Dyfrig Williams
Jul 23 · 3 min read

At the ripe age of 36 I’m more confident in my work than I’ve ever been, yet never have I felt like I have more to learn. This is maybe partly because I am a public service generalist working at Research in Practice, where we specialise in social care.

I’ve also developed a healthier attitude towards respect for achievement. When I started working at 21 I felt overawed by the knowledge and experience of the people around me.

Alison Domakin recently shared a paper by Barry Mason with me on Relational risk taking and the therapeutic relationship, which introduced me to the concept of Safe Uncertainty, where there is value in not knowing, expressing curiosity and respectfully listening.

Authoritative doubt

In organisational terms, many leaders often confuse being good with being perfect. Mason’s theory is based on an individual in distress, but I can draw parallels with how we expect people to act within public services. We are expected to be infallible. This means that there’s no room for failure, and no opportunity to learn from it. Safe Uncertainty doesn’t mean that we know nothing, only that our knowledge isn’t absolute.

Mason doesn’t see not knowing as a passive state, but as a way to offer challenge. I love the concept of authoritative doubt, which is the the ownership of expertise in the context of uncertainty. It works in complex environments because cause and effect aren’t linear. It recognises that we can’t know everything whilst allowing us to recognising our own strengths and value.

There is no one size fits all

Safe uncertainty suggests that new explanations can be developed with people, and that there isn’t one easy answer that can solve everything. whatsthepont has written some fantastic posts on silver bullet syndrome, particularly this one on management fads, and this on the lifecycle of a silver bullet. Much like in therapy, there is no magical method that can solve all of our problems.


Mason also looks at how we can allow people to be safe enough to explore uncertainty. This certainly fits with work I took part in as part of Good Practice WAO, where we explored organisational attitude to risk. When we assumed a position of absolute knowledge, people were more likely to think that reporting of failure would get them fired. Staff would be more likely to work to organisation process over common sense and service user involvement would become less meaningful and more tokenistic.


I also find it interesting that Mason’s approach chimes with a safe to fail attitude. There’s so much at stake in social care, but Mason recognises the challenge of working in complex environments and applies it to therapy:

“My concern is that… we play so safe that we ultimately do a disservice to those clients (and our colleagues) by with-holding potentially useful aspects of our therapeutic (and supervisory) expertise. It is my belief that the vast majority of clients come to therapy with a view that they will need to take some risks. Indeed, we know that coming is in itself a risk for many. These clients deserve therapists who will do likewise.”

Playing safe isn’t so much a recipe for success in our sector, but a recipe to mediocrity. This attitude to risk links with much of what Paul Taylor has written on failure, including in this brilliant post on moving from slow and stupid to fast and intelligent failure:

“The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.”

We cannot know everything, and we cannot be 100% perfect all the time. In fact, it’s only by challenging the limits of our understanding and admitting the constraints of our knowledge that we can improve. It’s only then that we can deliver the outstanding services that people deserve.

Doing better things

Learning how public services can do better things

Dyfrig Williams

Written by

Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip @ripfa . Views mine / Barn fi.

Doing better things

Learning how public services can do better things

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