Do you lead from the Past or lead to the Future?


Recently Loren Murray, Head of Safety for Pacific Brands in Australia penned a thought provoking blog on the default future, a concept from the book  ‘The Three Laws of Performance’. I came across the book a few years ago and digested it from a leader effectiveness standpoint. Loren does a nice job applying it to a safety perspective.

“During my career I noticed that safety professionals (and this included myself) have a familiar box of tricks. We complete risk assessments, enshrine what we learn into a procedure or SOP, train on it, set rules and consequences, ‘consult’ via toolboxes or committees and then observe or audit.

When something untoward happens we stop, reflect and somehow end up with our hands back in the same box of tricks writing more procedures, delivering more training (mostly on what people already know), complete more audits and ensure the rules are better enforced….harder, meaner, faster. The default future described in The Three Laws of Performance looked a lot like what I just described!

What is the default future? We like to think our future is untold, that whatever we envision for our future can happen….However for most of us and the organisations we work for, this isn’t the case. To illustrate. You get bitten by a dog when you are a child. You decide dogs are unsafe. You become an adult, have kids and they want a dog. Because of your experiences in the past it is unlikely you will get a dog for your kids. The future isn’t new or untold it’s more of the past. Or in a phrase, the past becomes our future. This is the ‘default future’.

Take a moment to consider this. It’s pretty powerful stuff with implications personally and organisationally. What you decide in the past will ultimately become your future.

How does this affect how we practice safety? Consider our trusty box of tricks. I spent years learning the irrefutable logic of things like the safety triangle and iceberg theory. How many times have I heard about DuPont’s safety journey? Or the powerful imagery of zero harm. The undeniable importance of ‘strong and visible’ leadership (whatever that means) which breeds catch phrases like safety is ‘priority number one’.

These views are the ‘agreement reality’ of my profession. These agreements have been in place for decades. I learnt them at school, they were confirmed by my mentors, and given credibility by our regulators and schooling system. Some of the most important companies in Australia espouse it, our academics teach it, students devote years to learning it, workers expect it…. Our collective safety PAST is really powerful.”

Loren’s blog caused me to reflect on the 3 laws and how they might be applied in a complexity-based safety approach. Let’s see how they can help us learn so that we don’t keep on repeating the past.
First Law of Performance
“How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.”
It’s pretty clear that the paradigms which dominate current safety thinking view people as error prone or create problems working in idealistic technological systems, structures, and processes. Perplexed managers get into a “fix-it” mode by recalling what worked in the past and assume that is the solution going forward. It’s being mindful of perception blindness and opening both eyes.
Second Law of Performance
“How a situation occurs arises in language.”

As evidence-based safety analysts, we need to hear the language and capture the conversations. One way is the Narrative approach where data is collected in the form of stories. We may even go beyond words and collect pictures, voice recordings, water cooler snippets, grapevine rumours, etc. When we see everything as a collective, we can discover themes and patterns emerging. These findings could be the keys that lead to an “invented” future.

Third Law of Performance
“Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people.”

Here are some possible yet practical shifts you can start with right now:

  • Let’s talk less about inspecting to catch people doing the wrong things and talk more about Safety-II; i.e., focusing on doing what’s right.
  • Let’s talk less about work-as-imagined deviations and more about work-as-done adjustments; i.e., less blaming and more appreciating and learning how people adjust performance when faced with varying, unexpected conditions.
  • Let’s talk less about past accident statistics and injury reporting systems and talk more about sensing networks that trigger anticipatory awareness of non-predictable negative events.
  • Let’s talk less about some idealistic Future state vision we hope to achieve linearly in a few years and talk more about staying in the Present, doing more proactive listening, and responding to the patterns that emerge in the Now.
  • And one more…let’s talk less about being reductionists (breaking down a social-technical system into its parts) and talk more about being holistic and understanding how parts (human, machines, ideas, etc.) relate, interact, and adapt together in a complex work environment.

The “invented” future conceivably may be one that is unknowable and unimaginable today but will emerge with future-based conversations.

What are you doing as a leader today? Leading workers to the default future or leading them to an invented Future?

Click here to read Loren’s entire blog posting.