Drift towards failure – Embedding Safety Differently without a different approach.

This is my first article for the Safety Differently audience, and I wanted to share my thoughts around learning and improving to embed Safety Differently.

For those who are referencing my name for the first time, I am one of the authors of the book, “The Practice of Learning Teams: Learning and Improving Safety, Quality and Operational Excellence”, with a foreword by Dr Todd Conklin.

I have worked as a practitioner of risk management in the health and safety space for about 18 years, and specialize in major harm and fatality events in the workplace. I was drawn to Safety Differently and in particular to Learning Teams for a number of good reasons. 

My primary belief is that we should use both successful work and unsuccessful work as an opportunity for ongoing learning. When organizations enquire or intervene, we should consider that this learning opportunity is different for workers as it is for the organization.

In all my time so far in dealing with human misery, I am still waiting for find a new hazard that caused a ‘life changing event’ for a person or people. In fact, not only were the hazard(s) well known, the controls themselves were also well known. I have struggled to understand how the opportunity of learning for workers happens within a traditional investigation. No one ever came up to me and said, “Can we do that again, I learnt so much from the interview” or, “That corrective action has inspired me to learn and improve”.

Yet, of interest, this is exactly the response I hear from workers after participating in a Learning Team, with conversations such as- “Why don’t we use Learning Teams more often, I learnt so much” or, “I felt valued by being part of a Learning Team, being listened to, being part of the solution” and, “It has made me see things differently”.

The new view is powerful and full of so much promise as we move towards the shift from innovators to early adopters and the mainstream market.

I remember in the late 1990’s the book, “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey A. Moore in which he explored the Technology Adoption Life Cycle — which begins with innovators and moves to early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Moore identified that there is a vast chasm between the early adopters and the early majority. While early adopters are willing to sacrifice for the advantage of being first, the early majority waits until they know that the technology actually offers improvements in productivity.

This chasm happens. The objective is not to eliminate or eradicate the chasm. We need to acknowledge the chasm and do things differently to reduce the space between innovators, early adopters and the more mainstream market. What we need is to create a gap and not a chasm. We can extend yourselves to bridge a gap, but we have to jump to cross a chasm without the certainty of knowing where we are going to land or how painful the fall will be.

This hypothesis formed part of our critical thinking when writing, “The Practice of Learning Teams” with my fellow authors Glynis McCarthy and Brent Robinson. The organizational needs and wants to embed system change is different between these markets. The innovators and early adopters by their nature embrace the opportunity to try things. Yet how we try things and how we embed things into operational practice is different. Mainstream organisations look for transformation rather than innovation. 

With Learning Teams, the skill of the facilitator is vital in supporting the environment and learning outcomes. Being able to describe what this is and how to get there is different in these markets between innovation and transformation.

Learning to become a highly competent Learning Team’s facilitator takes more than just training. Whilst the concept of “give it a go after training” may be acceptable for innovation, it does not provide the layer of support to “cross the chasm” into the mainstream “transformation market”.

I find it ironic that we apply doing safety differently to get a different result, but we don’t try embedding practice differently to get a better result. Does this allow the environment to exist in the drift towards failure of embedding safety differently without needing a different approach?

For example, for a Learning Team facilitator that transformation journey is unique, unless you know where you are going and how you will get there. Without a roadmap to guide you,  you possibly won’t reach your intended destination.

It takes time, application, reflection and refinement of practice. It takes both success and failure for that person to learn and improve. We need to support people to build the resilience needed for success and failure. After all, surely failure is normal?

In the book we explore this awakening and awareness as:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (you don’t know what you don’t know).
  2. Conscious incompetence (you know what you should be doing, but you realize that you’re not doing it as well as you could).
  3. Conscious competence (you will feel comfortable in the role of facilitator and further deepen your practice).
  4. Unconscious competence (you will be able to facilitate without straining to be competent). 

And it is normal that you feel you regress back through the stages of competence before recognizing that you have developed mastery of a skill. 

We identify the need to have a framework that allows both the organization and the person to know:

  1. What does good look like?
  2. Where am I currently at?
  3. Where do I need to be?
  4. How will I get there?
  5. What support will I need to be successful?
  6. How do I share my success and failures to learn and improve?

Whether your journey is just beginning or you are already a highly competent person you will find immense value in participating in a community of practice of others. Learning from others, sharing your stories and be part of something bigger is critical in embedding system change.

