Preventive Intervention Trilogy: Part 2

Is it really true that all interventions can and must be done in preventive mode?  Rather than as cures for problems that have already occurred? If not, how do we decide which ones to tackle proactively?

When deciding whether to buy insurance, we face a similar choice. To resolve the dilemma, we use 2 criteria
– the CERTAINTY of occurrence of the unfortunate event (injury, loss, death, cancellation, theft etc.)
– the SEVERITY of impact, if it does occur (financial stress, cost of replacement)

For events which are certain to occur and will have severe effects, we opt for insurance, the most obvious example being death of the bread-winner and its effect on the rest of the family. A famous performing artist may insure her vocal chords (sudden damage is improbable, but has huge impact on earnings). And we don’t usually insure our house plants (their death is certain, but impact on us isn’t much).

So how about using CERTAINTY and SEVERITY of expected problems, as the criteria to decide whether to prevent problems or cure them post fact? To make this discussion concrete, I will pick up 11 situations from my past work. Incidentally, all of which were done in curative mode, after problems occurred. The situations are plotted on the diagram below.



The top-right quadrant has problems which occur very commonly (high CERTAINTY) and have serious impacts on individuals, performance and financials (high SEVERITY). Naturally, it makes sense to prevent these problems.

Take situation #3 as an example: I’ve witnessed how an automobile major selects its managers for future leadership roles. A year before the role change, high potentials go through a 3-day workshop, where the purpose is simply to expose them to what life will be like if they move up to leadership roles. It’s like immersing them in the challenges, expectations and roles that future positions involve. They are given a choice later, whether they wish to bid for these roles, or move laterally and continue to contribute in specialised functional roles. The net effect of this would be that people who are able and willing to fill leadership roles will do so; those disinclined to do so after the ‘preview’ will make a similar informed choice. The Peter Principle, which predicts inept leaders, is thus avoided.


The top-left quadrant is for problems that will most likely occur, but will have limited impact. Circle #4 in the diagram represents an early-career PR executive, who is shy about voicing opinions even in small groups. In future, as this person rises to a more public role, he is quite likely to feel challenged when he has to address large audiences in town halls or press conferences. On the other hand, the problem is of relatively low severity… public speaking is just one of the aspects of his role. So we may be picky about acting on the problem, given budget and bandwidth constraints. So the principle here is: selectively conduct preventive interventions for problems in this quadrant.


The bottom-right quadrant: These cases have severe impacts on the organisation. But it is hard to predict when they will occur (next quarter? five years later?). Also in what form they will occur. That’s why a pro-active intervention may not find takers. As an example, in situation #6, its hard to say exactly when innovation will peter out. So a wait-n-watch is recommended, so that at the first signs of trouble, more informed action can be taken.

In situation #5, a luxury-motorcycle dealership noticed that the first wave of customers was ebbing (these were people who walked into the showroom, pointed to the shiniest & biggest bike and laid a bag full of cash on the counter). They noticed a simultaneous rise of a different breed of customer, who read up everything about the bikes on the internet, enjoyed talking bike-stuff for hours, took a lot of time to decide and wanted to pay in installments. That’s when they decide to act, and prepare their sales-force to engage this new type of customer, before the situation changed completely. They waited for some certainty about the new type of customer, and then built a training program for salespeople based on that knowledge.


Finally, the bottom-left quadrant has low-impact, low predictability situations. They are best cured as and when they occur. It will hard to financially justify and effectively prepare people for an event that’s not only uncertain, but also limited in breadth/severity of impact.

The end-of-post lament!

When I inspect data from my own L&D work, I am dismayed to find that it is mostly curative. That’s such a loss of opportunity. Look at all the low-hanging fruit in the top-right quadrant: the chance to proactively ensure that organisations start out with well considered guiding principles; that teams have a robust processes to handle conflicts, decisions and coordination; that executives don’t become bad bosses later.

I feel that there are very few preventive interventions occurring in our industry. A probable reason is that organisations face a long list of ‘urgent, must cure now’ problems; so prevention gets consigned to the ‘not now, later’ bin! But I could be wrong. Is your organisation any different?

Photo credit: Craig Whitehead via Unsplash