The danger of safety

Stephen Adshead has a nice guest post here: Rationalise like Ford or empathise like Toyota?. He looks at risk management and what happens when rational thinking runs up against us pesky humans. For example and referencing Gladwell:

You would expect that better brakes made for safe driving. But that is exactly the opposite of what happened. A fleet of taxis – some with ABS, the rest left alone – were put under secret observation for three years. The result? Giving the taxi drivers ABS made them drive faster, make sharper turns and turned them into markedly inferior drivers.

Apparently, more pedestrians get in accidents at traffic crossings than elsewhere; childproof lids may lead to more child poisonings. The systems to make us safe may make us dangerously complacent.

He goes on to make some broader points about the hazards of risk management and its apparent burgoning popularity. Citing this Demos paper by Michael Power he says

Power argues that a great deal of risk management activity focuses on routine system errors and malfunctions – “it is as if organisational agents, faced with the task of inventing a management practice, have chosen a pragmatic path of collecting data which is collectable, rather than that which is necessarily relevant, and in this way it is a kind of displacement; the burden of managing unknowable risks, a Nick Leeson, is replaced by an easier task which can be successfully reported to seniors’ Systems and controls and other left-brain activities are important, but to be truly ‘risk intelligent’ you must also see the bigger picture.

And he ties this to Max Weber:

Max Weber argued many years ago that the logic of bureaucracy is the tendency to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends). There is a temptation – in the face of uncertainty and risk everywhere – to increase the rules and the systems; to shape human behaviour by sheer bloody effort of will.

Yep, this is the trouble with managerialism: it focuses all efforts on the theatre of what can be made explicit, and sets us on course for institutions that exist, as Clay Shirky argues, to perpetuate the problems they were meant to solve.

At the level of meetings, I think it’s a real challenge to get out of routine notions of efficiency and action theatre, to make sure we have space to step into things which are not certain, measurable or manageable, but may turn out to be more important.

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