4 ways to embrace uncertainty

file0001342045157How can we know that we are safe? Facing complex situations and an undefined future requires an idea about the mechanisms that keep harm at bay. However, the ambiguity of the present and uncertainty of the future leaves wide latitude for interpretations and inferences. Consequently, people rely on a variety of understandings and ways of being in relation to safety.

The groups below are not mutually exclusive, nor is it an exhaustive list. My preference will be obvious, but I have tried to be more descriptive than normative..

Idealists. When I first started this website I signed up for several safety blogs. Soon, my inbox overflowed with posts about everything that could go wrong. At home, when traveling, at work, or when arranging a kid’s birthday party in the park. Equally extensive were the lists of necessary precautions. Things were ‘important, crucial, vital, fundamental, imperative’.. The central message was: Safety first! If people only remembered that, at all times, accidents would not happen.

From within this perspective, more safety is always better: Another layer of protection, or anything that can disable causal pathways that in the past have led to accidents. There is clearly right and wrong, and definite answers on what should be done. Safety is THE ideal state, and efforts to achieve safety a moral imperative.

Perhaps less obvious is the assumption that safety is separable from anything else that goes on. Risks can be reduced without creating new risks, or without losing adaptive capacity. Safety can be managed in a silo. There is no room for trade-offs.

Rationalists. Organisations exist to provide a service. For this they need to, for example, make money, keep customers happy, and workers satisfied. Overzealous focus and caution around safety issues is not helpful when the task is to embrace many aspects simultaneously. And some people contemplate how multiple organisational goals can be achieved and balanced. Embracing this complexity, safety goes from being bi-modal and becomes increasingly grey and fraught with intertwined scales and variation.

To act in this rather interconnected world, ‘Rationalists’ break down the whole into manageable parts and components. People, parts, and designs can be assessed for their reliability by looking at their historical performance. Potential failure rates can consequently be totaled.

While idealists may be driven by an internal moral imperative, Rationalists’ beliefs about right and wrong are based on external truth. So the hunt is on for clear, concise, objective and certain data about the world. Aggregated to reflect the whole, decision makers can weigh the costs and benefits of different alternatives. This way, safety is not emotional or moral, but something rationally considered in order to reach an As-Low-As-Reasonable-Practicable risk of failure. If accidents happen, it is because the world was not properly understood (while idealists may claim that someone made an amoral cost-benefit analysis).

Organisers. If everyone followed plans, accidents would not happen. Or so a lot of people argue at least. Put differently, the system is basically safe, but people and organisation sometimes jeopardize or undermine the system by not following what should be done. So they need to be educated, reminded, encouraged, disciplined, constrained and controlled to stay within predefined boundaries.

A construction site safety manager once told me that he used a Safety Culture framework to carry out his incident investigations. He was amazed how many deviations (‘holes’) he found when inquiring people about their values around safety. With such overabundance of inadequate behaviours (or ‘holes’), no wonder that incidents occurred!

Organisers, like idealists, rely on a bi-modal approach to safety. But they find safety enough ‘We need to draw a line in the sand’ is a common argument. The crux is to find ‘the one best way’, to find what will stand the test of time, and then get people to comply. Idealists are typically into plans, predictions, controls and constraints.

Best practices are, however, by definition also past practice. So Organisers are typically program-driven.  They look at what industry leaders do. What’s the latest safety fad? What’s the next step and evolution in safety? And they hope to successfully copy those ways and paste into and onto their own organisations.

Localists. Then there are those who have given up on finding objective and universal truths about safety. When the ‘best way’ or the past cannot predict the future, the road is where you put your feet. The argument goes that it is even good for safety to stay close to uncertainty and the edge of chaos. This is so because the central force holding organisations together, and allowing them to steer clear of failure, is the flow of information.

When we don’t have or know the answers, exploring and communicating ideas and possibilities is the guide. This dependency on up-to-date information makes diversity necessary. Exploring ideas and possibilities is more important than having the answers. In fact, any effort to provide truths, ‘best ways’ or standards will create structural secrecy and organisational detachment, as it stifles processes that need to emerge from the local context. Learning, innovation and adaptiveness are key words. It is the collaborative intelligence that warrants safety.

For localists, accidents happen when organisations do not know enough about themselves and their operations.

Shawn Callahan, who commented on a recent post, has uploaded a YouTube video explaining the Cynefin framework. The framework explains that different conditions requires different approaches. As conditions change from simple, to complicated, to complex, or even to chaotic, different approaches yield different results. Perhaps there is a time for all of the above and we need the wisdom to recognise in which situations we need to rely on which approach?


Note: This post was partly inspired and informed by a paper by John Law and Annemarie Mol, ‘Local Entanglements or Utopian Moves: an Inquiry into Train Accidents’, published 2003 by the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YN, UK.


One Comment

  1. John Culvenor Reply

    Hi Daniel,

    “Safety can be managed in a silo.”

    Actually being a silo brings with it some significant hazards, not to mention the hazards of climbing up and down the silo


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