The Safety of Work

Ep.36 How do we tell the difference between theories and fads in safety?

Episode Summary

On this episode of Safety of Work, we talk about how to tell the difference between theories and fads in the world of safety.

Episode Notes

In order to frame our discussion, we use the paper Fads and Fashions in Management Practices.




“Interestingly, when we get into the literature, you may, um, look at those books with a little bit of skepticism, when you see how books on management get published.”

“The fads start off with small groups of innovators solving problems within their own companies. But those initial innovations aren’t able to spread by themselves.”

“But now that industries...not really having the uptake in behavioral safety practices they were maybe twenty years ago, you don’t see much broadcasting in the market for, you know, behavioral safety practices.”



Piazza, A., & Abrahamson, E. (2020). Fads and Fashions in Management Practices: Taking Stock and Looking Forward. International Journal of Management Reviews.

Episode Transcription

David: You're listening to the Safety of Work podcast episode 36. Today, we're asking the question, how do we tell the difference between theories and fads in safety? Let's get started. My name is David Provan and I'm here with Drew Rae. We're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. 

We've had about 30,000 downloads or a few more since this has started, but we don't seem to be getting as many new listeners as we did. Drew and I thought that we might start this episode by asking some of you if you might do us a favor and just share this podcast with one other person if you like it or you're interested in what we're doing and help us to continue to expand the reach of evidence-based practice in safety.

I'm really excited about our discussion today, Drew, because I still get a little bit nervous when I email your papers. When I emailed you this one, you came straight back and said, "Oh, yes, please." I'm really keen to hear what you have to say and learn along with our listeners. Drew, what's today's question and why were you so keen?

Drew: Well, Dave, today's question is how do we tell the difference between theories and the fads in safety? The reason I was personally excited is I always love it when something you've noticed and thought a lot about, and then suddenly you discover there's an entire field of research that looks at this and has examined it in-depth. I think you and I have had conversations before about the way things seemed to drift across from management science towards safety, and the way some of these ideas seemed to crop up and then go away again or cycle around in different forms.

We talked about it in this fashion. We talked about this fad. Yeah, I was excited to find a paper that summarizes all of the scholarly examinations of how these fashions and fads in management work.

David: The idea for this episode first came to me from Tanya Hewitt, who listeners might remember from episode 25 on Hazard Underreporting. She asked about the implementation of safety initiatives and basically how companies take your idea, maybe try it, and then maybe they throw it away. She drew our attention to a few other pieces of work. I went to have a look and I was reminded by the management fads and fashion literature that was pointed to with the institutional work literature that we've spoken about before on the podcast. I went and found a review paper because I'm not super familiar with the area, Drew, so the best place to start is with a fairly comprehensive review paper and we can get started.

You mentioned Drew, that we've introduced a few topics out of the management-sized literature. We’re back in the management size literature again today and I thought that we might introduce the paper quite early because we're going to use it to basically continue to frame this field of research. How do we tell the difference between theories and fads in safety?

Drew: The paper we're going to look at is called Fads and Fashions in Management Practices: Taking Stock and Looking Forward. It's very recent, it was published in 2020, and it claims to be the first comprehensive review of quite a large body of literature on fads and fashions in management.

David, as you've mentioned, when you step into a new area—this is a really good way to do it—is to find a recent thorough literature review that just explains what the field looks like. Otherwise, the risk of picking up one or two papers and getting a very slanted, very narrow, or possibly even a hidden outlier, and you end up thinking that a maverick in the area is representative of what the area is like. 

You pick up something that looks like a good literature review. You check out that the authors are actually reputable and published across the fields, so that you know that you can trust, that they are fairly representing the literature.

The authors in this case are Alessandro Piazza and Eric Abrahamson. They're both from business schools at Rice University and Columbia University. I'm not sure about Piazza but Eric Abrahamson has 30 years of research, particularly on this topic of fads and fashions. 

He's published in books. He's got thousands of citations. Interestingly, when we get into the literature you may look at those books with a little bit of skepticism when you say how books on management get published, but he certainly knows what the field looks like.

David: As the authors explained, Drew, this body of literature on fads and fashions started as a result of researchers observing how management practices seem to wax and wane in popularity, often quite unpredictably, so the techniques seem to follow each other in this wave-like fashion.

Literature seeks to explain this transient persistence on the overall trajectory of these management practices. The authors refer a lot to what happens through quality management. I think it's around the time that this field emerged in the 90s. There were quality circles, total quality management, quality management systems, and lean manufacturing, those types of fads and fashions.

