Ron Gantt and I recently exchanged some emails with questions and ideas about what safety differently is. I post part of the conversation below, hoping to hear from readers about their take on what safety differently means are at and might go.


On 3 Dec 2014, at 12:54 am, Ron Gantt wrote:

Hi Daniel,


I’ve been thinking about a potential post after an email discussion with Zinta about change and how much easier it is to define what we’re changing from than it is to define what we’re changing into, for many reasons. If you’re running away from something there’s nearly an infinite amount of directions you can run and achieve your goal. But running toward something limits the options significantly. The new view of safety seems, at least to me, as currently better defined by what we are not than what we are. I believe she mentioned a conversation you two had about how, one day it won’t (or shouldn’t) be “safety differently”, because, hopefully, it is the norm. But what does that mean?

I’m interested in your thoughts on any of it.

Best wishes,


On Dec 4, 2014, at 9:22 PM, Daniel Hummerdal wrote:

Hi Ron,

While “safety differently” was a good enough name to get started, some have remarked that it really doesn’t point to much. As you said, it is more about what we’re trying to get away from than explaining where we want to go.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard allegedly said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but you must live it forwards.” (probably in Danish though). I’ve never been a fan of goals, visions and plans as drivers or ways of organising. They strike me as limiting rather than inspiring. It seems to suffice perfectly well to do what makes sense (wherever that comes from) and then the rest will sort of fall into place, and if it doesn’t you adapt and try again. And then one can make sense of it in hindsight. So in many ways I think, or at least used to think, that just knowing what I wanted to get away from was good enough. The uncertainty and under-specificity of what was to come was ok.

That being said, after having spent a few years in this space I perceive some emerging contours from the totality of posts, discussions, questions and literature. Safety differently means:

  • A new way of thinking: Safety is about enabling things to go right. This breaks radically with traditional safety thinking which is focused on eliminating things that can go wrong. Accordingly, safety is and will be more and more an integral part of looking at work, opening up a continuum of possible configurations rather than holding on to a bi-modal safe or unsafe kind of thinking. And we are just starting to see this (safety II) way of thinking informing a range of old and new practices in more and more organisations: incident investigations (also learning from any event, not only safety incidents), safety audits, improvement programs, risk assessments, success focused reviews, etc. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing organised attempt to coordinate these ways and create new ‘standards’ on what good looks like. Similarly I think we can expect a burgeoning of consultancies offering to help organisation put this principle into practice. In fact I think we may soon see the rise of safety II zealots, preaching the new way, new standards a new type of compliance, etc. Little new will come of this. However, safety differently is more than replacing one way of thinking with another.
  • A new way of relating: A move toward ‘multivocality’. While traditional safety has been heavy on imposing best practices, more and more initiatives are about engaging the available diversity in perspectives, ideas and creativity. I predict that we’ll see more and more mechanisms co-sense, co-inspire, and co-create local futures. The Tayloristic approach about the one best way has long been outdated. And it has contributed to disconnecting those who govern and those at the frontline of operations. Sadly, it has rendered one of these group relatively voiceless. I do not think safety professionals will be a thing of the past, but I think it’s likely that they will move away from control and constraints, toward facilitating collaboration, connections, creativity and innovation.
  • A preoccupation with the future: Many, like you and I, seem to come to the ‘safety differently space’ after a period of doubt (despair?) arising from trying to fix the world, after struggling to get it right. As we’ve shifted (been shifted?) the inner place from which we engage we seem to stop reacting to the past and trying to fix it, we suspend judgment, we redirect our attention, ask for help, we open up rather than close down, we look for how things can be different. My words/thoughts/labels are not enough here, but there’s something about deliverance/midwifery – letting go of past ways and allowing the future to emerge (through us? Sounds very spiritual..).


I have no intentions to limit the possibilities where people can run but the above is more an attempt to describe where we have come to at this stage (but I have stopped a few posts sent to me because they were too close to what we’re trying to get away from. Anywhere but there hey?). If anything, the (safety II) thinking aspect may become a norm, and eventually be outdated/needed to be replaced (safety III??). The second two bullets I see as rather timeless concepts.

As I said, these are merely emerging contours. Especially the last point. I’d love to hear where you see things are heading, and would be delighted if you can help refine some of what I’ve tried to sketch above.



On 5 Dec 2014, at 12:18 am, Ron Gantt wrote:

Daniel, I love the way your mind works! I also love the spiritual undertones of it. It points to something bigger than us that we don’t have to explain necessarily in our mechanistic ways, just accept. In a way complexity is a lot like that with its path dependency (destiny) and emergence (divine intervention).

At any rate, I do think you’re right that any one way is limiting. And sometimes, even if there is one goal, the journey to that goal is not necessarily or even ideally linear. I’m reminded of something I heard about Saudi culture, where, when walking to a destination the Saudis allegedly will take very roundabout methods to get there. It’s a bit unnerving to westerners with our drive for efficiency, but it’s part of their culture and therefore doing it any other way wouldn’t be quite right.

I think though that you’re right that this new movement, paradigm or whatever we call it cannot really have a “goal” in the traditional sense of the word. A goal sort of just takes us back to the “one best method” approach. I wonder though if instead we focus on relevant features of an approach. Instead of saying “this is what you do” we can say “here’s the sort of feel of what you do”. For example, cookie cutter approaches won’t work. So there should be some element that identifies context (so, in a way, “safety differently” is appropriate, not as a reference to how we do safety different than others, but how each organization does safety different from another).

