I once ran some focus groups on a mine site. The goal was to identify conditions that made work difficult. One of the issues that the workforce identified was that “Work is difficult when you drive at night and you can’t see signage, rocks, and other traffic”. After having presented this and other findings to the project employees during a prestart meeting, one of the truckies came up to me and said: “Let me know if you need any help in assessing effectiveness or placing the lighting towers. I’ve got a master’s degree in lighting. I can help.”

So there was this truck operator, who up until that point had been defined by the role and responsibility that the organisation had given him: to operate a truck. But his potential was clearly much bigger than that. And he was keen to contribute more. I passed on his name to the managers but I don’t know what happened with this after I left. However, this experience triggered a question and a perspective that I have explored since: That people are the solution.

Organisations are filled with people whose capacity goes above and beyond the roles and responsibilities that we have assigned them. Every organisation is a bundle of (more or less locked up) intelligence, passion, knowledge, creativity, collaboration, knowhow, innovation that can be used to improve, detect, assess ambiguous environments, optimise cutting edge technology that we haven’t fully understood yet, carry out work under competitive pressures to do more with less, care about colleagues, speak up, and to lend a helping hand.  And organisations are free to make use of this resource – to realise its intellectual, emotional and creative potential.

In this sense, the question that we need to ask ourselves may not be how people can be the solution. But rather: How come that the potential of people so often is overlooked, disregarded, discarded and even disdained when it comes to safety? Because, this potential remains a relatively unexplored resource in most companies that I’ve visited. This capacity to innovate and create is more often than not considered a problem - an unpredictable threat that better be kept at bay and within confined roles and responsibilities handed down from above.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve often wondered why organisations so willingly and frequently turn away from or against this potential resource – their people – when it comes to safety.

  • Why this escape from its own potential?
  • Why do so many organisations copy what other organisations do?
  • Why are so many organisations keen on importing products that have been developed elsewhere?
  • Why is it that there is so little creativity when it comes to safety?
  • Why are we so keen on using outside expertise rather than looking for the answer within our own organisations? Why are there so few celebrations of local initiatives?

Below, I first provide two potential answers as to why people so often are considered a problem. Second, I outline some steps toward making people the solution.

Control and Predictability

First, when functions are designed, control and predictability are highly desirable features. Under pressures to carry out projects on time, on budget, without any losses to machinery, people or environment, control and predictability are seductive notions. Humans with their free will, subjectivity, creativity, autonomy and capacity to see and combine things in unexpected ways, do not really fit the ideals of control and predictability. So this idea, this potential, about people being the solution, is perhaps too disruptive. You have no idea what people can come up with. People’s potential brings great uncertainty into our plans.

In fact, it takes a lot of effort to keep this potential at bay. To maintain or increase control and predictability, organisations tend to opt for a prescriptive approach. By imposing prescriptions around methods, behaviours and values, organisations reduce reactivity, mess, diversity, variation, uncertainty, but also creativity and autonomy. They also increase repetition, conformity, discipline, uniformity and order.

I believe it’s crucial to recognise that prescriptions have as a goal to transform the consciousness of the prescribed person to align with the person who prescribes. The more you prescribe and ask for compliance, the more of a problem people become, and the less engagement and creativity you will have. Why should people be engaged when the thinking, designs and solutions have been handed down to them? How can they be engaged when all that has already been done for them?

I increasingly ask safety managers “do you really want engagement, or is it buy-in into compliance you’re looking for?”

The escape from freedom

A second reason why organisations escape their own potential is psychologically perhaps more interesting. When we face an unknown, and uncertain future and something that may potentially go wrong, people and organisations have a tendency to look to something external to project our hopes on, to displace our doubts, to have something to cling on to.

Essentially, this is a belief that we will be saved if we rely on something external to ourselves. This may be:

  • a standard

  • a best practice

  • a method developed elsewhere

  • a charismatic leader

  • a set of sparkly rules

  • a theory

  • more evidence based science

  • Asking “What would market leading company X do?”

All these potential points of stability may be good in and of themselves. And they can all be quite seductive in that someone else has already thought about the issue much more than we have, so why shouldn’t we follow their lead?

In contrast to this desire for stable tools to chart and master an unknown future, what your people can offer is relatively unstable and unattractive:

  • What you want is something objective. People are susceptible to whims or subjectivity.

  • It is way more attractive to rely on laws of regularity, rather than people’s hunches and gripes.

  • You probably want facts, not individual opinions.

