Some of you may have heard this already from one source or another, but I am stepping away from running the SafetyDifferently.com site. I love this site, especially for the role it played in shaping my own thinking. However, it is because of this love that I know I need to pass the reigns over to someone else who has the time and motivation to devote the energy to making this site live up to its true potential. Right now I am being pulled in too many directions unfortunately and that is unlikely to change in the near future. It saddens me to step away from the site, but not as much as it saddens me to not be able to invest the necessary effort into it.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to say that Jeff Lyth has agreed to take over as owner and editor of the site. I cannot think of anyone better to do this. Jeff is a dear friend and in speaking with him, he has a vision for the site that is inspiring. Additionally, Dr. Ivan Pupulidy will also be assisting Jeff in an editorial role. I will be around to help as they need, but I must say that it feels great to know that I’m leaving the site in such capable hands.
Before I officially hand over the site though (which will happen sometime in November), I wanted to share some thoughts and observations with the community. I am intensely proud to be a part of a movement within safety to shift how the profession thinks and operates. I feel like we have come so far in developing a set of principles and practices that are actionable.
That said, I have some concerns about the direction we are headed. I do not see these as criticisms per se, but more as cautions that I want to share in hopes that we can avoid some pitfalls and take advantage of new opportunities that may present themselves. I hope they are taken in the spirit they are given.
First, regarding the website in particular, I would like to see more safety differently, and less Safety Differently. When I first came to the website what inspired me was the openness of it all. Safety differently was about challenging preconceived ideas about how safety is commonly practiced. Anything was on the table for discussion and there were no sacred cows. The only criteria was that it was different. Over time though, and perhaps inevitably, Safety Differently became a thing. The principles were defined and lines were drawn. This is understandable and, in some ways, a good thing. But I want to challenge the community to not lose the spirit of adventure that we had when this all started. What’s next? What are we going to be talking about in 10 years? What parts of Safety Differently are going to get stale as the world continues to change? Safety is not a journey, it is an exploration. My hope is that this website is not devoted to creating converts to a cause, but rather admonishing a new generation of explorers.
Second, beware the allure of best practices. As Safety Differently (and other similar ideas, see below) grows in popularity, there is a natural inclination to look for how to apply these principles. When figuring out what to do human beings instinctually look to what others are doing. Why reinvent the wheel? This is normal, logical, and, to a degree perhaps, quite appropriate. However, there is a serious danger that we need to keep in mind. If Safety Differently and similar approaches are simplified to a set of best practices that one needs to do to be doing Safety Differently it will quickly be no different than any other top-down bureaucratic approach to safety management.
We need to learn from each other, which means learning how others are applying the ideas, concepts, and principles. But we need to be skeptical about applying those practices to our organizations. Safety, like everything else in organizations, is context-specific. So you cannot simply take one practice that is working well in one organization and expect you can transplant it into another organization and have similar results. If we take this concept to its logical conclusion then we have to be ready to even accept that there may be some tasks, some environments, and perhaps even some organizations where applying Safety Differently would be inappropriate to the context. If we are not ready to accept this then I would argue that the logic of Safety Differently is self-defeating and the criticisms many hear that adherents to Safety Differently are zealots may be true. We can be and should be better than this.
This leads to my third point, that we need more evidence. This is true of all of safety management. So much of what is done in safety is done without much in the way of evidence to show it actually works. This is such a significant problem that most safety professionals do not know to even ask for evidence and wouldn’t even know how to evaluate evidence if it were provided. We need to be better than this. Safety professionals need to get better at generating, asking for, and evaluating evidence for what we do. We need more collaboration between practitioners and academics. We need easier access to academic research for practitioners. We need practitioners who know how to develop field experiments for what they do. We need to get skeptical of anyone who makes claims without providing evidence (including people on this website).
Finally, I also wonder if we need to clarify what this movement is and the different theories, ideas, and perspectives within this movement. We have Safety Differently, Safety-II, Human & Organizational Performance, and perhaps others that I am not even aware of. Sometimes these are used interchangeably and sometimes people point to differences between each. I have thought about this a lot and I understand that there are upsides and downsides to keeping them interchangeable versus clarifying the differences. Neither option is without its problems. If we keep them interchangeable we lose the subtle (and sometimes not subtle) perspective shifts each brings which may stunt opportunities for growth. If we clarify the differences we risk divulging into turf wars amongst the perspectives.
Personally, I believe that clarifying the differences is in our best interest. Specifically, I think that Safety-II and Human & Organizational Performance should be treated as two complimentary, but separate approaches. HOP appears to be focused on adjusting how organizations respond to failure and “human error,” whereas Safety-II is focused on building success and rejects “human error” as a meaningful label altogether. Safety differently should be reserved not for a theory or approach, but rather as a general perspective of challenging existing norms, beliefs, and practices in safety.
Of course, these are just suggestions, speaking only for myself. But I hope they at least generate some thought and discussion. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who contributed such thought provoking posts during my tenure. Thank you for Daniel Hummerdal for starting such an important site and being such a great friend and guide in all of this. And thank you to all of you out there who are so hungry for new ways to think about and practice safety. You made it all worth it.