Reaction, Response, or Initiation

Last week I wrote about distinguishing between decision and choice.  It was while working in a fast-paced, aggressive work environment that I had an experience fully illustrating how recognizing and exercising choice could immensely benefit actions and outcomes.

In the summer of 2007, I had been instrumental in helping the global design firm I worked for, win a prestigious contract for a sport and entertainment (and philanthropic) organization in Hong Kong. This client was looking to revitalize their sport and their product offerings, and rejuvenate their entire customer base; I was to be the brain and talent behind completing a process of engagement and customer discovery that would eventually translate into a design vision for a new master plan. The experts in sports-and-entertainment within my firm were located in our Los Angeles office, so I was working closely with them on this project. This collaboration ended up being one of the most delightful experiences of my entire 8-year career with the firm, as the leaders of the L.A. studio were young, dynamic, visionary, talented, hyper-collaborative in the truest sense, and were delightfully lacking in the political maneuvering, big-firm inertia and status-quo clinging of most of the middle management I encountered in our Seattle office.  From winning the project in May, through November that year, I ended up traveling to Hong Kong five times, and to Los Angeles countless times. I especially had the fortune and honor of working closely with two exceptional minds –Jonathan and Robert – and since Robert was the project manager for this particular project, we spent enough time together to also become good friends and partners in crime.

Now, although the client’s original vision read as an extraordinary endeavor when we started out winning the project, we soon began to encounter some very tough hurdles that were also the obvious reasons for their not having achieved their vision so far. The closer we got to understanding them, the more we saw that while certain elements in their leadership had set their sights high, those in charge of managing these laudable goals were so unbelievably fear-driven, that all their actions were merely reactionary to the daily tide of events within the organization. This particular phenomenon is in some degree, common to any large organization anywhere in the world. The driving events in this case, however, were in turn driven by power, prestige and politics laced with a particular brand of Hong Kong culture mixed with remnant colonial flavors within the organization, which we probably should have fully expected, but the mysterious workings of which we failed to get our brains fully wrapped around.

On top of all this, we had a project manager on the client-side – a very particular Mr. Chen from the ubiquitous lot – who turned out to be the biggest control freak I have encountered in my lifetime. He also fashioned himself as a designer in disguise, presenting himself as a know-it-all about all aspects of the design (including every concern related to customers, product offerings or the business workings in general) in a way that we – supposedly the talented team of strategic design thinkers – were essentially rendered useless. In fact, quickly, it began to appear that Mr. Chen had just wanted (expensive) hired help who would draw per his bidding and scheming, rather than leverage our brains and talents to collaborate with him and his team in any significant, strategic, or meaningful way. He had us chasing our tails like mad little slave animals, demanding that we show up in Hong Kong and practically live under his nose (he would arrive unannounced at our hotel lobby and ring our rooms); during the intervals that we were back home in North America, he wanted to hear from us several times a day. He kept constant tabs; he called incessantly on our mobile phones including at any and all odd hours of the night, and generated a nonstop stream of mindless tasks that had nothing whatsoever to do with critical workflow. He expected impressive quantities of faxes and emails, adding up to a paper trail that had us working fulltime just to generate, successfully clogging up the virtual world’s channels with nothing but gibberish. Eventually, he also began to threaten that he would show up at our US offices at short notice, and this usually succeeded in sending us into fresh, frenetic rounds of frantically paced busywork just to please the insatiable Mr. Chen, and prevent him from setting foot anywhere near the west coast of America.

Soon, Robert and my fulltime jobs entailed keeping Mr. Chen temporarily fed and at bay, so that other team members were free to actually do the work. Quickly, however, we found that like a virulent virus, Mr. Chen had eaten through our valiant efforts to build a fort; his demands and machinations required yet another living brain and yet another living brain and yet another … to be sacrificed to the guillotine of “client satisfaction.” Pretty soon, not one person on the team was left to do any meaningful or creative work, which would attend to the heroic and monumental task of revitalizing a dying sport! No, we had all become Mr. Chen’s obedient house-servants and drycleaners.

One day Robert and I had had enough. We knew that this situation was untenable; we were exhausted and depleted, directionless and uncreative as a team. Talking it over, we wondered what would happen if we simply slowed things down, and allowed large lapses between Mr. Chen’s various requests and demands that came through each day, and our responses to them. Better still, we wondered what would happen if we simply didn’t respond at all to half of these requests. Much of this conversation on the phone was occurring through a delirious mass of giggles late in the evening, a side-effect of our exhausted state, but we were quite serious about this strategy. From the next day we put this into practice, and began ignoring Mr. Chen’s stream of messages, while directing the team to do our work based on our own assessment and initiative about what needs to be done next. An amazing thing happened – Mr. Chen began outdating himself daily! If he sent an assignment out on Monday based on some internal organizational directive, by Tuesday, he would change his mind saying “Don’t bother doing that, but do this instead,” based usually on whatever direction the wind had blown that morning within the organization. Then if we said a simple OK and maintained our gall to ignore that one for a bit longer, we might receive updated instructions by Thursday. By this time, we’d have bought ourselves 3-4 days of clear time to work, and on late Thursday, we might make some time to respond as thoughtfully as possible to the latest version of the “request.” In this manner, Robert and I claimed back our sanity, our initiative, and our team’s creative direction.

Through this experience, it became evident that when faced with difficult and noisy external circumstances – technically known as firefighting – most of us become consumed, and begin to autopilot under the illusion that we have limited or no choice. Most people react to these stressful situations, a handful respond, while very, very few of us actually initiate meaningful action. (This particular framework of thinking about choice crystallized for me much later, while reading a section in Seth Godin’s wonderful book Tribes.) I realized that when one is correctly exercising choice, one is usually initiating action rather than reacting or responding to external circumstances.

Following this insight, to help me always remain conscious and focus more energy on initiative action rather than default to reactive or responsive action, I developed the simple but hard-to-execute (due to ingrained habits) 48-Hour Emergency Rule.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    Great post as usual. And good description of Mr.Chen’s habits. You know, this is something I am learning to do. I was taught early on in my first job that it is OK to ignore the phone. It is OK not to respond to email immediately, and so on. The fact that I was taught this in a job setting with a firm very conscientious about client satisfaction has made me respect it even more. Urgent vs. important. As a result, after my son was born, hardly any one could reach me on the phone, till I was emotionally ready to respond to the messages. This drove my parents who were visiting a little mad.

  2. Sophie

    I can relate to this post to a large extent – having worked as a consultant providing qualitative (HR) related output its a challenge when the client gets into the micro-management mode and forgets why he needed to hire external expertise in the first place.

    The struggle to be the initiator/active ingredient rather than be the reactive agent in a situation is truly a choice – a sign of empowering onself. A sign of self-esteem, and a symbol of being truly wise.

    I also read your earlier post on the 48 hr emergency rule. Both are truly insightful – applicable to a variety of professions. I think Khushi is right. A book is in the making!

  3. Tana

    Thank you Khushi and Sophie! It is great to have your feedback from your own professional experiences. I’ve taken all of your encouragement very seriously to write a book of experiences – it’s working title is Thrive: stories along a journey from survive to thrive. Thank you so much for everything!

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