People are the solution

peoplearethesolutionI once ran some focus groups on a mine site. The goal was to identify conditions that made work difficult. One of the issues that the workforce identified was that “Work is difficult when you drive at night and you can’t see signage, rocks, and other traffic”. After having presented this and other findings to the project employees during a prestart meeting, one of the truckies came up to me and said: “Let me know if you need any help in assessing effectiveness or placing the lighting towers. I’ve got a master’s degree in lighting. I can help.”

So there was this truck operator, who up until that point had been defined by the role and responsibility that the organisation had given him: to operate a truck. But his potential was clearly much bigger than that. And he was keen to contribute more. I passed on his name to the managers but I don’t know what happened with this after I left. However, this experience triggered a question and a perspective that I have explored since: That people are the solution.

Organisations are filled with people whose capacity goes above and beyond the roles and responsibilities that we have assigned them. Every organisation is a bundle of (more or less locked up) intelligence, passion, knowledge, creativity, collaboration, knowhow, innovation that can be used to improve, detect, assess ambiguous environments, optimise cutting edge technology that we haven’t fully understood yet, carry out work under competitive pressures to do more with less, care about colleagues, speak up, and to lend a helping hand.  And organisations are free to make use of this resource – to realise its intellectual, emotional and creative potential.

In this sense, the question that we need to ask ourselves may not be how people can be the solution. But rather: How come that the potential of people so often is overlooked, disregarded, discarded and even disdained when it comes to safety? Because, this potential remains a relatively unexplored resource in most companies that I’ve visited. This capacity to innovate and create is more often than not considered a problem – an unpredictable threat that better be kept at bay and within confined roles and responsibilities handed down from above.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve often wondered why organisations so willingly and frequently turn away from or against this potential resource – their people – when it comes to safety.

  • Why this escape from its own potential?
  • Why do so many organisations copy what other organisations do?
  • Why are so many organisations keen on importing products that have been developed elsewhere?
  • Why is it that there is so little creativity when it comes to safety?
  • Why are we so keen on using outside expertise rather than looking for the answer within our own organisations? Why are there so few celebrations of local initiatives?

Below, I first provide two potential answers as to why people so often are considered a problem. Second, I outline some steps toward making people the solution.


Control and Predictability

First, when functions are designed, control and predictability are highly desirable features. Under pressures to carry out projects on time, on budget, without any losses to machinery, people or environment, control and predictability are seductive notions. Humans with their free will, subjectivity, creativity, autonomy and capacity to see and combine things in unexpected ways, do not really fit the ideals of control and predictability. So this idea, this potential, about people being the solution, is perhaps too disruptive. You have no idea what people can come up with. People’s potential brings great uncertainty into our plans(1).

In fact, it takes a lot of effort to keep this potential at bay. To maintain or increase control and predictability, organisations tend to opt for a prescriptive approach. By imposing prescriptions around methods, behaviours and values, organisations reduce reactivity, mess, diversity, variation, uncertainty, but also creativity and autonomy. They also increase repetition, conformity, discipline, uniformity and order.

I believe it’s crucial to recognise that prescriptions have as a goal to transform the consciousness of the prescribed person to align with the person who prescribes. The more you prescribe and ask for compliance, the more of a problem people become, and the less engagement and creativity you will have. Why should people be engaged when the thinking, designs and solutions have been handed down to them? How can they be engaged when all that has already been done for them?

I increasingly ask safety managers “do you really want engagement, or is it buy-in into compliance you’re looking for?”


The escape from freedom

A second reason why organisations escape their own potential is psychologically perhaps more interesting. When we face an unknown, and uncertain future and something that may potentially go wrong, people and organisations have a tendency to look to something external to project our hopes on, to displace our doubts, to have something to cling on to(2).

Essentially, this is a belief that we will be saved if we rely on something external to ourselves. This may be:

  • a standard
  • a best practice
  • a method developed elsewhere
  • a charismatic leader
  • a set of sparkly rules
  • a theory
  • more evidence based science
  • Asking “What would market leading company X do?”

