Why we often miss the point when we think having the key to success.

This blog is based on (the first half of) my paper and presentation for the NVVK Congres in March 2017. The original version, found in the special conference magazine can be found here.


The problem sketched in the Call for Abstracts said: “We are right, but it’s not acknowledged. Or we have a great plan, but no-one feels like it. Are we too ambitious, are we too progressive? Also in situations where we succeed there may be questions. Why is success sometimes luck and when is success guaranteed?”

My hypothesis is, that we often miss the point when we think that we have found the key to success. Sometimes we should ask ourselves whether we should hunt after success, or at least what kind of success we should be after.

To explore this further, let’s split the problem into three questions:

  1. What tends to catch on?
  2. What is success actually?
  3. What is needed for real success?

Question 1: What tends to catch on?

What things have considerable success? What sells well, both in general, as within safety? Sticking thematically to things that pretend to be about improvement, we could for example check popular management and self-help books. You have surely seen them on airports or in bookshops. Some of those sell millions, with or without the help of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Without doing a thorough study, we can see that many of these books are characterized by:

  1. Big Promises: you will be more beautiful, lose weight, become richer or smarter, you get more friends, find the love of your life, satisfaction and health.
  2. Suggesting a relatively easy way to your goal. Often a simple linear solution.
  3. Fix yourself or something around you. All you have to do is rediscover a ‘secret’ or ‘forgotten wisdom’. Often one hidden deep inside yourself.
  4. There is a certain program or number of steps which you have to follow.
  5. One best way. A one-size-fits-all approach that ignores context, personal characteristics and the like.
  6. This way, often attached to workshops or a program, is faster than common approaches to get to your goal.

Titles of million sellers like How To Win Friends And Influence People (1936, Dale Carnegie), Think And Grow Rich (1937, Napoleon Hill), The Power Of Positive Thinking (1952, Norman Vincent Peale), Awaken The Giant Within (1991, Tony Robbins), The Success Principles (2005, Jack Canfield) and The Secret (2006, Rhonda Byrne) are very illustrative.

Mind you, let’s not underestimate the value of some books found in the self-help section. Many of them are worthwhile as an easy way to familiarize oneself with scientific principles (‘pop science’). Some critical remarks are due, however:

  • One wants answers, while questions might be more useful.
  • One wants simple, fast, decisive solutions, while it’s often about things that require time and hard work.
  • One assumes simple, linear cause and effect relationships, while the problems are complex.
  • One assumes that ‘more’ better is [1.].

When we look at the safety community to find out what catches on there, it is not really different. We see a similar pattern, because humans love simple explanations and solutions that give a perception of certainty. Especially when they make intuitive sense and give a warm fuzzy feeling. Like when some research claims that 88% of all accidents are caused by human error? [5.] Seems to make sense, because most accidents do have a human component. So, let’s start a program for behavioural change or safety awareness!

We find solutions that promise quick results, like less sick leave or reduced accident metrics. Even if these fast results are mostly achieved by playing the metrics and not by attacking their causes. [3.]

We find solutions that seem to promise control, because people do not like uncertainty. An illusion of control seems often more important than the really addressing of a problem. Therefore we choose solutions like management systems, rules, procedures and supervision and compliance.

We also find many easy solutions, quick fixes that seem to address the problems, but really the only thing they do is treat symptoms or aim at other things. The growing and ever-popular demand of certificates is a typical example. In theory an ISO-certified company delivers quality, in practice it could just be a case of extremely controlled production of rubbish by that company. The same applies to steps on safety culture ladders. [3.]

We find particularly more of what we already did (like ‘incentives’ or observation schemes). Often old wine in flashy new skins, labelled with the trendiest buzzwords. A quote commonly attributed to Einstein says: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.

A possible cause of all this might be a wrong understanding of what success actually is, or should be. That is the subject of our next question.

Question 2: What is success actually?

What is success? And what success are we actually talking about? Some obvious options:

Sales figures? Low accident statistics?

Often this is not the best option. Because the usual perception of success is one of more, faster or bigger is better, success is often expressed in a number/metric. That also applies to safety. Then efforts are mainly aimed at improving the metric, whether this really contributes or not.

Something that gets much positive response? Something that gives us a warm feeling?

This also makes me think of the “50.000.000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” LP. Not all music lovers will respond positively to that album. Another example is the contagious “Dumb Ways To Die” campaign. The song sticks forever in your mind and the clips gained millions of ‘likes’, but whether this contributes to improving safety is not quite clear.

Safety improvement?

