Preventivism and Reactivism

A — “I don’t think we need to worry about abstracting this code as a parent class now. I realise it’s important to have maintainable code but not when we are a 2-member dev team. We can move faster.”

B — “Well, when do you decide its time to start writing maintainable code? If it can’t start now when we are just 2 of us, how do you expect to do it with a 10 member team? Yes, we might end up spending an extra 5–10% for all this; but I think it’s worth it.”

Awkward silence.

A and B — “Okay. Let’s hit a mid ground.” And everyone in the room bursts out to a laughter. A and B are the engineering spearheads in our team, perhaps two of the best at video tech in the country. Interestingly they’ve both worked in startups and MNCs but deep inside there is one who wants to be cautious and the other who wants to be carefree (doesn’t necessarily mean careless) and move fast. Fortunately for me and the company, this mix of preventivism andreactivism has helped us build a video creator app that’s top-class and at the same time deploys fast with a lean iteration process. We build awesome — learn deep — iterate quick.

To define in my own terms — preventivism prompts the person to take a back step, be at defence and act in a way to prevent any mishaps at every forward step; A person who evangelises reactivism tends to take the next step towards the general goal faster and is ready to acknowledge the unpreparedness and vulnerability it causes. At a high level, the preventive person wants to take more time to prepare better for a sustainable long run where as the reactive person values time more and is ready to experience the setbacks caused by the hasty actions.

You can see people who tend to be preventive or reactive in nature all the time. You’d have seen that chess player who goes full retard with the queen putting pressure on the opponent and the cautious player who waits for the opposition to make a wrong move to react fast and build the game. In football, there is the team that goes all attack and create chances and then there is the team that wait for the opposition to attack and counter-attack when the rival’s defence gets vulnerable — interestingly both these footballing styles have proven to be great that the managers usually tend to adopt preventivism (defence first) or reactivism (attack first) as the core style based on the team composition. Same is the case with most team games out there.

Is Reactivism better than Preventivism?

In sports and games, I used to think reactivism has a strategic advantage over preventivism because of the sheer energy and surprise initiated by the person or team in an offensive stance. This was proven wrong multiple times — when Floyd Mayweather won over Manny Pacquiao (both Southpaw) in what was considered the match of the century even when the latter threw 68 more power punches than the former. Same is the case when Chelsea F.C. played out their defensive strength, ‘parked the bus’ and won the English Premier League season 2014–15.

Both the principles — reactivism and preventivism — eventually impact the output of a decision, which is taken faster in the first scenario and drawn to with better rationale in case of a second scenario respectively. They have their respective pros and cons in different domains. What’s ideal, according to me, is the capability to maintain a good mix of reactivism and preventivism that works best for the context and be flexible enough to alter it as per your needs.

What works best in a Startup?

You would not be alien to ‘Bias to Action’, ‘Fail fast’, ‘You are not doing right if you are not failing’ etc in the startup world. The answer is obvious — you have to be able to take quick calls, move fast and be reactive in nature in the startup world. In fact the advantage startups should have over big companies is the pace of execution (at the cost of unexpected course corrections) and not having to deal with decision fatigues and hierarchical delays. If you are not fast and reactive in a startup, you are probably not doing it right.

But, having said that, it’s important to take a step back and zoom out in the same context. That’s when you start asking tough questions to yourself — ‘What after this market segment?’, ‘Do we have enough validation to go after this niche?’, ‘Can this code scale upto 1000 customers’ etc. Your tendency to prevent any mishap plays the Devil’s Advocate here. Many successful startups are fortunate to have good mentors who were able to put on the preventivism cap for them.

Hiring your team

From my experience interviewing and getting interviewed on product management and engineering roles, it’s important to look for preventivism attributes in a young candidate (0–10 years). While it’s easy for a young interviewee to show his/her inclinations to have good bias to action and exhibit a considerable amount of affinity to the ‘Fail fast’ philosophy, it’s tough to mimic the ability to zoom out and critically analyse the bigger picture and showpreventivism attitude that’s critical in case of a very important hire.

As we age, we tend to become inclined towards being defensive and preventive in nature and not leave an opportunity to quote Chanakya: “Learn from the mistakes of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourselves!”. That’s a good indication that the person has started moving towards preventivism and you ought to measure how much of reactivism the person still holds onto. Also, build your team to have the right mix of both types so that you don’t go full retard and at the same maintain good energy and pace.

More on such psycho-behavioural analysis coming soon! Feel free to share your perspective on this. I’d love to learn more from your thoughts and enable myself and others to do better on work and otherwise. Cheers! :-)


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