All these potential points of stability may be good in and of themselves. And they can all be quite seductive in that someone else has already thought about the issue much more than we have, so why shouldn’t we follow their lead?

In contrast to this desire for stable tools to chart and master an unknown future, what your people can offer is relatively unstable and unattractive:

  • What you want is something objective. People are susceptible to whims or subjectivity.
  • It is way more attractive to rely on laws of regularity, rather than people’s hunches and gripes.
  • You probably want facts, not individual opinions.
  • You will want numbers, rather than descriptions.
  • You will want the ‘one best way’, rather than exploring the many good enough ways that people may have developed.
  • You may prefer something that has been tested and validated, over the new and unproven things that people can come up with
  • Of course you’d like something formal, like a set of accountabilities, rather than informal relations built on fuzzy trust.
  • It’d be good if you could have something static and written down, rather than something which is changeable.
  • You are likely to prefer precise rules, rather than approximate interpretations.

It’s a very soothing notion that we can buy or access our safety and security from somewhere, that safety is a product that can be put in place. It’s potentially an anxiety reducing thought that we can escape doubt and our own responsibility to be the best we can, by copying someone else. But the cost of escaping your own freedom to embrace safety in a way that only you can, is the loss of creativity, loss of engagement, loss of ownership, a loss of your own potential, loss of authenticity, and a way to make the world a bit more boring.


Overcoming the fear of freedom

When you step outside mainstream ways of being and seeing safety, when you commit to realising your own organisational potential – you are likely to suffer varying degrees of isolation, confusion, doubts, ambiguity, and other difficulties that first emerge when you face great uncertainty about your own capability. If you want to step off the beaten track, you will have to start benchmarking yourself to yourself. And it may take a while to establish your own standards after a long period of relying on someone else’s. Also, you as an organisation will expose yourself to critique, and quite possibly to legal action should things not work out.

To be able to sort through and go through this ‘valley of despair’ you and your organisation need to assume autonomy and responsibility by starting to relate your actions to yourself. Here are three steps that can help with the transition.

  1. First, look within. If you want innovation and engagement, if people are the solution, you can’t default to looking for the solution outside your own business. I think it’s much more intriguing to assume that somewhere in your own organisations there is already a solution in place that is keeping your people safe. Otherwise you’d have more incidents. You need to figure out what it is that is currently enabling people to work safely. Start by looking at what already works.
  2. Ask, listen and explore how your people understand their world, how they currently contribute. Ask your people what they care about. What they struggle with. What ideas they have. For the safety professionals of the future I predict that it will be more important to be able to explore than to have the answers.
  3. Start small. Don’t do everything at once. There is no need to abandon everything that you’ve done to date and stand naked in the mud waiting for ideas and inspiration to start flowing. That’d be arrogant, and probably boring. Instead, start small. Run micro experiments. Get creative. Get permission to try things locally. If it works, expand and roll it out. If it doesn’t work you can shut it down, learn from it and try again.


Overcoming the drive for control and predictability

  1. Accept that you can’t eliminate the drive for control and predictability. Control and predictability is to a large extent what organisations are about and in many ways it is what they are supposed to do.
  2. But you can design co-generative processes to find solutions. Safety, or organisational life in general, is not a free for all/laissez-faire type whimsical walk in the park. Leaders can still approve and decide which solutions are put in place. And I think they should. But they can easily engage the many minds available to do the thinking for what the solutions might be. You can help your workforce to evaluate their ideas, and to present them to management. You can maintain control, and people can still be the solution. When leaders and workers are engaged in a co-generative exploration, you make better use of the resources that you have available.
  3. Change the social fabric. Safety, and work in general, is always embedded in a social structure. Unless you tweak, stretch and recombine the social fabric of your organisation (who talks with whom, about what, what happens with the information) not much is going to change. The most common issue I see is that there are filters between those with access to resources, and those with the most intimate understanding of sensitivities and what might work. If you want innovation and engagement you need to change this social setup. You need to bridge the gap, or at least combine people in a new way. The good news is that this is actually quite easy and straightforward. If you’re a manager you can reach out, get out from behind your desk, and start spending more time with the messy details of your operations. You need to start asking more questions, to listen more, collect more information from the front line, and create a more interactive interface between the many facets of your organisation.


