What does it mean if something is True But Useless at the same time? It happens more often than you think. 

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.

This one started because I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to reflect on the most popular episodes from the past year? That could be interesting, right?  The image on the thumbnail for this episode, which you can see if you visit, is a graph of the podcast downloads.

The download data is normalised by the number of days the podcast has been out for, since I have a big spike in downloads when a new episode is released – hello to all you eager listeners who jump onto new episodes quickly!

If you look at the graph, the downloads per day is a bit like a ski slope, or a quarter pipe – high at the left, and drops down gently easing towards the x-axis, becoming more horizontal as it moves to the right. 

I thought, that looks like a nice neat curve.  So, with a little fiddling in excel, I figured out that either a power curve, logarithmic curve or an exponential curve might nicely fit the data.  The stats nerds will know that an R2 value tells you which is the best fit, so the log curve won with a R2 value of 0.95, which is pretty good.  Now things are starting to make sense, right?

So with a curve of best fit on the graph, I thought I can look and see which episodes are the highest ABOVE the line, indicating they are the most statistically popular, yeah?

Turns out that We have a statistical top 5, so I can tell you with a great level of numerical certainty derived from the combination of the collective behaviour of our entire listening community, that these are the top 5 most popular Safety on Tap podcast episodes of 2020: 

#5 Ep142 Developing adaptive capacity and building resilience, with Dr David Provan

#4 Ep147 I don’t know, with Andrew Barrett

#3 Ep149 Knowing, seeing and leading through paradoxes, with Tristan Casey


#2 Ep138 Lessons on Safety II in practice, with Erik Hollnagel

#1 Ep135 Skills for the future, and wrestling with tension, with Sheri Greenwell

Amazing episodes.  Fantastic content.  And top quality contributors.  There’s no doubt about it. 

Yet all of that is true, but it’s mostly useless. 

Why would the Top 5 Episode List be Useless?

Why useless? Well, I’ll work backwards through my logic, and finish with the big bang. 

How does the top 5 help you at all? I’m not sure it does.  If one episode or another was interesting to you before now, you’ve probably listened to them.  If not, then knowing that slightly more people have listened to those compared to others is true, but useless to you. 

Ranking episodes based on their popularity involves some massive assumptions too.  And the best way to see this, is by looking at the graph.  A line this shape us often described as the short head, with a long tail.  The most recent episodes get more downloads per day, and the older ones seem to kind of get forgotten.  That makes sense given we’re up to 160-something episodes. 

It’s also reasonable to think that we might be at risk of being in an echo chamber.  These people and these ideas might simply be congruent with the way many of us already think, so the combination of the guest and the episode title might be what drives the download data – and so to share this most popular list will only drive those numbers up, and not encourage you to search out other older episodes which might be 100 times more useful for you. 

Speaking of how the download data….it just tells me that someone like you clicked play on an episode like that.  That’s it.  You may not have liked it, or even listened all the way to the end for all anyone knows.

But the kicker here is this – in a crowd of thousands of listeners and with hundreds of thousands of downloads, the only number that matters, is one. 

One listener, that’s you.  One individual.  One context.  One moment in your day when you decide to fill your head with Safety on Tap.  And one trajectory of personal and professional change.  Either the episode helps you learn, grow, adjust, improve.  Or it doesn’t. 

One is the only important number. 

So why, Andrew, why on earth would you spend X minutes telling people about a process you went through which turned out to be useless?

From True-but-useless to True and Useful

First, it’s not entirely useless because there is something to learn from it.  That’s a minor win. 

Second, this refocusing on the most important number, one, being you and your context and your growth and improvement, makes for a pretty boring graph. 

So scrap the graph. 

The goal for me, is to serve leaders like you, who want to grow yourselves, and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  This is the place I want you to come for that.

A number is not what I need to make sense of this podcast this year.  It’s a story.  One story.  Then another one.  Stories of reflection, of connection, and of change.  Stories that so many of you have told me through this year. 

