#20 Pursuit of prevention

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I have taken a small break from the Consequences Blog writing to indulge in the deep thinking of the PhD writing up stage. One of the exciting parts of a PhD is the opportunity to think about a particular subject and just when you think you may have got to the bottom of it then think some more!

I have often wondered why I took up the PhD challenge but more importantly why I find it so energizing. As I have delved deeply into this academic analysis I have therefore personally reflected on my experience to date.

The good news is that I can summarise these experiences collectively in one phrase “pursuit of prevention”. The energy around my PhD stems from my personal and professional life experiences where for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with this pursuit. I am in good company as long before me the notion of prevention was well debated and documented even as early as the point of transition from the medieval era “prevention is better than cure” (Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus 1466 – 1536).

I find it almost crazy that for well over six millenniums policy decisions have continued to be made despite this extremely simple and logical vision. Albeit within an academic boundary understanding this tension is the knowledge my PhD is contributing to. How this knowledge can be utilized in practice is what really excites and energizes me.

Through coming out of the deep thinking and into real life and keeping my focus on policy implementation I am keen to nudge and extend the thinking about governance. I hope to achieve this by including insights how to enable the kind of changes to governance that pursue prevention and facilitate change.

The setting of this 21st millennium is important in this debate because we are in a new paradigm whether we like it or not. Never before has the pace of life been so fast and with this comes technological opportunities and threats. In Consequences Blog #18 I described the two paradigms in detail but in this Blog #20 I make it extremely clear that the figurative ‘horse called change has bolted’! The new paradigm is not an idea it is in fact already morphing into a new shape. The mode of the “triple bottom line” (old paradigm) has a limited future and businesses or polices caught in this paradigm will either become obsolete or feel the effects of those disrupting around them. The new paradigm creates a nested hierarchy of priorities that strongly form an ecological system that cannot be activated in isolation.

Keeping the focus on prevention I argue that decisions that continue to follow paradigms that create inequalities within society are recipes for disaster and this is being recognized across the globe. On an organization level the same predicament can be seen when decisions are based on process and performance alone. A process and performance (often referred to as growth) approach whilst ignoring connection to purpose is an approach that cannot be activated within the new paradigm and most definitely not the purpose economy (the emerging era). Continuing in this line of curiosity if all this is known why isn’t prevention given its rightful place of being centre stage? More than ever the need for a cure is everywhere you look.

Well in returning to my deep thinking about this tension it has much to do with confidence in encouraging emergence, which is the exact opposite to neat tidy silo operating. This situation has been so eloquently considered by some of the commentators based at Stanford. In an article titled Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World the work of Henry Mintzberg and the Emergent Strategy has been further expanded upon. The argument is simple (as all good arguments should be) with the shift in paradigms a shift in approach in strategies must also occur. The standard strategy is linear like a map and referred to as predictive strategy where an emergent strategy is non linear and more like a compass.

Emergent Strategy gives rise to constantly evolving solutions that are uniquely suited to the time, place, and participants involved.

Predictive Strategy presents a linear and one-dimensional map to achieve a particular direction.

An organisation or government that can embrace an emergent strategy rather than a predictive strategy will start to better deal with complexity and find opportunities to pursue prevention in the new paradigm – it is as simple as that!

As with every “it is as simple as that” why have the past six millenniums gone by and the code of prevention still not cracked? Surely this conundrum is not in existence for students (like me) to spend time to further explore such dichotomies. The prevention dichotomy that exists appears to be advancing the divide rather than a solution being found. I have concluded the key to unlock the door to this dichotomy has much to do with the experience of emergence described as welcomed and/or disruptive fragmentation.

The experience of emergence as defined in many of my previous blogs is like being able to work from a compass rather than a map. Such navigation is often achieved by utilising emerging questions that start with the ‘why and what’ and encourage thinking around new structures. I have four favourites, which include:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well
  • What would you do differently?
  • What do you celebrate?

I wonder if it is not until these kind of questions become part of the policy directive settings or organization strategic reviews that prevention can begin to find its rightful place? As our learned friends at Stanford concluded:

Strengthen the systems and relationships that can generate solutions rather than constructing the solutions themselves.

Mathew Taylor CEO of RSA in his year end Blog of 2015 encouraged us all to welcome the new year with thoughts of Emergent Impact. I have previously discussed Emergent Impact (Consequences Blog #13) but as my deep thinking turns to practical application I want to bring the pursuit of prevention to the centre of the stage. If we are to shift from the predictive strategy and old paradigm into an emergent strategy and new paradigm the ability to navigate emergence is most paramount.
Emergent Impact involves setting out with a clear mission and set goals but then being able to shift focus and method as the project develops.

 I refer to this experience of emergent impact as operating along an enabling continuum between experiences of disruptive and welcomed fragmentation. It means at times things especially at extreme ends of the continuum will feel out of sorts. It is important to remember that it is at such points of tension that systemic change can be achieved and for the better.

Thinking about change in this way brings me to the Theory of Change model. Set within complex adaptive systems theory this is a far cry away from the pure policy implementation negation literature. My recommendations are shifting to encourage those who take the future PhD mantles or take responsibility in policy particularly around complex societal issues (that would benefit from prevention) that they extend their thinking particularly around governance. Away from the predictive strategies of the old paradigm and into the emergent strategy arena embracing the new paradigm and purpose economy.

The style of leadership to implement this challenge is an enabling one and one that can cope with emergence. These enabling leaders will lead organisations and government to be part of a millennium that successfully pursue prevention!


Old paradigm: Lowe, I (2004) The pigheaded model

New paradigm: Griggs, D et al (2013) Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature 205-307

Theory of Change model: Weiss, C. (1995) Nothing as Practical as Good Theory: Exploring Theory-Based Evaluation for Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families Connell, J., Kubisch, A., Schorr, L, and Weiss, C. (Eds.) ‘New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives’ ed.). Washington, DC:Aspen Institute 

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