Imperfections and Humble Enquiry – A Great Team

Imperfections and Humble Enquiry – A Great Team

Another great article by Paul Nieuwoudt,  Author of:  Zero Harm and a Peasant in 16th Century EuropeAnother side to the story and The Illusion Of Opposites – read more great articles like this on his blog www.leadership-observer.com

imperfectionsForms pervade our lives … whether in business or privately. If, for example, you open a bank account there are forms to complete and the tax-man certainly has their forms as we all well know.

I like many people have designed various forms over the years. Some of those forms have been intended for rudimentary purposes, while others related to more complex matters. Regardless of the intended purpose, I have never been able to design a form that was right first time. All sorts of unforeseen shortcomings or deficiencies became apparent every time we started using a new form. This always necessitated the redesign of those forms, sometimes repeatedly, until such time as the form became increasingly fit for purpose. The same holds true with forms designed by others – I have never seen a new form introduced that didn’t require improvements to make it more suitable for use.

You may wonder and ask – So what does this have to do with safety or safety leadership?

Consider the complexity associated with designing forms when compared to leading people or introducing management systems. It is obviously far easier to design forms than to implement change, systems or to lead people. If we cannot even complete relatively simple tasks like designing forms perfectly first time round, then we would be foolish to expect to implement an optimized safety management process first time around. Rather we should expect to embark on an extended, iterative optimization process in order to fix the various unforeseen shortcomings as they become evident. Most of these shortcomings will be identified by members of the wider group and other stakeholders. Unless we as leaders engage in open conversations and expectant enquiry then many of these shortcomings will remain unreported. We need to actively go out and look for opinions and feedback; how we approach this will either encourage open dialogue, or hinder it.

The best advice I have found to encourage this open dialogue is to practice what Edgar Schein calls Humble Enquiry. Although as leaders we may have played a significant role in setting up the system, we should recognise that we are not the experts. The users are the experts in this case because they are at the forefront of discovering, and experiencing, the various systemic shortcomings first-hand. If we fail to practice a humble, inquiring and exploratory approach then we essentially see the problem as originating from people, rather than from the systems we champion. In other words, our minds will be closed and this will in turn result in closed mouths.

Many ideas will arise during our respective leadership journeys; some of the ideas may be our own, while many ideas will originate from others. Some of these ideas will be simple, while others may be highly complex. The key is to recognise potential value in each of those ideas without expecting perfection from any of them. We should acknowledge that a lot of work may need to be undertaken to refine those ideas. This will invariably involve a process of trial and error where improvements can only be made by finding, and addressing, the various mistakes and shortcomings. For this reason, mistakes are essentially a vital part of the improvement process – mistakes are our allies.

This concept is also important because it liberates us from expectations of perfection. How often have we failed to even try to undertake something because we think “it won’t turn out right”? How often have ideas never got off the ground for this reason we weren’t sure it would be perfect? If we view shortcomings and mistakes as an essential part of bringing ideas to fruition then it could encourage us to be brave (but not foolhardy) and take the first steps of experimentation and implementation. We could consider that in a real and practical sense that shortcomings truly are allies which we need to discover, rather than enemies to attack.

What would our safety systems look like if approached from this perspective; could it lead to growth and improvement? What impact could it have on company culture?

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below