How to Strike a Balance Between Proactive and Reactive Product Management

Illustration of a character penciling through a maze

When it comes to being a successful product manager, you have a lot to juggle. You’re generating ideas, fielding feedback, answering questions, and leading your team to launch the latest and greatest things.

There’s a lot on your plate, right?

So, understandably, you feel like the last thing you have time to do is to evaluate and tweak your management style—you’re just trying to make it through each day.

But, here’s the thing: Taking the time to think through your approach to product management and then make any necessary changes can actually help to resolve a lot of the headaches you might be dealing with day in and day out.

Ultimately, the secret lies in striking a balance between proactive and reactive product management. What exactly does that mean and how can you put it to work? Keep reading to find out.

Proactive vs. Reactive Product Management

Proactive and reactive product management are at two totally opposites side of the spectrum.

As a proactive product manager, you have clearly defined goals and you work toward them. You do everything you can to prepare for any surprises or unexpected circumstances. It’s a highly controlled approach.

The proactive approach is specific, measured, and considered to be best practice for good reason,” says Brad McCarty in a post for FullContact.

While proactive product management has many benefits, there’s also a downside. Surprises are bound to crop up. And, if you’re too married to the proactive style, you’ll have a much tougher time rolling with the inevitable punches.

In contrast, a reactive approach is quite literally what it sounds like—you react to your surroundings. You address problems as they pop up. When an action occurs (think user feedback or an announcement from a competitor), you act accordingly.

Obviously, this style is nowhere near as calculated as proactive product management—meaning things can often feel a little chaotic when it’s used on its own.

Striking a Balance

With that in mind, it’s easy to think that proactive management is best. You don’t want to be caught off guard—you want to be adequately prepared for whatever comes your way.

[ctt template=”1″ link=”T2UW0″ via=”yes” ]Product managers should strike a balance between being proactive and reactive. [/ctt]

But, in reality, it’s much better to strike a balance between both product management styles.


Well, being proactive is great for establishing procedures and keeping things organized. However, product management, in general, is very reactive—there’s no way for you to plan everything out.

The genesis of almost every product is reactive. Otherwise, you’re solving problems that people don’t really have,” says McCarty in the same FullContact post.

In order to develop and launch a successful product, you’re going to need to be somewhat reactive. You’ll need to make changes based on customer feedback. You’ll need to remain competitive in your market by staying on top of trends and advancements.

That’s all reactive.

So, while it’s great to be proactive and predictive when and where you can, be forewarned that there’s little chance that you’ll be able to move away from reactive product management entirely.

Here are some tips you can implement to strike a balance between proactive and reactive product management. 

1. Analyze Your Planning Process

As odd as it might sound, you can make plans to be more reactive. It all starts with sitting down and assessing your current planning processes.

Are things highly rigid?

While you might think that helps you to cover your bases (and, that’s true to a certain degree!), it can also make it difficult to deal with unexpected things that crop up. You lack the flexibility that you need.

Take a look at your current processes and see how you could adjust to be more reactive.

  • Could you build in a buffer of time for more feedback?
  • Can you create alternate processes to address issues that have a higher likelihood of popping up?

It might seem strange to prepare to be unprepared. But, when you’re attempting to strike a balance between proactive and reactive, this step can make all of the difference!

2. Take Feedback With a Grain of Salt

Feedback is all part of the process—that much you know. And, when you’re on the receiving end of an avalanche of thoughts and suggestions, it’s tempting to think that you need to implement everything all at once.

However, it’s important that you learn how to weed through the feedback and determine what you need to react to, and what you can let simmer for a while longer.

You can’t afford to prioritize a specific set of feedback just because it appears urgent,” explains Maddy Kirsch in a post for ProductPlan.

Instead, Kirsch suggests evaluating the feedback to determine what pieces will actually push your product in the right direction.

Ask yourself if implementing the suggestion or feedback will advance your product’s strategy,” Kirsch adds. That will help you zone in on the changes that should actually take precedence, rather than getting caught up in all of the noise.

3. Set Aside Proactive Time for Yourself

Similarly to above when we discussed evaluating your planning processes, it’s also important that you set aside and schedule some time when you can think through situations when you might need to be reactive.

Take an hour each week, for example, to have some quiet time and think through potential scenarios. You can go ahead and involve your team in these brainstorming sessions as well to get everybody on the same page.

It’s important to leave time to explore the “what if” scenarios.

It’s important that you not only think about worst-case scenarios that could occur, such as a product flopping or your competitor scoring a major win. You and your team should explore positive things as well.

  • How will you deal if a product launch is far more successful than you anticipated?
  • If your main competitor shuts down?
  • If you end up ahead of schedule?

Explore how these sorts of things (both positive and negative!)would impact you, and what you would do to react accordingly and leverage those situations to your advantage. That way, you’ll be sure to leave no stone unturned.

Over to You

When it comes to product management, you’ll hear plenty of people say that it’s best to be proactive. And, in many cases, that holds some water.

But, when the very nature of product management is reactive, there’s simply no way to have everything controlled and planned out.

Use these tips to strike a balance between proactive and reactive product management, and you’re sure to have the best of both worlds.

August 7, 2017