Moving From The Reactive To The Pre-Emptive

As Matthew Manos has written, many of us in the social sector are employed in the expectation that the things that go wrong will always go wrong. 

Indeed, our work often profits from past societal failure rather than the contemplation of the signals of failures that have yet to exist.

The entire premise relies on reaction. 

  • The prisons are full. Build more of them.
  • People feel unsafe. Put more Police on the beat.
  • A+E = overflowing. We need more nurses.
  • There’s people sleeping on the street. Just build more homes.

Reactive services are not wholly bad – far from it – but our relentless focus on managing the past rather than inventing the future is limiting our scope for something a lot more radical.

The challenge is how to switch our organisations and our work to be pre-emptive. And that requires a whole system change.

  • A move from telling to listening.
  • A move from managing to coaching.
  • A move from filling the gaps with services to closing the gaps through connections.

That’s not easy when the whole system is built on reaction.

Let’s be honest, anyone can be reactive. And cynically you could say that reactive approaches keep a lot of people in jobs.

To be pre-emptive on the other hand, to truly anticipate future need and to create an offering around it, that takes real skill.

As a society we’ve now tested to destruction the idea that we can solve a problem by just throwing money at it.

Too often we’ve become trapped in a reactive spending cycle on public services none of which will not solve the underlying problems of short-term thinking and even shorter term spending decisions.

Everyone knows the cycle of crisis, cash, repeat doesn’t work. So why do we do it? 

One of the issues is the funding itself and how we approach financial planning.

Most financial planning is actually financial guessing the same as strategic planning is often strategic guessing. Wrapping things up in a 20 page report makes it seems like we know we what we are doing – but the truth is, we are just managing and reacting to the failures of the past.

And this is one of the problems we have: innovation and the pre-emption of the future is treated the same way as everything else – whether it’s forecasting how much coffee people drink or estimating annual sick days.

We seek certainty where this is none and assurances of success where it can never be assured. We have grown afraid of failure. And if there’s one thing we all know it’s that if you fear failure you cannot innovate.

Pre-Emptive Change: Fix It Before It Breaks

Moving to a pre-emptive mindset means shifting to a business model that acknowledges the fundamental ambiguity in everything it does.

Simplistically it could be broken down into four stages.

FutGenX - Paul Taylor Prevention Workshop

Shifting Perspectives

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than deliberation and contemplation. A pre-emptive approach means acknowledging we don’t understand our world half as much as we think we do. It means creating the time and the space for getting to the root cause of our problems.

Reframing Problems as Opportunities

If creativity is applying imagination to address a challenge then innovation is applying creativity to generate unique solutions. However to arrive at unique solutions you often have to reframe the question you are asking. The first step in reframing problems as opportunities is about unpacking all the assumptions we have. Remember – the point of reframing is not to find the “real” problem but to uncover whether there is a better one to solve.

Exploring Opportunities

We need to balance the right mix of fresh ideas and experience to foster innovation and ensure that new ideas are constantly explored and entertained.

This means becoming comfortable with abortive early attempts to solve problems in new ways. As we wrote over at Bromford Lab – whilst it might seem like the quickest way to get results is to jump straight to pilot, in fact doing things this way can often take longer to arrive at the right solution, or in extreme cases it can even lead to bad ideas being scaled. The best approach is to use prototyping and testing to rapidly learn more about a problem, fail safely, kill bad ideas early, and move on quickly.

Preventative Interventions 

Pre-emptive change doesn’t lend itself to conventional approaches to project management. It’s likely to need adaptive or visionary models of change, rather than heavy-handed, top-down approaches.

In preemptive change, R&D expenditure and an approach to constant iteration are decisive factors, reflecting a need to properly invest in the future.

Whatever our business plans say – there is no certainty in the future.

Let’s stop pretending there is.


This post was written as an introduction to a workshop taking place at ICC Wales on January 10th 2020 for FutureGen X. The session itself will be shared in next weeks post. 

Screenshot 2020-01-10 at 07.26.44

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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