There is a lot of talk about safety journeys these days. During a recent conference workshop, attendees were asked to mark where their organisations were along a ‘safety culture maturity scale’. Equipped with this ‘knowledge’ from asking ‘where are we now?’ and ‘where do we want to be?’ people could allegedly analyse the gap. But also, many managers and decision-makers make frequent use of ‘safety journey’ in explaining current and future developments. The journey is of course surrounded by a supporting travelling discourse: destinations, landmarks, milestones, navigation, path, onward and upward.
The idea is that by building on the strengths of previous ‘levels’ and gradually peel off weaknesses, organisations can incrementally move toward a ‘stronger and more resilient’ way of organising. Consequently, one should not jump from one stage to another but allow the process it’s ‘due time’. Managers and stakeholders interested in promoting a first class safety culture should therefore have a long term perspective. 2-5 years seems a reasonable estimate to ‘get there’.
Being on a journey has a seductive appeal. It carries the tantalising notion of a better and brighter future, that there is a ‘goal’ where organisations could finally arrive – the Jerusalem of safety perhaps. There’s no shortage of safety gurus describing desired destinations – a ‘just culture’, a reporting culture, to have an engaged workforce, etc. Such goals are of course attractive.
The notion of a safety journey rests on bureaucratic, plan-driven, sequential, predictive or prescriptive development ideals. In no way is this a unique approach to improve safety. Using rationality and reductionism to pursue an ideal order is frequently used in developing things that are relatively well defined, predictable, and unlikely to undergo significant change. The process makes logical sense – we are here, we want to be there, so we take steps in that direction and bring everybody with us.
To be fair, the safety journey metaphor brings one good thing: When people are on a journey they must to some extent abandon what they are used to, in favour of finding new ways of being and seeing the world. Talking about a journey thus potentially opens enclosed minds to at least reflect on the current situation and step out to see a larger pattern. By highlighting the potential of other ways, rigid situations may be unlocked and people can find a vision, connect with each other in new ways and find a common language to describe a better future – something relentlessly desired in the world of safety. Thus, an idea difficult to turn down.
I get bored and confused when asked to position my organisation on a safety maturity scale. Every organisation I’ve visited rely on systems, and simultaneously have pockets of generative brilliance. And when unwanted events occur, there may be ways of seeing and being in relation to safety that are inherently reactive. Any organisation is so many things at once. Ways come and go as needs arise. Whatever is, seems contextually dependent rather than a trait of the organisation. Whatever pattern is dominant at a given time has nothing to do with some sort of internal quality, or objectively passable landmarks. I could put the X all over the scale.
But such is not the exercise: Thinking along a scale or journey requires people to reduce complex, rich, diverse, ambiguous, simultaneous, messy, contradictory, and parallel patterns of thoughts, actions and ways of relating to each other, into a single dot. This way of thinking discards an abundance of potential and interpretive freedom, in order to have an arbitrary (yet cognitive economic) focus point. Equipped with such a strangely slender representation of what is available, it is perhaps not surprising that people talk about years of journeying.
The fact is that I’m yet to meet someone who has actually arrived on their journey. This makes me think that any plan to set out on a safety journey is either naive, that there is no destination, or that the metaphor has serious flaws.
Safety journey talk is also relational. Once the safety journey language game has been establish, the choice is between being one who is on a journey, and one who is not. You’re either onboard or not. As such, the safety journey is a powerful linguistic tool to force people to join a higher cause. Whatever people have believed in and built towards is consequently evaluated against the end goal, or against the itinerary. The travel metaphor can thus be threatening, urging people to give up ways that are important to them, to replace this with systems and other people’s ideas, to be ready to relinquish their home turf. While some people may be inclined toward change and embracing uncertainty, many people are not. As a consequence, everybody is frustrated: those who urge for the journey to continue, and those who have things to loose. The point is that a safety journey does not invite to build successful projects based on what is currently available, but rather what those leading the organisation has thought out.
Should there indeed be a change or not, chances are that both leaders and followers will see that what came out of the new direction is not glossier and more functional than what was before. As a consequence, people grow weary, disillusioned, and start separating themselves from overarching bold initiatives to favour more local control. As a result, organisations become more fragmented and filled with employees who cannot find the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.
If we describe safety developments as a predictable travel from here to there, there is little hope people will want to be part of what we are trying to achieve. We could try to abandon the use of this metaphor or otherwise expel it. However, it should be possible to describe safety developments as explorations, to make it a trip into the unknown for which everybody’s contribution, experience, eyes, ears and sense-making capacity are needed. This way we can have a collaborative and adaptive journey, one that is modified as unforseen events, encounters and opportunities appear. But that journey emerges from taking care of what is, from insights and rich entanglements impossible to incorporate into any itinerary.