This is a short episode on a big P – a principle to help you improve. It’s a journey, a tension, between trying to know the world, and constructing the unknowable. It will make sense, stick with me.
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.
I’ve reflected a lot on the coaching conversations I’ve had with clients in the past while. And a thread which has emerged, which I didn’t see very clearly before, is a frustration with, or at least the need to deal with, other people not doing what was predicted/expected/asked/desired by the coachee.
And it’s the same principle which helps make sense of this, which is the backbone of the way we help people improve organisational learning, through practices like learning teams.
People at the Heart
People are at the heart of what we do. Workers, managers, senior leaders, Regulators, our boss, our peers, are all people. And work can be complex. Not just from a technical standpoint, which is often how we think of complexity – “Oh gosh I can’t even imagine how that IT system works to control this processing plant, I am amazed by how many millions of components go into make an airplane work, I almost failed chemisty so am astonished by how those combinations of chemicals become the final product…..”. But work is complex simply because people make it complex – social relations are always complex, just ask a teenager relatively new to dating, or a parent.
So lets think about how we try and handle complexity in health and safety. We have systems and processes to try and find out, and then standardise work with procedures and rules. We do inspections, relying on a visual observation at a point in time as a way for us to check what is going on, meets our expectation of what is good, or not good. When things go wrong, we use tools like incident investigations and root cause and tap root and 5 why’s and ICAM to dissect the past and the incident like a kind of lab rat, or like a mechanic would start to disassemble parts of your car when you have a strange noise coming from the engine.
Have a known expectation of what is good, check reality against this, and dissect or disassemble the parts of the whole when something strange happens.
Science and the Knowable
Most people know that the tides are driven by the moon. But when scientists worked out that the moon doesn’t entirely predict the tides, they were able to fill in the gaps by describing how the unexplained part of tidal movement is actually affected also by the relative position of the sun, as well as the forces of gravity and inertia. Problem solved!
The academic boffins would describe this as a very scientific way of looking at the world. Another word to describe this taking a positivist perspective. Without getting bogged down in the detail, it assumes that I am separate from the world and I can investigate, understand, and describe the world in a way which is absolutely true. Gravity works like this.
And that makes sense, right? Many of us have qualifications in health and safety from the faculty of science. Many of our models and theories behind our practice assume we can independently know the truth of the world. The fact that things are not great, or incidents surprise us, can be explained because out map of the world was missing sections, or maybe was inaccurate, and the actions we take in response were flawed because of this. No problems, if we test it, try out new theories or experiments, we can fix that deficiency and performance will improve and surprises will become predictable.
How we believe the world to be, affects how we interact with the world and try to improve it.
The reason why so many of us struggle to make change, to reduce injury and ill health, or introduce new practices like learning teams, is that we a) we find the limitations of the scientific, or positivist approach to the world, and b) we don’t effectively offer an alternative which we can explain to the leaders in our organisation.
But there is an alternative.
Your Reality or Mine?
Think of your favourite ice cream flavour…..got it?
Mine is mint choc-chip. Or double choc on some days. But almost always mint-choc chip. Unless both are available and two scoops isn’t horrendously expensive, then they tie for first place in my waffle cone.
For most of you, my choice is not your choice, right? Which makes it wrong, yeah? Actually, let me rephrase the question. If I had asked you, what is the best ice cream flavour in the world, then you would be right and I would be wrong, true?
What if we had a competition, a world-wide competition where a panel of experts judged ice creams, and they decided a winner. Is that the truth?
Ok what about wine. Similar kind of thing right, but there is far more nuance about good, bad, better and best here. No one wants to like a wine that someone else says is average. We read descriptive labels, we look at the number of silver or gold medals on the label.
But we taste them differently. What I mean by that is that the experience of taste is almost always socially constructed. Your experience of the same wine will differ if you are relaxing at a restaurant, or drinking straight from the bottle after a long day with the kinds running around your feet during covid lockdown.
Wine tasting is starting to become more positivist, more scientific, to use analysis to provide a substantial objective judgement of the quality of wine, because, no surprise, wine judges are predictably inconsistent.
But an expert and scientific judgement of a wine doesn’t tell the full story, that Oomoo Shiraz is one of my favourites because it was the wine my wife and I shared the first time we went away for the weekend when we were dating. Or that you can’t touch white wine ever again (even the best white) after that overzealous sub-burned de-hydrated very long day at the horse races many years ago.
