MT Expert - People: Eating the elephant

How do you go about tackling those issues that seem to fall into the 'too hard to do' box, asks Virginia Merritt of Stanton Marris?

by Virginia Merritt
Last Updated: 18 Mar 2011
As business and economic interests increasingly seem to run against a tide of social, ethical and environmental pressures, tackling the really big issues that affect us all gets even harder. Issues such as sustainability, reducing waste, cutting carbon emissions or safety often get put in the ‘too hard to do’ box when you realise that it will involve herculean efforts to persuade and influence not only your employees, but also your stakeholders and partners in the supply chain, that it is the right thing to do. Worthy visions such as zero waste or zero infections may express an aspiration and capture the imagination. But the reality is that these are elephant-sized tasks that only the brave (or mad) will take on as serious and achievable goals.

Over the past three years, a team of us at Stanton Marris have been privileged to advise and support a team of leaders at Balfour Beatty, the leading infrastructure and services business, who set themselves the more ambitious goal of achieving ‘Zero Harm’ safety by 2012. They wanted to make a concerted company-wide effort to take safety performance to the highest level, building on the solid and steady progress they had already achieved. Zero Harm literally means no deaths, no serious injury and no ruined lives. Setting a bold initial deadline was the only way they were going to make a real and lasting impact across all their divisions and businesses. They want to challenge assumptions, as well as the industry and cultural constructs that have constrained their approaches, particularly in the way they think about risk. To eat the elephant means they have to focus attention on eliminating risks – rethinking and redesigning the work processes so that no person working on Balfour Beatty’s behalf will be put in danger of serious harm – rather than just trying to manage or minimise the risks of accidents at the workface. A phrase that has become a touchstone for change is: 'The seeds of accidents are sown in ‘warm offices’ not at the workface'.

Eating the elephant also means leaders have to think differently about their personal impact on the cultures they create, and how they engage wider groups of people in achieving the challenge. This is not a task that could be driven through from the top in a command-and-control style. The biggest challenges are not the technical aspects, but the people ones – and tackling those effectively in fact has a bigger impact on the success of the change.

Balfour Beatty has given huge visibility, major investment and real focus in engaging people to the task of Zero Harm - and it still has more to do. The difference is that they now believe that they can do it, and want to do it. In the aftermath of tragedies like Deepwater Horizon, I propose that it is that self-belief and deep commitment that will become a key differentiator for major organisations to succeed in the future.   

If you would like to learn the lessons from the Balfour Beatty story so far, please request a copy of ‘Eating the Elephant: how do tackle the really difficult issues?’ at

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