By having a framework that allows us to see where we are going and to measure ourselves against what good looks like, it helps us to reduce the chasm to a gap with the ultimate goal of embedding safety differently for everyday safety of work.


Brent Sutton is the Founder of Learning Teams Inc. He works in partnership with organizations in the commercial, government and education sector providing practical advice to address health and safety risks and develop strategies to drive improvements in organizational learning. Brent is well regarded as a safety coach and for taking organizations on a learning journey to understand how people are seen as the solution, how to engage people and leverage their skills so that worker participation becomes a new way of running an organization, where everybody benefits without replacing your existing health and safety system. Brent is the project architect for New Zealand's most significant Court Ordered Project Order granted under the Health and Safety At Work Act, which is to develop, train and implement a Learning Teams framework for the maritime industry https://www.maritimelearningteams.org.nz/. Brent is one of the authors of the new book "The Practice of Learning Teams: Learning and improving safety, quality and operational excellence.", with foreword by Dr Todd Conklin released August 2020 (ISBN: 9798665374321, Sutton, McCarthy and Robinson: Pre- Accident Investigation Media) and the host of the weekly podcast series on Safety FM called "The Practice of Learning Teams" https://www.learningteamspodcast.com Brent lives in Auckland, New Zealand and actively advocates for doing safety differently.


  1. Tracy Lawson Reply

    Learning Teams are critical to organizations that actually want to improve and are a key employee involvement tool as well. The key is to also study what works not just what doesn’t work. I have been studying the Learning Team concept and trying to pivot our group to using this practice, its a slow move but well worth the effort.

  2. David Wollage Reply

    More evidence from an industry expert highlighting the numerous benefits of Learning Teams; one has to wonder how we forgot the benefits of sharing experiences and solving problems in a community centric and safe environment. Making it easier to get back to sharing the load of problem solving and shared community knowledge is a great way to reinstate this valuable capability with its many benefits; not least to Safety.

  3. Anna Illingworth Reply

    Thank you, this is a succinct brilliant precis of how we can use ‘successfull and unsuccessful working’ to learn and get better.

    I work in a UK ambulance service which has recently gained a new CEO from the navy; and it will be exciting to see what ideas he brings from his maritime experience (or even just a fresh pair of eyes; ambulance services usually appoint from within).
    My colleagues in the ambulance service rarely appear in the safety literature, which is a shame, as good, experienced ambulance frontliners are:
    – safety ninjas; in a hugely variable, time pressured, stressful working environment (with lives at stake on a daily basis)
    – superb (messy, ‘real-world’) risk assessors, balancing their own safety against the patient’s needs
    – compassionate care givers (albeit with the luxury of one to one care for most of their patients)

    I’m a frontliner and a newcomer to this field; your post helped me greatly.
    My question for you, is what would else you recommend to read, or what would you do next, if you were in a position to transform an ambulance service, improve processes, and find ways to engage the expertise of frontline staff working back to back emergencies?

    And finally, because humour oils our wheels, I will share this thought:
    I know in safety work, we should always test, fail, test again, fail better; but I am often reminded of my favourite fridge magnet:

    “If at first you don’t succeed, you probably shouldn’t paraglide”…

    1. Brent Sutton Reply

      Hi Anna, thank you for your feedback and yes I agree about the paraglide. One of the best books is from Dr Todd Conklin on the Five Principles of Human Performance avail in every format on Amazon. Also have a listen to our podcast series called The Practice of Learning Teams on every podcast platform and join our LinkedIn page of the same name. We are just about to launch a video/doco on everyday learning from successful work to learn and improve our systems.

  4. Rob Long Reply

    I find the language/linguistics of ‘drift into failure’ as most unhelpful. Not just the pejorative language of failure but the idea that there is some kind of reverse evolutionary process going on. There is no perfect success to ‘drift’ away from. We are fallible humans in a fallible world and don’t need this kind of language, as if some how we have arrived and then ‘drift’ away from it. What is missing from the discourse about drift is a debate about how success is defined and in a Transdisciplinary way. Similarly how learning is defined and some research on learning theory would also be helpful.

  5. Bogomir Glavan Reply


    Thanks for sharing your journey from Learning Teams. It definitely sparked interest with the parallels in focus with our Learning and Improvement Team (LIT) created at American Airlines in 2019 as we explore the opportunities for Safety II within commercial aviation. As you elaborate above Learning is the catalyst we are trying to gain a better understanding of within our organization.

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