I once spent an hour at a facilitated "C-level" meeting where we discussed what we could learn about leadership by considering the "Dancing Man at Sasquatch Music Festival" video. Yes, the meeting was compulsory. Excerpts from my meeting notes: "Note the importance of the moment when the SECOND crazy dancer joins the first!" "How does one man eventually become a crowd?" "What is the tipping point?" "What are YOUR day-to-day 'crazy dancer' moments?" "Let's all go be crazy dancers!"
This type of meeting, along with any event in which adults need to play musical chairs or "self-organize" into groups using color-coded name tags, is what keeps Scott Adams in business with Dilbert. If there's an important lesson to be learned from the crazy dancing guy, it's probably: "if you want your average executive to be courageously proactive, you will need to get him drunk and send him to Saskatchewan."
And yet, bucking this pragmatic wisdom, I, for one, prefer to work with proactive people. Not glum naysayers, not snide peanut-gallery-mutterers, and especially not "assertive people" who position themselves for a promotion with no regard for their overall contribution to the business. And also not people who go through the motions but block forward progress.
How much time do we waste every day in email conversations, meetings, and memo wars, in which there is never a problem identified, a solution proposed, or a plan agreed to? How many times do we "follow the process" but never create anything in particular? What did we deliver? What value did it bring? What did it cost to build, and what will it cost to maintain? It's a sad, cynical world we live in.
What's the alternative?
- Always have a plan. You should make one up, or someone should give you one, but you need to have one. Why are you going to do something? What is it that you should do? Will the plan work? The thing you plan to do, supported by reasoning and tested by agreed-upon criteria, is your first plan. Your plan is likely to grow from a vision to something bigger, and it is likely to "pivot," as the Lean Startup people say, but you need a plan. If you don't have one, you are already lost, and you are certainly not in a position to be proactive.
- Supply your own energy. Are you an emotional black hole? If so, it's highly unlikely that you will be a proactively contributing member of any team. I don't care how brilliant you are--if you have to be propped up by your peers all the time, you're almost as bad as a bully. Add energy to the gatherings you attend. Do not subtract.
- Have skin with variable thickness. Sometimes it is appropriate to be sensitive to every nuance of every breath taken by everyone on your team, all day long. That's how you notice trouble, and that's what puts you in a position to head off problems while they're still getting organized. But sometimes it is appropriate to let a peer or a stakeholder attack you directly or in a back-ally, back-stabbing kind of way, and just shrug it off. Know the difference, keep your balance, and remain graceful.
- Take breaks. Medieval medicine, while relying in a regrettable way on leeches, also considered recreation, in the form of sports or the arts, as necessary to human achievement. The proverb was "the bow that is always strung does not shoot straight," or something like that. If you don't relax sometimes, you will gradually wear yourself down to nothing and someone will put a leech on you. Okay, no, that won't really happen.
My daughter worked on the kitchen staff of an immersion French camp in Minnesota this summer, and part of the staff indoctrination was to learn this cheer: "qu'est-ce qu'il faut? DE L'ENTHOUSIASME! et de quoi encore? UN PLAN! et si on n'a pas de plan? PLUS DE L'ENTHOUSIASME! mais on devrait vraiment avoir un plan..."
If you aren't fluent in French, or have an actual fear of French as I do, she has provided this translation:
What do we need? Enthusiasm! What else? A Plan! What if we don't have a plan? More Enthusiasm! ... But We REALLY SHOULD HAVE A PLAN.
That really sums it up for me. Be enthusiastic, have a plan, and take yourself and your team forward.
A plan with no heart is a waste of your time, and enthusiasm alone, while it makes for an inspiring music festival YouTube video, is just silly. As we say in science, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.