New ideas and change fail not because the ideas are bad or the change isn’t worthwhile, it’s because they conflict with the existing beliefs, assumptions and images that we have about the way the world works. 

– Peter Senge

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.

We all have these beliefs, assumptions, and images, and we are all very good at reinforcing our current world views and ignoring information that doesn’t fit that picture.  We all are aware of racial bias, but we think that’s not us.  We feel good about supporting Ukrainians suffering from a Russian aggressor, but feel uncomfortable when someone points out that almost none of us are nowhere near as outraged when the ongoing and persistent war-like persecution of Palestinians by the Israelis began.  Without the slightest hint of irony, it was the establishment of the Jewish state in response to the events of World War II that began, a mere three years after the cessation of WWII, the conflict and persecution of Palestinians.  No, my friends, we have not been morally outraged by that which was been going on for 74 years. 

So what are the beliefs, assumptions, and images we have that make sense of our thoughts and behaviour here? Is it that war is bad? That military aggression is unacceptable? Maybe, but it doesn’t explain our blindness to so many other things equally as objectionable and far more prolonged. 

No, we have different kinds of assumptions and beliefs and images about how the world works, and when those get violated.  And we often don’t even know about them ourselves. 

We’ll call these mental models. 

We might have a mental model that thinks that education leads to better lifelong outcomes for our kids.  We might think spending more money on schooling delivers a better outcome.  That’s what Chris Argyris would call a ‘theory-as-espoused’.  But its quite likely that there are other mental models at play – we may feel (without even realising it) that spending money on a fancy school is actually rightful emancipation for our more frugal upbringing, or maybe the fancy school fits the image we want to portray to our friends, or it might simply be that if you live in this neighbourhood, of course, you send your kids to that school.  Argyris calls these sneakier mental models our ‘theory-in-use’. 

In health and safety, we also have these mental models about how the world works.  We think hazards exist, they have different potentials to cause harm, and we can do things to reduce the chance of that happening.  That’s a risk-based mental model. 

Our mental model often steers us towards acute and traumatic safety risks, and places far less importance on long-term and chronic impacts (even if they are equally or even more deadly).  That’s another mental model many of us hold. 

Many people also believe that laws and regulations improve safety.  That’s a mental model with some support.  Others think that the market will sort itself out.  That’s a neoliberal mental model, and look how well we are doing with that at the moment. 

We are all in the business of change.  So I’ll make the case that we cannot be successful in making a sustained and transformative change unless we begin to dance with mental models and all of the discomfort, defensiveness, angst, and persistence required of us. 

If the Earth Was Flat….

A regular analogy that comes up in coaching sessions about change, is my flat earth story. You might recall this if you’ve listened to Ep183

It goes like this.  Around the year 1500, the world changed dramatically.  Up until that point, it was fairly common and reasonable to believe that the world was indeed flat.  For most of human history, we had a mental model which looked something like this: when I look out into the far distance, there is a limit of the earth, where it meets the sky.  If I walk a long way, I can go past that horizon, but my mental model only extends as far as I can walk, or that I have heard someone else walk. 

Then we get to the point that we can go by horseback, and eventually, there were enough people in all parts of the world, who had gone to extremes – from one coast to the other, from one edge of the land to the other edge. 

So whether or not we had done that, most people had a mental model that there were edges to the earth, even though there is evidence the Greeks entertained the idea of round earth as far back as 500BC. 

Anyway so fast-forward.  Our canoes got bigger and turned into boats and then ships.  These were able to leave shore and trace coastlines and start mapping the oceans and continents, but how far was a boat able to go? Two things held us back: one was how big our ships were, how well they survived the open ocean, and how much food and water they could carry to sustain the crew.  The other obvious concern at that time was you might just find the edge of the earth and drop off it. 

Then came the famous explorers in the years leading up to and beyond 1500.  Christopher Columbus is pretty well known for having discovered the Americas.  But it was Ferdinand Magellan who set out in 1519 to circumnavigate the globe, funded by the Spanish Royal Family.  As it turns out Magellan was killed halfway through and it was actually a guy called Elcano who successfully brought the armada of ships and crew, much depleted, back to Spain in 1522. 

If you were parents of a young adventurous boy in Spain in 1519, imagine what it would feel like when he comes home having heard about this very well-funded adventure for which Magellan was recruiting strong young men. 

Over my dead body, you would say. 

Or more accurately, sobre mi cadaver!

