May 20, 2015
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Note: This is Part VIII in a series of posts entitled "Evolving Beyond Behaviourism." To read Part VII, please click here.
In this series I continue to explore—with the support and participation of readers who comment and join the conversation—pathways on the journey to Leading Safety Differently.
Allow me to tell another brief tennis story. (See my blog “What Tennis Reveals About the Limits of Behavior-based Safety” for my prior yarn about tennis, behavior and safety.)
The setting is a Saturday afternoon at 4pm. The temperature is 30° C and I am deep in a best-of-five sets match. In truth, I am deep in trouble. Serving back-to-back double-faults saps my confidence. I bend, put my hands on my knees and grimace.
With a mental and physical tailspin looming I pause to take a deep breath, then a second one. The pause and breaths somehow lead to self-awareness. I recall an old, bad habit I have of trying to control my serves by leaning my body toward the target attempting to 'steer it', which results in the ball dipping into the net.
Managing for the desired outcome in this way, in fact, precludes it. I remember my training: instead of steering the ball and leaning toward the target, I need to jump into the tossed ball and let the serve fly—exactly the opposite of a conservative, controlled behavior. When tired and behind on the scoreboard, this training takes courage to implement.
I take one more breath, toss the ball up. With bent knees, I take a leap and … success! A fast, spinning serve surprises my opponent; my confidence and energy surges, replacing fatigue and fear. I win the match.
Behaviorists have told us to “pay attention, avoid distraction and do it right.” Frankly, I think they miss the boat.
Did I pay attention and avoid distraction in the story above? Sure, in one way of speaking. But I believe that, more correctly, the key is awareness—self-awareness, which leads to focus. This is very different from control and avoidance. In fact, bringing awareness is adding and causing something rather than avoiding.
'Awareness' is different than 'focus'. Similarly, Safety Leadership is different than Safety Management.
Here is a visual analogy: From a point high above the ground, you and I can view a broad horizon. From this perspective, we likely will not notice specific features. From that same perch, however, we can also focus on a tree or another feature nearby. In so doing, the broad horizon becomes indistinct—we literally “lose sight of it.” Awareness is much like taking that broad perspective, while focus is the narrowing in of our attention.
The counter-actions of awareness and focus are in many ways opposites. In safety, though, awareness and focus are both important.
There is awareness of the big picture (e.g., are we making too many changes to track and manage well, especially in a start-up situation? Are we bending to ‘schedule-pressure’?). Managers and operators who have been in dynamic construction or operating environments talk about “losing the bubble” due to too many adjustments and changes in the face of key milestones or start-ups. A few changes are okay, but too many taken together equal big problems.
JMJ suggested that perhaps there was a bigger opportunity here. Rather than just reinforcing the rules, what might provide a better overall outcome?
I think the Macondo incident in the Gulf of Mexico can be viewed from this perspective. Awareness of the big picture—across time, balancing competing objectives, assimilating conflicting data, and recognizing biases—is critical in complex or pressured situations. Awareness entails pausing, stepping back, taking a moment out-of-time. Awareness calls for dispassionate, non-biased intent, and even entails intuition—making decisions without detailed data.
Safety Leadership includes broad perspective and awareness, while Safety Management calls for laser-like focus. Because of this, the two are diametrically opposed.
Therefore, Leading Safety Differently requires the ability to hold two opposing thoughts (or approaches) in mind; it takes both Safety Management and Safety Leadership. In a complex operation where Safety Management dominates, more procedures, rules, safety ‘Absolutes’ or even layers of protection won’t prevent the next big incident. In fact, some experts argue these stacking layers make the operation less safe.
Certainly, my tennis anecdote above can be viewed as a trivial, non-technical example—especially in contrast to the Macondo incident which has spawned reams of analysis and several technical and regulatory improvements, including enhanced ‘Blow-out Preventers’. I applaud the technical post-mortem and the enhanced regulatory control—the regulatory perspective is too-often minimized in the role of safety—but I believe an even bigger blow-out occurred in the area of Safety Leadership in the companies and teams involved in that incident! To prevent major accidents, perhaps what is needed are valid, repeatable approaches to breathe life and vitality into the safety procedures, systems and teams already in place.
Safety calls for robust management systems and resilient organizations. Organizations have invested greatly in safety management, even to a fault. It’s time to more fully recognize the validity of Safety Leadership, define it clearly, and inculcate throughout our organizations.