Preventive Intervention Trilogy: Part 3

What are the ways in which a preventive intervention is different from a curative one? In this third and final part of the trilogy, I examine this issue.

First, I want to state a key distinction that we L&D folks make. Inputs to learners are broadly of 3 types:
– New beliefs (create a certain attitude towards something)
– New knowledge (create awareness about something)
– New skills (create capability to DO something)

When we CURE a problem, we attempt to provide all 3, in the above sequence. New beliefs create the fertile ground, an open-mindedness about learning new stuff. Next, the seeds of knowledge are sown. Then this newfound knowledge flowers as new skills, through sustained practice.

Now, when we try to PREVENT a problem, should we do it the same way? I’m going to inspect 3 common preventive interventions, and figure out the answer. You may recall from the previous article, that the following 3 situations are best prevented, due to their high certainty and high severity.

1. Preparing for leadership roles

Newly minted leaders are often like deer in the headlights. They face new challenges which were absent in their earlier roles. So they react in unpredictable ways: fight, flight or freeze! Over time, these reactive / knee-jerk responses can get hardened into habits. Flexibility is lost, causing much damage and frustration to the people they lead.

So we will conduct a preventive intervention BEFORE they become team leaders. Six to ten months before a slated promotion is a good time to begin.

New beliefs: If you want to have a conversation about how a leader “should” be, this is the best time. That’s because in this position, the learner is the affected party; his team leader’s attitude and actions affect him directly. So he will fully empathise with his own situation. We can expect easy buy-in for concepts like sensitivity to team members situation, need for appreciation, guidance, honest communication, autonomy and support.

New knowledge: Information about what a team leader’s role entails will also be imbibed eagerly, as the learner finds the feeling of preparedness very comforting. So it is an opportune time to talk about task allocation, conflict handling, conducting meetings, turning goals into plans and schedules, keeping stakeholders informed.

New skills: Skills of supervision cannot be practised yet. Of course, role playing in simulated environments can be done, but its not realistic enough. So, it may be prudent to simply omit skill building for now, and take it up again AFTER the learner gets promoted to a leader’s role.

2. Preparing for teamwork

Lets say a new team is being formed, for a new project or a business unit. A preventive intervention will aim to avoid misunderstanding, unproductive conflicts, personality clashes that are all too common when people come together and work closely. What will be the format of such an intervention?

New beliefs: An attitude of trust comes from feeling safe with another person. Getting to know someone better is one way of doing that. So people can share personal histories, explore common interests, state one’s own preferences and discover how others like to work. And there is no dearth of tools to do that. Given below, for example, is a snapshot from a personality assessment called CB5. Each row is a personality sub-trait, and the little square and circle show where 2 people of a team lie on a continuum.

Imagine the value of knowing someone so deeply. It would reduce the element of surprise when the team really starts work, allow people to explain their preferences. The ‘circle’ could say to the ‘square’ (see last row in the graphic), “I resist being pulled into multiple projects due to my preference for single-minded focus on one thing. I don’t mean to shirk work”.

New knowledge: Team norms can be discussed or announced. How decisions will be made, disagreements taken up, communication ensured; roles allocated… the list of things to know is long. Knowing this in advance ensures that waters aren’t sullied by misunderstanding. That prevents petty conflicts and much offense-taking.

New skills: What are examples of team skills? Exchanging feedback, conducting efficient meetings, resolving conflicts, brainstorming for ideas, making decisions, co-ordinating actions. Note that each of these is most meaningfully practised in real-life settings. So we may want to postpone practice till the team’s work gets underway. At that time, practice supported by coaching or revisiting of concepts will be most useful.

3. Preparing for an organisation’s journey

If we want to prevent a midlife crisis (lack of direction) in an organisation’s journey, a preventive intervention can help. It is akin to calibrating the compass correctly before a journey, something that will prove its value later on.

New beliefs: The founding team’s attitude comprises things like: how much do I want to invest psychologically, how long-term is my outlook, what am I expecting in return, which aspects of the organisation’s purpose am I most attached to. Obviously, the best time to explore these issues is BEFORE the organisation’s long march starts.

New knowledge: Here, we are talking about clarity about the organisation’s purpose, values, vision and goals. If these are known in advance, they will act like guiding stars during difficult times (uncertainty, financial duress and opportunity evaluation).

New skills: Organisational skills are abilities like continuous learning & innovation, responsiveness to market changes and inter-departmental coordination. Its simply not possible to practice these in an intervention format. These have to be practised in a live scenario, and course corrections done on the fly. So a preventive intervention isn’t the right time to do that.

And therefore…

The consistency in the above 3 examples suggests this to me: Preventive and curative interventions do have common aspects: both can have inputs on the belief and knowledge front. But skill inputs shouldn’t be part of preventive interventions. It is best to defer that till a ‘live action’ opportunity arises. This opportunity will arise when a new role arrives or when external conditions change. At that time, the learner must pick up the threads of her ‘in-progress’ learning journey and start implementation practice.

The Trilogy summarised

This article brings the trilogy to an end. The 3 lessons from it are:
– Prevention (rather than cure) is easier and less costly.
– Prevent when the problem is highly likely to occur and have severe consequences. Else, we must either act selectively or wait till things become clearer.
– Preventive interventions should focus on beliefs and knowledge. Up-skilling is best done during ‘live action’.


Picture credit: Kori-Nori via Unsplash