The Default Future

DCF 1.0I read this great book called ‘The Three Laws of Performance’ written by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan. In this book I was introduced to the concept of the Default Future.

During my career I noticed that safety professionals (and this included myself) have a familiar box of tricks. We complete risk assessments, enshrine what we learn into a procedure or SOP, train on it, set rules and consequences, ‘consult’ via toolboxes or committees and then observe or audit.

When something untoward happens we stop, reflect and somehow end up with our hands back in the same box of tricks writing more procedures, delivering more training (mostly on what people already know), complete more audits and ensure the rules are better enforced….harder, meaner, faster. The default future described in The Three Laws of Performance looked a lot like what I just described!

What is the default future? We like to think our future is untold, that whatever we envision for our future can happen….However for most of us and the organisations we work for, this isn’t the case. To illustrate. You get bitten by a dog when you are a child. You decide dogs are unsafe. You become an adult, have kids and they want a dog. Because of your experiences in the past it is unlikely you will get a dog for your kids. The future isn’t new or untold it’s more of the past. Or in a phrase, the past becomes our future. This is the ‘default future’.

Take a moment to consider this. It’s pretty powerful stuff with implications personally and organisationally. What you decide in the past will ultimately become your future.

How does this affect how we practice safety? Consider our trusty box of tricks. I spent years learning the irrefutable logic of things like the safety triangle and iceberg theory. How many times have I heard about DuPont’s safety journey? Or the powerful imagery of zero harm. The undeniable importance of ‘strong and visible’ leadership (whatever that means) which breeds catch phrases like safety is ‘priority number one’

These views are the ‘agreement reality’ of my profession. These agreements have been in place for decades. I learnt them at school, they were confirmed by my mentors, and given credibility by our regulators and schooling system. Some of the most important companies in Australia espouse it, our academics teach it, students devote years to learning it, workers expect it…. Our collective safety PAST is really powerful.

It’s not that the safety past hasn’t got us somewhere. On the contrary Australian workplaces are safer due to the collective efforts of our forebears. However safety like all things is subject to the law of diminishing returns. If we want a ‘better’ safety future then doing more of the past is not going to get us there. If it was, it would have already. After all we have been doing the same thing, or variations of it for decades.

So how do you shift an agreement reality that has been in place for close to a century? The Default Future is not just a good way to describe what we are getting for our actions, it’s also a powerful way to shift organisational paradigms.

I would like to do an exercise with you. If you wish to participate you will need a pen and paper.

  1. On a piece of paper write down the safety future you want for your business. Be aspirational and creative, avoid clichés like zero harm statements or an LTIFR number. Instead write a list of things that if present in your workplace would inspire and excite you, would become your reason for coming to work every day and capture your loyalty and imagination
  2. Reflect on the current safety program in your business. Answer the questions below?
    1. What would your employees say about your current safety program (good, bad, ugly)
    2. How do you feel about your current safety program?
    3. Does it inspire you, is it interesting or engaging?
    4. What does good look like and does your safety program meet this description?
    5. How authentic is it? Is it about people or paperwork?
    6. Does it create trust and belonging?
    7. Are you a lone crusader or is everyone on board?
    8. Statistically, culturally, and from a resources perspective is what you are doing actually working?
  3. Reflect on your answers. How does it ‘feel’ to read them? Happy, inspiring, exhausting etc.
  4. Again reflect on your answers. Under the current way of doing things what is the almost certain probable safety future for your organisation? (the default future).
  5. Will your actions achieve the future you envisioned in Question 1?

In order to create an organisational shift, rather than reflect on what’s broken and needs fixing in the past take your organisation on a journey into their almost certain, probable future – the default future. There is something very powerful about seeing what all your collective efforts and actions are actually getting you.

By the end of this type of conversation the organisation may choose to try another way. The intention of the conversation is not to get ‘buy in’ for the idea it’s about creating a state of readiness to try something else.

I would like to leave you with this. We all want health, happiness, acceptance and success. We have the ability to achieve this as individuals and as organisations. However it’s not just going to happen; more of the past just happens. To be the cause in the matter of your future and your organisations consider the following:

  • Think critically – when you think you have it figured out, you probably haven’t, dig deeper.
  • Be brave – tough conversations are tough for a reason but very rewarding.
  • Introduce your business to their default future, its far more powerful than reflecting on the past.
  • Foster creativity and innovation. Stop cutting and pasting. Breakthrough performance will not come from the same old box of tricks. Find a better way.


