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

Do We Need A Manifesto for Social Change?

A really odd thing happened to me recently.
I agreed with something George Osborne was saying.

OK. I was on holiday and had experienced a bit too much sun. Probably a bit too much alcohol as well.

But something he said resonated with me.

Osborne had stated Europe was falling behind the continents in the south and east – including in innovation. The European share of world patent applications has nearly halved in the last decade.

Back in Vietnam – everything I saw around me confirmed this. The drive. The energy. The agility.

I’m lucky enough to have visited South East Asia three times in the past couple of years. The dynamic mix of optimism, work ethic and community spirit is intoxicating.

It’s connected too. WiFi is genuinely regarded as a utility. Pretty much every residence , every bar , every business is online. Kids with no access at home sit outside stores in pop-up community hubs.  The web coupled with a boom in cheap smartphones and tablets is fuelling a vibrant connected culture.

Certainly there’s a lot of tech innovation in Asia – each country wants its own version of Silicon Valley. But the future is about more than just Flappy Bird 

What’s compelling about Asia is the community driven innovation. There’s a level of grass roots problem solving that I just can’t see in the UK.

And let’s face it. We have a few problems that need solving.

1.8 million on the waiting list for a home in an unloved sector not known for its innovation and creativity

A funding gap of 30 billion for the NHS – the fifth biggest employer in the world

An adult social care system faced with an ageing population that could lead to a shortfall of a quarter of a million carers.

Nearly 1 million unemployed young people – and teenage educational performance lagging behind that of many Asian countries

It’s going to take more than an app to solve this one.

In fact we need social innovation on a scale that we’ve never seen before.

And I mean BIG innovation that can challenge established delivery. After all – it’s no use complaining about the likes of A4e or Atos when we’ve failed to come up with a viable alternative.

One of the problems – of course – is our legacy systems. In Asia they can easily make a 21st Job Centre because they never had the 20th Century model.

In the time we have upgraded they will be onto Job Centre Version 10.2. Probably with robots in it.

By comparison most of our organisations are still running on Internet Explorer 6.

Is there any chance for us?

Yes. But it needs disruptive innovation that transforms sectors , not incremental change that will take 10-15 years. We simply don’t have the time.

What can we do?

  • Walls need to come down between sectors. It would be a failure if we are still debating the same issues at our sector specific conferences in two years time.
  • We need to accelerate the formation of ideas into delivery and fail fast. If our organisations think like they have for the past ten years we will be out of business in five.
  • We need to remove those with vested interests who create barriers and ask for another report before committing to action.
  • We need every organisation to publish a statement of how they are promoting disruptive innovation.

We need a new operating system.

We need a Manifesto for Disruptive Social Change.

Do you agree or disagree?

Note: The Manifesto for Social Change was created at Housing Goes Digital during a crowdsourcing session with delegates. Thanks to Thom Bartley for the great slide deck.