Ready for sprint - anticipating change

The difference between a responsive and a reactive organization

Being responsive, opposed to being reactive, is commonly considered a positive trait to embody. Responsive Organizations would otherwise have been called Reactive Organizations. And yet, there's not that much difference between responding and reacting. A small difference with major implications... Let's dive in!

To respond or to react

To respond or to react, what is the difference?

To react is to exert a reciprocal or counteracting force or influence. Reactive can be defined as the readily respons to a stimulus. To be responsive is to be quick to respond or react appropriately or sympathetically. To respond is to make a return by some action as if in answer.

Looking objectively - without taken the subject into account, who is making a return by an action - there might not seem to be any difference between a reaction and a response. Both a reaction and a response are triggered because of an outside change, a change of the environment, both are secondary causes. The returning action of both reaction and response is quick or readily made.

The difference is that a respons contains a level of intelligence within the returning acting - opposed to the systematic and automatic reaction, which is rather unintelligent or non-volitional (or mechanical will). Being responsive is considered as an appropriate or sympathetic returning action, which requires a certain level of intelligence. With being responsive, intelligence and insight become factors.

Responsive Organizations

The Responsive Organization has a lot of characteristics of an agile organization.

Responsive Organizations are built to learn and respond rapidly through the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organizing as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose. (source)

The last part of the definition of a Responsive Organization, i.e. motivated by shared purpose, is key in determining an appropriate response to changes in the environment. The higher purpose of an organization leads to the realization of the vision of the organization, which is the reason for its creation.

Vision and (re-)action

All actions performed within and by the organization are symbolically performed with having the vision in mind. Every action performed, every step taken, is a step closer to realizing the vision - the primary purpose of the organization. Mission statements of an organization should be aligned with the vision, it can't be antagonistic in any healthy and agile organization. In order of importance, vision comes first, then the mission (supporting the vision), then the organization - as means to realize the vision.

Vision is a concept formed by the imagination and is a future world which is moved towards. The aim of any organization is to realizing that vision, to realize that dream. The mission of an organization should be in alignment with the vision, i.e. by executing the mission, the realization of the vision should be closer and not stray away from realizing the vision. As the vision is the primary motivator for forming the organization, the vision is of primary significance - even higher than the continuation or preservation of the organization itself.

The vision is the primary motivator for every action, including the responsive action.

Responsive actions

Responsive actions, like all actions, should have the vision and ethics of the organization in mind. When knowing and being in tune with the underlying the intention of the organization (i.e. realizing the big dream of vision), an appropriate reaction can be given to the changed environment (what being responsive is all about).  An appropriate action would be an action which is supporting the vision, purpose and the moral values. An inappropriate action would be an action which is undermining the purpose of the organization and a step back from realizing the vision.

To respond sympathetically, the other option of being responsive besides an appropriate respons, is to acknowledge the inseparability of the inner world (within the organization and within each individuality) and the outer world (the environment, of which the change is asking for a reply/respons). A sympathetic respons acknowledges the interdependence and as effect will recognize the link between the inner and outer world. A sympathetic respons can sometimes just be an acknowledgement, without any additional actions. Sympathetic responses lead to higher levels of awareness, and need a certain level of awareness.

Registering the change

Before being able to react or to respond, the trigger of the reaction or respons needs to be present and noticed. By definition, a reaction and a response are returning actions and not initiating actions. In order to be able to react, the trigger - the change in the inner or outer environment needs to be registered. A listening ear is need to notice change.

There's a different quality of anticipation when the change is expected opposed to being surprised of a change. The former is a prerequisite of being able to respond, the latter is a guarantee for being reactive. It's the difference in the quality of awareness when expecting a visitor to ring the doorbell, and when the doorbell is rang unexpectedly. This is the difference between being actively passive and passively passive.

Responding requires an active-passive mode of sensing. For being reactive, passive-passive is good enough. The only requirement for reacting is being able to potentially notice changes, i.e. have functioning sense organs. Responding requires actively monitoring the sense organs and expecting changes/stimuli.

From reacting to responding

When aiming to become less reactive and more responsive as organization, the distinguishing factors should be stimulated. Intelligence and insight are key factors to be responsive, to determine an appropriate or sympathetic respons.

Appropriate responses

The appropriateness of any respons is dependent agreed upon moral values (ethics) and the vision and mission of the organization. An appropriate respons in one given context can therefore be an inappropriate respons in another situation. Aligning the organization's vision and ethics with everyone who is part of the organization is therefore important in the endeavor of becoming more responsive.

Sympathetic responses

Sympathetic responses require a certain amount of intelligence, sensitivity and awareness. Sympathetic responses are therefore a bit harder to master than appropriate responses. Strengthening the ability for sympathetic responses requires determination, acuity and open-mindedness. Practicing mindfulness can be a strong catalyst for developing the ability for sympathetic responses.

Harmonious action

When it's said that somebody is being reactive, the connotation is also that that someone is being too late. Being reactive is performing an action in an untimely fashion. And here is where another aspect of a sympathetic response is, because a sympathetic respons is well-timed, in harmony. One of the definitions of sympathy is: unity or harmony in action or effect. Sympathy can therefore be regarded as an harmonious action or effect, an united action. Being too late is therefore only applicable when being reactive, not when being responsive.

In order to be harmonious, organizations need to be prepared for interaction with the environment. The organization needs to be in conscious alignment with the environment, in order to be able to anticipate change. Therefore a responsive organization needs to be in a constant mode of sensing.


To transition from reacting to responding, space is needed. Space is needed between the moment of registering the stimulus (which is the cause triggering the returning action) and the actual returning action. When there's no space, there's no time and no conscious awareness between the two moments and the respons will be automatic, unintelligent and non-volitional or mechanical.

When space is allowed between the two moments, an intelligent respons can be given. An intelligent respons can then be given which is in harmony with the change in the environment (the stimulus), with the vision and ethics of the organization.

How responsive are you aiming and willing to be?

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