The Art of Problem Prevention

The Art of Problem Prevention

When the going gets tough you obviously had no problem prevention in place…


Wouldn’t it be great if we could anticipate and solve all of our workplace issues? This appears to be impossible without a crystal ball. Agency life moves at a breakneck speed, and the ability to react quickly and adapt to changing circumstances is critical to success.

If you work in operations, you probably enjoy solving problems. If you don’t, maybe reconsider some things😜 It can be enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding. However, there is a major flaw in problem solving: it occurs far too late in the process. When we already haven’t met our customers’ needs, had missed our performance goals, or had spent more than we had budgeted.

Furthermore, when we spend the majority of our time solving problems and putting out fires, we don’t have time for more value-added activities like coaching, training, mentoring, strategic planning, and so on. It’s the constant battle between proactive vs reactive (a point of contention for myself currently!)

Problem prevention is where the REAL problems get solved, before they even become problems! We begin to build a work environment that is far more likely to achieve or exceed business objectives AND sustain that performance over time by focusing the majority of our time on problem prevention activities.

The Consequences of Not Practicing Problem Prevention

Anticipating problems and taking early/prompt action to solve them can often prevent or at least mitigate the negative effects of difficult situations. This is referred to as proactive rather than reactive behaviour. Waiting until a situation arises and then responding to it is referred to as being reactive. Anticipating, planning, and confronting problems before they reach crisis levels is what it means to be proactive (when you must act rapidly). You gain control of the situation by being proactive. Taking a non-proactive approach can have dramatic and even catastrophic consequences. The following high visibility events were in retrospect proven to be preventable:

  • Travis Scott’s Astroworld mass casualty concert
  • The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
  • The flooding of a Japanese Nuclear Reactor following a Tsunami
  • The global spread of coronavirus
  • The sinking of the Titanic

These are obviously extreme, yet real-world examples. In agencies, the consequences may not be as obvious, but they can have a significant and negative impact on individuals and organisations. Just a few such consequences include frustration, anxiety, and loss of:

  1. Production and output
  2. Customers and revenue
  3. Effectiveness and efficiency
  4. Time that could have been spent on mission critical activities
  5. Motivation and morale
  6. Trust
  7. Jobs

A Template for Problem Prevention

An understanding of problem prevention begins by recognizing the Bible as our guide.

Effective leaders also invariably put into place a series of repeating practices, disciplines, and habits that promote problem prevention in the organizations they lead. Examples include:

  1. Operational policies
  2. Organizational protocols, processes, and systems
  3. A staff performance management system
  4. Redundant systems
  5. Redundant roles
  6. Employee skillset issues
  7. An intentional hiring process
  8. Back-ups for every position
  9. Background checks and referrals
  10. Procedures for safety and security
  11. Appropriate and intentional training opportunities
  12. Financial controls and audits
  13. An understanding of change leadership principles
  14. A well-thought-out communication plan for each initiative
  15. A planning process that takes into account the “Law of Unintended Consequences”

The Problem with Problem Reventation

Now, being in the problem prevention boat isn’t always smooth sailing. The issue I currently am concerned with is having to constantly play devils advocate within the company.

“Yes the client is currently happy with the work we’re doing in their retainer, but we’re not delivering value in the work we’re doing, so they are going to start looking for cheaper services”

Without being dramatic, I’d liken it to terror threat prevention. Except obviously with a lot, lot less damage and detriment. You constantly have to operate on the basis that there will be terror attacks, and enforce strict measures to minimise, monitor and flag concerns. And people don’t like these measures; it’s the arduous queues at passport control and bag check; the forms and legal paperworks you have to fill in coming and going from the country now; the train delays because a rucksack has been found on the underground. All stuff which everyday annoys and ticks us off as it’s getting in the way of us doing what we want to do – wether it be going abroad, getting to work, or just moping about London visiting attractions. However, without all of these measures we’d be leaving ourselves very vulnerable. And it’s only when a terror attack occurs that the public ask why more wasn’t done to prevent it. Without seeing the thousands of imminent attacks and potential attacks that already have been prevented.

The same is necessary in organisations. Tracking, measuring, monitoring progress, flagging warning signs, understanding threats and behaviours. It’s important that this is not only accepted by senior leadership but also understood by the wider team.

Recently, bringing gradual increase on the need to time track across the production team has caused concern. Understandably so, teams that have never been monitored or self-monitored may be hyper conscious of this being brought in as a measure and fear the effects of underperformance. It’s in fact more important at the moment to the business that we are simply measuring honestly. Previously it’s been incredibly difficult to flag when people are genuinely at capacity, what projects aren’t profitable, what types of tasks are duplicating workload. This as a measure of problem prevention is incredibly powerful. However, it needs to be continually communicated and introduced to the team in this light, rather than just implemented.

There’s also a certain tact you have to employ in playing devils advocate to “good ideas” being brought in. Ideas with the best of intention are often those which can get a lot of hype and excitement behind them. Often, they’re the ones which have the shiniest and most immediate benefit. But this may be because they are short sighted, isolated on one positive outcome and lacking understanding of broader impact. It might be that it is a good idea, but the timing of implementing it immediately may cause it to have negative impact. They’re the ones you want to say yes to because they sound fun, but the threats to them may completely overwhelm the positive pay off. Typically, the best approach to this situation is trying to understand the root problem the “good idea” has been created to solve. Getting to this will allow you to work backwards and come up with more threat adverse solutions.

It’s crucial to understand and have an ongoing prioritisation of internal problems, once you’ve identified where this idea comes from you can judge what priority the problem should take. Especially when senior team are involved, this allows you to create an approach which isn’t just “no, because…” but shows the weighing of threats vs opportunities, and explores other tacts and timings of implementing.

An additional complexity to problem prevention is that you often have to take on problems caused prior to your role, which you had no control over. There then becomes a juggling act of problem solving, for those issues too late to prevent, and problem prevention. Often, the reactivity of problem solving will be the primary focus internally – both from the team and a senior level – all the whilst more problems being created, and not prevented by proactive approaches. There’s no easy fix to this as it is a constant squeeze on your abilities to handle, oversee and pre-empt many things all at once. Constant communication on a leads level is important to all having the same consistent stance to this, and understanding that some things will have to get worse before they can be resolved. It’s also important that this is communicated to the wider team, to prohibit frustration that issues aren’t being resolved immediately and communicate why and when they will be addressed. However (again, playing devils advocate), it’s wise to be weary of how transparent you are on this. I talked in a previous post, Inside the Fishbowl, about the vulnerability of leadership roles. Too much acceptance of issues on behalf of the company, and transparency that they will inevitably cause further issues before being able to be resolved correctly, may leave you liable to critique and also give excuses to team members as to why they can’t properly do their jobs. To best juggle this, set clear expectations of what you expect in the meantime and tread lightly on the threats that the problem may cause. Exposing too much of the threats leaves your business internal attack of its vulnerabilities.

There is no one way to prevent problems, but if you’re willing to keep track of what happens and learn from it, you’ve already made a significant step forward. It may be painful to have to constantly be the one dwelling on the past, the negatives, or potential threats, but someone needs to do it. Without long term vision and vetting more problems may be created, whilst your still undoing the effects of previous ones.


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