The normalization of deviance
When you have invested a couple hours of your time listening to a speaker, it is always good that you take away with you at least one good item from the speech. Recently, I attended the Kick-Off Breakfast at NAAA’s 50th Anniversary Convention in Long Beach, California. The speaker was Colonel Mike Mullane, an astronaut. His presentation was fantastic, spellbounding all in the room. From his message, the one thing that stuck with me that relates to our industry so well is, “the normalization of deviance”.
It is a bit odd to find these two keywords in the same phrase. But, with a little forethought, the phrase makes sense. In this presentation, deviance basically means taking shortcuts, at least that was how I understood it. Colonel Mullane was telling his audience that whenever we take a shortcut when doing something, deviating that is, the action is different than what we typically do. However, when we deviate often enough, then in our minds it becomes the norm, setting us up for failure.
Colonel Mullane went on the explain how the normalization of deviance related to the Challenger tragedy where seven crewmembers were killed. The principle applies to ag-pilots and I’m sure in some, if not many cases it has caused a fatality.
There are several examples of normalization of deviance that I know many ag-pilots do on a regular basis, proving the point. How many of us do not use a checklist, maybe not even a touch and feel type versus reading a written one? Have we deviated, or taken a shortcut, to where we think this is normal?
How many of us use a cell phone while flying? In a sense, talking on the cell phone is a shortcut to handling business during the moment instead of while on the ground in a safer environment. Even more poignant is texting. I am sure when texting is done while flying an ag-plane, that pilot’s little voice in the background is reminding him this is deviating, or better said, done often enough, normalization of deviance. We text a few times and nothing bad happens. So, we text a few more times until it is a normal action. The same can be said about taking videos while spraying; normalization of deviance.
Those two keywords, normalization and deviance, are very powerful in meaning. They beg you to ponder your own actions and are you guilty of this phenomenon? It is so easy to deviate from the right course for a shorter one. After a while, that deviation is no longer a shortcut, but a way of doing something and often incorrectly or unsafe.
Safely flying ag day after day, year after year without an accident, much less a fatality, requires attention to details that other professions know nothing of. The professionals in this business are constantly analyzing how they do things and avoiding the pitfalls created by normalization of deviance. Recognizing the normalization of deviance and acting on it can mean the difference in an accident-free season or one of tragedy.