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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, Part 3

  • March 01 2004, 1:00am EST

Habit 1: Be Proactive

This is the third in a series of columns on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here we describe the first habit, "Be Proactive," and what that means for information professionals.

The word proactive means, "controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than waiting to respond to it after it happens."1 According to Webster's dictionary, the word is actually a relatively new word in the English language, dating to the Great Depression. I don't know its origin, but I wonder if it had to do with the development of a sense of self-reliance in an era of severe unemployment and feelings of helplessness when conditions seemed beyond control. Covey says proactivity means more than taking initiative. It means that our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions, and that we are responsible for our lives.2

Because information resource management and information quality (IQ) management are disciplines that transform how business and systems activities are performed, being proactive is essential. Both of these disciplines require change agents to lead them. One cannot be a change agent without being proactive.

Process improvement is proactive. Data cleansing is reactive. To perform data cleansing, you react to defective data and fix it so that other processes can use it. However, to stop producing defective data requires proactivity.3 You must decide to analyze the root causes of the defective data and decide to take action to improve the processes to prevent future defects. Designing quality into process and application design requires proactivity. Fixing application and data design defects or software bugs is reactive. To truly spend time with knowledge- workers to understand the real requirements in the ways they interact with the applications requires proactivity.

Proactivity does not mean pushiness. Rather it means being value-driven, reading reality and knowing what is needed. Proactivity means anticipating possible problems and taking charge to prevent the problems. Proactivity means taking charge of one's life and rising above the conditions, however oppressive those conditions seem.

Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence

Covey describes the habit of being proactive with what he calls the circle of concern and the circle of influence. The circle of concern represents the degree of focus we spend dealing with our concerns such as our health, family, problems at work and security in the post- 9/11 era. The circle of influence represents the degree of focus we place on doing things to influence some of our concerns. By determining the circle in which we spend the majority of our time and energy, we discover our degree of proactivity. Figure 1 illustrates the focus of the reactive person and that of the proactive person.

Figure 1: Reactive Focus vs. Proactive Focus

The more time and energy people spend brooding or worrying about concerns over which they have no control, or complaining about barriers that they perceive they cannot overcome, the less focus they have to influence those who can make or sponsor change.

Reactive people tend to blame, accuse and focus on the weaknesses of others and things over which they have no control. Proactive people learn what things they can do something about, work on them and increase their value. As they do this, they increase their circle of influence.

Probably the best expression of the habit of proactivity is Reinhold Niebuhr's famous serenity prayer, abbreviated as: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Being proactive is the first habit of effectiveness because without it, we cannot develop habits two through seven. Covey says that we can determine whether or not we are proactive by simply listening to our language. For example, do you say, "If only I had a manager who would let me do this."? Or, do you say, "I can create a plan to show my manager why we must do this."?

I hear people say, "I can't get management support," or "I have no control over my situation." The proactive person will say, "What can I do to get management support?"

Increasing Your Influence

What can proactive people accomplish? Look at what Gandhi did. While powerful people in the legislative chambers criticized him because he wouldn't join their circle- of-concern rhetoric condemning the British Empire for their subjugation of the Indian people, "Gandhi was out in the rice paddies, quietly, slowly, imperceptibly expanding his circle of influence with the field laborers. A ground swell of support, of trust, of confidence followed him. Though he held no office or political position, through compassion, courage, fasting and moral persuasion, he eventually brought England to its knees, breaking political domination of three hundred million people with the power of his greatly expanded circle of influence."4

One of the most effective IQ functions began with a proactive IQ leader. Having found that TIQM (Total Information Quality Management) was a methodology consistent with the quality principles they already had in place, he went directly to his senior executive and told this executive that they must implement information quality management. He was able to communicate the value proposition in a way his leadership understood (Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood). Almost immediately, they had an IQ environment where they were eliminating millions of dollars in waste of information scrap and rework caused by poor quality information.

What can a proactive information professional do? Maybe much more than the reactive person can even visualize. Tune in next month, when we explore Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind.

What do you think? Let me know at


1., Retrieved January 15, 2004, from
2. Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. p. 70.
3. Ibid., p. 71.
4. Ibid., p. 88.

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