Think Proactively: Think Bigger

Perennially popular APC trainer Sandy Geroux explains how to think bigger by sharpening your proactive and critical thinking skills using a technique called Negative Branch Reservation (NBR.) Here Sandy not only describes NBR, she shows you how to use it by exercising your “what if” muscle. 

As an administrative leader and a highly valued partner to your leadership team, it is crucial for you to think proactively in almost every situation that arises. Whenever I talk about this topic, most assistants recognize the need to think proactively, but I’m often asked, “How can I get better at this quickly, so it becomes second-nature?”

My answer is this: “Think bigger.”

Thinking bigger means shifting and expanding your thinking on every task you perform. Instead of focusing solely on the task at hand – and how quickly and efficiently you can get it done – true proactive thinking demands that you also consider the outcomes you’re trying to achieve by performing that task.

Don’t get me wrong; performing our tasks quickly and efficiently is very important. But you’re not there just to perform tasks – you’re there to add value by creating a seamless, smooth and stress-free experience and foster an environment in which everyone is able to operate harmoniously as a team.

It comes down to the difference between focusing on tasks or focusing on outcomes and experiences.

It’s the difference between thinking in the present moment alone or also thinking ahead (sometimes far ahead) to future moments.

It’s also the difference between being indispensable, where the focus is solely on the tasks, which almost anyone can do (just get a body in here to “push the buttons”) and being invaluable, where the focus is on the added value that you personally provide while doing those tasks (which no one but you can provide in exactly the way you do it).

In other words, we’re not hired to just perform tasks or push buttons, but to think about everything related to those tasks: the logistics, contingencies, experience, stress, convenience, cost… and ensure that every aspect of the task is as smooth and seamless as possible.

For example, let’s take the seemingly simple task of making travel arrangements for your leadership team. Once you perform all the tasks required – getting the desired flights out and back, booking hotel rooms, arranging ground transportation, even making reservations at a restaurant in the destination city – the temptation is to “check the box” and move on the to the next set of tasks at hand.

But, if we think about the outcomes and the experience of the travelers during the trip, we must start asking ourselves a few additional questions before considering the task done. For example, what if the outbound flights are delayed? Have you researched and listed backup flights? Do you have them handy, so you can change the flights on a moment’s notice? Better yet, do your leaders have them handy, so they can take care of it themselves, if necessary (what if you’re not available at the exact moment they need you to re-book their flights? Do they even know of other available options)?

What if the hotel has lost their reservations and is sold out? Have you researched backup hotels? Do the travelers have this information with them (or easily accessible), just in case?

What if the car no-shows? Or the restaurant loses their dinner reservation and is completely full for the next three hours? Have you researched backup options and provided them to everyone?

And what if an unexpected weather event occurs while they’re either traveling or already out there? Will they be able to get home?

I recall the case of an executive who told me of one of her former assistants who booked her and her team for a business trip to Denver, Colorado. While the executives were attending a big meeting there, a blizzard quickly moved in and began blanketing the city in snow!

The team was unaware of the issue because they were tied up in the meeting, which took place inside a room with no windows. But this very astute assistant had been monitoring the weather and when she saw the problem, quickly re-booked them on an earlier flight, contacted the executive to advise the team to leave the meeting and head to the airport immediately … and got them home.

As it turns out, they were on the very last flight to leave the city for two days! Everyone else in the meeting was stranded at the Denver airport for a very long and uncomfortable 48 hours because their assistants focused solely on the initial task of getting them there, but failed to proactively consider the “what if” scenarios that could have led them to providing the desired outcomes for their executives. Those outcomes included not only getting everyone to the meeting on time, but also getting them home on time – not to mention their comfort, safety and stress levels during the trip.

Excellent proactive and critical thinking skills saved the day for this assistant and her executive team. This incident happened almost 15 years ago, and that executive still remembers that assistant with fondness and admiration because of it.

So, how do you sharpen your proactive and critical thinking skills? One very effective tool I’ve discovered, used and taught many times is called Negative Branch Reservation (NBR). It is a scientific method for creating “what if” scenarios.

Here’s how it works:

You create a “tree” for each situation for which you wish to consider “what if” scenarios. At the top of the tree, draw a box representing the scenario or task at hand. Below the box, begin creating “branches” on the tree by listing everything that could go wrong every step of the way. These “negative branches” represent your “reservations” about that scenario. Once you identify a reservation, you can proactively brainstorm ideas to eliminate it or minimize its impact, trimming the negative branch from the tree in the process.

(Off to the side, I suggest listing the positive outcomes you wish to achieve, so you can brainstorm “what if” scenarios for each of them and create WOW experiences throughout the entire scenario.)

Once the analysis is completed, you can create a “checklist” to use in every similar situation, so as not to forget a crucial step when using the process in the future.

Let’s take a look at how it works by putting the example listed above into the NBR template:

desired outcomes graph

You can use NBR to brainstorm every step of just about every task to ensure that you are not forgetting any important aspect that could potentially slip through the cracks.

Using this tool and exercising your proactive and critical thinking skills are just like exercising your muscles. The more you use them, the stronger they become. When you exercise them enough, “muscle memory” (a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition) causes them to become second nature.

This concept works with practicing proactive and critical thinking skills, writing, editing, speaking and many more skills high-level assistants must use on a daily basis.

The key is to continue to practice. I’ve practiced proactive and critical thinking skills for so long that the first thing that often jumps to my mind are the “what-ifs” – so much so that I often annoy my poor husband to death with my questions! However, even he will be the first to admit that my nearly-constant questioning has saved us a lot of time, money and aggravation over the years… so he loves me anyway and puts up with it!

Your leaders, co-workers and family members may also be slightly bewildered when you first begin to use this tool and polish your proactive thinking skills, but when it comes to creating WOW experiences for your leaders and everyone around you – they will surely (and profusely) thank you for your extreme attention to present and future detail… especially when it makes their lives much easier, safer, more convenient and much more productive.


Don’t miss Sandy’s sessions at this year’s Administrative Professionals Conference. Hear Sandy speak on The Highly Effective Administrative Leader, Manage Difficult Conversations with Credibility and Discretion and Tools for Gracefully Dealing with Miscommunication and Disrespect. Learn more

About the Author: Professional speaker, trainer and author Sandy Geroux has more than 18 years of administrative experience. She now helps others create the WOW factor, become more effective and efficient, and achieve their personal and professional dreams. Since 2000, she has conducted over 100 keynotes, training programs and workshops for more than 13,000 administrative professionals in 41 countries. Her columns and articles appear in many administrative publications. Visit her website (thewowplace.com), blog (www.wowplace.com), or email her (sandy@thewowplace.com) to discuss an educational and entertaining presentation for your administrative staff. 


This article first appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine, a global training publication and must read for any administrative professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website at www.executivesecretary.com to find out more or to get your 30% discount email lbrazier@executivesecretary.com and tell them we sent you.