The paper makes reference to these types of programs within organizations. They sort of say that these techniques are viewed by practitioners as tools of their trade. We could add to that list, Drew. We could add behavioral safety. We could add a safety culture. We could add Safety Differently, Safety-II. It's all kinds of different management practices, techniques, and ideas that would fall nicely into literature that we're going to talk about today.

I think you don't have to talk to many practitioners to get feedback. We're all too familiar with how excited people in organizations get with new shiny things. Many people say to me how it's always the new things, the shiny things in the organization that is getting all the attention, the resources, and then slowly disappearing as the next shiny thing comes along.

Drew: The literature as it’s summarized by this paper tries to answer a few key questions. The first one is probably the big one which is what explains these apparent waves in the popularity of management practices? They seem to come very, very, quickly. They flow, they spread. Then, sometimes, right as they’re hitting their peak popularity, they start to flow away again and vanish. Sometimes they're completely gone again a decade later.

How come some of these waves actually carry quite harmful ideas and often displace much more evidence-based or beneficial practices? How come even though we've got this wave-like behavior, some of these things seem to stick and actually just become a permanent way of doing business? The paper gives a few examples of one's that disappear and ones that stick that we'll refer to throughout our discussion.

There are four supplementary questions that we'll get to at the end of the podcast. The authors pointed out that most of the literature is set in the 90s, examining the fads in the 70s and 80s. In fact, there have been some recent changes in the way ideas start to spread between businesses. Primarily, as a result of the growth of technology, and in particular, social media. 

How has the advent of things like LinkedIn and the online gurus changed the dynamics of fads and fashion in management?

David: Drew, the paper explores this innovation in what they call broadcasting, diffusion, retention, abandonment, and rebirth of faddish and fashionable management practices. We're going to try and use a lot of safety examples the way [...] like I already mentioned behavioral safety, safety culture, and Safety Differently just to sort of help our listeners. We're interested in safety and we're going to try and use this management theory to help us understand safety practices.

The methods they used, like you've said, Drew, kind of do the first comprehensive review. People will recall episode 34 a couple of weeks ago. We did our episode on how to find and review research. That actually started, as we suggested, Drew, with Google Scholar. Then, they went to a whole lot of databases. What they found difficult was that the literature published on this topic was published everywhere—management journals, edited books, other discipline journals, and also a lot of different languages were used to describe the same idea. 

They started by looking, obviously, for management, fads, and fashion; these types of words. Then, they used management practice, management techniques. They’re really casting that broadly. Then they did this thing which I haven't heard of before, Drew, called snowballing which basically means every paper that they included, they scan the reference list to go, oh, there's a title of another paper that we haven't got yet. They use their own judgment based on just the reference list to expand it. They found 30,000 relevant items, Drew.

A single literature review can't do anything with 30,000 papers in detail. What they say is they actually use the paper to present a narrative view where they credit the framework and they pick up the key articles within that framework. Then, they situated those key articles within the broader context of the literature.

Drew, that kind of method to try and review a whole discipline, 30 years of work on a topic, is that a reasonable way to approach it?

Drew: That's a very common reasonable way for literature review to make a genuine contribution to the field.

Essentially, what they're doing is they're drawing a map of what currently exists. They're pointing out their high points on the map. They're pointing out the dense towns. They're pointing out where there are border walls and skirmishes, where there’s a debate going on, and they're pointing out the gaps where, according to the map, there should be stuff, but actually they haven't been able to find any papers. It leads you on a journey through a field that is great for you coming in and trying to understand what the field looks like.

The slight risk is that they're imposing their own story or narrative over the top which isn't necessarily how everyone in the field would see that same field. I think it's certainly very useful for us to take through literature.

David: Yeah. I think Drew like you said, the second author here, Abrahamson, has been at this discipline for 30 years. They were quite clear on the methodology in this paper that they've actually used their experience on the field to know what the field looks like in which papers. They did lane towards the empirical evidence within that literature as well. They're very clear when they are talking about theory, when they are talking about something that has been empirically researched.

Like in any field, Drew, there was a definition of challenges depending on the author, fad or fashion could refer to ideas, concepts, fantasies, or even practical techniques. When we say fads or fashions all the way through, it could be something that they would do. In organizations, it could be how they think in relation to a topic in their organization.

Drew: That's true. One of the things that I really liked about the way these authors look at it is the way they try to keep the language, allowing for the fact that they're summarizing authors who think slightly differently, is they say that what goes in and out of fashion is not the practice itself. I'll have to quote here. They say, "It's a label denoting linguistic behavioral prescriptions." In other words, it's the theory or the idea that then describes a set of practices. That's what gets spread. That's what goes in and out of fashion.

