Prevention is better than a cure
This adage is so old and overused that it has lost all meaning. Prevention as an approach is against human nature in many ways. Why ‘prevent’ or manage something that is a long way off? Or plan for consequences that may never eventuate? Yet this is what we seek to do in Defence programs, with varying levels of success. The gap between what we should do vs what we actually do can be vast.
My article last month on the imminent collapse of MILIS is one such case. As the article outlined, advice has been in the system for better part of five years that the system is fragile to say the least. The transition plan outlined by CIOG is, at best, wildlyoptimistic. The fallout from this piece has seen the ants nest erupt into action in both Defence and Industry to address the issue. But had the issue been addressed when it was first raised, the urgency would not be there.
We don’t seem to be able to inject a sense of urgency into programs unless something is on fire, either literally or figuratively. I must admit that every time I see Israel or Sweden referenced as innovation leaders in their Defence realms, my eyeball twitches for a moment. When the ‘something on fire’ is a school down the road or a foreign submarine in shared waters, it’s easy to find the motivation to get things moving. Australia does not have that same situation at play; we don’t have large heavily-armed neighbours breathing down our necks to keep us on track. A situation I am very happy about on a personal level!
Operations have honed our edge over the past two decades, but even that effect has begun to wear off. There are a number of forums where these urgency themes have been explored; the Williams Foundation, Submarine Institute of Australia, and Australian Strategic Policy Institute events where the professional pessimists come out and explain just how bad it could be.
And it’s bad. The opportunities for the world to go to hell in a hand basket are growing. But maybe the constant stream of bad news is actually the problem: if everything is urgent, nothing is.
The public discourse on the security environment that Australia faces in the medium term does not make for happy reading. At what point will we remember that prevention is better than a cure? History shows it will be at a point that is too late.
The biggest problems that projects face are inadequate definition, scope and planning. There are a stack of Defence reviews on the shelf that have repeated this mantra for literally decades. How many projects have you worked on that ran perfectly, met your customers' expectations and delivered on time and budget? You might be able to think of a couple but can probably remember more that didn't go so well.
Many projects end successfully, some fail, but most end somewhere in between. Often, we miss one of the key measures; you've gone past a deadline, exceeded the budget or not fully met customer expectations. The easiest way to avoid this is to ensure the project has a good definition, scope and plan before you start.
Harken back to the Kinnaird review that made the case for spending up to 10 per cent of the program budget on scoping and making sure that the plan and approach were right before funds were spent. This sound approach but not easily explainable in the short term to politicians, people that don’t live and breathe complex programs, or even the wider public. Best practice isn’t something that can be done at the 11th hour; it’s a whole of life approach that is done every day, even when it’s inconvenient.
Defence is relied upon by government and the public to take the long view, to think in terms of prevention. As a community, we do it quite well in some areas and not so well in others. I would argue that it comes down to people; some are driven by a prevention mindset and others are more reactionary. Both have their place, bringing different perspectives to the table. This tension, this cognitive diversity, is a blessing and a curse.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to this conundrum, but I do stand by the overused adage: prevention is better than a cure.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 edition of ADM.