Fantasy Planning: The gap between systems and safety and safety of systems
Numerous large-scale disasters have revealed fantasy plans—safety artifacts (plans, risk assessments etc.) that are intended or believed to accurately reflect operational risk and work practices, but do not. In contrast to “drift”, where operations gradually become less safe, fantasy plans describe protections that have never been fully implemented, understood, or operated as intended.
The theory of fantasy planning originally comes from the sociologist Lee Clarke. Clarke noticed that, in some high-profile situations, risk planning became more of a symbolic activity than a functional activity, despite the best intentions of the people involved. A key example was the oil spill contingency plan for spills in the Port of Valdez, Alaska. The oil spill plan made claims that were not only exaggerated, but bordering on fantasy since what the plan claimed to be possible regarding oil spill recovery had never been successfully achieved in open waters.
Drawing on real examples, this presentation explores how fantasy planning develops in organisations. Namely, it can involve a number of individual and group perceptual factors, organisational cultures (particularly sources of risk blindness), system design, and insufficient evidence to support confidence in risk protections. What is, perhaps, most interesting about fantasy planning is that sometimes risk protections may never be implemented or even capable of being effective.
Ultimately, this presentation explores why, contrary to our safety efforts, we create systems that describe a physical reality that may never exist; concluding with ideas on how practitioners can close the gap between safety systems and operational work.