Whether the practice has actually happened or not is another question altogether. The label and ideas can spread even between people who aren't using the practices. People can claim to be using them and not actually implement anything.

The other central idea which I thought was really interesting, I think it's actually a fairly bold claim but it's supported by the literature they summarize, is they say that the simple reason why organizations adopt new management practices is that they genuinely believe it's a rational way to manage stuff and because they genuinely believe that it's an improvement over current practices.

Why they believe that is another question. There's very little cynicism in this paper. You might think the term fads and fashions are cynical. They're not. It comes with the respect the organizations do believe that they're doing this to make themselves better organizations.

David: Yeah. The paper proposes a model and then they go on to say that the model actually doesn't quite fit and work. But let’s just say there's a model. It's not linear. It's talked about in a sequential way. We got to talk about five areas in relation to the cycling of fads and fashions. We're going to talk about how the initial innovation typically occurs. Then, we're going to talk about what happens in the supply-side organization.

When they say supply side, it's people who are offering ideas and services to companies that do work. It could be academic institutions, consultancies, and other types of service providers. Then, we're going to talk about how the fad becomes contagious and takes hold in demand-side organizations which are the organizations with the actual problem with the management and where the practices take place. Then, talk about how fads might get abandoned or actually might stick in persistent places in the company. They talked about rebirthing, Drew, which is how the fad gets reimagined, recycled, or reborn after laying dormant for a little while.

There are five areas. We're going to talk about each of those five. Drew, do you want to kick off with innovation and the starting point for a fad or fashion?

Drew: Sure. David, I'm interested in your opinion on this one. It absolutely surprised me until I stopped and tried to find counterexamples. I couldn't find any examples of this trend. 

The research shows fairly solidly that new management techniques don't come from gurus. They don't get invented by ivory-tower academics. They don't get created by consultancies. They get developed within the companies that do the work on the demand side, not the supply side. There's even some debate in the literature about where they can't even come from consultancies or academics at all. Certainly, it's clear that even if they can come, they genuinely don't.

The fad starts off with small groups of innovators solving problems within their own companies. Those initial innovations aren't able to spread by themselves. They're practical solutions that people just do. It's not until someone gives them language and some theory, and turns them into something more marketable that they start to spread.

David, do you reckon that that matches your own experience?

David: As I reflect on it, I think it matches my experience. I was surprised at this as well. I was trying to think of the examples. We've talked about high-reliability organizations where it was the researchers from Berkeley who went into aircraft carriers and aircraft traffic control and observed what was happening. 

Yes, the academics created the model and created the language of high-reliability organizations, but it was actually through seeing the way that those organizations ran their companies. We might think that the ideas come from the academics or come from the consultancy businesses but they're just packaging up.

This literature tells you how they're just packaging up observations that they make of what's going on in the world typically within organizations. 

Drew: The example that sprang to mind for me was total quality management. If you think about it, those books, the authors who are famous because of TQM are all saying this is the stuff that's happening in Toyota that we saw and we're telling you how to be as good as Toyota. The initial idea wasn't created by these gurus. The initial idea was created inside companies. It was just observed, labeled, and turned into books by the gurus.

David: Yeah. We're using fads, fashions, and gurus. We're using some language that we may not necessarily use in the podcast or in academics circles, but it's really great to see whole papers written about these types of things. The whole discipline of research is devoted to these types of things.

They talked about hero manager gurus. Drew, these are the people who are like the Jack Welsh, the ex-CEOs, and the people who are still managing inside organizations, who typically traditionally have written books about successful management practices that they've implemented, that they've learned within real-life problems and real-life situations.

Then, we’ve got academic gurus that see what's going on in the world and use the science to theorize and label these innovations. Consultant gurus who were packaging things up into repeatable offerings, to try to generalize across markets or industries or individual organizations. They all craft language that tries to clarify or stabilize the innovation so that it can be adopted within other organizations.

Drew: I think a good example in safety that we might talk about here is the idea of a learning team. When I say learning team, I'm sure many of our listeners have some idea on what I'm talking about. The learning team itself is like a retrospective label. They got a place to practice. Actually, what we call learning teams, or we call hop, or we call everyday work exploration is actually very similar to quality circles that were happening decades ago.

Even quality circle was just a name that was put over the top of a local practice that sprang up, that just makes total sense. A group of workers gets together to talk about what's going well or what's going on at work and how they're going to fix it.

