The word proactive sometimes also written pro-active was used by the Austrian existential neuropsychiatrist Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl, in his 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning 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.

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.

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary the origin of the word proactive is from the 1930's. Merriam Webster lists the date as 1933.

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.

Borrowing from medicine, Frankl and Sun Tzu, Alain Paul Martin defined Harvard University Global System, a decision-making framework to increase awareness of the freedom of choice. The horizontal dimension comprises four interventions: (a) Laissez-faire, (b) Focus on Relationship (symptomatic intervention in medicine such as a pain killer), (c) Focus on Substance or Problem Solving (etiologic intervention in medicine such as an antibiotic injection to cure bacteria), or (d) Focus on a Hybrid Intervention integrating both the substantive and the relational choices (oral antibiotics sweetened for children). For each of these 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.
  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 less 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 » 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!

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". It also tends to have a higher power of connotation.

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.

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