Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Meerkats, Complexity, and Safety

We watched a TED Talk recently that was fascinating (click here if you want to watch it too). In it scientist Nicolas Perony details complex behaviors of animals such as puppies, bats, and meerkats. Each of these animals displayed interesting, complex behaviors that were not easily predictable, even by the animals. Take the meerkats for example – when the group of meerkats came across a busy road with vehicle traffic that must be crossed the group stopped, went one at a time, allowing the group leader to not have to go first. Basically the idea was to have the others go first to see if it was safe before the group leader went across. As Perony explains, if the group leader is hurt it can have devastating effects on the pack.

Think about this for a second. The meerkats haven’t had to deal with cars before the last few decades or so. How did they figure out a strategy to protect themselves and their group against such a relatively new threat? They must have had a meerkat safety meeting where they discussed the hazards, wrote out detailed procedures, and then provided thorough training to ensure that all meerkats were aware of the risks. Of course you need the safety officer meerkat there to enforce these rules as well, because you can’t really fix stupid, right? How else can we explain how these animals who are of lesser intelligence than us came up with these complex safety behaviors?

Obviously, we’re joking a bit here. In reality, as Perony explains, it’s likely some simple rules, usually starting with the basic rule that the meerkats want to do things that lead to success (e.g. food) and don’t lead to failure (e.g. getting run over) that the meerkats follow that lead to these complex behaviors, and ultimately to safety. In fact, if we complicated the system by making explicit rules we may actually be less safe in some circumstances (see the example of Perony’s complicated robot). As he explains, simplicity leads to complexity, which leads to resilience. The simplicity allows for the ability to adapt to changing circumstances (e.g. the incursion of humans and vehicles in the meerkat’s habitat) and still have success.

Contrast this approach with the current approaches to occupational safety and health. Our workers have the same innate instinct as meerkats, in that they want success and they don’t want to get hurt or killed at work. The difference of course is that our workers are much smarter than meerkats. So we have a smart, motivated workforce (relatively speaking) – how then do we manage their safety? We build complicated safety programs, policies, and procedures designed to protect our workers from themselves.

Consider for a minute if the world that Perony shows us applied to our workplaces. What if by applying more complicated rules, policies, and procedures, rather than making our organizations more safe, we are making them more brittle, less able to adapt to changing circumstances, more likely to fail, and unsafe?

If, instead of a management system built upon a foundation of command and control, we tap into the vast reserves of motivation and innovation in our workforces by creating management systems built up the ideas of facilitation and trust, we may find that relaxing control leads to simplicity, which leads to complexity, which leads to resilience, safety, and success. 


  1. Is safety reduced to simplified complex behaviors ? For example, if "my supervisor" tells me to do this 'job', do you think that the worker ignores the safety rules, and his/her past safe experiences ?

    My personal view is that humans have a greater brain capacity than animals...dogs, bats, meerkats, and other low level mammals.

    Just remember, if you think your workers are dumb as animals, these are the same workers that you are sharing the road with driving to work...grin...a scary thought ?...How did these "dumb" workers get a driver's license ?

    Just a thought !

  2. Good comments Neil. I think we're in total agreement, and that's the point. If animals can figure out some level of safety, using nothing more than basic instinct, humans, with greater brain capacity can figure out too.

    The problem is that safety management doesn't consider this. We often feel like the best way to ensure our employees is safe is to control and constrain. However, if we think about it everyone has an implicit motivation to be safe and a whole lot of intelligence. Perhaps we would have more success tapping into that motivation and facilitating the use of the intelligence in creating safety. If you really pay attention, our workers are safe most of the time. Most of the time nothing bad happens. Is that because we made them safe? Or is it because they were safe in spite of us? In my experience it tends to be more the latter than the former.