You start with those spontaneous practices that people are locally solving a problem. Then someone says we're doing this in our organization. We call it quality circles or learning teams, then someone else says that sounds good. How do you do it? So, the person writes a book, writes a paper, produces a procedure, or your training course on how to do this. Suddenly, you've gone from this proto innovation to this marketable solution.

David: Yeah. Drew, their paper was quite clear in the research when they’ve looked about how those innovations start to get described and labeled. They actually said the type of things that made the fad or the fashion a much greater chance of broadcasting and sticking inside an organization is a language and how it's used.

If we think of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey or something like that, they're saying that if you can create three steps of this, five types of that, or the Myers-Briggs type indicators and all these sorts of things, something with categories, steps, sequences, and memorable little acronyms is going to be off with a better chance regardless of the narrative of the individual idea.

I was going to tell a story here, Drew. I remember I was quite late to the Safety-II type of literature. We were doing some work in our company. I was in about 2010-2011 which would be considered to be similarly aligned to what we now know as Safety Differently and learning teams.

When Syd came out to Australia and started at Griffith University, I remember I was just doing it because I thought there was a better way to practice safety and just making it work. Then, I rang up Sydney and said you know the stuff that you were talking about? I've just read about the stuff that you're saying. I actually think that we're doing it. Can you come and have a look at what we're doing and tell us what you think? That was a practice that I was just putting in place in my company because I thought it was the way to approach something. I wasn't even aware there was a whole literature and idea set around it.

Drew: When we get to how companies start to adopt some of these ideas, we'll get back to that idea of people adopting the label to describe and rationalize practices they were redoing. It certainly does make sense if you think these things originally probably come from companies to start with. Some of those original companies actually get resold the repackaged idea that actually comes with their own practices to start with.

There's an interesting gap in the literature about how and why specific practices get these treatments. We know what's spread once it's been packaged up and marketed. We don't really know why that happens, why did someone pick this particular practice in order to do that. One of the things that the paper pointed out is there are lots more potential gurus out there than there are good management practices for them to get a hold of in the market. 

Before we have the Internet, it was book publishers that were almost doing this curation job. They decide which person is going to get to write a management book. They are picking and choosing who gets to be the famous guru. But yeah, we don't really know why some things get packaged up and some things don't.

David: Drew, that's the innovation. Organizations innovate to solve local problems. Those innovations get packaged and commoditized by organizations, associations, consultancies, academics, and then get broadcast. It talks about fashionable broadcasts.

Now, we're saying we've got these processes. The broadcasting tends to happen on the supply side organizations. As I said, the consultancies, the academics, conferences, professional bodies, education, institutions, training, more recently software companies that embed new practices within their applications and social media. Just this broad broadcasting.

It's interesting, Drew. One of the examples that came up in this is the authors cite online learning as having all the characteristics of a fashion. Companies solving a problem. Probably where this first popped up was a company that had a really spread out workforce and needed to get some information, so they put a training course online. 

Now, it gets picked up by consultants, software companies, and broadcast, but it doesn't originate anyway within the academic literature about learning. It's a specific fad or fashion to solve an organizational problem. That's where they then get packaged up.

We’re broadcasting, Drew. What's going on inside organizations? How does it get received?

Drew: Before we do that, let's take on broadcasting just for a moment. I think maybe giving a couple of examples might illustrate how the broadcast happens. Imagine something like Six Sigma, and try to imagine how it was that you first heard of Six Sigma. It would've been through one of these broadcast channels. It may be a conference that invites a speaker to come along. That speaker might be someone from a consultancy or someone from a company that sells Six Sigma as a training package, as a consultancy service, or someone who has implemented Six Sigma in their own organization. They're now using that Six Sigma in their own organization as a way of becoming a guru themselves and being the person who can talk about with authority about how to do it. You've got training organizations to get set up. You can become a, is it black belt in Six Sigma?

David: I think it's a green belt and black belt. There are a few different color belts.

Drew: The training itself evangelizes the idea and the people who've been trained then evangelize the idea further. Educational institutions, academics speak at conferences. Also, we talked about stuff in our courses so people coming up through the industry hear these things mentioned during their undergraduate education or as a couple of slides in their training course. That's the broadcast idea.

