of confidence is reached, the application is deployed and the cycle begins anew.

This process at its core is the definition of being reactive in practice. It is clear that – even with the best tools and additional resources one can only get faster in being reactive but this won’t help proactively preventing problems.

What does proactive mean to Ops, Test, Dev?

Proactive means different things depending on which team is asked:

  • Operations teams feel that getting proactive means having better alerts that are “smarter”.  Baselines that quickly adjust for new norms without having to fly blind when new builds are introduced.  The problem with this is that it does not make a team more proactive at all.  It just makes that team quicker at being reactive.
  • Testing teams would like to catch issues earlier but the tools used make it hard to handle the changes coming from the development teams.  They ask for a solution to help them manage things from release to release while adapting to new code coming through with very little setup time.
  • Development teams are trying to be more agile in their process., moving to a more task oriented process with more automation in the testing and building of these applications.  Visibility into the performance of each build is not a main priority.

Lack of communication and collaboration prevents being proactive

To address the need to be more proactive we have to address the way IT organizations look at managing performance of applications.  Current processes make this hard for one main reason:  The lack of communication and collaboration during the lifecycle make identifying and addressing issues very hard.

Each team has very different drivers and goals that only compound this challenge.  Let’s think about the scenario above.  The tool sets used by each one of these teams are usually by a different vendor.   These tools provide different types of information that are poorly shared with the other teams:

  • Operation Teams have an arsenal of tools ranging from infrastructure level tools to home grown solutions in an effort to tease out the most obscure data. All are used in the hopes that performance problems can be identified.
  • Testing teams have another set that allows for some level of performance but it is typically for response time analysis of an application under load.  With more web 2.0 technology these tools are having a harder time delivering information around edge complexities like 3rd party APIs and toolkits.
  • Development Teams, while understanding performance, is primarily testing for functionality and data integrity.  The tools used are more to automate the build process and for functional testing and recursion.  Unit tests are written to derive that the right response was returned versus how long it took for that response to return.

Each tool provides performance but none of them allow for that data to be shared between teams which leads to problems when communicating and collaborating on performance topics across the lifecycle.

Becoming Proactive requires Process Changes

The Definition of Proactive: creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.

Having smarter alerts just make a team better at not being proactive according to this definition.  The only way to become proactive is to address the problem at its source: the Application Delivery Chain. To truly become proactive with your applications you must be in control of them.  Teams must come together to cause the application to do what they expect.  A change in the process is imperative to make a transition from reactive teams to a proactive ecosystem.  The phases of the application cannot be treated as independent isolated steps at moving code from concept to a working product that is generating revenue.  It must be looked at as part of a whole.  Each team dependent on another working together to bring a system from design to production ready in a timely manner.  Take the previously discussed scenario.  Had the teams process been utilizing a unified platform for performance, the outcome would look very different.

So how does an organization begin to address the delivery chain and start to become proactive?  IT must put performance as a key metric for delivering quality products for doing business.  In order to address this, an IT organization must have a process and platform implemented that facilitates some key features.  Those being communication, providing rich understanding of performance details and a single source of truth.  This will deliver actionable data to the appropriate teams and empower decisions to be made with that data.  Using a single platform gives performance data across all the teams involved while moving applications from the drawing board to the end user.  Operations now feeds data back to the development teams for rapid feedback.  Once Development addresses performance issues thorough testing can occur.  Testing teams can now use real test cases extracted from user transactions to test against the performance fixes.  QA now becomes empowered to give the final approval for any release going into production.  Now, instead of looking for the smallest hiccup, operations expects normal performance.  There comes a level of repeatability and expectation.

Proactive comes when the decision is made to attack the problems at the root before they are in the wild causing consternation for your teams and your customers. This sounds hard to do and in fact it can be if everyone is not bought into what the overall vision and goal is.  Each team needs to understand that they are not an independent group.  They are now a part of the overall ecosystem and if one part fails the whole ecosystem fails.  Over the next few months we will explore what this process and platform should look like at each phase and ultimately look at the need for a Center of Excellence around performance and a template that can be used to start replicating this process in an IT organization.

Additional Read: We also have a White Paper on Why you Need an APM Platform to Unify the Entire Application Performance Lifecycle