Like the listener who merely said thank you, for feeling part of a community at the height of Covid, when we ran out live collaboration sessions I simply described as Togetherness. 

Like the listener who joined the dots between the safety clutter stuff they heard, and a great book by Atul Gawande called the Checklist Manifesto – realising that without deeper reflection and understanding, well intentioned safety decluttering can throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Like the listener who reached out, frustrated by some things they were being asked to do which detracted from more important work, a listener who realised that they can focus their energy and attention on the things they control, and the things they choose to try and influence, but waste nothing focussed on anything else. 

Like the listener who had an epiphany during my conversation with Adam Johns, about how powerful changing language is to a change effort, and how this originates from Dialogic Organisational Development field.  In fact there were many of you with the same epiphany.  

Like the conversation about leadership and safety with my dad, who I chatted with all the way back in episodes 18 and 19.  Dad had a conversation with an executive he had never met before, who was talking like they knew Dad and he was racking his brain, worried that he couldn’t remember a past colleague, but feeling like they really hadn’t met before.  Turns out that this exec is a Safety on Tap listener, and said all those years ago that after hearing my chat with dad, that she decided he was the kind of leader she wanted to work with one day.  And this year by happenstance she got to meet him.  That one just knocked dad for six, he was just so surprised, forgetting that conversation long ago lives on, helping people each day, like all these other episodes. 

Like the listener who wrote to me, talking how they had shared my ‘Person in the Arena’ podcast (which is episode 109). They went on to say they had positive feedback via some LinkedIn messaging with one person saying they have the printout posted in their office too. Then this listener said they were talking to someone based in the US who also brought it up unexpectedly. They also had a colleague in Australia reach out to them who has used it in toolbox talks after a setback. Well done mate, it is evidently a very impactful message.

(That feedback is awesome, because that episode and that simple quote from US President Roosevelt) is one I hold very close to my heart, and I get very emotional about it, so yeah, just awesome that the message spreads like that from one simple act of generosity of one listener, sharing a free podcast episode and by coincidence connecting with others who thought similar things about that episode.  Just amazing!

These are the things that matter. I track stories of learning and impact, not numbers.  So no, I won’t be talking any more about any “most popular” episodes – find the ones that resonate with you, make those ones work for you, share them generously, and if you get a moment, tell me a story of how it helped you grow. 

And while you are writing me a note, let me know what you want to hear more or less of – I am here to serve!

How this makes sense for you

Zooming right out, much broader than this episode and this podcast, I wondered whether you might identify with any part of this overall reflection – what assumptions was I starting with, what goal did I have (or seemed to have), my curiosity about popular episodes, my overexcitement, the lure of seemingly sensical numbers and analysis on top of analysis. 

Simply the attraction of having countable stuff, is symbolic of those things that steal our attention because that are easy, or visible, attention that could and should be put on other things that are True and Useful. 

Could learning teams help you this year?

Speaking of stories, we have plenty of insightful and surprising change that happens with members of out learning teams implementation case study group.  Stories of learning teams leading to senior managers being pleasantly surprised and engaged in change without directing or controlling it, stories of managers who realise and put aside their biases to discover truly helpful things about how work really gets done, stories of grenade-throwing supervisors who behave very differently, (in a good way!) because they get engaged in a relevant and respectful dialogue.  The stories of the case studies we enable go on and on and on. 

Learning teams are about enabling change.  They address so many of the faults and failings of crappy investigations, complex planning or work situations, they are often better than a risk assessment and more engaging than most Committee meetings.  Our learning teams implementation case study group is what enables you to make that happen, and you are guaranteed to get results quickly. 

We are starting another group soon.  Send me an email to with the word ‘learning team’ in the subject line, and I will help you work out if learning teams will help you get to where you need to go this coming year. 

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!

And here’s your FREE download of the full transcript of this episode.

Feel free to share this with your team/colleagues!