  1. Chris mcquade Reply

    Nice. If one studies the psychology of change, even at a very Snr level , we are more comfortable in trying harder doing the same things, as compare to venturing into the unknown. While businesses often communicate a tolerance for risk and with change and innovation there is risk, in safety one could interprete risk management as risk avoidance.

  2. Gary Wong Reply

    I really like how you applied the Default Future concept to safety. It’s pretty clear that the current dominating safety paradigms see people as error prone or create problems working in idealistic technological systems, processes, rules. Perplexed managers get into a “fix-it” mode by recalling what worked in the past and assume that is the solution going forward. As the book’s First Law states: “How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.”
    Where it gets interesting for me is the Second Law: “How a situation occurs arises in language.” As evidence-based safety analysts, we need to hear the language and capture the conversations. One way is the Narrative approach where data is collected in the form of stories. We may even go beyond words and collect pictures, voice recordings, water cooler snippets, grapevine rumours, etc. When we see everything as a collective, we can discover themes and patterns emerging. These findings could be the keys that lead to an “invented” future.
    The Third Law of Performance is what I believe Safety Differently is all about: “Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people.” Let’s talk less about inspecting to catch people doing the wrong things and talk more about doing what’s right; i.e., Safety-II. Let’s talk less about work-as-imagined deviations and more about work-as-actually-done; i.e., less blaming and more appreciating and learning how people adjust performance when faced with varying, unexpected conditions. Let’s talk less about past accident statistics and injury reporting systems and talk more about sensing networks that trigger anticipatory awareness of emerging negative events. Let’s talk less about some idealistic Future state vision we hope to achieve linearly in a few years and talk more about staying in the Present and proactively listening and then responding to what is emerging in the Now. And one more…let’s talk less about being reductionists (breaking down social-technical systems into its parts) and talk more about being holistic and understanding how parts (human, machines, ideas, etc.) relate, interact, and adapt together. The “invented” future conceivably may be one that is unknowable and unimaginable today but will emerge with future-based conversations.

    1. Gary Wong Reply

      Hi, Loren. No, I haven’t partaken in any Landmark Worldwide programs. My leadership background is from being a FranklinCovey 7 Habits training consultant. I also have a performance management training diploma from However, my venture into complexity science has made me realize that both programs while popular and powerful contain a lot of idealistic thinking with elements of reductionism. As one consequence, I am concerned that some consultants offering Behaviour-based Safety (BBS) primarily focus on reinforcing and punishing human behaviour. From a complexity standpoint, the focus should be on relationships and what emerges from iteractions. Relationships go beyond those between people and include any agent that can impact a system – machines, materials, money, methods, ideas, et al.
      Another personal Eureka moment was my view of Safety changed, perhaps evolved is a better word. When Karl Weick stated Safety is a dynamic non-event, it got me wondering. Now with a better understanding of complexity, I see Safety is a situational property that emerges from setting the right conditions. In the same fashion, Danger is a property that can emerge from wrong conditions. When talking to clients, I introduce the Tipping Point concept in safety when too much of a good thing can lead to unintended negative consequences. A familiar example:  Safety rules are helpful in setting the right conditions for safety to emerge. However, too many safety rules can reach a tipping point where danger in the form of workers tuning out or becoming complacent emerges.
      BTW, when I was in New Zealand this past summer delivering complexity-based safety training, I had the opportunity to hear conversations regarding the new NZ Health & Safety reforms. The fact they are modeled after the Australian compliance model led to some, shall I say, interesting comments. More inspections, political safety targets, more punishment directed at the CEO level. It’s plausible that a CEO could land in jail for an unsafe act committed by a front-line worker s/he doesn’t even know. Clearly the CEO can’t afford to be clueless and at the mercy of managers filtering sensitive safety information. One solution is to build a human sensor network which encourages story conversations and creates a state of readiness. By also applying the 3 Laws of Performance, one can influence the number and flavour of the stories told and thus shape the safety culture.

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