On the demand side, people receiving the idea, remember what they're getting is not a set of practices. What they're getting is a packaged-up set of ideas, the theorization and the labeling of the practice. Maybe what they do is they get that idea and they say this is what we want to do and actually set about implementing it. Maybe what they do is say, hold on, we're already doing this. We didn't quite realize we were doing Six Sigma and we didn't know it. Let's call what we're doing Six Sigma. It's a way of defending and rationalizing what they're doing. Management comes to the safety department and says why aren’t you guys including Safety-II in the stuff you do? In safety departments? Oh, we're already doing that. We just don't call it Safety-II. You want to call it Safety-II? Sure, we'll call it Safety-II.

The literature distinguishes between implementation when you do it, rationalizing when you say you're already doing it, and signaling when you say you're doing it regardless of whether you're actually doing it. If the two are different, the implementation and the label, then we call that decoupling. There's all sorts of reasons why you might want to signal that you're following a particular practice.

David: I found the fact that there's a whole body of robust empirical work on this idea of decoupling which is when organizations say they're doing something and they're not actually doing anything about it. Examples that I can think of immediately were companies that always say that they're working to improve their safety culture when they're doing absolutely nothing inside their organization in terms of trying to implement changes to their safety culture or nothing immaterial.

There's all these researchers say that obviously there's institutional pressures, marketing, and a whole lot of other reasons that companies say that. The research also shows that individuals benefit by signaling they're doing something even when their organization isn't benefiting from actually doing it.

There's a study that was referenced in this paper that just showed that CEOs were getting higher pay when they signal the adoption of a practice even if their organization hadn't done anything about it. Just by telling their board and telling their shareholders that they're actually doing something.

Drew: That makes total sense. What do you want to put on your resume or report to the board? It's been steady as it goes for the last two years. I kept things stable and on the course we're on, or I successfully implemented our new initiative?

David: On safety culture, exactly. So, we're broadcasting these ideas now, and Drew mentioned all the different avenues and ways that you might hear about an idea, it hits the organization, and then you've got the different stages. The paper refers to the upswing, the tipping point, the downswing, and the latency in terms of when you get this increase in take-up, then you hit this sort of crest, and then you actually start to downswing away from it. The latency is where the paper was basically saying that there are no real new management practices. There are just practices that sit dormant in the organization until someone puts a new label on it and does it again.

They cited an example of a paper where they looked at a company in Sweden. I can't remember exactly the fad but they demonstrated how between a couple of years in the 80s there was this process in place, then there was about a 12-year gap, and then there were another 3 years of absolute focus on this process, which was just a new name for something the company had done a decade earlier.

Drew: That makes total sense. Apart from changes in work practices because of technology, there really is very little opportunity for there to be genuinely you are the first person in the world to manage your team in this particular way, of you’re the first person to think of restructuring your organization along these particular lines, or you're the first person to think of focusing on this instead of on that.

David: Interestingly, Drew, there's a couple of things that I thought were interesting in terms of just this broadcasting idea. One was they said that the slower the diffusion, potentially the stickier the practice might be. They sort of said the quicker the rise, the quicker the fall, or if you actually get this slow penetration of an idea into an organization, you get a chance to institutionalize that idea along the way, which I found interesting and I really want to read more about.

They also talked about the acceleration and deceleration of broadcasting about a particular practice relates to the uptake within the industry on the demand side. I was straight away thinking about the story of DuPont and behavioral safety. In the 90s, you couldn't go anywhere without a broadcast message about behavioral safety coming from, obviously, a company like DuPont on the supply side. But now, in my opinion anyway, the industry is not really having the uptake in behavioral safety practices they were maybe 20 years ago.

You don't see much broadcasting in the market for behavioral safety practices. But some might argue some of the things that are being broadcast are just behavioral safety packaged up under a new label.

Drew: Yes, I always find it fascinating when I see things that are labeled as Safety Differently that are in fact behavioral safety packages. You see this recognition that spreading of the ideas doesn't necessarily mean spreading the practices, but people have found it necessary to align, at least, the way they're talking about their ideas with the new language. 

We're not going to go into all of the details of the literature, but one of the things that management science loves to do in particular is they love to create these different models for how things work. They try to model this spread of ideas in different contagious ways. All sorts of different theoretical models for how things spread, and then they match how ideas actually spread to these models to work out which one is the best fit. There are some features that are very common that caused this spread.

One of the most simple ones is just how many other people are using it generally, then how many other people are using it within your particular industry. The second one is how is your organization connected to other people who are using it? If you draw the network of relationships, once it starts to spread to part of the network that's close to you, particularly if it's upstream of you, that it's your clients or people who have control over you, there's much more pressure to adopt it yourself.

