I, like you, have been spending a lot of time in the same work place for a while now, my home office. And yet despite the amount of time I spend here, it was only recently that something struck me, when I saw things that had been there the whole time but hadn’t recognised for what they are. My space, and probably yours, are filled with theatre props – the things which bring our professional performance to life.
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.
A theatre prop, or the proper term is ‘theatrical property’, is a physical object which is on stage, or used by an actor, in a theatre production. These are important, and kind of obvious, because most of what happens in theatre happens with words, sounds, and the way people move.
Juliet stands on a fake balcony as Romeo talking about how she is the sun that puts the moon to shame. The balcony is the prop.
In the Wizard of Oz, a hugely important prop to the story is the curtain that the Wizard hides behind while he attempts to become larger than he is, trying to scare away Dorothy and her friends, until Toto the little dog simply grabs the curtain in his teeth and pulls it back, revealing the very average Mr Oz.
You get the idea?
I don’t know much about theatre of much in the way of performing arts at all, but it seems like physical props, are these rarely used objects that in some ways become a critical part of getting the story or its meaning from the performers to you, the audience.
The words, the movement, the sounds are fundamental to the story, but what about the props?
Stereotypical health and safety props
Let’s play a game, called stereotypes. We’ve touched in previous episodes on different perspectives on stereotypes in health and safety. I want you to picture the stereotypical health and safety person, not your ideal image, the one that the average person would draw. What props are associated with this stereotypical safety person? Take a moment, and picture them.
When I closed my eyes, I saw two things: a clipboard with paper on it, and a shiny high visibility vest. What did you see?
The props I use
These days I don’t do much safety work, since I am not on site and not in a safety role, but I spend a lot of time coaching and working with teams of health and safety people who do. So my props look different to yours, but we might share some of them in common.
Just this past week, I tried to pay attention to the physical things which I used in the performance of my work.
The first is post-it notes. They are all around me. Not only that, I’ll write something on a post-it note and hold it up my camera, say when I’m in a workshop with a HSE team. (In fact you can see exactly what that looks like in the video at safetyontap.com/1000-learning-teams)
I now wear a hat to work almost every day, a Safety on Tap hat, which is part prop and part uniform.
I constantly use my iPad and apple pencil to share my screen and draw models, take notes, or communciate new ideas. I recently started coaching a new team, and one of the things we do is we co-create an agenda. I could just discuss the agenda we came up with, and repeat the words. I could type out the agenda, in the chat or sharing a document. But no, I have a blank screen on my iPad, and I choose bright bold colours to write out the agenda, live, on screen, as we are talking.
Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet, or you or me, what objects help you tell the story you are trying to tell, and how do those props help you in your performance?
Bringing a performance to life
In researching this podcast, (remember I know almost nothing about performance art), I came across a performance form called Object Theatre. I’ve put the link to an awesome PDF document describing this, [from the Arts Centre Melbourne], in the show notes at safetyontap.com/ep185
Object theatre (sometimes referred to as object puppetry) uses everyday / found objects to create a story. Instead of specially designed props, objects and / or puppets, object theatre uses an everyday object. The objects could be used ‘as is’ or could be transformed into other things which, to be successful, requires both the skill of the performer and the imagination of the audience.
Despite this sounding like a superbly intricate thespian endeavour, you’ve probably seen kids do this. Everyday objects which become the centre of a performance, like a plain old cardboard box which is now a spaceship. Or an object transforms in the performance,
A missing prop: risk assessment?!
How else do we use props in our performances? They are all around you, and many of them aren’t that interesting. The Report, that’s a prop. So is the Corrective Action. And the Dashboard. And metrics. These are all props. The question is, what performance are you trying to create, for whom, and how do these props enable that performance?
Here’s another one, which was a really insightful surprise for me. I’ve been working with a small group of Heads of Health and Safety for a little while, and our scope is basically leveraging the collaborative power of the group – vastly different and diverse people, all struggling with the same Covid-related challenges.
Recently the question came up about risk assessment related to vaccination policy. We know lots about risk assessment, we know a fair amount about how to do them, we know less about health risk assessment, we know a little about assessing these complex and fast changing risks.
As the group were in dialogue about vaccination risk assessment, there was amazing learning emerging about scope, about purpose, about how to how about it, about guidance materials that would help.
And it suddenly emerged that we might entirely miss out on the risk assessment as a prop to support our performance, because the performance is the goal not the prop. What we realised is that despite the challenges of covid-related risk assessment, in the absence of a risk assessment as a prop, we didn’t have a prop with which to effectively host a conversation with key stakeholders, and we were certainly missing out on the opportunity to use the risk assessment as a prop for consultation with the workforce.
And that was the light bulb moment. None of these things are new, but what this dialogue revealed was how the risk assessment was a critical prop to make that overall performance happen. And the best way to see that, is by flipping it on its head. Let’s say that we are dynamically managing risk and providing advice, it’s changing frequently, its being updated, it’s flying between us and other people via email. I’m sure we are all doing that. So the absence of the risk assesment object didn’t mean risk wasn’t being managed. In fact having the risk assessment object probably won’t help the quality much either given how complex and dynamic the risks are.
But it is the literal or metaphorical object, we hold, we wave around, we point to and beckon to others to come closer, to take a look and discuss, that’s the part of the performance the prop needed to enable. And that may very well be where the performance improvement needed to happen – to get the right people involved, and a part of shaping that narrative as a group, as an organisation.
The [Melbourne Arts Centre’s wonderful description of Object Theatre] uses a really important phrase when describing what makes Object Theatre work. It’s non-literal thinking. Non-literal thinking.
That means that objects transform, they change their identity in the performance. Sure, a scarf is a scarf and a hat is a hat, but the performance is fundamentally different when the scarf begins to move, and flow, and becomes a dancer. Or the hat becomes Authority.
When we wear shiny new PPE out to site, the object is the PPE. But the shinyness, or the lack of scuffs, or even the colour, they aren’t just attributes of protective clothing or equipment, these props become symbols of the Office, or of an outsider, or Distraction. Even when it’s your prop, and you have a performance in mind, you are not in control of how the audience interprets that prop as a part of the performance.
In episode 159, I shared with you that I have a picture of an elephant in my office. It’s a prop. It’s a nice picture. And it’s thoroughly unoriginal: the western idiom of there being an ‘elephant in the room’, has been around for ages: it means that there is a big problem that no one wants to talk about despite how obvious it is.
But almost every day, and certainly weekly, when I am doing my work, coaching or facilitating, I will point over my left shoulder at the elephant, and the prop begins it’s work: the opening up of dialogue and learning and discomfort and realisation, that’s the kind of professional performance that I need to create, that my clients benefit from.
I don’t need props. And you don’t either. But you do use props all the time, the question is if and how they enable the kind of performance that you want to create.
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?
Before you go, keep listening for a few words about the work which makes this podcast free for you. Seeya!
You’ve probably heard me talk about learning teams, and might be wondering what’s that all about. Learning teams are an increasingly popular practical activity to help your organisation to learn better, in order to improve performance.
It’s not an investigation, its not a risk assessment, and its not a committee meeting – but a learning team approach can help to learn from the past, to anticipate the future, and to engage effectively with people all over your organisation or supply chain.
There’s not one way to do learning teams but some critical principles which will enable you to facilitate better learning whatever your situation.
I’ve created a few short videos which explain What is a learning team? If you’re interested visit safetyontap.com/what