Thanks to the most recent issue of Tom Geraghty’s weekly Psychological Safety newsletter , I learned about a new model for how we consider safety and risk. He shared Eric Hollnagel’s work on resiliency in which two distinct mindsets were identified: Safety-I and Safety-II.
A Safety-I perspective is a glass is half-full one – things go wrong and we can find assignable causes in people, process and tools. People are viewed as a source of risk and liability and when problems occur, the focus is on identifying root causes and addressing those. It also assumes that the system in which we work can be broken down into a discrete set of components which will either work properly or not. It supports practices such as increased governance oversight and reduced autonomy and flexibility for staff.
On the other hand, a Safety-II perspective is optimistic. The focus shifts to understanding why things go right most of the time and ensuring that people are given the flexibility to adapt to changing situations. It is better suited to complex scenarios where a reductive approach isn’t sufficient to identify what could go wrong.
If we consider how project risk management is covered in many books and courses, it clearly aligns more with the Safety-I mindset than its progressive counterpart. We seek to identify and assess as many of the unknown-unknowns as we can and then put controls in place to address those we are the most concerned with. This approach works well when dealing with contexts that are simple and are similar to what we’ve encountered before.
But when we are faced with more challenging situations, we need to also include elements of Safety-II thinking by empowering our teams to think and act on the fly.
As Tom puts it in the newsletter, “Neither approach (I or II) is sufficient alone, but together, the two approaches can enable lower risk together with higher performance and resilience.“
And this is why regardless of the life cycle or practices used to deliver a project, the project manager, team members and key stakeholders should adopt an mindset which does due diligence from a traditional risk management perspective, but also provides opportunities for learning and adaptation to deal with changing situations.
(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores)