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Harvard University Global System
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Proactive Thinking
and Strategic Brainstorming

From Experimental Psychology to Fault-Tolerant Chips,
Life Sciences, Governance and Strategic Decision-Making

The use of the word proactive, sometimes also written pro-active was limited to the domain of experimental psychology in the 1930s [1]. Oxford English Dictionary (OED) [2] credits Paul Whiteley and Gerald Blankfort, citing their 1933 paper discussing proactive inhibition as the "impairment or retardation of learning or of the remembering of what is learned by effects that remain active from conditions prior to the learning". [3] The 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning brought the word to the wider public domain. The author, Austrian existential neuropsychiatrist Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl, used the word proactive to describe a person who took responsibility for his or her life, rather than looking for causes in outside circumstances or other people. Frankl stressed the importance of courage, perseverance, individual responsibility and awareness of the existence of choices, regardless of the situation or context. [4]

Much of this theory was formed in Nazi concentration camps where Frankl lost his wife, mother, father and family, but decided that even under the worst circumstances, people can make and find meaning.

Alain Paul Martin observed that Frankl's original idea was gradually reduced to a binary opposition between the reactive (wrong and bad) and the proactive (right and good) options. Restricting choice solely to the reactive and proactive options can impede the freedom of choice and risk to severely hamper innovation and creativity.

Brainstorming, Strategic Thinking, Policy Formulation and Governance

Borrowing from medicine, Frankl and Sun Tzu, Alain Paul Martin defined Harvard University Global System™ (HUGS) – a decision-making framework to increase awareness of the freedom of choice and stimulate innovation and team creativity. One of HUGS instruments is Harvard® Strategic Brainstorming Grid currently used by decision-makers, policy strategists, engineers and R&D scientists. The horizontal dimension of the tool comprises four interventions:

  1. Laissez-faire
  2. Focus on Relationship (symptomatic intervention in medicine such as a pain killer)
  3. Focus on Substance or Problem Solving (etiologic intervention in medicine such as an antibiotic injection to cure bacteria)
  4. Focus on a Hybrid Intervention integrating both the substantive and the relational choices (oral antibiotics sweetened for children who would resent the etiologic intervention noted in c above).
All Rights Reserved. Strategy Grid. Harvard University Global System
Harvard® Strategic Brainstorming Grid
Harvard University Global SystemTM

For each of the above four interventions, four generic and ethical groups of options can be explored namely:

  1. Wait-and-see options: There are situations where the stay-put stance is strategically justified. Going for the status quo and remaining purposely and consciously inactive or adopting a wait-and-see attitude can be desirable by choice or by necessity. This intervention can, alas, also be adopted through willful or unwitting negligence.
  2. Compliance options: Such options are often retained in interventions unrelated to your mission, i.e. when where the effort can neither contribute to increasing revenue or service (or decreasing costs) nor improving the corporate posture over the foreseeable future. The compliance stance is to do only what is necessary to get by. It can also be a temporary strategy to deal with a sudden crisis, such as nominating an interim caretaker to fill an unexpected vacancy. Martin notes that no-regret decisions in game theory are an example of compliance options. He also stresses that cutting corners or acting in an unethical way is alien to the compliance stance.
  3. Active options: This stance is to play the game, adopt the best practices or do what is normally expected or commonly accepted in your community or sector. Think of the ISO9000 or ISO16000 in quality-assurance circles or the MIL-S in the military. Martin notes that in labor relations, an active stance is what is perceived as fair and reasonable, such as the calls for parity in public-sector negotiations to maintain compensation in line with the private sector.
  4. Proactive options: In Martin's framework, the proactive stance builds on foreknowledge (intelligence) and creativity to anticipate and see the situation (even a conflict or a crisis) as an opportunity, regardless of how threatening or how bad it looks; and to influence the system constructively instead of reacting to it. The objective is to create an unmatched opportunity and a leading competitive advantage, frequently by doing better (not necessarily more) with fewer resources. The proactive stance considers the contribution each stakeholder can make to the issue. Even in situations where the issue is irrelevant, the proactive stance is to find ways to benefit from riding on the issue. Alain Martin calls hitch hiking this process of acting in the shadow of another issue. He reminds us that while the active option is to play the game, the proactive choice is often to change the rules of the game, especially when the rules of engagement are unfair.

After introducing the framework to decision makers in business and governments throughout the 1970s, Alain P. Martin defined the above four options in his first published book in 1983 titled Think Proactive: New Insights into Decision-Making, [5] which sparked further research on the framework. [6] [7] [8] [ 9] [10] [11] [ 12] He also worked with the intelligence community and defense establishments applying the proactive decision-making framework in project management and risk assessment . Alain Martin stresses the importance of exploring all generic choices including the proactive options. However, it is not always prudent to be proactive with all stakeholders in every situation. There are instances where it is best to adopt the current practices, do the minimum to get by, or merely wait and see. A. P. Martin warns decision-makers that trying to be proactive with everyone is the best recipe for a pacemaker!

