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The Surprising Difference Between Proactive and Reactive Change

"When COVID hit we were navigating change in a reactive way. Now it's time for us to be pro-active again." My client recently told the design team for a retreat we were co-creating.

This sentiment, shifting from reactive to pro-active change struck quite a nerve with her team. While they had excelled at adapting to the disruption we call COVID, they all saw themselves as being of greater service when they ushered in proactive change. The idea of consciously shifting back into their area of strength enlivened them.

As someone who's had the unfortunate distinction of enduring a cancer journey this year, it led me to ponder the distinction between reactive vs. proactive change. Clearly a concerning medical diagnosis requires an appropriate reaction. But what if we tend to make most of our decisions as a result of this type of cause and effect?

I've observed for myself that it's easy to habituate navigating change reactively. While COVID certainly caused most of my plans to go out the window in 2020, I realized I tended to shift gears in my business because of some force placed upon me.

For example, when I started the E+ awards in 2013 it was in reaction to people continually asking me for book recommendations. After I came up with the idea, I rationalized what I was doing as strategic. But it wasn't. It was a, frequently but not always fun, distraction that kept me from doing the real work of change I needed to do for my business to grow (and for me to reach my goals).

I can think of countless other examples of programs, initiatives, and campaigns I've launched reactively all in a vain attempt to make up for some "deficiency" I felt bothered by.

To be fair to myself, a lot of it was blind inspiration. Two of my strengths are ideation and activation. I've been prone to needing to immediately act on my "good" ideas in the past. In those instances I was always trying to make up for lost time as I told myself a story it needed to be done yesterday (one doesn't want to be too late to market).

There's something addictive about reactive change. It goes hand in hand with our obsession for the tyranny of the urgent. These situations get our adrenaline pumping. The energy I feel coursing through my body in such moments is enlivening and I love it. But it's not sustainable.

What's more, without discernment, persistently fostering change reactively is costly. It takes up our limited resources like time, money, energy and attention. It creates messes and problems that need to be cleaned up. And we miss out on other, more aligned opportunities because our capacity is tapped.

Because I've received the gift of not being able to work as much as I normally do this year yet my business is doing phenomenal, I've been able to take a more proactive approach to change at Rosabella Consulting. What I've realized is that it feels like proactive change takes more time and is less satisfying in the moment.

It requires a significant amount of time and effort to usher in change for the sake of meaningful growth. A vision must be set. There's information that needs to be gathered. Reflection that needs to be done. Ideation must occur, then those glimmers of possibility must be evaluated against criteria. Decisions must be made. All before we get to implementation.

Whereas reactive change also releases dopamine in the brain, which triggers the reward centers. No wonder it feels so good to habituate reactive change.

That's different from proactive change. Day-by-day, consistent effort must be taken to move through defining, and planning the change you seek to create before there are any outward signs of visible progress. And that work can feel thankless or even trite. But it's a necessary foundation for leading change for the sake of meaningful growth and innovation.

For the last eight months I've been diligently exploring how to take my business to the next level. I've thought about what it is I really want for Rosabella Consulting. I've re-imagined my work. I've hired coaches for myself. I've reviewed past client work. I've reflected back on my accomplishments to date. And I've created a new recipe, which has been taste tested and it's delicious. I've refined it a bit, purposefully gathered all my ingredients, prepped them and have been letting the new Rosabella special sauce simmer. AND, it's about ready to share!

In fact, all of my loyal readers will receive an email later this week with an opportunity to get a taste of this new special sauce before everyone else.

But alas, I digress!

As I have had the distinct pleasure of working with so many different organizations and teams, I can now spot differences between those who habitually navigate change reactively vs. those who are skilled at proactively creating change. And it all comes down to the sense of urgency with which that change must occur.

Teams that are used to reactive change struggle to set priorities. They're pulled in too many different directions because of a lack of focus. There's a whimsicalness to the way their attention shifts gears akin to a windsock. And a pervasive sense of fear drives them, which sadly has a harmful cascading effect not only on the ideas generated but the relationships required to succeed.

On the other hand, there's a joy and ease in teams that artfully bring about proactive change. It's not that they don't hit roadblocks, those are inevitable. Afterall, there's always a naysayer to change. But they have a clear and shared vision for what they're seeking to create, which they've refined with appropriate input. And they balance prioritizing day-to-day operations with taking steps to execute on their long-term goals. In other words, like a marathon runner, they've paced themselves.

Perhaps you can spot yourself in one of these two camps (I'm not really a fan of binary thinking and recognize that some people might feel like they don't fit in either because change is only something you get at the store when paying with cash). Either way it's important to note that the VAST majority of the time we experience a sense of urgency it is perceived but not real.

When someone has an accident causing them to bleed profusely there's a real urgency to act quickly and make a tourniquet. Whereas interrupting your partner while they're focusing on an important task because you got a brilliant idea for your next vacation is not real urgency. But you're reaction says otherwise.

That all begs the question when you experience a sense of urgency - is this real or perceived? Consciously making that distinction is a powerful step towards shifting out of the habit of reactive change and honing one's skills for proactive change.

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