Forecasting Safety

Forecasting Safety

Here’s the challenge for anyone who holds to the mantra ‘all accidents are preventable’. Ask them to predict how long it will be in their organisation or any organisation for that matter, that they will be harm free. Hopefully they will go to their injury data and based on the history of injury at their organisation make a prediction to match. Unfortunately, injury data provides no information about safety culture or predictability, but that’s what traditional safety does. You can be injury and harm free for a decade and yet this is no basis for forecasting anything. Randomness (the lack of order, pattern and predictability) has that unique capability of proving all human forecasting wrong. Make a prediction about who will be in and win the grand final, then put some money on it. We call that gambling and you will most likely lose, humans don’t have the infallibility to forecast successfully.

Forecasting is the foundation of traditional strategic planning and is viewed as something that shapes the future. Whilst an excellent thinking exercise, strategic planning rarely attains what is predicted, even in the short term and most certainly never in the long term. We are however, fantastic at hindsight and remind ourselves of all the times things we predicated came true and forget the many times our predictions were false. This is how we maintain the myth of forecasting.

One of the fascinating preoccupations with Nostradamus is how enthusiasts read meaning into the text. Similar techniques have been used with the book of Revelation for over a thousand years. Any examination of the thousands of prophecies in either The Bible or Nostradamus will show that firstly we don’t understand the mysteries of the text and that many of the so called predictions have not been realized. A study of cults and prophecies shows that once the forecast doesn’t come true, the followers (through cognitive dissonance) via language gymnastics find a way to explain the success of the prediction, it’s just that we can’t see it without the eyes of faith. Faith in zero harm forces similar kinds of cultic language and logic gymnastics.

Forecasting is more about hope than reality. As much as we would like to know the future, we can’t. Raynor’s book The Strategy Paradox and Sherden’s book The Fortune Sellers ought to be mandated reading for all safety people. Minztberg, the noted expert in management and organisations, in his book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning notes the notorious failure of ‘experts’ to predict the stock market or business trends. Taleb (Fooled by randomness) similarly shows just how unsuccessful economists are at predicting anything in the money markets. If safety people can forecast the future of safety in their organisation please tell me about it, I’d love to come along and see the evidence.

The quest to forecast and have the ability to know the future is a seduction, and many people talk like it is possible. Perfectionist and absolute language in culture drives this obsession. Spend some time at one of those deposit by mobile casinos and watch and listen and you will see people elated when they win and silent when their prediction doesn’t come true.

We have all become so used to the failure of forecasting the weather that we know that they speak in percentages of probability not accuracy. So, there’s a 30% chance it may rain, even weather forecasters don’t speak in absolutes, only safety people.

The problem with nonsense language in safety is it drives mythology and blindness. After a while people begin to believe that they can predict the future but that they can control people and randomness. Then they enshrine language in the text of organisations driving a culture of omniscient delusion only to be shattered by surprise when something goes wrong. The more organisations talk in absolutes and perfection, the less there will be empathy with mistakes and the more there must be cover ups and language gymnastics about harm. You can parade zero harm as much as you like but those flying and driving in and out know they are being harmed by the organisational practices of the company (http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2014/s4071967.htm). The mythology and spin about zero is as delusional as predicting what will happen tomorrow. Yes, we care about paper cuts, count band aids used in the first aid kit but there is no harm being done to employees. It’s all Nostradamus stuff, a denial of fallibility and language gymnastics to match.

The best way we can turn around this dangerous way of thinking and speaking is to be silent about it. We don’t talk about perfection in our hobbies, past times or family life. We don’t talk like this in business, investments and health life so, stop talking in absolutes in safety.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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