Making Safety Better by Using Our Adaptive Toolbox
by Dr Rob Long
The excellent work of Gerd Gigerenzer introduces us to the limitations of rationality and the need to validate our ‘adaptive toolbox’. In several of Gigerenzer’s books he shows how our use of statistical data is mostly ineffective and disconnected from reality. Gigerenzer shows that injury data in particular has no cultural significance and is based on a range of erroneous assumptions about probability and probabilistic mental models. If you want to read some of Gigerenzer’s work I would suggest the following in descending order of difficulty to read.
· Risk Savvy, How to Make Good Decisions
· Gut Feelings, The Intelligence of the Unconscious
· Calculated Risks, How to Know When Numbers Deceive You
· Bounded Rationality, The Adaptive Tool box
And for the brave:
· Adaptive Thinking, Rationality in the Real World
So what is this ‘adaptive toolbox’?
The adaptive toolbox is the suite of skills we dip into each day to make decisions. Most of this decision making is made ‘on the run’ and as Gigerenzer states: ‘using fast, frugal and effective’ ways of making decisions. One of the most dangerous things we do each day with few systems and in a complete state of autopilot is, drive a vehicle. Except for the few number of incidents (per capita on the road) we do this dangerous task quite well. The news reports only when the adaptive toolbox doesn’t work, not the millions of times it does work.
The reality is most of our decisions are not made with maximized information, there is neither time to collect all the data nor resources sufficient to wait for a complete decision. This is what Gigerenzer calls ‘satisficing’, we collect and search for ‘enough’ information then we make a decision. The decision may not be perfect but it is satisfactory. If we were to wait for maximum information for decisions, we wouldn’t make one. Gigerenzer calls this the delusion of ‘optimization’. The way our adaptive toolbox works is by what Gigerenzer calls, ‘the stopping rule’ ie. we can’t go on and on collecting data and information for a decision, we stop and make the best decision we can with the limited information we have. We always make decisions within the constraints that beset us. It is only the crazy delusion of hindsight bias and the lovers of zero that supposes ‘all incidents are preventable’. It’s about time we stopped attributing the omniscience and omnipotence of god to humans and got on with the reality of decision making.
Karl Weick (Making Sense of the Organisation) uses the word ‘bricolage’ in the same way as we understand the idea of the ‘adaptive toolbox’. He acknowledges that adaptive thinking (using our abilities to create, imagine and innovate) and improvisation, are the key to effective decision making about risk. The last thing Weick emphasizes is the fixity of systems as a help for ‘managing the unexpected’.
The tools in our adaptive toolbox are mostly heuristics, these are intuitive micro-rules we have learned over time that provide cues for quick decisions. I would suggest you watch the wonderful lecture ‘How to live in a world we don’t understand’ by Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEnmjMgP_Jo if you want to get a dose of how we really engage with the world and make decisions.
Of course, the adaptive toolbox is not spoken about by regulators and lovers of systems who maintain the delusion that decision making is undertaken by rational optimization. When people make mistakes or events occur, the regulator attributes a failure of systems or rationalization to the decision making process. The last thing the regulator wants to hear is about the adaptive toolbox and the billions of times people remain safe and get work done.
People know that their work changes constantly, unpredictable things happen, the environment is constantly changing. The best way we keep safe when things change is not by running back to SWMS and systems that fill the shelves and filing cabinets in offices but by using our adaptive toolbox.
So what are some of the ‘tools’ in the adaptive toolbox?
The first tool is our search rules. We search consciously and unconsciously in our work for alternatives, options and cues (to evaluate alternatives). This is why one of the most successful training programs of Human Dymensions is the iCue™ program and the use of the iCue™ tool for set the agenda for safety conversations. We search not by ‘telling’ but by becoming better observers and listeners for these cues.
The second tool is our stopping rules. Knowing when to stop searching is best when one is cognizant of how all decisions have trajectories and trade offs. The is discovered by training in the psychology of goals. The best way to realize time to stop searching is by collaborative decision making. When the cues are sufficient and ownership of the decision is agreed, then the quest for optimization ends and a decision is made. Knowing that there is no perfect decision for fallible humans is the key to living with the reality of risk.
The third tool is the adaptive toolbox is decision rules. The idea that humans minds are something like a computer is absurd. Decisions are not about the behaviourist assumption of inputs and outputs. Computers can’t adapt like humans and certainly don’t make better decisions than humans, a computer and system keep to their programming. Humans make decisions that are ‘plausible’ based on the limitations of evidence. Decision making is not some engineering project. We make decisions that are the most robust at the time.
Unfortunately, far too much energy in the safety sector is focused on systems and mechanistic approaches to the detriment of making our adaptive toolboxes more robust. Rather than trust our strongest decision making capability, we live under the delusion that expending excessive energy in checklists and systems creates better decision making. This is driven by the delusion that fear and blame motivate human judgment.
Perhaps we could minimize the fear of dependence on ineffective tools and lift our skill development in our adaptive toolbox as a pathway to better decision making in safety.