  • You will want numbers, rather than descriptions.

  • You will want the ‘one best way’, rather than exploring the many good enough ways that people may have developed.

  • You may prefer something that has been tested and validated, over the new and unproven things that people can come up with

  • Of course you’d like something formal, like a set of accountabilities, rather than informal relations built on fuzzy trust.

  • It’d be good if you could have something static and written down, rather than something which is changeable.

  • You are likely to prefer precise rules, rather than approximate interpretations.

It’s a soothing notion that we can buy or access our safety and security from somewhere, that safety is a product that can be put in place. It’s potentially an anxiety reducing thought that we can escape doubt and our own responsibility to be the best we can, by copying someone else. But the cost of escaping your own freedom to embrace safety in a way that only you can, is the loss of creativity, loss of engagement, loss of ownership, a loss of your own potential, loss of authenticity, and a way to make the world a bit more boring.

Overcoming the fear of freedom

When you step outside mainstream ways of being and seeing safety, when you commit to realising your own organisational potential - you are likely to suffer varying degrees of isolation, confusion, doubts, ambiguity, and other difficulties that first emerge when you face great uncertainty about your own capability. If you want to step off the beaten track, you will have to start benchmarking yourself to yourself. And it may take a while to establish your own standards after a long period of relying on someone else’s. Also, you as an organisation will expose yourself to critique, and quite possibly to legal action should things not work out.

To be able to sort through and go through this ‘valley of despair’ you and your organisation need to assume autonomy and responsibility by starting to relate your actions to yourself. Here are three steps that can help with the transition.

  1. First, look within. If you want innovation and engagement, if people are the solution, you can’t default to looking for the solution outside your own business. I think it’s much more intriguing to assume that somewhere in your own organisations there is already a solution in place that is keeping your people safe. Otherwise you’d have more incidents. You need to figure out what it is that is currently enabling people to work safely. Start by looking at what already works.

  2. Ask, listen and explore how your people understand their world, how they currently contribute. Ask your people what they care about. What they struggle with. What ideas they have. For the safety professionals of the future I predict that it will be more important to be able to explore than to have the answers.

  3. Start small. Don’t do everything at once. There is no need to abandon everything that you’ve done to date and stand naked in the mud waiting for ideas and inspiration to start flowing. That’d be arrogant, and probably boring. Instead, start small. Run micro experiments. Get creative. Get permission to try things locally. If it works, expand and roll it out. If it doesn’t work you can shut it down, learn from it and try again.

Overcoming the drive for control and predictability

  1. Accept that you can’t eliminate the drive for control and predictability. Control and predictability is to a large extent what organisations are about and in many ways it is what they are supposed to do.

  2. But you can design co-generative processes to find solutions. Safety, or organisational life in general, is not a free for all/laissez-faire type whimsical walk in the park. Leaders can still approve and decide which solutions are put in place. And I think they should. But they can easily engage the many minds available to do the thinking for what the solutions might be. You can help your workforce to evaluate their ideas, and to present them to management. You can maintain control, and people can still be the solution. When leaders and workers are engaged in a co-generative exploration, you make better use of the resources that you have available.

  3. Change the social fabric. Safety, and work in general, is always embedded in a social structure. Unless you tweak, stretch and recombine the social fabric of your organisation (who talks with whom, about what, what happens with the information) not much is going to change. The most common issue I see is that there are filters between those with access to resources, and those with the most intimate understanding of sensitivities and what might work. If you want innovation and engagement you need to change this social setup. You need to bridge the gap, or at least combine people in a new way. The good news is that this is actually quite easy and straightforward. If you’re a manager you can reach out, get out from behind your desk, and start spending more time with the messy details of your operations. You need to start asking more questions, to listen more, collect more information from the front line, and create a more interactive interface between the many facets of your organisation.

The end result

The one sided application of externally developed practices that were developed for yesterday’s needs, makes us blind to what we currently face, but also locks up the resources we have available to overcome. To overcome we need the collective wisdom, curiosity, and creativity and we need to become the best we can be. The way I envision the best is an organisation:

  • where individual differences are considered a resource

  • that makes their own discoveries

  • where solution are driven by people taking responsibility, rather than meeting top down accountabilities.

The biggest threat to safety is not the non-compliant worker. Instead, the greatest danger lies in our belief in authority, uniformity, and external expertise. The challenge ahead is not one of winning hearts and minds to ensure safety. Instead, the challenge is to figure out how we can enable people and organisations to unleash their own capacity to create the future they would like to see.