Becoming a Master Safety Strategist

Dec. 1, 2005
Strategy is the art and science of planning and actuating significant change.

You've probably read where the right strategy, well-applied, can overcome significant odds to seize victory in "unwinnable" battles (or sports). Note those executives who read such martial classics as Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" and Von Clausewitz's "On War" as a guide to competitive strategy.

A high-level strategic approach also is key to achieving standout safety results. This includes planning for embracement of new methods, maximizing participation, overcoming long-standing resistance to change, blending together different corporate and subgroup cultures for consistent implementation, heightening trust, maximizing returns from eaked-out time and resources and more.

Ketan Patel, in his just-released book, "The Master Strategist," writes that high-level strategic thinking requires leaping past "what others can grasp," not accepting, in lemming-like fashion, old analysis of data, assumptions of cause and effect or blindly following "unfit rules."

For courageous leaders, here are seven ideas for boosting your safety strategy.

1. Start by dispassionately assessing your own strategic strengths and limitations. Note your default biases. What are your automatic assumptions when you first hear of a new injury report that main responsibility for this lies with task/tool/environment, human or organizational factors?

What skills - and lack of skills do you currently bring to the table? The strategic thinker knows short-term effectiveness comes from hiding weaknesses and operating in areas of strength. And over the long-term, power is developed by reducing weaknesses.

For example, if you know you don't make great executive presentations, consider arranging for a colleague to make a critical management presentation. In the meantime, pursue better presentation skills. Anyone can become a much stronger presenter with the right approach and practice.

Enlist trusted colleagues or your spouse to help you understand what others see as your strengths and limitations. These may be more important than what you think is "really there."

2. Befriend change. Change and stress aren't enemies unless we make them so; we can master them to achieve our goals. Instead of forcing change, ask yourself how you might invite it by making new behavior easier and more attractive. Ponder what the upsides are that come out of even the most negative change. Assess to what degree you personally resist change. Are we potentially asking others to try new behaviors where we're staunchly embracing our own status quos?

3. Take a fresh assessment of safety interventions and do this regularly. Are you running programs that diminishingly attract employees' attention? Are safety devices no longer working, or have they morphed into a safety hazard? Have you found yourself repeating the same messages in the same way (and risk becoming ignored)? Do you know what resistant and middle-of-bell-curve workers really think of safety at your company?

4. Plan to turn "enemies" into allies. Are there opportunities to make friends and align with other departments with a history of undercutting or not reinforcing efforts? How much time and other resources have been wasted in dysfunctional internal competition and what might you do to "start over" and change this?

5. Position yourself as a coordinator, someone who makes things happen, rather than does it yourself. After Hurricane Katrina, one safety professional reported people in his company talking more about SHE and disaster recovery and "trying to position themselves as the 'leader.'"

Go beyond just seeing this interest as a potential threat to your professional leadership (though understandable). Rather, position yourself as a coordinator of leaders, helping organize them into workable ad-hoc action teams, determining and arranging for needed resources (e.g., gathering updated information, training in how to quickly and effectively respond, etc.). Graciously give them full credit and, hopefully, promote some into ongoing safety activists.

Overall, focus on methods for turning each individual in your organization into a more-adept safety director of his or her own life.

6. Position safety toward higher benefits. I tell people that to me, safety isn't just about preventing injuries they don't think will happen to them anyway. It's about living with energy and health, and accomplishing what's important to you. For heightened credibility with executives, be sure to communicate a range of corporate benefits of safety, well beyond cost-savings.

7. Seek out and employ leverage points. These include actions you take that affect one person over a long period of time, those that impact a large number of people in one fell swoop and interventions that change many people over an extended time.

Employ the principle of SCMLD: Small Changes Can Make Large Differences. What "minor" pressures can you enlist to tip the scales toward higher levels of safe behavior and culture?

While there admittedly is much more to this, elevating your strategic thinking is critical for upgrading your professional performance and your organization's safety results.

Robert Pater ([email protected], is managing director of Portland, Ore.-based Strategic Safety Associates.

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