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To Be Effective Be Responsive, Not Reactive

pitagorsky Aug21In project work it is often necessary to act quickly and decisively as things change and situations arise. These changes and situations might include the loss of a resource without notice, discovery of a serious design flaw or significant new requirements, all in the face of a committed deadline and budget.

Reactive vs. Responsive

The need to act quickly may be taken as an excuse for reactive behavior. Reactive behavior is action taken without sufficient thought or planning. It is one of the key causes of poor individual and project performance.

Effective performance requires responsiveness as opposed to reactivity. How do these differ? Responsiveness implies thoughtful action that considers long and short term outcome in the context of the situation at hand. Reactive behavior is immediate and without conscious thought, like a knee jerk response. Reactive behavior is often driven by the emotions. 

The place for Immediate Action

Clearly, there is a place for immediate action, action that takes place with no more of a second or two of thinking.

You are confronted by a mountain lion out in the woods. There is no time to analytically consider the consequences of your actions. If you are a well trained woods-person you will immediately know what to do and you’ll do it. If you are not accustomed to confronting lions in the bush then you might still react, but perhaps not so skillfully. Your fight or flight reaction will kick in and maybe you’ll freeze or run or start crying. The lion might take your reaction as a threat or an invitation to chase you down and eat you.

The problem with reactive behavior is that it is likely to be the wrong behavior for the situation. Responsive behavior, includes immediate “blink” responses, along with more measured responses based on analysis of the pros and cons of options and their consequences.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, describes blink responses as follows, “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. … those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.” He distinguishes between emotionally fueled intuitive and gut feel reactions, which don’t seem rational, and blink responses or rapid cognition. He says, “I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational.

It’s thinking—it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’”

In Project Situations There is Time To Think

Fortunately, most issues confronted in projects are not life or death situations requiring immediate reaction. There is time to think. Sometimes there is not a lot of time to think, but usually there is not only time for one person to think but there is time for some degree of collective thought and dialogue.

Of course, we don’t want to get caught up in analysis paralysis, attempting to come to consensus on every decision through study, dialogue and debate that might take weeks when we only have minutes, hours or days to decide. We want to find the right balance point; the right degree of analysis and consensus process for the situation.

Emotional vs. Rational Thinking Making

Take for example a situation in which a target date has been set for a major deliverable in a project, like a decision on the architectural design for a product that will drive the rest of the project and significantly influence post project sale and use of the product. As the target is approaching, it is discovered that additional testing of the alternatives is required to satisfy the technical groups who have been asked to compare and score the options based on technical considerations. The testing will take several weeks longer than the time remaining to hit the target. The target has been set by senior executives, who view it as being critical to hit for political reasons.

The project manager is faced with a dilemma. Does she make a decision that is unsound technically and may lead to more delays and changes down the road to hit the immediate target or does she go to the executives and tell them that the target will not be met?

The decision could be made based on emotional or rational thinking. Emotional thinking is thinking driven by emotions like anger, fear, greed or aversion. Sometimes, it can appear to be analytical thinking.

There may be discussion and facts may be looked at, but in the end the decision is made based on reaction to the emotions rather than the objective realities of the situation.

Rational thinking may take emotions and subjective issues into consideration but is not driven by them. An expert project manager is often able to make a highly effective decision by weighing a few critical factors, including his own emotional and subjective responses as well as those of his team, clients and sponsors. Rational thinking is not just analytical and by the numbers. The analysis results and the numbers are inputs to a far more complex process.

In our design decision situation, the emotional decision would probably be driven by fear and would end up telling the technical group that they will have to make their evaluation without having the results of the desired tests – we’ll get to that later, and if worse comes to worse we will have to change our decision. A rational decision would probably be to advise the executives of the situation and inform them that there will be a delay unless they insist upon meeting the target date, informing them that if they do insist the consequences may be very costly in the future.

Clearly the executives could opt for hitting the target date, either based on their emotions or based on a measured assessment of the pros and cons. It’s their decision and they’ll have to live with it (or find a way to blame someone else for the fallout.)

Telling the Difference

Telling the difference between reactivity and responsiveness is a challenge.

It is necessary to clearly know what it feels like to be driven by emotions and what it feels like to be in the driver’s seat, managing emotions and applying rational thinking. To know what these conditions feel like requires emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, in turn, requires the level of mindfulness that allows the individual to step back from his or her emotions and the feelings they bring up, viewing them objectively and not getting caught in reactivity.

Knowing the difference there is choice and responsiveness. Not knowing the difference there is reactivity.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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