My wife and I been watching a fair bit of a popular yachting show on TV recently, it’s annoyingly addictive. I’m learning a lot. Yachts have anchors, really big ones, often more than one, no surprise there. And you know what the industry slang word for the anchor is? They call it the brake.
Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.
Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.
They call it the brake because yachts don’t have the usual kind of friction-powered brakes that land vehicles have. Boats work well as transport because they maximise energy from the low-friction effect of a bow slicing through the water. But what happens when they want to stop, to stay put? Especially when the water, whether you are in a river or the sea, is constantly moving with tides and swells and waves. They have these rather large, usually metal anchors, attached to very thick chains, which are dropped to the bottom of the water to hold them in place.
I have also learned, as an armchair yachtie, that anchors are a critical safety device. Yachts need to be able to stop quickly, and especially if they loose engine power so they cannot steer.
On one particular episode of this yachting show on TV, we learned about one of the biggest limitations of anchors on yachts. This particular one had two anchors at the front, the bow, and one night during a charter the yacht was parked near some beautiful cliffs in Croatia. Overnight, the sea had slowly turned the yacht around and around, spinning it around the two anchors embedded deep in the ocean floor.
The captain tries to pull the anchors up in the morning, and it’s a tangled mess of chains. This simple, almost unnoticeable turning around the anchors all night created a massive problem, which took five crew members almost 8 hours to untangle very carefully.
When I’m working with health and safety teams who want to improve learning in their organisation, one of the first things we talk about is anchors. The reason why organisations come and talk to me about improving how, and what they learn, is because what they are currently doing isn’t giving them the learning they desire. It’s insufficient.
There are plenty of ways to improve organisational learning. But the place I start is to understand where you are anchored, or not anchored, when it comes to learning. And it turns out all this yachting stuff I’ve been watching provides some perfect analogies to explain why this is so relevant.
Have a think about a yacht, or any boat. People interested in things like that, spend enormous amounts of attention on what makes it go: are there sails, what kind of sail configuration, how tall is the mast that holds the sails, is there an engine, how big is the engine, how big are the propellers, what’s the top speed. The go go go stuff is the interesting stuff.
And this is a lot like change in our organisations. We are interested in the vehicle and the power and the fuel for the change. Go go go, make the change happen! In my experience, it’s equally important, (and this is why it’s my starting point), to ask what keeps us where we are, for two reasons. One is that sometimes we rev the engine and push the throttle without realising that the anchor is still firmly embedded in the ocean floor. The other, is that whilst an anchor is unhelpful in that situation, when you want to keep your vessel from smashing into the rocky shore at night, the anchor is your best friend.
Sometime during or just before 1974 a small group of people were invited to play a special kind of roulette, you know the casino game where a wheel with numbers spins around and a ball is flicked onto it, to ultimately land on a number. Players can place a myriad of bets about where the ball finally lands. This roulette table was different. For half the players the ball always landed on number 10, and half on number 65. These players were part of an experiment which changed the way we understand decision making and change – so much so that the researchers, Kahneman and Tversky ultimately received Nobel prizes for their discoveries.
They players were then asked to estimate the number of African nations who were members of the United Nations. If a player landed on 10, their guesses on average were 25%. If a player landed on 65, their guesses on average were 45%. There is no rational or statistical explanation for the difference. The only thing that could explain the guess, was the number they saw on the roulette table immediately before guessing – an entirely irrelevant number to the guess.
The anchoring heuristic, or bias, effect can be seen all around us. The starting bid at an auction, each offer in a negotiation, the publishing of salaries in job advertisements – all of these things act as anchors to our decision making, and we are almost always oblivious to how this can drastically change our opinions and decisions. Not only does this effect happen with numbers, it happens with non-numerical concepts like drawings, and product recommendations.
If we can be so invisibly affected by seemingly irrelevant information in our decision making, how is this relevant to getting better at learning in our organisations?
Two ways to think about anchors
There are two ways to use this anchor metaphor in a conversation about improving organisational learning.