It seems obvious that this is where safety professionals’ main attention should be (but not always is, conflicting interests are not unheard of…). But: what is safety? How can we use ‘safety’ to determine whether we are successful or not? Traditional methods (counting accidents, compliance) are definitely not good enough and also newer approaches (like culture assessments) have major shortcomings. Monitoring processes sounds like a good suggestion, but is no 100% guarantee, because complexity is hard to catch in processes. A quantitative assessment based on a variety of points of view instead of one indicator is a possible way forward, but definitely not an easy one, and many will probably regard it as ‘soft’, ‘vague’, ‘difficult’, ‘time consuming’ or ‘subjective’.

Therefore I do not have an easy answer to the question what success is, but as we shall see, maybe we do not need one anyway. Most likely an answer is found in the middle and it will probably display elements of several options. Recently I have encountered a couple of alternative views of success that are much more useful and valuable than the superficial on material or numerical goals oriented ‘improvements’. As far as I am concerned, these alternative definitions facilitate a nuanced, qualitative view on the matter. Also these definitions make clear that success depends fully upon your context and perspective!

In his TED Talk, Alain de Botton [2.] says that you cannot succeed in everything. Every definition of success has to acknowledge that it will miss out on certain aspects; quality often does not go together with quantity. We are extremely sensitive to outside influences (family, peers, media) that partly determine how we see things. Therefore it is important to make sure that how we perceive success is our own view. It is bad enough if we do not achieve our aims, it is much worse to discover that you really wanted something else. This is why he argues for and individually oriented definition of success.

Frédéric Laloux [6.] speaks about the success of organisations and says that this is connected with the purpose of a (self-managing) organisation. “How do you define success? Profitability, market share, or increase in share price? Those are straightforward to measure, but (…) not very relevant. (…) the interesting question is: To what extent do the organization’s accomplishments manifest its purpose? This is the kind of variable that resists being reduced to a single measurable number.” Philosopher Victor Frankl agrees: “Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”. For safety professionals this could be an indication that our success is connected with how we fulfill our ‘greater cause’: improve safety, or supporting the purpose of our organisation. Then success emerges, generally not expressed in numbers of accident or something similar, because complexity resists summarizing into a metric.

Todd Conklin [4.] discusses ways to describe complexity. He says that numerical indicators often are limiting and compares complexity with a river. You can measure how fast the stream is, or how high the water is, but that only describes very limited features of a river. That is why Todd says that “We are focusing on changing our safety results when perhaps we should be focused on changing our safety processes”, because “One of our biggest issues as safety professionals is that we manage to our organisation’s outcomes instead of managing and understanding the processes that we use to create those results”.

Success is therefore often not what you think. Real success is often counter-intuitive. If everything goes smooth during an exercise that may very well be an unsuccessful exercise. You tend to learn most from exercises where things go wrong.

Question 3: What is needed for real success?

Taking the above into account, we may conclude that success (within safety or otherwise) not is the easy, straightforward concept that we often assume it to be. Simple interventions improve indicators, but not necessarily the real world of sharp-end practitioners. Simple interventions can temporarily fix symptoms, but not the problem (an aspirin for your head ache). They tend to have unexpected side-effects and create new problems (for example by using an increased safety margin for more efficient production).

It can be very tempting to fall for simple solutions and quick fixes. High Reliability Organisations that have been operating for a long time in high-risk situations teach us however about ‘reluctance to simplify’ [8.]. Therefore it is important to ask questions, instead of to be heading directly for answers. Robert Long [7.] writes: “If you have all the answers, what need is there to listen and to learn?” We fool ourselves when we think that we have solved complex problems with linear answers and simple solutions. Acknowledge the complexity of things. Realise that you cannot know and predict everything. Acknowledge and deal with uncertainty.

Another thing is that we may be focused too much on safety alone. We tend to see safety in isolation, while we should work more towards win-win situations by looking for improvements that improve safety as well as production and other business objectives, or just make the work easier, simpler or more fun. Often, however, it seems like safety recommendations do the very opposite of that - and they tend to have that reputation anyway. Often even before they have been tried out...


[1.] A. Bergsma, J Happiness Stud (2008) 9: 341. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9041-2

[2.] A. de Botton,

[3.] C. Busch, Safety Myth 101 (2016, ISBN 978-82-690377-0-8)

[4.] T. Conklin, Pre-Accident Investigations: Better Questions (2016, ISBN 978-1472486134)

[5.] H.W. Heinrich, Industrial Accident Prevention (McGraw-Hill, 1941)

[6.] F. Laloux, Reinventing Organisations (2014, ISBN 978-2-960133-50-9)

[7.] R. Long, Real Risk - Human Discerning and Risk (2015, ISBN 978-0-646-90942-4)

[8.] K.E. Weick and K.M. Sutcliffe, Managing The Unexpected: Assuring High Performance In An Age Of Complexity (2001, ISBN 0787956279)