Is this sounding a lot more like your reality? This way of looking at the world starts to reveal what the academics describe as interpretivist, or constructionist. These are not the same thing, but both peeked out of the ice cream and wine stories.
You Are a Builder
Interpretivism recognises that me, and my reality are inseparable, but that you and your reality can and almost always will be different. It holds that we are complex, and sometimes unpredictable creatures, which means when we interact socially things get a whole lot more complex and unpredictable.
Social constructionism extends this interpretivist view of the world, and reveals a bit more about how this social world is not some objective, knowable thing. Not only is your map of the world different to mine, we are all actively creating this thing we call reality through our thoughts, actions, stories and language.
Go back and listen to Episode 66 with Futurist Dave Wild. Some people think Futurists predict the future, which assumes it is an objective and knowable phenomenon, and we will judge a futurist on their accuracy. That is a positivist view of the world. Dave says simply that the best way to predict the future is to create it ourselves – he is a social constructionist.
Thus, we cannot every fully know an unknowable world. Which makes it awkward for us in safety, because we
We need both positivist, interpretivist and social constructionist approaches to our work. But we need to know the difference between them, we need to reflect on when each is appropriate, and be intentional about how we communicate, and work, according to each.
If incident investigations and risk assessments continue to fall short in effectively describing your positivist world, then the problem might be that you’re trying to know an unknowable world through those lenses. I know this is the reality for many of us, and it was my agonising reality for many years.
Which means what’s next, is to entertain the idea that we can try to differently understand the social world of work, like ice cream or wine preferences, and with a shared sense of empowerment, we can actually construct the reality that we think will serve us better than our current reality. I think that is the emerging role of the health and safety professional – to know the knowable in expert fashion, but to realise the limits of this such that we are enablers of a better social reality for the people we seek to serve.
If you are interested in exploring this further, stick around after my sign-off and I’ll fill you in some more.
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!
Ok, hey thanks for sticking around.
First I wanted to do a little tie back for you to help these ideas to percolate more easily for you. This episode is totally based on identifying and challenging the assumptions that we hold. Identifying and challenging assumptions is a specific and very clever way to improve learning, and in turn performance. Two very well renowned researchers many decades ago, Argyris and Schön, described this as double loop learning. Most people, most of the time do single loop learning – a kind of stimulus and response approach. Touch the hot plate, don’t touch it again. Worker doesn’t follow the rules, fire the worker. It’s a really simple approach to learning. The double loop exists in addition to this, where we create new knowledge and insights and possibilities because we challenge our assumptions. I was challenging the sole focus on positivism in our work, and offering the alternative perspectives of interpretivism and social constructionism. Luckily that is work done by many smart people over many decades. If you go back and listen to Episode 152, you might gather that I was using the metaphor of the anchor which holds a boat back, to represent single loop learning. Lift or cut the anchor, and you can double loop learn because lifting or cutting the anchor is that process of identifying and challenging assumptions, right? I hope that makes sense. Ep152, have another listen.
Second, you probably know by now that I am obsessed about better learning. That’s one of the reasons why I help organisations implement practices like learning teams. But I am equally frustrated when I see people who are courageously interested and try learning teams only to fail or never start, because what’s missing is the double loop part, the identifying and challenging assumptions. Learning teams may work in positivist situations, but they are simply awesome when we are taking our leaders and workers on a journey in which they understand the world is not objectively knowable, but it can be an excellent social construction approach.
Because of that, my colleague Andy White and I are doing a few things to help. First, we are starting online workshops to help teach some of these things to those of you up to speed on learning teams but not yet ready, or struggling, to put them into practice. Come along, these will be quite epic, and include plenty of question and coaching time. You can find out more and register at safetyontap.com/learning-team-webinar. In that session we will also be telling you about a new concept called a Case Study Group. Small group of people, working together over 12 weeks, which will take you from frustrated or frozen about learning teams, to having successfully completed one. It’s a hybrid teaching-coaching approach, and it works, it gets results (that’s why it’s called a case study group, every person becomes their own case study of success). Of course you can wait for the webinar to learn more or if you are keen now to find out about the Case Study Group, just send me an email, email@example.com with the words CASE STUDY GROUP.
Hope that helps! Seeya
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