Remember the anchor which got tangled up overnight as the boat slowly swung around? This is like how we operate. These subtle forces move us, but we don’t go far because of the anchor. When we try and stimulate change, like creating new learning, the anchor is all tangled up. The anchor represents the mostly invisible assumptions and beliefs we have about learning, about work, about safety, and people. These assumptions get us tangled unless we are paying attention to them, watching them, and pulling them up slowly. Learning research is overflowing with examples of how learning emerges by intentionally combining what we already know, with active curiosity and challenging of our assumptions.
The word challenging can sound confrontational. Improving learning involves some nuanced approaches to challenging assumptions, but there are two easy ways to start. First involves asking questions about potential assumptions – this is the curiosity bit. Second is taking up the challenge ourselves, not challenging others. Asking ourselves critically and deeply – should I believe that work can be standardised? Do I think that managers know better than workers? Why do I believe that a safety management system can deliver better safety than a self-organising work team? Does a group of workers believe that they don’t have much value to contribute? How does my belief that my job is to protect people influence my work?
Ok so that’s the first way to think about the anchor metaphor – pay attention to these weighty assumptions and beliefs, and how they affect us either when we are drifting in a tide of change, or when we want to motor in another direction. Can we totally pull up the anchors?
How we can see the anchor and pay attention to it, is the second way to think about anchors. When you want the anchors on the boat, and when you want them on the ocean floor. The roulette experiment and anchoring bias using irrelevant numbers reminds us that there are a huge number of psychological processes at play which may make change harder, or if harnessed for good, make it easier. Anchoring is one example of a growing number of cognitive biases or heuristics – little mental shortcuts our brains make all the time, which are logical for the brain, but not necessarily ideal to get the best outcomes in the real world.
So we’re being curious and challenging assumptions right, and an effective learning process means up pull up the anchor and use a combination of drifting, and drive in a certain direction. But anyone involved can quickly drop the anchor unexpectedly, interrupting the journey, without even realising it. This we can plan for. But first let’s quickly get clear on the goal of improving learning in our organisation.
Organisational Learning 101
People like you come and talk to me usually for one reason: you’re missing something. That’s the motivation, in a nutshell, for doing organisational learning better. But learning is not the same thing as improving. So we need to take that new insight or knowledge and use it to make different decisions, to take different actions. Stop this, start that. Invest here, cutback there. Decisions are the drivers of change.
A discussion about anchors at the beginning of a learning improvement journey is a launchpad for understanding and tackling even more of these heuristics. The anchoring heuristic is useful to remind us to set expectations with leaders about what the activities and outputs of learning looks like. If they are used to reports with dozens of corrective actions, a learning team which uncovers one project for further investigation might seem underwhelming. But this might be the hidden smouldering trouble spot ready to explode in flames – the best kind of knowledge to have uncovered. Quality over quantity. Give them a low expectation anchor at the beginning, especially when they are used to high volumes of apparent outputs like corrective actions.
Then we have confirmation bias. This helps explain why we need to be curious about and challenge assumptions. We are naturally inclined to search out and use information which confirms what we already thought, and ignore anything contradictory. Suspending judgement is the critical skill here to develop so we don’t get stuck in the echo chamber of our status quo.
Then there is the availability heuristic – we overly emphasise information which is readily available to us. That means that creating new learning feels like it is so much more effortful, when it’s actually not – that’s just how our brain feels about it. When we get better at improving learning, more useful info becomes available, which decision makers are more likely to properly consider.
This anchor concept is really important to understand and utilise when improving learning is your goal. Change isn’t just about engines, it’s about what holds us still or steady, for better and for worse. These anchors, in the forms of assumptions and beliefs, when recognised and challenged reveal deep learning that mere knowledge can’t. We can change anchors too, swapping less helpful points of reference with new ones which enhance the learning potential we are trying to tap into. Anchoring as a bias affects all of us, and opens up a discussion about the cognitive short cuts which can either make or break our learning experience and learning outcomes.
As for your growth, your development, and your effectiveness….all of this applies to you as much to your organisation. What’s your plan to lift anchors, to sail, and where to drop anchors?
If you are interested in getting better learning results in your organisation, I am working on a project to create case studies of success. It’s not training, because training doesn’t promise you a result. We are calling this a ‘case study’ project, because everyone who goes through it becomes a case study, everyone gets a result. It’s the only program of its kind to do that. If you want to find out more, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the words CASE STUDY and I’ll get you the details.
Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!
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