Beating Roger Federer at tennis – empowerment and expertise
By Tim Marsh, Chairman at RyderMarshSharman
Empowerment, workforce involvement and local expertise
I could beat Roger Federer at tennis and in doing so I would prove the vital importance of maximising workforce ownership of the day-to-day safety process. Honestly, it’s relevant and I really could beat him at tennis!
The fact that I was school champion (well, one year) counts for very little given that it was 30 years or more ago, and in a school where maybe only 12 pupils played. Indeed, when I was matched with the champion lad from another school (who would go on to be UK number nine – so world 1,999 or so!) I lost 6-0 6-0 and I’ve only played once a year since.
So, my boast is not looking good so far I know, and,at this point we need to consider why Federer is so good. As well as his own shots, it’s because he’s practised so hard and so long that his ‘situational awareness’ on a tennis court appears supernatural. He can literally read where a serve is going before the server even hits the ball. This is not because he has better eyesight than us or even better reflexes – actually, they’ve been measured and surprisingly, he hasn’t! – it’s because he can tell instinctively from the throw or the merest twist of a torso what the opponent is going to do and then automatically respond appropriately. Had he never played tennis in his life, but was perhaps a world Squash champion, you could put him opposite a Novak Djokovic and, just like us, he’d not put a racket on a single serve he faced. Indeed a famous table tennis player once tried to do this, for a newspaper article, and couldn’t either.
To a huge extent it’s not a born skill it’s a situationally specific learned one.
In other words, people immersed in an environment see nuances, subtleties and interconnections to which other people are oblivious. It’s like Eskimos who can reputedly distinguish 400 different types of snow. Federer has spent decades playing tennis just as most workers have spent decades in their chosen field. There is a quote: “I will only impose my idea on you if it is three times better than yours, so you’ll have to work twice as hard on your own”. We hear this and see the sense in it with an implicit balance between qualifications, seniority and local knowledge; but I would challenge this, as no manager is ever going to come up with a practical and sustainable local safety solution three times better than the experienced workforce.
In short, if we are to be world class in our analysis of error it has to be based on:
- Not leaping to conclusions but, as any well trained incident investigation expert knows, first establishing what happened as precisely as possible.
- Achieving this by taking the ‘Just Culture’ model as our basis. This, boiled down, shows that around 90% oferror and risk is caused not by the person but by the environment.
- We need to involve ‘local environment experts’ in this process. This of course means the active involvement of the people who understand the day-to-day practicalities and subtleties regarding this environment far better than we ever can.
If our thinking is to be world class we need expert input, and expertise means experience.
And my Challenge Match with Federer? Well if you’ve ever seen an old ‘Three Musketeers’ film (the one with Oliver Reed and Raquel Welch) you might remember a scene set at a ‘real’ tennis court. It’s the ‘old world’ sport where a smaller, harder ball is hit up onto indoor roofing. It’s quite similar to squash in a way but with weird rackets and sloping balconies which the ball rolls back off. It requires a very specific skill set, so if I practised really hard over a period of months I’d back myself to be broadly competent at it and this would be enough to beat Federer. He tried the sport once as a gimmick for a magazine article. He was hopeless! Similarly, Amarillo Slim, the world’s most famous gambler, once beat a world table tennis champion at table tennis itself by insisting on the choice of bats. He turned up on the day with two frying pans – with which he’d been practising really hard.
If we are to have world class behavioural safety and safety culture change processes, they have to be based on an objective analysis of why behaviours are happening. This needs to be based on the active involvement of the local experts. The challenge is: are your experts always as involved in the process as they should be?