The Big Picture - Perspective and Proportion

The Big Picture – Perspective and Proportion

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One of the biggest problems with our biological makeup is a lack of ability to handle perspective and proportion: to stand back, look at the ‘Big Picture’ and make sense of things; to handle size, from the very small up to the very large. The reason for this is simple: for almost our entire evolutionary history we have been nomadic hunters, existing in very small social groups, in a world without change, so there was little need for this skill. Ten thousand years ago we discovered the advantages of growing crops and herding animals, but only in the last 200 years of the Industrial Revolution has so much changed. In the past ten years we have seen the rise of the Social Networking revolution too, and we are struggling to handle it, just as we are struggling to handle the consequences of using vast quantities of fossil fuels over the past two hundred years. 

To be able to comprehend huge numbers, the best idea is to use an analogy. Here’s one: if we say the Earth is approximately 4,500 million years old, and then compress that into one year, we can start to put things into perspective. The first glimmerings of life appeared around May or June, and our much-loved fossil fuels were laid down at the beginning of December, during the Carboniferous period, which lasted 60 million years; that’s just five days in our ‘Year of the Earth’. The average human lifespan of 70 years represents just half a second on the same scale, and we will probably burn up much of the fossil fuels, which were laid down over that period, in just 300 years, or two seconds. (We still have 100 years to go.) Is it any surprise then that five days’ worth of fossil fuels, burned in just three seconds, is going to have an impact on the Earth’s climate? 

What has all this got to do with investigating incidents?

Over the past ten years, we in Kelvin TOP-SET have established that one of the biggest problems or barriers that the investigators we teach face can be their own inability to stand back from an incident and use perspective and proportion to look at the ‘bigger picture’. We deal mostly with industrial managers, technical experts, scientists and engineers (who are importantly and necessarily focused on the detailed and decisive nature of their exacting jobs) and not with artists, musicians and others whose skills involve wider and more abstract in thinking.

Through our research we have found that, due to the nature of people in specific detail-oriented jobs and the skills required for those, the approach of many to investigation is primarily blinkered, overconfident and impatient. Lord Cullen notably commented that those concerned with the running of the platforms involved in the Piper Alpha disaster did not have a good overview of the potential dangers. As the Regulator said at the time, before Piper Alpha, we rarely asked the question, ‘What if?’.

The message is this: stop, take time out from the rush and pressure of running your operation. Try to stand back in an impartial, objective way and form an overview of all that is going on. This broad perspective will allow you to see what really needs to be investigated, and help prevent the cognitive bias and single-track thinking that so many get stuck on. But keep this in mind: you may well find this difficult for two reasons: (1) you need time out from a job that is almost certainly hugely time-pressured, and (2) old Mother Evolution didn’t set you up well for this approach. Awareness of this, however, is key and can greatly help us investigate and choose the right people for the job.