If you thought your son was going on a suicide mission to sail off the edge of the earth, you would punch his best friend who suggested it, you would pay off the man at the docks taking names to refuse your son, you might even kill someone to prevent your son from this fool’s errand. 

If you thought the earth was flat. 

You Will Discover Mental Models Quickly If you Look for Them

I had the pleasure this week of kicking off some in-person workshops, dialogue, and conversations with an organisation that says they are ready for a change in their approach to health and safety. 

In one session I spent time with the executive team, and the goal was simple: give them some new ideas about what is possible in this transformation they say they want, and my job was to push them to the edges, to find the boundaries and objections, the stumbling blocks and the discomfort, the things which provoked energy and excitement, as well as the parts that triggered fear or simply disinterest. 

This was not training, it was facilitated dialogue so this leadership team could begin to surface their own mental models about the way their world works. 

“I get that we have clutter here, but what alternative do we have when something goes wrong and we need to prove things to the Regulator?” said one of these executives. 

Amazing! What a gold mine.  In one sentence, in 26 words, in 7.5 seconds, I’ve begun to discover the mental models at play, at least in one of the executives:  

I know clutter is present.  I have fear about something going wrong.  I haven’t fully thought about how often things go wrong versus things going well.  I’m assuming that paperwork will cover my ass.  I am looking forward to potential future scenarios and trying to play things out.  I haven’t yet mentioned anything about risk, safety outcomes, or people, at all. 

26 words in 7.5 seconds begin to reveal some potential mental models.  I myself am not making assumptions about the mental models of these people, nor am I making judgments.  I’m getting really really curious about how the world makes sense to them from their standpoint.  And when I start to see mental models emerging, I can begin to play these back and test some aspects of them. 

“Where do you think we have clutter here?”

“When you use the word clutter, what do you mean?”

“How did that get on your radar?”

“Who are you finding this out from?”

And on it goes. 

As each person and the executive group begin to speak about their mental models and get curious about them with my curious questions, some images about the way we think or the way we want the world to work started to emerge. 

As early as the 1970’s people like Argyris and his colleague Don Schon, but also more familiar names like Edgar Schein, recognised that in order to enable organisational change, we need to have intentional ways to be able to help people get valid and useful information, on which they can base free and informed choices, that they are personally committed to. 

Does that sound like a good idea to you? Is that the kind of work you’d like to be doing?

If you feel like you are banging your head against the wall, then maybe one of the sources of your problems is that your mental model and the mental models of those around you are neither similar nor known to each other.


The point is not to be right or to have all the answers, but to seek to understand together with the people who you seek to work with, the way we think the world works and the way we behave which suggests the way we actually believe the world works. 

Cave Man and Fire

There is a lot of work to do for us.  I get it.  Like you’ve heard me say before, we need to both slow down to go fast later, and if we want to go far, we need to go together. 

One final analogy also comes up a lot in my coaching sessions with health and safety change makers.  This one is inspired by a previous guest and friend of the show Wade Needham.

Imagine you found a time machine, and it took you back to pre-historic times, with dinosaurs and cavemen.  You stumble into a cave, and you see a family of people huddling around a fire.  This is a fire they carried with them, since they needed lightning strikes to create fire and sustained it continuously. 

This fire is what makes or breaks their survival – they use it for cooking, they preserve food with its smoke, it gives them warmth and protection from predators. 

You walk up quietly and approach the group.  They look up at you, astonished and curious.  No one says anything.  And in your pocket, you feel a small plastic disposable lighter.  You take it out, and hold it up in front of you. 

And you press the button.  Click.  Whoosh.  And the small flame erupts from the top. 

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh you hear from these cave people. 

You just made fire.  And you are holding it in your own hands. 

You’ve just broken and rebuilt so many of their mental models about how the world works in a split second. 

When we help people reveal, articulate, and get curious about their mental models – both their espoused theories, and their theories-in-use, we all learn a lot more, and with that, we have a far more informed and useful starting point for discovering what’s important, for getting in the same page, for leaning into new ideas, and for leading truly transformational change. 

And sometimes that’s like a caveman seeing the creation of fire for the very first time. 

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, it’s not a risk assessment, and it is not a committee meeting – but a learning team approach can help to learn from the past, anticipate the future, and engage effectively with people all over your organisation or supply chain.

There’s no 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

Here’s your FREE reflection worksheet from this episode.

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

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