Other features, such as how the organization identifies what makes work difficult and differences between work-as-imagined and work-as-performed, or even elements of the resilience action grid. As I’m writing this, it seems like you could almost define the movement not necessarily by the solutions it proposes, but by the problems it identifies as relevant to safety practice. Traditional safety is preoccupied with rule breaking as the problem, whereas we suggest the problem is perhaps with the rules themselves.

file0001385824102And I fully expect there to be more versions of safety than there are Star Wars movies. As our world continues to change we’ll run into new problems that safety-II may not be adequately equipped to address. And then our children will start the  site to talk about how silly everything we did is to their world.

I’m happy to continue the conversation!



    1. Ron Gantt Reply

      Great question Bill! I do have some experience with system safety, although not as much as others on this forum (Drew Rae in particular), so perhaps others can provide their insights.

      But system safety and “safety differently” have a lot in common. Obviously they have similar overarching goals (protection of life, achievement of goals, etc.), but more importantly, system safety focuses on systems, rather than merely on programs (like traditional safety tends to do). Additionally system safety focuses a lot more on the design of systems, so it’s a bit more proactive. Safety differently would share these goals, at least in my estimation.

      System safety and safety differently do diverge in some areas though, in my experience. Firstly, system safety tends to be very technical, sharing much with reliability engineering disciplines. The approaches tend to be very linear and mechanistic. Failure is based on a bi-modality where components, including humans, are acting in a safe or unsafe way. Safety differently tends to be based more on complexity, with non-linear and emergent interactions. Human activity is not seen as bi-modal at all. Instead, humans vary their performance in complex ways in order to achieve perceived goals. This makes it difficult (impossible?) to call any individual behavior safe or unsafe without a reference to the context of that behavior.

      System safety tends to see humans as unreliable, problematic components within the system, whereas safety differently tends to view the human as a very reliable and often the source of safety and reliability within the system.

      Finally, system safety tends to see the goal as the reduction of risk down to acceptable levels through the elimination or control of hazards. Safety differently tends to see the goal as the increasing of the capacity to achieve successful outcomes under varying conditions (i.e. resilience).

      So the differences tend to be at the meta level – i.e. how each discipline (if I can use that word) views the problems that must be addressed and the methods that they see available to deal with those problems. But I do not think these differences are insurmountable.

  1. Zinta Satins Reply

    After reading this post I have come to the following conclusion. It isn’t about what we are moving away from or what we are moving towards. It’s about how we move.

  2. Gary Wong Reply

    I’d like to add my thoughts into the mix on what safety differently is.

    I share Zinto’s thinking that it’s about how we move. We should focus less on the past, the ‘default future’ as Loren Murray has blogged. But I also believe we should focus less on some idealistic future state such as the Generative level of a Hearts & Minds culture ladder. Instead we act differently by paying attention to the Present and discovering the behavioural patterns emerging from relationships and interactions.

    Safety differently is not blindly following a stepping stone path but taking the time to turn over each stone and challenging why is the stone here in the first place, what was the intent, is it still valid and useful.

    During engineering school I was taught to ignore friction as a force and use first order approximate linear models. When measuring distance, ignore the curvature of earth and treat as a straight line. Much of this thinking has translated into safety. Examples include Heinrich’s safety triangle, Domino theory, and Reason’s Swiss Cheese model. Safety differently is acknowledging that the real world is non-linear, Pareto distributed. It’s understanding how complexity in terms of diversity, coherence, tipping points, strange attractors, emergence, Black Swans impacts safety practices. Safety differently is no longer seeing safety as a product or a service but as an emergent property in a complex adaptive system.

    We can learn a lot from the amazing Big History Project. Dave Christian talks about the Goldilocks conditions that lead to increased complexity. Safety differently looks at what are these “just right” conditions that allow safety to emerge.

    Because safety is an emergent property, that means we can’t create, control, nor manage a safety culture. Safety differently researches modulators that might influence and shape a present culture. Modulators are different that Drivers. Drivers are cause & effect oriented (if we do this, we get that) whereas Modulators are catalysts we deliberately place into a system but cannot predict what will happen. It sounds a bit crazy but it’s done all the time. Think of a restaurant experimenting with a new menu item. The chef doesn’t actually know if it will be a success. Even if it fails, he will learn more about clientele food preferences. We call these safe-to-fail experiments where the knowledge gained is more than the cost of the probe.

    Safety differently views best practices as a space where ideas go to die. It’s the final end point of a linear line. Why die? Because there is no feedback loop that allows change to occur. Why no feedback loop? Because by definition it’s best practices and no improvement is necessary! Unfortunately, a Goldilocks condition arises we call complacency and the phenomenon is a drift into failure.

    Safety differently means using different strategies when navigating complexity. A good example is the Saudi culture that Ron mentioned re taking a roundabout method to get to a destination. This is a complexity strategy than John Kay wrote about in this book Obliquity. Safety differently means deploying abductive rather than traditional deductive and inductive reasoning. Safety differently means adaptation + exaptation as well as robustness + resilience.

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