The end result

The one sided application of externally developed practices that were developed for yesterday’s needs, makes us blind to what we currently face, but also locks up the resources we have available to overcome. To overcome we need the collective wisdom, curiosity, and creativity and we need to become the best we can be. The way I envision the best is an organisation:

  • where individual differences are considered a resource
  • that makes their own discoveries
  • where solution are driven by people taking responsibility, rather than meeting top down accountabilities.

The biggest threat to safety is not the non-compliant worker. Instead, the greatest danger lies in our belief in authority, uniformity, and external expertise. The challenge ahead is not one of winning hearts and minds to ensure safety. Instead, the challenge is to figure out how we can enable people and organisations to unleash their own capacity to create the future they would like to see.


Sources of inspiration

  1. Klein, Gary (2014). No, your organisation really won’t innovate.
  2. Fromm, Erich. (1941). The escape from freedom. Farrar & Rinehart


  1. Dave Collins Reply

    Great article Daniel – back in the 90’s, when I was in a production management role, I realized that just about every person on site had skills other than which we had defined them by – they were senior volunteers in social committees, volunteer bushfire fighters, had very different previous roles – even parents!! All these were skills which could be utilised in the workplace if we opened our minds and imagination and let go of trying to control and got our of their way.

  2. drbillcorcoran Reply

    “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them. Constantly ask yourself, “How would I do this if I were a fool?” Throttle down your mind to a crawl. Then you will never go wrong.”
    ― Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny

    It’s not just the Navy.

  3. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    Great post Daniel, I have often thought along the same lines, here is some reflection.

    The presentation of site safety induction content and information is normally delivered via a power point presentation. The facilitator addresses the audience to ensure the participants receive an understanding of the mandatory requirements of the site.

    The content is delivered sequentially through a range of safety and environment information, amongst other important requirements, which is often predicted and understood by the audience in advance.
    The predicative nature of content has been informed by our industry norms, organisations performing similar inductions, a similar way with similar information, despite the unique content that characterises one organisation from the next.

    What is missing, engagement!

    Sure, you can make power points more attractive by fancy animations and colours or introducing an enthusiastic key note speakers or facilitators to deliver the message. In a profound you tube clip, “Life After Death by PowerPoint” (McMillan, 2008), McMillian explains that more colour only makes the content more enjoyable and does not make the message any clearer.

    Over the past three weeks, I commenced delivering the standard site safety induction differently, this time with more engagement.

    Here’s how it worked.

    I commenced the induction normally, discussing the project and site team members, five slides deep, I switched off the presentation. At this point, I engaged the audience on the next gear principles and offered two options to move forward.

    Option 1 – Continue to present the power point information the normal, predictive way.
    Option 2 – Allow the audience to lead and discuss the safety content in an engaging way.

    On three occasions, the audience, early on a Monday morning chose option 2.
    At the end of each session, we collectively checked the agenda items to ensure the required information was covered and discussed. Interestingly, we covered more valuable content in the same amount of time, steered by those attending and not the facilitator.

    The key to fostering a truly engaged workforce is not only in the delivery, its permitting the audience to be engaged in the outcome.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Ben, an engagement like that, where people can take responsibilities in ways they see fit, goes beyond consultation, consolidation and buy in. It reconfigures the exchange from transactional to relational. Sounds brilliant. Would love to hear more as the exploration continues!

