Friday, 30 November 2018

Reactive vs Proactive

What feels like years ago I asked a friend an important question: "How do I be less reactive and find the time to think and plan?"

Why is this important? Reactive work treats symptoms, not underlying causes. The problems and work is never really done, never really goes away so the job remains static. Well; static plus all the extra stuff people find for you to do all the time. If this happens for long enough, eventually someone more senior may notice you're overloaded and hire another person to take some of the load. Unfortunately this approach relies on another person noticing and taking action - and this is a person who has hired you to make their life easier, not to give them more work. It might happen, but I suggest your mileage may vary. Personally I'm not inclined to passively wait for someone else to save the day - I need to be doing something to make the world change, which brings us back to the opening question.

So - how? Local context changes, but I believe the basic theory is more or less consistent - eliminate the bits that don't need doing and delegate the rest. Keep only the work that you need (or want) as key parts of your role.

Elimination is pretty obvious. Do I really need to maintain that data? How about attending that working group? Do I have to be part of that initiative (also a delegation option)? If you, like me, have been in a place for a while you'll likely have also accumulated a load of legacy responsibilities which are linked to a previous role, but no longer relevant. Purge them all - ruthlessly. A rolling stone gathers no moss, etc etc.

A good trick I've discovered for this is to talk through my calendar with someone else. If I can't justify the time I'm spending on things, it needs to go. Inevitably, this will be the fun stuff. Depending on the depths of my own self-loathing at the time, I usually give myself a few hours a week to indulge in some enjoyable but slightly lower priority activities - the rest must be sacrificed in the pursuit of a clear diary. The rewards are the ability to spend time thinking.

Next up is delegation. In the Olden Days, delegation meant handing work to someone you trust. This has a whole world of its own problems. We'll come back to it as in the New Days there is a better choice available to us in tech - write an app, script or some other bit of magic to make the computer do all the work for us. Not only does the problem go away, but it makes us look like wizards.

More seriously, to properly solve a problem with code you need to thoroughly understand it. In my experience that means refining underlying processes which ends up solving a much wider range of problems than was originally intended. For example, in an effort to answer some basic questions and stop maintaining some data, I got involved in how the master copy of that data is maintained by another team. Working with them has helped drive change in that area and cross-team understanding of their processes and challenges.

Once the computer is doing all it can, you're left with delegating to people. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, this is enabled through community and leadership. Build a good team of empowered people, give people clear goals and a clear space in which to do them, then trust them to deliver. This last is difficult. I need to write about trust at some point, but for the moment an important reminder - trust needs to go both ways. If you trust someone, they need to trust you - to give them space to learn, to know they have your support, to fail, whatever. If you want people around you to be reliable and give their best you need to behave in a worthy way.

I'm on a journey towards being properly proactive - a winding journey which seems to loop back on itself with annoying regularity. I'm never going to get there fully - I'll always have short-term things to deliver for other people, business cases to write, and other exciting bits of admin to do, but I am certainly getting better at forcing the dial further in the direction I want.

But at what cost?

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know my primary motivation for doing more management style work is to make life better for other people. Better is, of course, a subjective thing but there is a strong emotional component to it and being valued as an individual is part of it. But work to help the individual is often more reactive and, in the long term, provides less value. That said, it doesn't stop me feeling awful about some prioritisation decisions I have to make. I may have put in place some very valuable governance which will make transparent the foundations for certain decisions, but if it's been done at the expense of a pay case for someone who is not being paid properly I've failed the individual. I can put off the proactive strategic work, of course, but then it never gets done - there is always another piece of essential reactive work.

Keeping the balance is really hard and sometimes involved making tough and unpleasant decisions. It's too tempting to slip back into only reacting to immediate needs and never think through or develop the future. It's also very possible to just abandon the needs of others in the pursuit of building a "better" organisation. I have no great insight here - I'm just writing about the place I find myself in at the moment and how I feel about it. I do know that I can't spend my whole life treating symptoms. I also know that if I just ignore many of those symptoms, I turn my back on the very reason I do this work. However there is only so much of me I can give to work before I run out of me - and I have a habit of stretching the me available to make it all fit in. I'm going to keep looking for a better solution.