There's a sort of respect factor, which is it's not going to spread from someone that you don't like to you. But if someone that you think is a higher status company, a bigger company, or a more successful company is doing it, then it's more likely to spread to you as well.

They call these different models for at work's admiration processes, bandwagon processes, herding panaceas, epidemics, and all sorts of models. If you imagine a disease spreading or an idea spreading, that's what they're trying to show.

David: Yeah, Drew. Actually, the paper at some point said there was a reference to another paper that had talked about fads and fashions being like viruses in organizations. They said that rollbacks work a similar way. Once companies start to reject an idea and a small group of companies start to reject it, then it broadcasts across in the same way. We've got here the idea that something like zero harm is probably in that space right now where you've got a small number of companies that have rejected the idea, and now you're getting a lot of broadcasting about that too as a practice to organizations.

Drew: That was really an interesting idea that rejecting an idea can also be a fashionable thing to do. The same thing that you can reject the idea but still keep doing the same practices you were doing before.

David: Exactly. I think this is the first time we'll say that in not many places or nowhere in this place was discussion about the evidence-based for accepting and rejecting ideas. Even though you said earlier, Drew, which the literature claims that these are rational decisions that organizations make in the belief that they're going to be improving the performance of their business. There was no discussion about the uptake and the spread, the diffusion of these ideas, and the rejection of these ideas as being evidence-based, which is a bit of a kick in the guts for the Safety of Work podcast. Nevertheless, we press on.

Drew: I did use the word rational, but I think it's made for a very specific purpose here, which is just because you think that what you're doing is reasoned doesn't necessarily mean that your reasons are in fact what you think they are. These models show pretty clearly, and there's a lot of empiricism so checking in the real world that these models actually match what happens. Things like how many other people are using it have a big effect. Things like how you connected to other people have a big effect.

But there's no need in any of these models for a parameter that says how much the practice actually works. People think they're making rational decisions, but they're in fact making fashionable decisions.

David: Yeah, absolutely. It appears to be entirely a social process. When companies adopt these ideas and these practices—the literature is a bit confused here. They talk about how you can adopt it in two ways. One is to take a cookie-cutter approach and just adopt the practice exactly like it's described, the idea, or how other companies do it. Or you can do this translation model where you take the idea but you adapt it, shape it, and reshape it is sometimes a way that it actually doesn't look anything like the way that the practice is being done in a different organization as well.

Even though that's in the literature, there is another part of the literature that says you actually can't cookie-cutter anything. It's always going to be adapted when it goes into a new organization. Broadly, I quite like those two categories of how organizations take up those practices.

Drew: There was one part of the paper where they talked about three steps in an idea traveling as it launches from one organization to another. There's universalizing of the particular, there's the travel of the universal, and then there's particularizing of the universal. Universalizing the particular is where you've got something that's working in one company and you start to put labels on it and make it more generic. Or something that's working in one industry and you start to make it something that works in all industries at all times and in places.

It's then that more general idea that travels, but then it needs to be turned back into something particular if it's going to be implemented. I was trying to think of some specific ideas in safety, and I was thinking of some of the types of aerospace practices. You have pre-flight checklists. That idea is a very specific thing that’s done at a specific time in an aircraft. You get that turned into the more general idea of a checklist. This is now universal. A checklist can be used by anyone, at any time, in any organization. Then it gets particularized. You get pre-surgery checklists. It gets turned back into a specific practice at a particular place.

David: I think ideas are life-saving rules and critical risk management falls into that category where companies have a set of rules and then it gets turned into this big broad thing of life-saving rules. Companies approach how they design, how they communicate, and how they put those rules and enforce them into place back into the particular circumstances of their business and the same with how the critical risk works. Quite a few other programs now that it's targeting frontline operations will fit neatly into that broadcast diffusion type of cycle.

Drew: We've talked about how the fads and fashions get generated. We've talked about how they spread and get adopted. The next thing is how come some of them get kept and some of them just wash away again. The papers got some beautiful examples of different types. My favorite one, which I think they took great joy in pointing out but I can see why, is they pointed out that the idea of employee vacations was a management fad. That it was one of these things that no one gave employees a set number of weeks a year that you could just take and spend away from work. It became a popular thing to do and it spread for industries. It has clearly hung around and no one thinks of it as this your crazy fad of vacations.

David: I found that a great example, Drew, that more than 100 years ago, what they used to call a company church or a sociological department, which I assumed was the original form of an HR department, were sitting around 120 years ago saying how can we improve the fostering of our employees' commitment to our company and someone says let's give them paid holidays. That became a fashion and that was a fashion for half a century before it started being institutionalized. That's clearly something that's stuck around. Then, there are other things that we talked about, other ideas that then come along and disappear.

