I 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.
- 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
- Reflect on the current safety program in your business. Answer the questions below?
- What would your employees say about your current safety program (good, bad, ugly)
- How do you feel about your current safety program?
- Does it inspire you, is it interesting or engaging?
- What does good look like and does your safety program meet this description?
- How authentic is it? Is it about people or paperwork?
- Does it create trust and belonging?
- Are you a lone crusader or is everyone on board?
- Statistically, culturally, and from a resources perspective is what you are doing actually working?
- Reflect on your answers. How does it ‘feel’ to read them? Happy, inspiring, exhausting etc.
- 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).
- 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.