  4. Paul Bussey Reply

    Daniel, An excellent and inspirational paper. The UK Construction Industry is trying to implement the new CDM 2015 Regulations but everyone is again seeing it as just a set of rules for implementation rather than a framework for encouraging creativity and team-working, with safety included. Your Safety Differently website and approach is helping to encourage the free thinkers and thought leaders.
    Keep up the excellent work
    Paul Bussey (RIBA, DIOHAS)

  5. Lewis Conner Reply

    Good article, it evidences a thoughtful assessment of practical organizational development possibilities.

    I agree some people can make meaningful contributions beyond their current roles or pay grades. However, I would counsel any organization that wants to tap into that potential to think carefully about how they’re going to manage the effort. Following are some things to consider.

    To begin, senior management should establish the ground rules, especially clear expectations for what supra job title participation will include. Will these freed wage slaves be allowed to adjust the organization’s goals? Can they tinker with the constraints the organization faces, e.g., laws, regulations, contracts or budgets? My guess is maybe a little, but probably not much, and only in areas that are safety-related.

    Explicit ground rules are the key to keeping participation authentic, i.e., engaged in activities that might actually be permitted to be implemented. I’m old enough to remember when “participatory management” was the flavor of the month in academic and consulting circles. There was considerable disappointment in the early days when folks figured how just how narrowly defined their “participation” was. In the present case, participation may be limited to certain aspects of how the organization’s safety goals will be achieved.

    Next, what does senior management really want? Sincere engagement and participation? Total compliance with the rules and procedures? A tight grip on the reins? Credit for good things but plausible deniability if something goes wrong? Something else?

    Recognize that management can control stuff even when it’s trying to help. I worked on a project to implement a new capital project ranking system for a utility. The CEO came to the first workshop and as he was leaving, offered his opinion for what the weights could be for the ranking criteria. Guess what the final answer was?

    What is the culture of the place, the common values held by most employees and the aspirational values espoused by the leadership? How is increased engagement going to work in this organization? Will there be unintended consequences?

    Will the opportunity for engagement be seen as hypocrisy? For example, look at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant in Washington state, a project that talks about how important people are but has not yet even established an effective project-wide Safety Conscious Work Environment where employees can raise safety-related issues or questions without fear of reprisal.

    Finally, accept that not everyone is capable of or interested in making a relevant (from the organization’s viewpoint) contribution. There are ax-grinders, gadflies, troublemakers and incompetents in any group of sufficient size. They cannot be allowed to hijack the process to champion a bad idea.

    I realize I sound like the grumpy old man I swore I would not become. Anyway, beware of Pandora’s box. Listen to good ideas but try to avoid making things worse or an outright disaster (see Crystal River nuclear plant and their do-it-yourself containment penetration).

    If this stuff were easy, everybody would be doing it. Keep up the good work.

    1. drbillcorcoran Reply

      Knowledge-Based Behavior is widely known to have a high failure rate. 50% or so?
      Who says so?

      What are the fiascos that involve Knowledge-Based Behavior of self-empowered can-do unintended perpetrators?

      The Browns Ferry Fire?
      The USS Forrestal Fire?
      The Kansas City Hyatt Regency Skywalk?
      The Bumble Bee Tuna Incineration?
      The VW Dieselgate?
      (Your favorite goes here.)

      It’s not just the Knowledge-Based Behavior. It takes an organization that does not apply due process diligence to the Knowledge-Based Behavior before it is converted to reality.

  6. garyswong Reply

    On the theme that People are the Solution, let’s not forget about those who believe Technology is the Solution. All we need are better tools that any worker can use, a more robust SMS or big data analytics to manage our safety performance

    Kentaro Toyama is his book “Geek Heresy” explains why technology alone won’t change the world. Human wisdom, not machines, move our world forward. After years in Microsoft Research and trying to get a computer into every classroom, he came to the conclusion in an age of amazing technology, social progress depends on human changes that gadgets can’t deliver.

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