The research proposes numerous cultural, political, and technical factors that influence the adoption and persistence of these fashions. But basically, there's an overriding (I suppose) idea that says that the practices will persist in an organization as long as the political forces remain to keep them in balance. We know what can happen if there's a change in management or if shareholders or boards give a slightly different direction to an organization, then it can quickly change management practices. There's a lot of politics in the literature about what's required for something to stick.

Drew: The paper points out that some of the actors that are practiced get linked to inherently transitory. If you're in an organization that changes senior management every few years, then there's very little likelihood of a fad lasting within that organization if all it's tied to is the desire of the CEO to have this particular practice in place.

Whereas if it gets built into your HR and hiring practices and is in every employee contract, that's been institutionalized and it's going to hang around longer. If it's not just in every employee contract but it's in the contracts that your organization has with your suppliers and with the people you supply to, then now it's really institutionalized. That's going to be hard for you, your suppliers, or your subcontractors to get rid of even if you wanted to get rid of it.

The example that really sprung to mind for me, David, I don't know what you think, is the order of safety management systems. Safety management systems are 100% fad in the sense that they came in in a very similar way to total quality management systems. We saw TQM wash in and wash out again, but safety management systems, which look identical have stuck. The reason is that regulators have adapted to regulate organizations through the safety management system.

Organizations use safety management systems as things for things like prequalification of subcontractors, for auditing each other, and for project approvals. They've become so built into the way organizations work with other organizations, the way organizations work with regulators in safety, and even into our accident investigation processes, that they've turned from being a fashion into being an institution, that you have to very carefully prise out and you'd never totally get rid of them now.

David: That's exactly right. It reminds me of the example that we gave about the paid leave. Definitely getting something intertwined in regulation is a way of making a practice stick. Then, Drew, they talked about the possible rebirth. This is like what we've talked about. We've got these practices that emerge in an organization to fill a gap. We've got these consultants, academics, and other interested people who get in and package them up and communicate, and then companies sort of go oh look this is going to help our problem as well. They diffuse them into their business and try to embed them.

Some stick, like we've just given examples, and some disappear or disappear at least for a period of time. They talk about this rebirth. They even gave examples like lean production and TQM even in the 1990s was simply a revival of fashion that was popular during the early 20th century. There's a paper that's referenced from 1956, which actually then says ideas from old times have just been rephrased rather than abandoned. There are no new ideologies. We just put currently fashionable terminology around old ideas.

Drew, I straight away thought about things like—and we've spoken about it before in a couple of papers that Theory X and Theory Y from the 1960s, which talks about should management direct their workers or should management have more of a participative style. It's not that dissimilar to ideas of Safety-I and Safety Differently.

Drew: Yeah, and we can see similar things with quality circles, learning teams. It's not identical practice, and that's one of the points they make in the paper is that these things do actually evolve and improve each time they come back. It's not just necessarily rebranding. It can in fact be an evolution of some quite rudimentary ideas into much more sophisticated, possibly actually better ideas. The fact that it comes back doesn't necessarily have to be cynical. It can be rediscovering, improving, and updating the ideas.

David: Drew, the final section of the paper talks about technological change. It's a 2020 paper and a lot has happened in the last 10 years. We wouldn't have been podcasting 10 years ago. We wouldn't have been exchanging ideas with our listeners on LinkedIn. They did recognize that these three decades of research that they were reviewing, ⅔ of it or more than ⅔ of it in terms of volume was conducted before these technological changes that impact their daily lives.

They've kind of said that most of the literature, at least in their interpretation of it, still holds pretty sound. Although there are some interesting challenges that they say that maybe not all innovations now need to evolve to solve an organizational problem. That you can't genuinely have quite a quick diffusion of novel innovative ideas that aren't observations of actual management practices.

Drew: And the way that those ideas get spread, too. Previously, there was a little bit of a bottleneck because you had to make your way into one of the marketing channels. At the very least, you had to get invited to a conference or have a publisher agree to publish your book. Whereas now, all you have to do is put a blog post on LinkedIn, set yourself up with a website, and suddenly you have the ability to broadcast the idea and take claim ownership of the idea.

David: They also talked about not necessarily needing those hero managers. They made specific examples about some consulting businesses that were also now packaging up their observations of what they see in the field and going straight to companies with new ideas as well. There's a fair bit happening, it appears in this space as we'd all be aware if we sit and reflect on it, that the researchers are really starting to think about just how these ideas flow, how they get diffused into organizations, and how they get taken up.

