I’m really pleased to have permission to publish this short piece by Narelle Stoll, submitted as part of her studies at the Centre of Leadership Learning in Risk (see the CLLR training calendar for 2018 here).
I hope you will have a good read and provide here with some questions, support and encouragement in the comments section below.
Unit 5 – The Social Psychology of High Reliability Organising
Centre of Leadership Learning in Risk
Achieving Due Diligence through Collective Mindfulness
14 December 2017
Recently I attended a concert for a high profile international artist at a major entertainment venue in Sydney Australia. The heightened security protocol at the concert, which included security wands and scanners, installed in response to the recent terrorist attacks in Las Vegas USA and Ariana Grande Concert in Manchester UK, was a sobering reminder of the potential threat to my personal safety in attending such an event.
As Alyssa Rosenberg stated in the article, “Why terrorists attack concert halls.”
“These attacks are especially deadly and exceptionally cruel because they take advantage of the surrender that is involved in any aesthetic experience. If you are absorbed in the final instalment of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy, dancing to a rock band or a DJ’s remix, or holding tight to a pink balloon, you aren’t alert to the possibility of danger. The art that transports you is the very thing that makes you vulnerable. The same darkness that liberates you from your everyday life, whether it is mundane or oppressive, gives cover to your killer.”
Given the spate of terrorist activities, it would be a natural response to avoid going out and enjoying life. Instead to relish in the apparent security of home, with the perception that it is a safer alternative to being a potential victim of a terrorist activity. The sobering truth of that philosophy lies in statistics published by Destroy the Joint who recorded in 2016 a total of 76 women who lost their lives to domestic violence. What these statistics reveal, simply relying on our perception of risk does not create a true picture of where the risks or threats are to our personal safety.
The same is true of organisations in terms of their management of risk. Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (1999)  conducted a study of High Reliability Organisations. These were organisations defined by Rochlin, Roberts, Consolini and, LaPorte (1987, 1991) as organisations having one or more of the following characteristics;
- Operate in an unforgiving environment
- Environment rich in potential for error
- Scale of consequence precludes learning through experimentation and trial and error
- Avoid failure
In their studies of these organisations, Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld observed that the ones that demonstrated resilience and had the ability to survive and bounce back from significant failure or loss had particular characteristics. Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld referred these characteristics collectively as “Collective Mindfulness”. They were
- Preoccupation with failure– focus on potential errors and being sensitive to early signs of failure
- Reluctance to simplify
- Sensitivity to operations. Recognizing the various systems within the organization are static and not dynamic and having respect and appreciation for decision making to occur at a local or frontline level.
- Commitment to resilience.
- Deference to expertise which is to enable the people recognize as being the experts in the area be responsible for the decision making. Including those at front line level.
What their studies demonstrated that was not sufficient for an organisation to rely in statistics and plans as assurance for being safe or managing risk. Instead their focus should be on identifying the key risks and control measures. With the emphasis on the measurement on the effectiveness of such controls in containing the risk. This measurement was not to be done through simply counting statistics but from exercises such as safety conversations. There was also an importance on the need to build the front-line capacity of staff, through the formation of discussion groups at the front-line level and the building of capacity of the workforce to manage risks and threats through a variety of learning methods.
The importance of critically analysing controls such as information in bulletins, monthly tool box talks in terms of their effectiveness in controlling risk was also discussed by Lawyer Greg Smith in an article “Test safety management before you go away”.  Greg discussed in the article of the importance of reviewing such information, to prove or give assurance the risks are being managed in accordance with the controls that have been documented in the procedures at work. Greg also stated this approach also demonstrates compliance with Section 27A and B of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 which is:
“(a) to acquire and keep up-to-date knowledge of work health and safety matters, and
(b) to gain an understanding of the nature of the operations of the business or undertaking of the person conducting the business or undertaking and generally of the hazards and risks associated with those operations.”
A practicable example of the success of the implementation of Collective Mindfulness was illustrated in a case study by Hamish Hancox (2014) . He outlined how a high reliability organisation in Australia that specialised in sugar processing and distribution had introduced process of collective mindfulness into the organisation and had provided training to all their front-line staff in this training. One year into introducing Collective Mindfulness into the organisation, a fire broke out on a conveyor belt one evening while a sole operator was on duty. Through his training in Collective Mindfulness the operator was able to make decisions that enabled successful containment of the fire and management of the emergency without the need to defer to senior people for permission.
In conclusion, what this discussion demonstrates, it is not adequate for the organisation to simply rely on plans perceptions or statistics to manage perceived or actual threats to operations. Rather consideration should be given to adopting the collective mindfulness approach outlined by Weick et all as a method of building a collective knowledge and understanding of the risk in the workplace. The benefits of this approach are developing a more resilient organisation and enhancing the capacity of the employees in the organisation to respond and recover effectively from failure and threats to its operations.
 Rosenberg Alyssa (2017).Why terrorists attack concert halls. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-manchester-concert-terrorist-attacks-20170524-story.html; Washington Post
 Destroy the Joint. https://www.facebook.com/DestroyTheJoint
 Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (1999). Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness. Research in organizational behaviour, 21, 13–81.
Theoretical challenges of ‘High Reliability Organizations’. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 1(1), 19
 Greg Smith (2017) Test safety management before you go away .https://mysafetythoughts.com/2017/12/07/test-safety-management-before-you-go-away/7th December 2017
 Hamish Hancox (2014) How the seven components of Weicks organisational sensemaking and five components of collective mindfulness are a helpful methodology for workplace risk and safety. Unpublished essay for Centre Leadership Learning in Risk December 2014