We need to always think about the future. Everything we do today affects us, our team, and the company in the future.
We know that being proactive is better than being reactive. Anticipating the future and taking actions to deal with future events is the right approach. Reacting to events can make us appear slow. Being proactive and not reactive has been excellent advice for many years.
But being proactivity is no longer enough.
Portions of this article are excerpts from my book, The I.T. Leaders’ Handbook, available in paperback and ebook from fine bookstores everywhere.
Being proactive means anticipating the future and taking actions appropriate for that future.
However, there are two major shifts in the world that make proactivity much harder: (1) everything is changing faster, and (2) people expect things to change faster.
These two shifts make it harder to predict the future. How many times have we criticized past decisions of ourselves or someone else? Frequently, past decisions are wrong because they anticipated a future that didn’t happen.
We should try to be proactive where we can, but know that the world is changing and forcing our organizations to react more of the time. We can’t completely rely on being proactive.
We must get better at reacting.
I propose that Speed and Flexibility are the two critical attributes of our organization that support this.
The speed of our organization matters. Customers always want things faster. Fast online shipping, mass customization, and other business innovations have raised Customer expectations.
Thirty years ago, when I worked at a large company, a new CEO came in and was making the small group rounds. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “If we are faster than our competition; we don’t need to be smarter.” If our companies can try-fail-try-succeed faster than the competition can do a single try, we have a better chance of winning in the marketplace.
Speed is an accelerant for the sparks of brilliance. The faster our department, the better we can take advantage of the sparks of brilliance our teams produce.
The speed of the IT department is fundamental to the speed of the organization. Since many business changes require IT work to implement, a faster IT department will help the company change faster.
We have to get faster.
Speed is critical to our department, but it isn’t the only piece. The other side of the coin is flexibility, and I cover that next.
Another attribute to maximize in the IT department is flexibility. Closely related to speed, flexibility shows a willingness and ability to change. It is a fine line we have to walk. Standardization, protocols, processes, all make our department better able to meet the company’s needs. But those same things can make our department less flexible.
How do we make our department more flexible?
Create a culture of continuous improvement. A deep willingness and ability to change removes friction when implementing change. We need to reward this behavior when we see it.
Avoid decisions that remove future options. Or be thoughtful about what options we remove. For example, if a new product has two different ways to interface and we won’t be interfacing until a year after implementation, keep both interfaces available. Don’t decide on one until the interface project starts and we have a better idea about the requirements.
Avoid long-term contracts. Vendors offer discounts to lock us in and prevent us from changing. The flexibility this adds can be hard to quantify compared to the very real discount. But it is just as real.
Move to a quarterly rolling planning cycle with fifteen month look-ahead for budget and projects. The future is like driving on a long country road. Your headlights don’t show the road very far and you are constantly updating as the headlights reveal new road.
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!Robert Burns, To A Mouse, 1785
Mr. Burns didn’t work in IT, but he speaks our truth. We need to be proactive, to plan for the future as best we can. But planning isn’t enough. We will never predict the future correctly enough to avoid needing to react quickly and correctly.
It is worth putting in the effort to improve our ability to react.