What difference does complexity make in the outdoors?

Tony Carden, PhD candidate

In our recently published paper, we argued that recognition of the led outdoor activity system as complex has implications for how outdoor programs should be regulated, managed, designed, supervised and led. What could that look like in practice?

For starters, I want to suggest that complex doesn’t mean difficult. Nor does it mean complicated. As we attempted to show in ‘Not as Simple as it Looks‘, the term ‘complex’ describes a set of characteristics. Key among these is the characteristic of uncertainty. Uncertainty gives rise to unpredictability. Systems or system elements that are not complex are sometimes called ‘deterministic’. This means that their future states are determined by their previous states. That makes their future states predictable. Future states of deterministic things can be reliably predicted. Future states of complex things can’t.

What happens next?

We identified that the led outdoor activity system includes both complex and deterministic elements which interact with each other, often in unpredictable ways, making the overall system complex. So, if the led outdoor activity system is complex and contains complex as well as deterministic elements, how can we reliably plan to achieve desired outcomes and avoid accidents?

Drawing on some ideas developed in military research, we’ve proposed the following event framework to help address this challenge.

figure_3The top row represents the deterministic (otherwise known as ‘linear’) situations that happen on outdoor programs. These are reliably predictable. They arise from reliably predictable interactions between deterministic system elements. On the left are the ones we want, including those that produce desired program outcomes. On the right are the ones we don’t want, such as those that produce injuries and accidents.

The bottom row represents the complex situations that happen on outdoor programs. They arise from complex system elements and from interactions between complex system elements and any other system elements, complex or not. These are not reliably predictable.

While we may reasonably be able to claim ahead of time that some program aims (often pre-emptively and confidently spoken of as ‘outcomes’) will be achieved, how often are all of the claimed outcomes actually achieved?

To avoid bad things happening, can we rely only on predictive risk assessments that seek ahead of time to predict all the worst things that could happen and head them off? If some of the bad things that can happen are inherently unpredictable then the answer would seem to be no. Is our only option to keep our fingers crossed and accept that we can’t do anything to avoid some adverse outcomes?

I’d be willing to bet that, as you’ve read this, many outdoor leaders have been thinking, “Well, of course outdoor programs include uncertainty. Tell me about it: I live it every time I’m in the field.” Others will have gone further, perhaps thinking something like, “Uncertainty is the core value of outdoor learning. Intentional engagement with risk is what puts participants into the learning zone. It’s where peak experiences come from.” I tend to agree. However, my research suggests that common approaches to the regulation, management, design, supervision and leadership of outdoor programs all assume a level of determinism and predictability that is at odds with the actual system.

Each square in the framework above contains a verb in large text, an action word that suggests an attitude which can best deal with events emerging in that quadrant. Current common approaches seem well-suited to addressing situations that arise in the top row of the framework. We can actively SEEK desirable outcomes through predictable system elements. We can design programs to include activities which are likely to generate experiences for participants that can lead to targeted learning. Similarly, we can actively and confidently AVOID many adverse events by following appropriate guidelines, standards and rules. Many adverse risks can be accurately predicted and mitigated. Although recent research by Clare Dallat and others has suggested that current common practices in risk assessment leave plenty of room for improvement, their exciting work on new methods for assessing risk at multiple system levels, including emergent risks, looks set to support significant improvements in risk assessment. However, even such leading-edge methods are limited to the reasonably foreseeable. What about the unforeseeable?

As the labels on the right side of the framework suggest, PLANNING can address the needs to achieve desirable outcomes and avoid undesirable ones that arise from predictable aspects of an outdoor program. The process proposed to address the uncertain, unpredictable events that may emerge in the lower row of the framework, is VIGILANCE. In this mode, unpredicted emerging events that could support program aims are actively EXPLOITED (exploit the teachable moment). Unpredicted adverse events that could cause unacceptable adverse outcomes are ACCOMMODATED. This approach could perhaps be attained by creating what Dave Snowden calls ‘safe to fail‘ spaces around program participants and leaders. This attitude of vigilance equips us to respond more quickly and effectively to the unforeseen. Weick and Sutcliffe identified it as a key marker of success in their studies of high resilience organisations.

This kind of approach is increasingly being adopted with great success in safety-critical domains such as aviation, road transport and heavy industry. It centres around the nurturing and development of a ‘safety culture‘. It relies on people at all system levels adopting new habits such as Weick and Sutcliffe’s five principles of high resilience organisations. The success of this approach in addressing unpredictable system elements and events that can cause accidents offers confidence that it can also support more effective and reliable achievement of positive aims that also rely on unpredictable system elements.

What do you think? Do we need to change our approach to better balance planning with vigilance? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. What would our safety regulations and safety management systems look like? Would it make a difference to how we train outdoor teachers and instructors? What would it look like for a school-run outdoor ed program? What would it look like for a residential camp? What about a journey based activity provider? A community outdoor rec club? An adventure therapy program? An adventure tour? An adventure race? What difference might it make for an outdoor leader? For a supervisor of field staff and programs? For a manager or school Principal? For a work health and safety authority? For a government education department or land manager?

What difference might it make for a participant in a led outdoor activity program?

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