Mike Knapp | From Reactive to Proactive in 5 Easy Steps!

From Reactive to Proactive in 5 Easy Steps!

From Reactive to Proactive in 5 Easy Steps!

Posted by Mike Knapp in IT Management 03 Dec 2009

The IT department is in chaos. There’s so much to do that it doesn’t seem like anyone is getting anything done, much less staying ahead. Balls are being dropped and nobody is showing leadership to the company.

Welcome to the sad state of many IT departments around the world. All of your time is spent thrashing on day-to-day tasks, rarely even with the opportunity to look up, much less look ahead.

Transitioning from firefighting mode to proactive support and planning is a big jump for any IT department.  In a perfect world, you could make this jump in one big leap – change everything now and start working in an all new way – but that’s not realistic. Changing from reactive to proactive, and no plan to short and long term planning is a major cultural change for both IT and the departments it services.  It takes time.

Thankfully improvement like this is a process, not a destination.  That means we can take it in steps. 

Step 1: Get Organized

The first step is always to find out what’s taking up your time.  When you spend your life in firefighting mode, there’s never an opportunity to take a break, calm your mind, and see exactly what’s happening around you.

This is one of the reasons why using an outside consultant is really useful when an IT department isn’t performing well.  An outsider can come in with perspective and without many of the biases found inside the company.

Without some organization, creating any sort of improvement plan is difficult.  But where do you start?  Task Management.

Start tracking what you’re doing on a daily basis.  Using something as simple as the Tasks section of Microsoft Outlook is a good start.  Include categories for the type of work (ie. Server Support,  Desktop Support, Project X, Network Support, Server Updates, MS Office Support, Email Support …) and if at all possible, track the time spent on each task.  Keep notes in each task as to what was done for later review.

When mid and long term ideas / tasks come up, create tasks for them.  We’ll come back to these in Set Priorities.

At the beginning of each day, review the work from yesterday, then look forward to the work you will complete today.  Often days are unpredictable in IT, so it is important to be flexible.

Step 2: Create a Short Term Plan

Changing from firefighting mode to planning mode requires planning?  Maybe that seems like a chicken-and-egg situation, but it’s not.

Some simple planning will help you better understand where you are, where you want to go, and what you need to get there.  Step 1 started the planning process and helps to understand what fires are burning.

If the goal is to stop firefighting, there are a few areas that should be focused on first:

  1. Get more organized (start with a help desk system and use it obsessively!)
  2. Stabilize the environment (focus on the big fires first)
  3. Improve internal processes (Do things the right way the first time)
  4. Communicate clearly (keep stakeholders in the loop and aware of what’s happening)

It also helps to look at the environment and figure out what other projects need doing and what’s coming up the pipe.  While the first step is to look one step ahead of us, we want to build the habit of looking much further away.

Step 3: Set Priorities

There are always too many priorities vying for our attention.  Sometimes that seems to be a characteristic of the universe …

Once we know what’s happening (current fires) and what’s coming down the pipe (future fires), it’s easy to start figuring out what order to do things in.

Note that prioritization can’t be done in isolation.  IT is a key component of the business.  Be sure to discuss priorities with all stakeholders so you understand the big picture and can prioritize appropriately.

Step 4: Get Buy-in

Document your plan.  Figure out what resources you’ll need to complete tasks.  Communicate your plan with your manager/boss and get buy-in.  If your plan is simple and about improving the environment and service level, it should be easy to get management to approve.

Set simple, measurable, attainable goals.  Being able to measure improvements is key to getting ongoing buy-in and knowing that you’re doing the right thing.  It’s a great feeling to see that server uptime is up 12%, average ticket response time has dropped by 15% and customer service surveys show a 25% improvement in satisfaction.

Step 5: Focus on Good Process

Nobody will admit it, but often if they look back at their work, it’s clear that they took shortcuts or path of least resistance or didn’t quite finish the project (who wants to do that documentation at the end anyhow, right?

If the goal is to get out of firefighting mode, then you have to do things right so that systems don’t have as many problems … then there are fewer fires to fight.

When starting a process, consider it a home renovation project and ask yourself, “What would Mike Holmes do?”  Personal note: I had a client troubleshoot his own problem once by asking himself, “What would Mike get me to do” and walking himself through the troubleshooting process. 

Don’t settle for cutting corners anymore.  Focus on good process and the results will come naturally.  It won’t be instant, but it will be measurable.  Do note that there are times when business requirements will force a less than ideal situation.  That’s different than cutting corners.


A disorganized, fire-fighting IT department is a very stressful place to work. It’s seen as cost-center by management which holds the company back.  A well organized, proactive IT department is a platform for the company to grow and build upon where staff are engaged, improving and constantly developing.

Either can exist in any company.  They can even have the same people and systems to work with.  Which do you want to be a part of?

Of course, this is a very simplified view of the problem(s) in reactive IT shops and the steps to stop firefighting.  When the world is in chaos and your head is spinning, a simple view like this is what you need.  Easy to follow steps to get started.

Remember, continuous improvement is a journey.

Post a comment