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The water cooler.  The hospital bedside.  The ride along in the truck.  The smokers outside.
The open ended question.
The conversation that happens after the conversation inside the meeting.
Silence.
What do these have in common that makes them so useful, so powerful?
Time and space.
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.
John wasn’t oppositional, I think he was just wary.  He had been invited to be part of a series of sessions I was facilitating loosely organised around safety but not just limited to that0
John was a frontline leader, one of those critical lynch-pins in any organisation, let alone this business which dealt with some pretty significant risks every single day.  At the beginning of the process when I first met John, he was pleasant, but open about his cynicism, which I appreciated.     The idea of getting these people together was in-part to get a no BS view of reality, and to listen very carefully to the frontline experts about what needs to change and most critically how they thought that could happen.
One of the things I’ve said a bit recently is when it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.  Part of the discussion with this group of people was that if we want safety to be just the way we do things, kinda like something that is an outcome of good work, then we have a challenge in the way we talk about it.  Plenty of safety stuff has a bad smell about it, so how do you design and implement a safety initiative, when you don’t want it to be a safety initiative? It was quacking like a duck.
In the more recent past, John returned for another session.  He had a bee in his bonnet, and came with ammunition.  You see John was engaged in the process, and had reflected on some of the concepts that had been discussed, like learning from the past, and sorting out risk upstream, instead of relying on the frontline downstream to sort it out, who are far more constrained.  The issue was about a particular consumable, which had been selected as a result of a serious incident.  Someone, at some time in the recent past, decided that wasn’t necessary anymore so it wasn’t available to order in the system.  “It’s great that we’re talking about all this other stuff, but what do we do when someone in procurement saves 10c a unit by buying the wrong thing, the very thing which caused an incident before?”.  He was, well, he sounded exasperated.  And, much to my silent delight, he called bullshit on a very real issue, even though I highly doubt he had heard my ‘do the bullshit test’ podcast episode on that topic.
With a little time, a little conversation, a little coaching, the senior leaders involved arrived at a simple solution: give John the opportunity to get in front of procurement, and work it out.  He was happy to do that.  He had a way forward which cut through the normal organisational structure and red tape.  And he had been heard.
At the end of a recent session, I made a bee-line for John.  I wanted to know what he was thinking, he was a litmus test or yard stick – I suspected that things might be going better than ok if he thought they were going ok, and vice versa.  My first question was whether the procurement thing had a clear next step he was happy with.  He’d had a chat with one of the senior managers, and they had agreed what they would do.  My next question was far more open: “how is this all sounding?” “Time will tell” he replied, “and the bottom line is I’m not this happy clappy person who is going to go out and change the way everyone things about safety.  But I know my guys, and I’ll do this my way, our way” he continued, without much of a breath in between.  “I need to show them that the organisation will listen and fix thing like that consumable issue, I need that to do it my way, to make it work for us”.  He was almost defiant in the way that he described his commitment, in preservation of his autonomy, the very autonomy this organisation was trying to truly see, to recognise and to enhance.
The whole process this company was going through, was an exercise in creating time and space.  It had a name, and an objective and an agenda and all that, but the way they went about engaging with their people from frontline to senior leaders, was enabled because of the time and space created.  This occurred over multiple occasions, multiple days of time and a dedicated space away from the normal work environment.
Time and space gets created within this too, where break times allow for the less structured things to happen, catch-ups and storytelling and advice seeking and dot-joining.  Time and space allows people who don’t normally interact to do so, especially across organisational levels and silos.  We even created time and space specifically where a frontline group were left alone in a co-design activity, and the senior managers were sent off to a different space in which the only rule was they weren’t allowed to make decisions and design anything, they were called upon to provide information and support the solutions created.  Let me tell you how powerful that specific thing was, John was almost emphatic with how impactful that was.  “That was excellent” he said, “they told us we could own this, so they left us alone to show us we could own it”.
Whenever I get the opportunity to join groups of people, I will often publicly and explicitly recognise the value in the room – when you think about the time, the salary, the experience, the productivity potential of any group of people, it can be quite significant.  I do this in an effort to focus people on the significance of the time and space created for that group, however long or short, whatever the occasion.
We often get together for meetings of all sorts, training, even workshops.  Time and space are precious commodities, which are so frequently frivolously wasted.  Which is one of the reasons why it’s hard when we suggest we TAKE time and space from people, versus creating time that people are happy to give, and space they are happy to occupy.
Getting people together has amazing potential.  I’ve found that you can get amazing results when you are laser focussed in your intention for the time and space, and loose about what happens inside that time and space.  But that can be really hard.
I’ll give you some examples.  You might create time and space to have a discussion, without explicitly asking for immediate decisions or actions, it could be simply to connect people together, to build relationships, to create shared meaning.  You might have time and space with an open-ended agenda, which is what you want to do at the start, but allow time and space at the end for the group to create their own agenda. Or you could be so bold as to create time and space with no agenda, and have the group create this at the beginning.
You might use constraints creatively, by creating boundaries for the time and space to achieve an outcome.  This is commonly used during rapid prototyping, when you have limited time and resources to come up with something, so it cannot be overengineered.  Google made the first prototype of Google Glass in 90 minutes.
If you think there are crappy uses of time and space in your organisation or function or team, change it.  Start by asking the people who occupy that time and space what they think.  Pretty quickly you will figure out how to improve, which itself can happen pretty quickly.
And it’s not just getting people together.  Create time and space in the way you communicate, give people time to consider and respond to what’s been said.  Create space for open thought by asking questions, really big, broad, scary questions.  Create time and space for yourself, alone with your thoughts and reflections.
You might remember Dave Provan from previous podcasts episodes.  Dave has spent most of his career as an executive health and safety leader in high-risk businesses, and more recently has undertaken a PhD to undertake world-first research into the role and identity of health and safety professionals.  The idea is that if we better understand where we’ve come from and where we are now, then we might be in a better position to more clearly articulate our value proposition to business, and more importantly to work out how we can adapt our approach to stay relevant into the future.
Dave and I are collaborating on Masterclasses called Safety Professional Practice Differently, which aim to explain the research which provides some frameworks and language to help attendees get focussed on their role and identity, and to turn that into action to help them and their team or function improve.
We spent a long time mulling over how we can offer the best value in one day, and as regular listeners would appreciate I was firmly focussed on the need for people to take positive, effective or rewarding action.  We are creating the space for this reflection to occur, but one of the biggest barriers to this is time.  So we decided, rather simply, to help attendees figure out their calendar.  It might sound glib, but no amount of excitement and commitment about different ways of working will become a reality if we don’t create the time to do that.  So something has to give.  We help you work out how to find the time first, and then people have some new ideas, frameworks, language and action to choose from to fill that time more effectively.
The phrase which seems to resonate with many of the people I work with, is go slow to go fast.  Create time and space, and you’ll get to where you want to go far quicker.
You might realise that I’m trying to change the way I approach these solo episodes.  I’ve realised loud and clear that many many people won’t and can’t tap into the work I do, whether that’s facilitating or coaching or whatever.  I wanted to bring a taste of that, and the stories in particular, which I reflect on as distinct in my work, in the hope that they offer some insights which are helpful for you.  Let me know what you think about these episodes, leave a comment at safetyontap.com/ep089, send me an email to andrew@safetyontap.com, or leave a review on iTunes.
I’ve mentioned a few things in this episode which you might want to check out, Episode 84 is called Do The BS Test, Dave Provan and I chat on episodes 41, 42 and 69, and you can get the Masterclass details at safetyontap.com/differently
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!