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Sometimes you can’t plan things, or you can but the plan doesn’t work out.  On the other hand, I’ve learned to observe and listen for signals, which let me know what to do next.  Here’s one that crept up and jumped in front of me this past week, and it’s about permission.

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

The last couple of weeks I have had the great fortune to be able to hang out with lots of people, people from all sorts of businesses, industries, and even countries.  People I know well, people I’ve met before, people I was meeting for the first time. The craziness of these last few weeks has enabled that to happen, but it is also why my production schedule has, well, broken.  I haven’t put an episode out for a few weeks, so to you regular listeners, I’m sorry for not keeping up my end of the bargain.  I’m reflecting on why and how that happened, and what I can do to improve.  I hope that you’ve been continuing to take action, which is your end of the bargain by the way.  Anyway we’re back on track.

I think and experiment a lot with learning and how it relates to performance, as you probably know.  I was listening to another podcast by a guy called Seth Godin recently, called Akimbo. I suggest you have a listen, you’ll figure out pretty quickly why it’s called that and why it resonates with me.  Seth shared the story of an experiment by the One Laptop Per Child organisation in the US, an educational charity.  It’s in the episode called Q&A, the season wrap up, from Season 1.  I suggest you have a listen and do further reading on this particular experiment, but I’ll give you the gist.

They found one of the most remote villages in Ethopia, and dropped off some tablets to them, digital tablets, still in the sealed box.  These tablets were pre-loaded with some apps and games designed for education: for learning how to read, write and a bunch of other primary school kind of things.  The only thing the researchers did was to teach the adults in the village how to use a solar charger, not that they knew what it was for at the beginning.

The villagers had no instruction, and lived what many would call, respectfully, a fairly simple and maybe primitive life, so the researchers were curious what would happen.

Within 5 minutes one kid had powered a tablet up, and within a week many village kids were using dozens of apps, learning to read and write.  By 5 months the kids figured out the camera wasn’t enabled, so they hacked the android operating system to enable it.

Now this experiment has its critics.  But if we hold off poking holes in it, like I was inclined to do when I first heard about it, there are some core lessons here, which come back to fundamental principles of human learning: you don’t need permission to start.  Unconstrained and allowed to be curious, if we simply get started, we can learn, and improve our performance astonishingly fast.

Our need to get permission stems from the context in which we live and get educated and work.  We are taught as kids to ask before we get a drink from the fridge.  We were asked to ask for permission to use this toy or that, based on who owns it and who is using it at the time.  We are told to sit still and be quiet and ask permission to speak and move and go use the toilet at school.  We ask permission to be on a sporting team when there is a try out.  We ask for permission to drive a car legally and pay for the privilege to do so.  And our work is filled with signals and structures and systems which explicitly require or implicitly suggest we need to ask permission to do many things.

There are lots of things that make sense to ask for permission, when the context involves ownership, competence, and legal requirements, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What I am suggesting is that when it comes to a new idea, concept, suggestion, or impulse, almost all of the time it will be safe and straightforward for us to get started, to take action, without permission.

Tony didn’t need permission.  I met Tony and he shared some of his story.  Tony isn’t his real name, he’d be annoyed with me if I told you his real name, because he doesn’t think he is special, and doesn’t like the limelight.  But he has a story worth learning from, so I’ll call him Tony.

I facilitated a workshop.  Dozens of people were invited along to have a good look at how this organisation might take a different approach to thinking and working to get safer outcomes.  One of the things that scares the jeebies out of me and excites me at the same time is facilitating, because the people involved don’t have a script, so I need to be prepared to let things emerge and go with the flow.  Of the many things we discussed on day 1 of the workshop was what different conversations might sound like for frontline leaders.  At the beginning of day 2, well before anyone had started to talk about taking action, or developing a plan, or asking permission, Geoff, sitting in the room, casually mentions that he went out to his crews early pre-start meeting at the work site, and had a different conversation.
I’m sure you are dying to hear how it went, what was different, how was it received by the crew, and all that.  I have no doubt that there is plenty to learn from his experience, but that was beside the point in this situation because he had already delivered the lesson to me and his colleagues without even realising it: he didn’t ask for permission, he just did it.

A CEO recently shared some of their insights about this topic.  This leader acknowledged that it’s understandable that even with autonomy, people will expect to get beaten up for trying something different, or getting something wrong.  But the focus reinforced in that organisation was on learning, not constraining. As managers they went on, we have an inherent need to control what’s going on.  But if managers resist that, our people will make great things will happen and that will happen quickly.

You don’t have to change the system, YOU can just change what YOU do next week.  You don’t need permission, whether you are that employee who sees a new idea or way of working, or a manager who might release a little control and give the space to your people to work without your permission.

“Are you helpless?” Was the first question I asked in this conversation I was having with a group of safety people.  They were describing how they had some great ideas for positive change, but weren’t able to take action because of this strategy, that individual, this other program, that competing philosophy.  “You sound helpless – it’s that uncertain change over there, or this unclear language, or this individual who is a blocker, which is the reason why we can’t get started on something different” I asked them “do you really need permission to try something new, tomorrow?”.  The conversation shifted, to one of potential, of action, of discomfort in the face of uncertainty, of the strength of individual conviction in the face of a range of genuine challenges.  One person there had an audit on the following week, and that would be the beginning, to try something new.  I don’t know what it was, which again didn’t matter, because they didn’t need permission from me or anyone else to have a go.

If you are listening and thinking, I do that already, I’m a learner, I try new things, that’s great.  Do more.  Especially if you aren’t feeling uncomfortable, because that’s the best sign that learning is right around the corner if you just step around it.  If you feel uncomfortable just listening to me suggest trying something new or different without permission, that’s great, you are ready to begin. Today.  Or Next week.  But soon.  You don’t need permission to begin.  Start small, and see if the world falls apart.  I guarantee you that whatever happens, you’ll learn something, and that’ll help you take the next step, and the step after that.

As is customary with these solo reflective episodes, I don’t have takeaways because I hope the whole things is full of them. But there are a few podcast episodes you should check out which might help.  First, check out Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast at akimbo.link, listen to the final Q&A episode in Season 1 for the Ethiopia village story.  I touched on an important drive of a permission based culture, which is psychological safety.  Tim Austin and I dig into that topic in episode 37, available at safetyontap.com/ep037, and episode 62 which is called You are your Own Best Teacher, at safetyontap.com/ep062, challenges the entrenched paradigms of education and learning, and tap into the best source of professional development of your life, which is you.

Thank you so much for listening.

Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Seeya!