The Best Book I Know for Safety

The Best Book I Know for Safety

imageWhat is the book you would you grab if the house was on fire? For me, it has to be the wonderful book Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn by Donald N. Michael. (1997) Miles River Press. You can only buy it on eBay these days but it is a gem and essential reading for anyone in safety interested in risk and learning.

For those who know me, they know I am a heavy book marker and flagger. I code and write in books and talk to the author of the book through a system I have developed that helps recall and research. An example is given in the photo. Each colour, flag, mark and comment is a code that aides memory and recall.

The mark up system I made up is based on intensity of what is written and need for recall. This means I can grab any book off the shelf (and in my study there are a few books) and quickly find the research, comment or illustration of a particular idea or research area. When we do the iThink Module I teach this system to people ( and it makes reading fun and more effective.

From the get go Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn is full of gems and starts with a discussion on boundary making. The construction of artificial boundaries helps differentiation and compliance, something the safety industry does really well to ensure a lack of development and learning. Awareness of constructed boundaries is essential for learning development. One of the greatest boundaries for learning in the safety industry is the ideology of zero. Zero discourse on its own is the most limiting of metaphors for thinking and learning. Michael states (p.6):

‘Boundaries keep threats outside and give support inside. They determine access, power and legitimacy. Explicitly and implicitly, they define ‘me’, ‘this’, ‘us’, and by contrast ‘you’, that’ and ‘them’ … the boundary is experiences as a barrier’.

Michael goes on:

‘According to conventional wisdom, more information makes learning new answers easier, and decision making more decisive. Ironically, just the opposite usually happens; the human condition is such that more information generally leads to more uncertainty … More information simply increases uncertainty regarding where boundaries should be set.’

The second topic for discussion by Michael is the function of metaphors (p.17). Metaphors are boundary discriminators, they set and limit any forward movement. Michael states:

‘Such metaphors (war metaphors) used deliberately or thoughtlessly, reinforce the persistence of inappropriately discriminated boundaries that are maintained by feedback norms hopelessly inadequate for a world of learning and planning.”

Just do a search across the discourse of the safety industry and look for military and war metaphors that are used to explain a method for tackling risk. Such combative metaphors can only have a trajectory of attack against the human. Safety is a not a ‘war’ against anything but rather ‘a helping activity to aid learning’. See if you can find such language in any safety text.

Michael then joins the issue of boundaries and metaphors to the limits of fallibility and bounded rationality (two of the most profound concepts for any safety person to address). Michael (p.20) states:

‘No amount of information alone, no matter how elaborately available in depth, is sufficient for deciding. If it were, we could leave it to the computers. Indices and other such data-combining procedures, designed to shorten the time needed to understand and act, do not obviate the need to slow down the system. Such procedures by their very nature lose information.’

Hmmm, how can the reduction of information lead to effective decision making? This is the purpose of heuristics. Heuristics enable fast and efficient decision making in the face of a lack of information! After all as Michael (p.20) states: ‘There is no value free information … values determine what to pay attention to, and what to do about it.’

The message of slowing down stands against every other metaphor, including the addiction of safety to technology, to speed up.

Michael (p. 24) describes planning as ‘a pedagogy for learning’. That is, planning in itself is not about foretelling but about critical-and-strategic-thinking-for-learning.

All of this discussion precedes Chapter One that then introduces the problems associated with how we currently view strategic planning as forecasting. In this section Michael tackles the challenges of culture and turbulence. Michael (p. 56) states:

‘To an important extent, organizational leadership has defined its competence by its ability to reduce or remove turbulence from the organizational setting, or, under conditions of its choice, to introduce turbulence for special change-inducing purposes.’

Is is often viewed by leaders that their role is to protect employees from turbulence. Such protection creates fragility and diminishes learning and resilience. Indeed, one of the greatest skills of leaders is to provide skills for coping and vision for hope. Yet, this is rarely discussed in leadership literature. The talk in safety is often about stability and control rather than coping, learning and resilience. Michael (p. 57) states:

‘As a result, some individuals resist any movement toward long-range social planning, because the openness to turbulence implicit in such a move pressures them to re-examine themselves, which they want to avoid.’ … ‘Instead of seeking more feedback for better decision making and evaluation, organisations use many defenses against feedback in order to avoid the disruption that it invariability generates’.

Further (p.58)

‘In situations where turbulence is high, and its repression would be counterproductive, people in organisations will have to learn how to demonstrate competence, and those in the environment will have to learn how to assess it. They will have to learn how to respond to turbulence without overreacting or underreacting. Conventional reactions include avoiding feedback, tightening up, firing the bearer of bad news, obfuscation, repression, and ‘fire fighting’ which is usually a consequence of actions previously undertaken to protect an organization (especially a government organization) from turbulence-generating feedback.’

Planning is the outcome of a philosophy. Strategic thinking is limited by that philosophy with implications for operational consequences about learning in the present. Strategic planning needs to be acknowledged as future speculation for the purpose of learning. The difference between what was intended and what actually happened is where the learning occurs. No-one ever achieves the goals they set or the strategic plans they set out. This is the reality of living fallibly in a random world. Instead, seeking out deviations, changes and errors there should be the reverse. People should be rewarded for detecting deviations from plan, not as errors but as opportunities to understand how social influences change decision making.

Michael directs his attention in Chapter Three to ‘The Requirement for Living with Uncertainty’. What a great chapter. Rather than speak nonsense about zero, safety people should be more aligning their language to acknowledge uncertainty as the foundation of risk. As Michael (p. 130) states:

‘All information brought into the organization that carries messages of turbulence will generate uncertainty’.

Living WITH uncertainty is the dynamic that provokes learning and is the very purpose of long-range planning. The repression of uncertainty in the language of zero provokes not only denial but also an aversion to long-range planning and strategic thinking. Zero commits the discourse to a single dimension of reality.

Humans can only work with the information available to them at the time. Acknowledging uncertainty within organisations and between organisations diminishes the projection of blame. Unfortunately in the safety industry the response ‘I don’t know’ is discouraged. Then when one admits that they didn’t know under investigation they are punished for not having foresight! Michael (p. 155) states:

‘One thing you can find out here very quickly is that you can’t make a mistake … So, everyone sort of walks around delicately trying to get through the system without stepping in a hole’. This observation makes it clear what zero ideology and discourse creates. Zero contradicts everything we know about learning. Indeed, the key to innovation, creativity and improvisation is embracing risk. This would mean that innovative companies fail often and learn to absorb their errors constructively. Michael (p. 157) states:

‘Leaders and members of organisations try to avoid acknowledging error, not only because it helps them sustain a view of themselves as people in control, but also because it elicits the support of members of the relevant environment, who, belonging to the same tradition, evaluate persons and organisations in the same way.’

It seems a strange paradox that micro-management and the fixation on controls diminishes learning and reinforces the psychosis of co-dependence. The idea of relinquishing control is anathema to the safety industry. Michael (p. 159) states:

‘Acknowledging the likelihood of error before it occurs makes it easier to abandon the kind of rhetoric that anticipates no error, then requires further rhetoric to hide error, rather than learn from it’.

Of course, this all creates the most amazing stress and anxiety on the safety industry and anyone who works in it. When one articulates the world through the lens of zero one can only ever be nervous, anxious and stressed, waiting for the impossible to happen. This is what a discourse of denial does to organisations. It quashes learning and stifles integrity.

Perhaps that is about a place to stop (p.160) in recounting the learning from this book and there is much more (the book is 380 pages).

I would recommend Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn as compulsory reading for anyone seeking to work in the safety industry.

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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