From Reactive to Proactive Management

Getting out of "Firefighting" Mode

Firefighter approaching fire

A "firefighting" management situation can be stressful and inefficient.

© iStockphoto/DigitalStorm

Imagine that you're managing two important projects.

Project A should be nearly complete, but it's nowhere near done. So, you pull people off Project B to help.

This project then falls behind, and people make mistakes because they're stretched. When your customer complains, you reallocate team members to address his concerns.

A backlog of problems then builds up as your people get to grips with their new tasks. You're forced to put long-term planning aside, so that you can respond to these new problems.

This type of management is called "reactive management," or "firefighting." It's hectic, stressful, and inefficient – but it can sometimes become routine.

In this article, we'll look at reactive management in more detail, and we'll see why it happens. We'll then outline how you can move to a more proactive management style.

What is Reactive Management?

Reactive management refers to a situation in which you can't – or don't – plan ahead for problems or opportunities. Instead, you react to them as they happen.

As a result, you're always a step behind. You don't have time to look ahead to pre-empt problems, so they seem to happen "out of the blue."

In contrast, proactive management happens when you plan ahead to avoid or manage problems.

Why Reactive Management Happens

You might be in a reactive state for several reasons. For example:

  • A crisis may have forced you to change or abandon your plans. You need to make short-term decisions to cope with a fast-developing situation.
  • Your organization may have poorly planned processes or policies. You need to spend your time fixing these or working around them, instead of planning for the future.
  • You may find a reactive management style exciting. People can enjoy the "buzz" that goes along with it.

The Problem With Reactive Management

Firefighting is sometimes essential during a rush, or as part of a short period of change. However, it can have serious implications when it becomes the norm.

First, reactive teams are likely to deliver lower quality work. You may be able to fight fires successfully most of the time, but you will sometimes fail – in a way that you wouldn't if you were more proactive.

It's also likely that you'll need to shift your team members from one task to another, or ask them to deal with constantly changing information. This is inefficient, it can leave them frustrated, and they may start to look for more satisfying opportunities outside your team.

Your individual performance will fall, too. It's hard to find the root causes of problems when you have to focus urgently on symptoms. Plus, you're less likely to spot the strategic opportunities that proactive managers exploit, because you don't have the time and mind space to see them.

Reactive management is also stressful. When you deal with one crisis after another, you don't have time to unwind. You may be able to cope with this pressure, but your team members may be less resilient.

Moving to Proactive Management

If you've slipped into reactive management, follow these steps to move to a more proactive style.

1. Take Back Control of Time

Time is an essential weapon against reactive management. When you create more time, you give yourself space to plan, and to anticipate problems.

Use an Urgent/Important Matrix   to determine which tasks and responsibilities are critical. Delegate   or delay any non-critical tasks, and use an Action Program   to help yourself prioritize. You may even want to create a "stop doing"   list, so that you can focus on essential tasks.

Encourage your people to do the same, offer guidance on prioritization  , and explain how they can leverage   their time to get more done.

Tip:

You may find it helpful to schedule a regular block of time as "buffer time" to deal with unexpected situations. This way, you can also schedule regular project time, without leaving yourself over-committed when problems do come up.

2. Look at Processes

Dysfunctional processes can trigger or worsen reactive management situations. So, do a thorough review of all of the processes that affect your team. Also, look at people's working practices, as these may create delays or add complexity.

Map and challenge each process using Flow Charts   or Swim Lane Diagrams  . Then use tools such as Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)   to explore possible process improvements  , and create checklists, aides memoire  , and other documentation to help your people adapt.

Involve your team members in this work. They'll be able to fill you in on task-related difficulties, which will help you anticipate and avoid future problems.

Tip:

Bear in mind that people may have a limited capacity to deal with change when they're busy. Don't make too many changes at the same time.

3. Understand and Manage Risk

Once you've improved the robustness of your processes, you can start to address the problems that you face with more confidence.

Conduct a Risk Analysis  , and use a Risk Impact/Probability Chart   to prioritize the risks that you face. Then, manage each risk   that you've identified, starting with the high-probability, high-impact ones.

4. Focus on Morale

It's likely that members of your team will feel the pressure that comes with reactive management. Acknowledge the situation, and remind people of what you're doing to resolve it.

Then, use the Broaden and Build theory   to bring positive emotions back to the team, and look for small wins. For example, say "thank you" after tasks are completed, acknowledge good work, and provide learning opportunities.

Let team members know that it's OK to ask for help  , and create opportunities for your team to discuss problems, share information, and support one another, via team meetings or informal get-togethers.

Tip:

It can be tempting to hire temporary workers to address work shortages or delays. However, think carefully when you take on more people. It may take time and energy to get them up to speed, which can cause further delays or problems.

It may be more sensible to hire short-term, expert contractors  . They're likely to be more expensive, but they will be able to become productive quickly.

5. Build in Continuous Improvement

Make the most of your people's knowledge and experience by encouraging them to suggest changes.

Create opportunities for your team to explore and implement ideas that could improve processes, working practices, and end results. This approach, known as Kaizen   , is a management technique that focuses on continuous improvement. It's a simple way to engage your team members, and help them focus on solutions.

You may want to schedule a regular time to discuss new ideas  , set objectives that encourage creativity, or simply create a suggestions box.

Key Points

With reactive management, also called "firefighting," managers spend most of their time dealing with problems instead of focusing on long-term planning.

Reactive management is stressful and inefficient. It can lead to high staff turnover in your team, and, in time, will lead to serious under-performance.

To move from a reactive approach to a more proactive one:

  • Take back control of time.
  • Look at processes.
  • Understand and manage risk.
  • Focus on morale.
  • Build in continuous improvement.

Keep in mind that reactive management is necessary at times. However, it can be destructive when it becomes the norm in a team or organization.

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