To respond to government policies, corporations should brainstorm to explore at the very least four clusters of choices: (1) wait & see options, (2) compliance i.e. do the minimum to get by, (3) Active options, i.e. best practices, or (4) proactive options such as hitchhiking on the policy to maximize competitive opportunity. The book Think Proactive demonstrates how four multinational companies (British Petroleum, Nortel, Alcan and a large bank) independently brainstormed all above response options to address the same government legislation, With due diligence, each company picked a different route to address the law without adverse consequences. But, a fifth company, Sun Life, decided to fight the legislation in court (reactive stance) because they thought that the only alternative 'going proactive' was prohibitive in cost. Had Sun Life applied the Proactive Thinking framework, specifically the Strategy Grid of Harvard University Global SystemTM, it could have adopted a wait-and-see approach, like BP, or a compliance strategy, like Nortel, and in the process save the loss of millions of dollars and thousands of customers, that led to a major reorganization in the executive suite.

The four options were also applied in working sessions during the debates on global warming leading to the Kyoto Protocol [13].

In engineering and particularly in IT and telecommunications, fault-tolerant chips in control systems, open-system platforms, RFID and bus architectures can operate under several modes (proactive, active, compliant or wait & see). The proactive option specifically applies to systems that have the artificial intelligence to convert threats into opportunities, i.e. learn from errors and change the rules of the game to adapt to a new environment (Hubble, Proactive GSM applications for mobile communications, proactive fault tolerance and recovery).

Other uses


In 1989, the term proactive was further popularized in the business press in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Though he used the word in Frankl's original sense, the word has come to mean "to act before a situation becomes a source of confrontation or crisis" vs. after the fact. Since the term "proactive" is a recent neologism, it is frequently misunderstood and contrasted to " reactive" or " passive". In this form it tends to have a higher power of connotation. Not surprisingly, it has temporarily gained a considerable popularity in management jargon and marketing language, alongside other buzzwords.

Behavioral medicine

In behavioral medicine, proactive often refers to a treatment approach where a therapist initiates contacts as opposed to reactive where the responsibility for contacts with the therapist is entirely on the client e.g. proactive and reactive quitlines for tobacco or alcohol.

The Proactive Thinking Framework and Proactive Behavior

Martin, together with his partners, [14] introduced the multidimensional framework of Proactive Thinking as a structured approach to complement brainstorming methods in large corporations and government agencies. The approach clearly evolved beyond its psychological roots, increasing the panorama of options available to decision-makers. Unlike Proactivity (Proactive Behavior) which is mostly applied to one class of social systems namely individuals in the workplace, the Proactive Thinking framework applies primarily to issues (threats and opportunities) and complex social systems such as communities and organizations (corporations, government, NGOs, World Bank). Although applicable to individuals, the Proactive-Thinking framework focuses on governance, strategy and policy formulation, project management and government machinery, frequently in large-scale organizational change.


  1. ^ proactive - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam Webster dates the origin of the word to 1933.
  2. ^ proactive - Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary
  3. ^ Whiteley, Paul L.; Blankfort, Gerald (1933), "The Influence of Certain Prior Conditions Upon Learning", Journal of Experimental Psychology (APA) 16: 843-851
  4. ^ Randy M. Page: Fostering Emotional Well-being in the Classroom. Chapter 2: Skills for Emotional Well-Being. Paragraph: Responsibility: Are We Proactive or Reactive? pp 50-52 Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2003. ISBN 076370055X.
  5. ^ Martin, Alain Paul (1983). Think Proactive: New Insights into Decision-Making. The Professional Development Institute. p. 233. ISBN 0-86-502000-0
  6. ^ Larson, R. C. (1987), "Perspectives on Queues: Social Justice and the Psychology of Queuing", Operations Research 35 (6): 895–905
  7. ^ Benjamin Avi-Itzhak, Hanoch Levy and David Raz: Quantifying Fairness in Queing Systems: Principles and Applications, Rutcor, Rutgers Center for Operations research, Rutgers University Research Report, RRR 26-2005, and Tel-Aviv University, July 2004
  8. ^ Pound, Thomas M. (May 1988). " A Case Study in Perception and Operations Management: Automatic Teller Lobby Design, M. Sc. Dissertation". MIT Sloan School of Management.
  9. ^ Lin, Yu-Wen (June 25, 2003). "The Impact of Mood, Distance to the Goal State, and Filled Mechanism on consumers' Perceptions of Waiting Time and Their Affective Responses, MBA Dissertation". National Sun Ya-sen University, Taiwan.
  10. ^ Thierauf, Robert J. (2001).
  11. Effective Business Intelligence Systems. Quorum Books. p. 392. ISBN 1567203701
  12. ^ Thierauf, Robert J. (1987). A Problem-Finding Approach to Effective Corporate Planning. Quorum Books. p. 234. ISBN 0899302629.
  13. ^ Martin, Alain Paul (2002). Harnessing The Power of Intelligence, Counterintelligence and Surprise Events. The Professional Development Institute. p. 288. ISBN 0-86-502924-5
  14. ^ Olivier Boiral: Global Warming: Should Companies Adopt a proactive Approach? Elsevier, 2006
  15. ^ Herbert Shepard, who led the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, and, Richard Beckhard of the Sloan School of Management. Both pioneered organization development.
   *  Adapted from Wikipedia
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