And now for something completely different

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Fans of Monty Python will quickly recognize this blog’s title. Avid followers will remember the Fish Slapping Dance.


Well, the time has come when many of us feel the need to slap traditional safety practices on the side of the head with a fish. If you agree, check out What it’s about:

Safety differently. The words seem contradictory next to each other. When facing difficulties with a potential disastrous loss, it makes more sense to wish for more of what is already known. Safety should come from well-established ways of doing things, removed far from where control may be lost.

But as workplaces and systems become increasingly interactive, more tightly coupled, subject to a fast pace of technological change and tremendous economic pressures to be innovative and cutting-edge, such “well-known” places are increasingly rare. If they exist at all.

There is a growing need to do safety differently.

People and organisations need to adapt. Traditional approaches to safety are not well suited for this. They are, to a large extent built on linear ideas – ideas about tighter control of work and processes, of removing creativity and autonomy, of telling people to comply.

The purpose of this website is to celebrate new and different approaches to safety. More specifically it is about exploring approaches that boost the capacity of people and organisations to handle their activities successfully, under varying conditions. Some of the analytical leverage will come from theoretical advancements in fields such as adaptive safety, resilience engineering, complexity theory, and human factors. But the ambition is to stay close to pragmatic advancements that actually deliver safety differently, in action.

Also, bashing safety initiatives that are based on constraining people’s capacities will be a frequent ingredient.

I had the opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas on what  “safety differently” is. I have expanded on these and added a few reference links.

Safety differently is not blindly following a stepping stone path but taking the time to turn over each stone and challenging why is the stone here in the first place, what was the intent, is it still valid and useful.

During engineering school I was taught to ignore friction as a force and use first order approximate linear models. When measuring distance, ignore the curvature of earth and treat as a straight line.

Linear Reductionist SafetyMuch of this thinking has translated into safety. Examples include Heinrich’s safety triangle, Domino theory, and Reason’s Swiss Cheese model. Safety differently is acknowledging that the real world is non-linear, Pareto distributed. It’s understanding how complexity in terms of diversity, coherence, tipping points, strange attractors, emergence, Black Swans impacts safety practices. Safety differently is no longer seeing safety as a product or a service but as an emergent property in a complex adaptive system.

BigHistoryProject GoldilocksWe can learn a lot from the amazing Big History Project. Dave Christian talks about the Goldilocks conditions that lead to increased complexity. Safety differently looks at what are these “just right” conditions that allow safety to emerge.

Because safety is an emergent property, that means we can’t create, control, nor manage a safety culture. Safety differently researches modulators that might influence and shape a present culture. Modulators are different that Drivers. Drivers are cause & effect oriented (if we do this, we get that) whereas Modulators are catalysts we deliberately place into a system but cannot predict what will happen. It sounds a bit crazy but it’s done all the time. Think of a restaurant experimenting with a new menu item. The chef doesn’t actually know if it will be a success. Even if it fails, he will learn more about clientele food preferences. We call these safe-to-fail experiments where the knowledge gained is more than the cost of the probe.

Cynefin Framework
Cynefin Framework: Follow the Green line to Best Practices

Safety differently views best practices as a space where ideas go to die. It’s the final end point of a linear line. Why die? Because there is no feedback loop that allows change to occur. Why no feedback loop? Because by definition it’s best practices and no improvement is necessary! Unfortunately, a Goldilocks condition arises we call complacency and the phenomenon is a drift into failure.

Safety differently means using different strategies when navigating complexity. A good example is the Saudi culture that Ron mentioned re taking a roundabout method to get to a destination. This is a complexity strategy than John Kay wrote about in this book Obliquity [Click here to see his TEDx talk].


Safety differently means deploying abductive rather than traditional deductive and inductive reasoning.

Safety differently means adaptation + exaptation as well as robustness + resilience.

Heinrich Revisited

Safety differently is not dismissing the past. We honour it by keeping practices that continue to serve well. But we will abandon approaches, methods, and tools that have been now proven to be false, myths, fallacies by complexity science, cognitive science, and other holistic research.


Accident Prone

In the early 1900s, humans were considered accident prone; Management took actions to keep people from mishandling machines and upsetting efficiency. Today, we know differently: The purpose of machines is to augment human intelligence and release people from non-thinking labour roles.