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:
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.
On Dec 4, 2014, at 9:22 PM, Daniel Hummerdal wrote:
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.
And 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 safetydifferentlydifferently.com site to talk about how silly everything we did is to their world.
I’m happy to continue the conversation!