Problem Seeking for Improved Safety

While preparing for a recent conference keynote, I sought help from a respected colleague Les Nichols, AIA. The conference was an international event focused on designing safer school facilities, and Les is a walking encyclopedia on building design concepts related to safety. As vice president for Club Safety and Design for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Les is responsible for helping clubs around the world improve safety and security in a variety of ways, including the incorporation of design concepts. As one of the primary audiences for the conference was architects, Les offered to help me improve my presentation by helping me view the information to be covered through the eyes of an architect. He recommended several popular textbooks used by schools of architecture and met with me after I had read them.

Though I have periodically worked with and trained architects for more than a decade, I think I learned more about how they approach their work and how I could provide them with useful information in my discussions with Les than I had learned through the past decade. Among the most important concepts Les enlightened me on is the idea of problem seeking. After reading the landmark book Problem Seeking - An Architectural Programming Planner by William Peña and Steven A. Parshall, Les was kind enough to spend a couple of hours explaining his view of problem seeking based on the book and his many years of international experience as an architect working on school and youth organization facilities.

From Now On, A New Perspective

This conversation will forever shape how I present, work with clients, and write about strategic issues relating to campus safety. To oversimplify our discussion by distilling it to 500 words, problem seeking means to actively seek potential problems early in the design process, and as the project progresses, in an effort to identify and correct problems before the facility is completed. Les emphasized the importance of asking the right questions at the right time during the design process. He also stressed the challenges, often faced, in putting the concept of problem seeking into actual practice because many people are naturally resistant to asking some of the most important questions.

A persuasive argument that Les provided to me relating to safety aspects of facility design is that we should ask the same questions an expert witness, attorney, a governing body (such as a board of trustees), families of victims, or the media would ask following an incident.

This conversation took place just days before I keynoted one of a series of more than 20 seminars on campus safety for one of the nation’s largest insurance companies. We incorporated interactive discussion based on problem seeking into the session, and the education leaders, public safety officials, and insurance professionals had excellent participation and feedback.

There are often occasions where one discipline can learn valuable concepts from another discipline. For example, campus leaders can learn a great deal about decision making under pressure from public safety and emergency professionals. Law enforcement officials can learn valuable lessons from mental health practitioners. Problem seeking is one of several conceptual approaches that campus safety officials can learn from architects.

Learn to See in a New Way
Learning to view the world through a different lens can be most revealing. Maximizing our efforts to build safer facilities by problem seeking can be an invaluable tool to reduce risk and exposure to civil liability, and most importantly, to improve safety.

As I reflect on the anniversary of my 30th year as a full-time campus safety professional, I realize how much more effective I could have been if someone had enlightened me to this manner of thinking when I was a rookie university police officer. Like many of life’s more valuable lessons, I wish I could have been faster on the uptake. I do feel quite fortunate to now have another powerful tool to improve service to others. I will forever be grateful to a brilliant, generous, and good friend for taking time from his incredibly busy schedule to share his thoughts with me so I could serve others more effectively.

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