Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Overpursuit” of Goals

We return to a favorite subject, the impact of goals and incentives on safety culture and performance. Interestingly this subject comes up in an essay by Oliver Burkeman, “The Power of Negative Thinking,”* which may seem unusual as most people think of goals and achievement of goals as the product of a positive approach. Traditional business thinking is to set hard, quantitative goals, the bigger the better. But futures are inherently uncertain and goals generally are not so. The counter intuitive argument suggests the most effective way to address future performance is to focus on worst case outcomes. Burkeman observes that “...rigid goals may encourage employees to cut ethical corners” and “Focusing on one goal at the expense of all other factors also can distort a corporate mission or an individual life…” and result in “...the ‘overpursuit’ of goals…” Case in point, yellow jerseys.

This raises some interesting points for nuclear safety. First we would remind our readers of Snowden’s Cynefin decision context framework, specifically his “complex” space which is indicative of where nuclear safety decisions reside. In this environment there are many interacting causes and effects, making it difficult or impossible to pursue specific goals along defined paths. Clearly an uncertain landscape. As Simon French argues: “Decision support will be more focused on exploring judgement and issues, and on developing broad strategies that are flexible enough to accommodate changes as the situation evolves.”** This would suggest the pursuit of specific, aspirational goals may be misguided or counterproductive.

Second, safety performance goals are hard to identify anyway. Is it the absence of bad outcomes? Or the maintenance of, say, a “strong” safety culture - whatever that is. One indication of the elusiveness of safety goals is their absence as targets in incentive programs. So there is probably little likelihood of overemphasizing safety performance as a goal. But is the same true for operational type goals such as capacity factor, refuel outage durations, and production costs? Can an overly strong focus on such short term goals, often associated with stretching performance, lead to overpursuit? What if large financial incentives are attached to the achievement of the goals?

The answer is not: “Safety is our highest priority”. More likely it is an approach that considers the complexity and uncertainty of nuclear operating space and the potential for hard goals to cut both ways. It might value how a management team prosecutes its responsibilities more than the outcome itself.


* O. Burkeman, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” Wall Street Journal online (Dec. 7, 2012).

** S. French, “Cynefin: repeatability, science and values,” Newsletter of the European Working Group “Multiple Criteria Decision Aiding,” series 3, no. 17 (Spring 2008) p. 2. We posted on Cynefin and French's paper here.

1 comment:

  1. This brings to mind Erik Hollnagel's book ETTO, the Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-Off. I hope you'll add it to your review list.

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