Saturday, December 13, 2014

Governance Rule #1 from an Ancient Parable’s Manifestation: Prevention is more Superior than Fixing

Sense and deal with problems in their smallest state (spirit form), before they become the flambe of the day.

According to an ancient parable, there were three brothers who were all physicians, the youngest was the most famous one, but he was very humble, when others asked him which of them was the most skilled in the art of healing, he replied: my elder brother had better skill than me, he cures sickness when it is still extremely minor, so his name does not get out of the neighborhood; my eldest brother has the best skill, because he can perceive the spirit of sickness and remove it before it takes the shape, so his name does not get out of the house. As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe potions, and massage skin, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard all over the kingdom.  It manifests the classic management paradox: Nobody ever gets credit for preventing problems that never happened. From governance perspective, what can we learn from it? Should “prevention is superior than fixing” be the #1 rule of governance principle?
Essentially in every work situation, many managers face this conundrum: it's simply easier to fight fires than proactively prevent them. As the technical complexity and organizational complexity increase the half-life of the improvement cycle increases. Low hanging fruit gets results fast, but then the more difficult improvements and the capability building, with the impact of a paradigm change, take a very long time. In the area of projects, organizations go for firefighting rather than capability building; and therefore fail to realize the three+ times returns available in long run.  It is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness; it is easier to reactively fix the problems than proactively cultivating organizations' capability to successfully deliver their strategy and projects. Most organizations (even with generous measurement) were at level 1 where they achieved negative returns on their project investments over time.
 Linear thinking drives more energy to fix the problems, not systems thinking to diagnose the root causes. Considering the dominance of linear thinking in the world, in our corporations, our communities and education systems, there is far too much "fire-fighting" and waiting until the incidents hit the fan mentality. If we could mandate non-linear systems thinking or inoculate a critical mass of humans with a ST virus of the mind, we might see some positive changes and not the next big problem.
Sometimes this is a matter of management blindness. "Things are going OK now, so they will be OK in the future." No, future brings change; change means more opportunity for advancement, or failure, but failure is more likely if you're not ready for the changes. Good things happen are because we are what we are - smart, efficient, doing a good job - but lack of insight and foresight, patience and persistence to be capability builders!). “Keeping your hands busy” may stop you from thinking deeper or envision the future, only focusing on picking low hanging fruit can blind you from seeing long term growth potentials.
But often, this is simply observational bias. We notice good things only when something bad has happened; we tend to take good things in stride. Our minds normally work that way, because bad things are "dangerous" and need to be noticed, but good things are "as they should be." This was an evolutionary advantage to primitive humans but a hindrance to modern society in which we've eliminated all of the REALLY bad things, like stuff that wants to eat us hiding behind every rock. Until we can change that mindset we'll always have this issue. It also reflects the psychology of modern workforce: If I keep something bad from happening, that bad thing has no effect because it didn't happen, and the result is business as usual. Nobody notices something that doesn't happen; we're not wired that way. But if something bad does happen, and I fix it,I'm looked at as a hero. So I'm either "just doing my job" or "a great employee who puts out fires". 
One essence of effective management is the ability to sense and deal with problems in their smallest state (spirit form), before they become the flambe of the day. The Tale of three Physicians captures this message quite well, Either as governance principle or management discipline, prevention is more optimal than fixing.

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