We've spent a while now talking about these fads and fashions as being socially shared, not empirically based, and in and out of organizations. Our listeners probably live with that every day in their organization. What can they do?

Drew: The first takeaway I would throw in is, I know some of our listeners are academics or wannabe academics, be self-aware about what you're doing when you take ideas for improving the business. One thing that I've fought with throughout my own career is that being a guru can seem really, really attractive. Other people look to you as a fount of wisdom, a source of ideas, and want you to tell them what to do and what's the right way to do things. That's the same attractive pull that someone gets for being a social media influencer and someone else wanting to buy the same shoes that you've bought.

I'd really encourage academics to think if this is really what you want to do with your skills. If it really is, if you just want to buy into that and run with it, absolutely fine. It's certainly a valuable important role, but don't go into it blindly. Be conscious of the difference between being an academic and studying management practices, describing them honestly, and being a promoter where what you're doing is packaging things up for distribution.

David: Drew, I think for people on the practitioner side is going to the Safety Science literature or the other source of literature. Like we’ve said about things, you could play a key role in the rejection or the adoption of these practices in your organization, as I'm sure all our listeners do. They say I can play a role in whether I support and promote something or whether I try to stop something from coming into my business.

All we’d say is lean on the evidence base around what you decide to undermine and what you decide to promote and support, not necessarily just do things because your CEOs talk to another CEO, another company's doing something, and now your CEO wants you to do something.

Drew: And be very careful of giving legitimacy to those questions that tend to spread fads. One of the things that I get asked when I'm speaking to companies is they want to know who else is doing this. It's a question that you don't want to buy into giving the answer to, you want to push back on because it's not the right question. Okay, we've got a problem in our organization. We have a potential solution. The question is not who else thinks that this is a good solution. The question is do we think it's a good solution, and why do we think it's a good solution for our problem in our organization. What's the evidence? What's the fit between the practice and what we need?

David: Yeah, that's great. The extension of that would be that just remember when you’re adopting a package set of ideas, you're not actually adopting a practice. It doesn't become a practice in your organization until you make it a practice. You do actually have a lot of freedom. As I said, you may not have freedom in whether or not to adopt a fad. It might even be required in regulation or something like that, but you do have a whole lot of freedom in how you actually turn that into practice and apply it in your own organization.

Drew: Just imagine the number of different choices you've actually got if someone says to you you need to implement a safety culture improvement program. You can say you're doing something to remove safety culture and just choose anything from a massive smorgasbord of ideas and practices.

David: Or an even bigger potential list, Drew, is we want to do Safety Differently, then I can pick absolutely anything different from what I'm currently doing in my business.

Drew: Those are our takeaways. David, what would we like to hear from the listeners?

David: We've talked about fads and fashions. One of the interesting things is what do people think are some of the biggest fads in safety? I’d love people to tell us stories about where fads have come into their business, things that they used to do for safety a decade ago but they no longer do now. We can see if we can use this literature to try and track and work out some of the things that have happened in safety.

We know there's a lot of broadcasting going on at the moment with ideas about Safety Differently in Safety-II. I'd also be interested in our listeners' opinions of how they feel that's being received inside their own organizations or in their professional circles.

Drew, the question for today was how do we tell the difference between theories and fads in safety? Did we really talk much about the actual question?

Drew: We do actually have an answer coming out of the model that the paper gave us, which is that we can look for the point of origin and the mechanism of spread. Theories originate in academic circles. Theories are scientific observations. They do aim to be generalizable, but they also aim to be mainly descriptive saying this is what happens.

The paper we looked at today is a classic example. The paper we looked at today is not itself a fad or a fashion. It's not designed to spread, it's designed to describe what's going on. Whereas fads go through this cycle of proto-innovation within an organization packaged up to be a generic solution to a problem in a way that has a neat clear explanation, some clear labels that can be applied, and some simple ideas that go along with it and then they spread as that package moves about. That's one way of telling the difference.

The other simple way is that theories are tested. Theories spread based on how well they stand up to scientific scrutiny. Fashion spread based on social forces. They spread socially, they get abandoned socially.

David: Drew, for our listeners thinking what should I do about the safety fads and fashions in my own organization, our short advice would be to go to the literature or just keep listening to the Safety of Work podcast.

Drew: Very good. That's it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes to As David said at the start of the episode, go tell someone else about the podcast if you enjoyed this episode.