Looking Forward, Looking Back

Originally posted on September 9, 2019 @ 9:05 PM

imageThis cute little song by Slim Dusty lays out the ultimate challenge for Risk and Safety. So much of what characterizes Safety is about looking backward. Counting data, LTIs, TRIFR and counting lead indicators (positive activity) all focus on the past as if these are an indicator of the future. Most safety people I know complain about this constant tirade of looking backward in monthly safety reports. They find the meaninglessness of these debilitating and yet have no way of escape. There is certainly no vision by any of the peaks to help in this way either. What have the NSCA and AIHS to offer the sector for a vision to reduce needless paperwork?

Amazing how real time data is now being peddled as some advanced way of looking forward when all it is more metrics, more numerics and more counting. The truth is, the more one is flooded with data the less one is enabled to think forward. Thinking forward is essential to vision and is captured by a very simple question all safety people should ask: Where is this taking us?

The real way to be visionary in risk and safety is to think about trajectories. You don’t have to be a magician to realize that a discourse of zero will lead to brutalism, that a discourse of BBS will lead to dehumanizing others. If one sets a discourse populated by numbers and objects then its trajectory can only do harm to people. When humans are simply understood as objects in a system then don’t be surprised about psychological injury rates or exponential amplification of mental health issues.

When I first entered University in 1970 the book that was shaking the tree was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229011962_Future_shock_-_Discussing_the_changing_temporal_architecture_of_daily_life). Some of the projections of Toffler have indeed come to fruition. We seem no better at living in community or looking after the world and with each other regardless of all the technological advances that have been made. Our wicked problems seem to have amplified (https://safetyrisk.net/independent-thinking-in-an-uncertain-world-a-mind-of-ones-own/) and, we seem to have simply shifted harm to different places. Despite all the social media we are more lonely than ever with an alarming suicide rate (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-08/quentin-bryce-urging-better-ways-to-talk-about-suicide/11487380).

Predicting the future technically is impossible but predicting the future socially has been around for thousands of years. The eight century prophets of Israel understood how empire, exploitation, greed, individualism, domination and authoritarianism lead to the oppression of others. They knew that absolute power corrupts absolutely and didn’t need a crystal ball to work out where things were going. Vision doesn’t come from reading tea leaves but by understanding how power works in social contexts. Much of this gift of stating the bleeding obvious comes from skills in Critical and Cultural theory. At the source of most dehumanization is the abuse of power.

One of the curious things about many vision statements in organisations is that they rarely say much that is imaginative or consider the foundations of trajectories. Many of these so called ‘vision statements’ contain little vision at all. If a vision statement doesn’t consider ethical trajectories, human impact, social outcomes or the exercise of power then it is likely to contain little vision. Often such statements end up being ‘motherhood’ in nature offering little way forward. Vision requires imagination, courage, forward looking discourse and an understanding of fallibility. One can’t look forward when the assumption of ethics is the make believe of zero. One might as well build a vision on a fairy tale and hope belief in Cinderella will invoke a vision for safety.

One of the most backward looking models in safety is the Bradley Curve. The whole structure of the curve demonizes humans as the problem and makes counting back to zero an art form (https://safetyrisk.net/nonsense-curves-and-pyramids/). Indeed it assumes that all humans are created seeking harm (‘natural instincts’). There is nothing to learn from the Bradley Curve except how to look backwards.

Zero is typified by counting backwards so common in the concept of a countdown. When one’s world is framed by counting backwards there can be no looking forwards. If Safety is to have any vision and look forward it needs to start with a vision to reject all this counting and backward looking tied up in LTIs, TRIFR and numerics.

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