Perfectly Safe Systems
One of the books on my summer reading list is The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. While I’m not quite finished with it, it has so far been a fascinating look at the culture of “safetyism” on college campuses, and how the parenting styles of those born in the 70s and 80s are contributing to that.
But it was one portion that captured my attention a few days ago. Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt were examining the seismic drop in accidental deaths of kids between 1960 and 1990, in part due to the rise of bike helmets and seat belts and the removal of lead paint and second-hand smoke. They concluded:
The success of childhood safety campaigns helps explain why modern parents often take a concern about safety to the extreme of safetyism. After all, if focusing on big threats produces such dividends, why not go further and make childhood as close to perfectly safe as possible?
A problem with this kind of thinking is that when we attempt to produce perfectly safe systems, we almost inevitably create new and unforeseen problems.
You’ve seen this in the real world: Lukianoff and Haidt reference situations like putting out small forest fires, which allows dead wood to build up, which leads to far worse fires. Or bailing out companies financially, which often leads to a larger crash later on.
But that led me down the rabbit trail of the “perfectly safe systems” in our leadership:
- We carefully craft org charts and spans of care, but fail to help people foster organic relationships on their teams.
- We develop playbooks with every contingency plan possible, but fail to help our teams think in the moment and on their feet.
- We give our people a list of tasks to execute, rather than equipping them to do the work of the ministry…whatever that may look like in the moment.
By the way, those bullet points flowed rather freely because they’re things that I’m guilty of. As a recovering micromanaging control freak, I find it hard to know the line between hand your people a thought-through system so they’re not frustrated and here’s the exact plan…dance, robotic monkey, dance.
I have a few “perfectly safe systems” that I’m currently working on. But my new goal is to bring in some new voices – voices directly affected by these systems – and let them mess up these systems in a good way. I believe that in doing so, I’m fostering more resilience and agency with my team, rather than assume they need me to hold their hands.
What perfectly safe systems do you need to disrupt?