“‘Stale’ is a good way of putting it. Our standards are well defined, and managers invested what we want to achieve, but our ambassadors were looking for new ideas.”

Jim Paine is Safety Advisor at RWE Generation UK – better known as ‘npower’ to millions of UK households who consume energy generated at their gas and coal power stations. Here they run ‘Eye on the Ball’ – a culture change programme with a strong focus on effective conversations to prevent accidents and boost performance.

And with over 1200 staff to keep engaged, Jim felt Eye on the Ball could benefit from a fresh, new angle – to sustain momentum and inspire further commitment.

“I got talking to Tribe at IOSH 2016 and thought they had something that stood out. They explained the various delivery systems they have for getting messages across, and one of them was this live drama thing.”

Jim floated the idea to RWE’s Generation UK Manager and it soon sparked interest:

“We wanted an acted scenario that would resonate with our people in a conference. It wasn’t just aimed at managers, it was a cross-section of the company – so skeptics as well as people invested in the programme.”

A wild banshee and the butterfly effect

The plan was to deliberately interrupt what the audience thought was a usual, formal afternoon session of a safety conference. An actress, playing the mother of an injured son, suddenly enters the room in a state of hysteria. The captivated audience then watch the full story – played out by professional actors, live on stage.

Through the immersive power of theatre, people examine the context, the run up to, and the cause of the accident – humanising its aftermath. And everything portrayed is based on the real-life story of an injured colleague.

“There was the element of surprise. We tried not to tell many people what was going to happen beforehand, so when the drama unfolded, people were acting spontaneously. The first most people knew of this was a screaming, wild banshee storming the room. You could see people on the edge of their seats, wondering what the hell was going on and what would happen next.”

The dramatic plot evolved through a collaborative effort between Tribe and RWE:

“We met with Clare and Barry and sketched out some ideas, developing the storyline between us. We looked at the trends, what sort of accidents were happening and used them to steer the story. Our aim was to encourage the audience to consider the wider effects of an accident. How accepted practices and little things along the way lead to accidents – like a butterfly effect. We wanted to challenge those thought-processes and decisions. No one actually does anything wrong, but when you aggregate it all together – that’s how accidents happen.

“What made this work was the collaboration on how we wrote the script. The whole thing was based on a real accident about five years ago when one of our craftsmen damaged his fingers. His supervisor visited him at home and saw all his guitars lined up and felt deeply affected. To most people, losing the tip of your fingers – you stand a chance of coping, but to a guitarist, it’s catastrophic. We wanted everyone in the room to feel moved by that.

“There’s a lot to be said for seeing familiar situations you might be involved in, day-in, day-out, but as a spectator rather than a participant. It gives you that time out.”

Changing the conversation

Tribe’s live drama team used other techniques to keep staff engaged and involved in the process of learning through performance:

“The really powerful part was getting our staff to role play the parts of people involved in the accident. So we had members of staff pretending to be the managing director, site managers, and the injured apprentice at critical points in the drama – with Tribe’s actors supporting them. The object was to show how you can change the conversation, how things could have been said or done differently to change the outcome.

“We built in other real-life lost-time incidents too that showed people doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. It wasn’t commercial pressure, just normal, proud people who want to get the job done, so they find workarounds. We wanted people to imagine themselves in the same situation and wonder ‘at what point should we stop and think about why we’re doing this?’.”

“It was for commercial staff too, not just people on the shop-floor, so they understand how their decisions create pressure to achieve, which forces people further down the line to take risks.

“We also tried to show how having a bad day at home or at work puts you out of phase with workmates. That comes back to the idea behind Eye on the Ball. How people should work ‘in the moment’ – like mindfulness. This isn’t necessarily something you can explore in one day but we wanted to leave that thought with them, so they mull it over in their own time.”

Authentic chemistry

Immersive theatre isn’t a one-way experience. To consolidate your message, people need to feel emotionally, as well as physically, involved. Jim explains:

“We knew what we wanted and Tribe knew what they could deliver. Between us, there was a flow of ideas and discussion, Tribe came up with the script, then we improved it – not to correct it, but to add gravitas and reality to the story. So people pay attention to the message, not the detail. That made it authentic to our people.

“There was great chemistry between the actors too – the banter brought the whole thing to life – it felt like a natural part of the day. That put people at ease so they could get involved in the drama.”

If your safety message needs more bite, Jim has encouraging advice on plugging fresh, new ideas into your existing culture change programme:

“In health and safety you have to keep things moving along all the time. Move them up to the next level. We thought ‘let’s not do more of the same, let’s challenge people’.

“If you just repeat the same thing, it becomes the same old message. Change it around, find someone who can help you say it differently in a new way. I think the challenge now is for us to live up to our own high standards!”