Work and how to survive it: Lesson 1. Understand ‘how work goes’

I have recently been reading Life and How To Survive It, nearly 20 years after first reading it. It is a book on relationships and psychology, written in conversational question and answer style, by the psychotherapist Robin Skynner and the comedian John Cleese. 

Robin Skynner was a child psychiatrist and family therapist who practised psychotherapy with individuals, couples, families, groups, and institutions, where he employed group-analytic principles. Skynner, a former WWII bomber pilot, was a pioneering thinker and practitioner whose insights on families and groups are of value to those seeking to understand behaviour in organisations. In this sporadic series of posts, I will share a few of these, as they might apply to work and organisations. 

Posts in the series:


At the start of Life and How To Survive It (p. 2) John Cleese asks about families that are unusually mentally healthy.

John Well, I’d like to know more about them. Especially as I’ve never heard anyone talk about them.

Robin No, that’s right, the research is hardly mentioned.

John I wonder why. You’d think everyone would want to learn about exceptionally well adjusted people and find out what they know that we don’t. Yet even the other shrinks I know don’t seem familiar with this research. But then, the odd thing about psychiatry is that it’s based upon the study of people who aren’t doing very well – people who have more ‘problems’ than normal.

Robin Yes, that’s basically true.

John And the more you think about that, the stranger it seems. I mean, if you wanted to write a book about how to paint, or play chess, or be a good manager you’d start by studying people who are good at those things. And you wouldn’t expect heavy sales of a book called Play Championship Golf by Learning the Secrets of the Worst 20 Players in the World.

Robin True. Doctors do at least study normal physical functions – anatomy, physiology – before going on the wards to study disease. Psychiatrists seem interested almost entirely in people who are abnormal.

Using this analogy, safety scientists and practitioners might be considered a branch of organisational psychiatry, almost entirely focused on the ‘abnormal’ of work and organisations (albeit in terms of outcomes, not necessarily behaviour or processes). The trouble with this is that we fail to understand ordinary day-to-day work and organisational behaviour, let alone that which is especially effective. (The exceptions to this are branches of study and practice on High Reliability Organisations and Appreciative Inquiry, which are more interested in the latter. But these are rarely part of normal safety management and represent niche areas of safety research.)

For a few reasons, possibly chief among them regulatory requirements in highly regulated industries, the vast majority of effort of safety scientists and practitioners is on abnormal and unwanted outcomes, and the work and processes that precede these. My estimation, based on significant contact with safety practitioners and researchers in many countries, is that this tends to take up over 90% of work hours, and many safety practitioners I know place the estimate closer to 100%. Rarely among those working as safety scientists or practitioners is there, or has there ever been, any significant systematic study of normal work (e.g., via ethnography, systems thinking, systems ergonomics, work psychology, organisational behaviour).

The disconnect between our focus of attention (unwanted events) and what we desire (safe or, more generally, effective work and systems) is what I have previously characterised as déformation professionnelle, a play on words referring to job conditioning or acclimatisation, which affects most or all professions, in some way. As noted by literary theorist Kenneth Burke, “A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing — a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B” (1935, 1984, p. 49). In the case of safety, object A is relatively tiny in number, and object B is huge in number. Because it is so ordinary, we tend not to ‘see’ it (see Figure 1 below, from the EUROCONTROL (2013) White Paper on Safety-I and Safety-II).

Figure 1: The focus of safety.

What this means in practice for safety is that analyses and conclusions about unwanted situations can be based on flawed assumptions about normal work, from the perspective of work-as-imagined (see the archetype, Ignorance and Fantasy). Following safety incidents, even or especially ‘first of a kind’ incidents, an investigation might recommend a new rule. In such cases, where normal work has not been studied and understood, the rule can bring unintended consequences. [Readers with front-line experience will now bring several examples to mind.] The reason is that the rule acts as an unreasonable constraint on normal work, perhaps requiring significantly more time or other resources, which are unavailable, or reduced demand, which is not possible. In the absence of additional resources or reduced demand, the rule may be bypassed or, if enforced, causes secondary problems and leaves the system in a more pressured or fragile state. Meanwhile, those recommending the rule remain unaware of its failure, and assume – through lack of feedback and no further related incidents – that the rule is successful. Examples of unintended consequences in interventions can be found under the Congruence archetype.

Seeing only how things go wrong means that we neglect how things go right (e.g., a desired situation), and – most importantly – how things go, in a more ordinary or general sense. Things can go wrong in countless ways, but in many forms of work, desired outcomes tend to come about in a relatively small number of ways, at a fundamental level. A golfer can hit the ball in any direction and at a wide range of angles. The number of ways to miss a hole is effectively infinite. In comparison, the number of ways to hole the ball is relatively small. The same goes when reverse parking a car, when landing an aircraft or piloting a ship to port. There are many variations in how this is done, and some ways are especially effective, but there are countless ways in which to get it wrong. Hence training is focused, in the main on how to get it right, and not on how not to get it wrong (though many trip hazards will be important to know about).

By studying ordinary, everyday functioning in organisations, and ‘exceptionally well adjusted’ functioning, we can better understand when a sociotechnical system really is healthy or unhealthy, in what ways, how and when this is expressing itself, who is affected, and why (considering sociotechnical system interaction).

This does mean that safety scientists and practitioners, and anyone else interested in the quality and improvement of human work and sociotechnical systems, must spend more time understanding (and in) the world of work-as-done, and the messy reality of work (remembering that is it for the most part the work context that is messy, not the work itself). This is no mean feat when one’s work is driven by regulatory requirements, but if we wish to understand work and systems, and not just sporadic symptoms of unwanted interactions, then we must somehow prioritise time and other resources. As I reflected in this post, if you want to understand work, you have to get out from behind your desk.

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.
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