Curing Reactivity

You know what gets people interested? A good hero story. You share about a crisis at work, how dire the situation was, and how you found the right thing to do or saved the day just at the right moment. In working with leaders, I’ve realized that too often, these types of stories, no matter how fun they are or how much the actual fix helped the company, hide a deeper problem: reactivity.

Story Time

Here are some examples of real cases I’ve heard from startups in the past couple of months to paint a picture of the issue (it’s actually a mixture of several since this really is common). First, there was the executive who complained about an underperforming team lead. He told me about the efforts he had to put in to fix problems this poor performance introduced. My question: You complained about this TL months ago; what have you done since?

Next, there’s the cofounder who lamented the startup’s poor performance. He described the strategy they formed that wasn’t working out and all the efforts they were making to try and improve things, essentially flailing around and shooting in all directions. My question: If you realized this months ago, why haven’t you all sat down to rethink your strategy?

Lastly, there’s the VP who casually mentioned quality issues that made them decide to divert efforts for a good chunk of the year just to fix them. Yeah, it sounded like they have reached a point where the business depended on a certain overhaul. However, my question: Where were you, your QA people, and your senior leaders in the months that led you to this predicament?

In all of these stories, we see the returning motive of executives who did the right thing—but reactively. Only once shit has hit the fan did they act. While it’s better than doing nothing, the best teams—those I work with to triple impact-per-engineer—are proactive.

The Right Mindset

To unlock the improvement we’re after, you should always have a post-mortem-like attitude when facing an urgent issue. Once you’ve addressed the here-and-now, don’t forget to think about how you got here and whether it was possible to do things differently.

Leaders are supposed to… lead. That comprises taking the initiative, trying to remain a step ahead of the problems, and choosing your path forward with intent. You’re not a stick adrift on the stream of startup shenanigans. You’ve got a motor and the agency to choose your route.

Turning It Around

To make the “flip” from reactivity to being in charge and proactive, regularly review crises you’ve gotten into and consider what could’ve been done differently earlier. Here are some questions I’ve found helpful when reviewing issues with clients:

  • Who was supposed to speak up about this two months ago and not just now?
  • Was someone aware of this but failed to let others know?
  • Was this known but not taken seriously?
  • What similar situations are now at play as well that have yet to reach this magnitude?
  • Assuming you knew about the problem earlier, did you intentionally decide not to do anything earlier? If so, which of your considerations ended up being mistaken? If not, why are you leaving “open loops” and making the (invisible) decision not to decide?
  • Why was this addressed earlier without any real action items, due dates, or assigned responsibility? (In cases where you realize someone “dropped the ball.”)

If you have any other good questions for these leadership post-mortem, let me know!