‘Safety Making’ – 9 routes to failure

I used a phrase in the blog yesterday, and it’s been stuck in my mind ever since: “People are engaged in some kind of mass hysteria, and mass ‘safety making’”. ‘Safety Making’: I wrote the sentence on an impulse: i had been meaning to write ‘sense making’, the phrase i typically use to describe the constructive mechanism whereby communities find meaning, but my fingers shifted to ‘safety making’, expressing the notion that our collective conversations can simply rationalise our impending failure. For fun, today, i’m sharing nine examples of ‘safety making’, which perhaps we can consider routes to failure. Failures of foresight, failure to comprehend change, beyond the simple.

Safety Making

1. ‘Comfort within the crowd’: this was my first interpretation, talking about the dominant narratives on AI and automation. Groups finding comfort through the repetition of established, or establishing, media narratives. It’s not simply mindless repetition, it’s acceptance based upon incomplete ‘sense making’, a failure of critical thinking, or the simple lure of ‘comfort’. Much of the narrative around robotics, the future of work, and AI, falls into this space. Repetition, not critical consideration.

2. ‘Unconditional acceptance of primary interpretation or dominant existing narrative’: this is a nuanced interpretation of [1], but relates to previous work i’ve done around ‘framing’, and ‘category errors’. This is not a failure of discretionary analysis, but rather being trapped within a stream of thought that ‘this is just how things are’. For example, for many years people thought you needed to provide a laptop for people to work, because that was how it was done, by everyone, everywhere. But it turns out that you don’t. Somewhere in our ‘future of…’ strategy conversations, we have to explore beyond dominant narratives.

3. ‘Belief that size equates to stability’: my taxi driver yesterday listened patiently to me as i told him about Tesla’s research, and market capitalisation, but then insisted that Ford and GM would triumph, because they are just so big. ‘Too big to fail’ never seems like much of a strategy to me. I’m an optimist, but a realist: disruption comes from outside, not alongside. GM may not disrupt Ford, but Tesla stands every chance. And the point is that it does not matter if Tesla wins or not: Tesla is just the totem that shows there is another way.

4. ‘Belief that ‘belief’ is deterministic’: another cognitive delusion, where we believe that ‘just because we believe’ something, that will make it true. Belief is an invested force. An aspirational one. It does not determine the outcome. No matter how much we believe.

5. ‘Consensual, collective, comforting, delusions’: the topic i wrote about yesterday, the temptation of ideas that comfort us, are held communally, and we willingly invest ourselves within. But which are delusional: there is a subtle application of this, within Organisations that are trying to change. They get to the starting line. They get over the starting line. And they delude themselves that they are going to reach the finish line. Established truths sap their energy, constrain them, but they delude themselves to the contrary.

6. ‘Validating ourselves against the failure of others’: to look at the failure of others, and believe that somehow this validates our approach is naive and risky. Success is not negatively correlated: you are not successful just because someone else fails, it’s a positive attribute that needs to be validated independently. You could argue against that point, that the person who comes first in a running race wins precisely because the person in second place fails, but that is because a running race is a ‘known challenge’ in a ‘known space’, whilst innovation and disruption are often ‘unknown’ challenges, in increasingly ‘unknown’ spaces. I’ve written widely on this, around innovation in particular, but also relating to the very limitations of formal systems to discern this.

7. ‘Rationalising difference but not exploring it’: in this context, we see systems behaving differently (competing successfully, achieving change) and we rationalise it, but fail to systematically explore and understand it. That observed change may be internal, or external, where we either celebrate it, or observe it, but unless we explore underlying function, we are simply operating at a surface level and simple narrative. Observation, and rationalisation are passive, exploration is active.

8. ‘Hope as a strategy’: pretty obvious, but surprisingly alluring. We all want to succeed, and many hope that we will, but that is not a strategy. We find shared strength in hope, it makes us feel safe, whilst we fail.

9. ‘Internally self referential explanations’: i am only able to point this out as i find myself guilty of it periodically. It’s where we rationalise something against an internal factor of it’s existence. For example. “I think we are nearly at our destination, because we are still driving, and i can see the landscape passing by”. We are certainly still in motion. But that is not the same as successful navigation. Often we see this in change: we are nearly at the end of the ‘transformation’ project, therefore we are nearly transformed. It’s internally self referential, and hence relates to ‘hope’ as strategy, and ‘belief in belief’.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Change, Failure, Learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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