I have been thinking a lot about group projects. In Texas, the Governor’s Task Force on Concert Safety released its final report, which was the product of about forty subject matter experts. I lead a group writing an ANSI standard for event security. In my practice, lawyers heatedly argue about which party was responsible for whatever went catastrophically wrong.
For a guy who left big law firm practice more than a decade ago in part to avoid all the meetings, I still spend much of my day working with other people. Since I am evidently less of a curmudgeon than I figured, I have tried to make sense of collaborative work. Here is what I’ve learned recently.
The Challenge of Control
It is no great revelation that self-interest is one of the few strong motivators available when asking people to give their time in exchange for no money. I interpret my self-interest broadly. I am happier working for myself than for other lawyers, and my practice relies on event professionals taking safety seriously enough for us to have a thriving industry. Because I have an unusual skill set, I get asked to join a lot of groups, and because I want to influence the outcome, I tend to lead. One challenge I’ve faced in group projects is control over the final product.
In November, 2022, in response to the Astroworld festival disaster, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety began to convene subject matter experts to discuss how to make events safer on a going-forward basis. Lots of smart people were involved, and the work was obviously timely and important. The Event Safety Alliance brought a strong contingent, and I flew to College Station, TX to present to the group in person. On April 19, 2022, the Governor released a nine-page report containing our five findings, as well as an Event Production Guide of existing safety resources.
As in any cooperative venture, some things get lost in translation. In this instance, there was an apparently irresistable temptation to add some declarative statements about a tragedy in the very early stages of investigation. A regrettable addition, in my view. The law requires one to gather evidence before rendering judgment; also, although Astroworld was the impetus for the group’s existence, the Task Force expressly looked forward, not back. So I was pleased to give an interview about the report two days later on the Houston Matters radio show, which provided an opportunity to distinguish the five findings from the narrative that preceded it.
The process of creating and revising industry standards presents a different challenge. It takes years, and multiple layers of review, to create an American National Standard or revise the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code. The journey has many stops along the way precisely because so many people rely on the final product for authoritative safety guidance. In the Event Safety Working Group, a cooperative venture between ESA and ESTA (the Entertainment Services and Technology Association), I co-Chair the Event Security Task Group. We are approaching the end of our first draft of what we hope will eventually be a companion to ANSI ES1.9-2020, Crowd Management. Once our subject matter experts finish drafting and editing to our own satisfaction, then the document will be challenged through a robust public review process, to which our group will have to respond with written comments. Only when there is a consensus that the document is worthy of the title “American National Standard” will our task group’s work be done. Based on pace of revisions to the crowd management standard, let’s check back late next year.
Likewise with NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, there is a gauntlet to run even to update descriptive language in the Annex. During a recent meeting, I raised an issue about the term of “festival seating.” My beef was (1) event professionals now refer to events without seats as “general admission,” and (2) the explanation in the Annex was pejorative and inacccurate. The current 2021 edition reads,
A.188.8.131.52 Festival Seating. Festival seating describes situations in assembly occupancies where live entertainment events are held that are expected to result in overcrowding and high audience density that can compromise public safety. It is not the intent to apply the term festival seating to exhibitions; sports events; conventions; and bona fide political, religious, and educational events. Assembly occupancies with 15 ft2 (1.4 m2) or more per person should not be considered festival seating.
The first sentence struck me as a cop-out. No event should be expected to result in a situation that compromises public safety – groups like ESA and NFPA publish reasonable practices guidance so event organizers will assess and take steps to mitigate the risks that exist under their circumstances. The second sentence is belied by the history of crowd-related problems at all sorts of events, including the ones specifically excluded, some of which I have dealt with in my own practice. The third sentence seems inconsistent with the concept of “occupant load,” for which the issue is the number of people in any confined space, not the total number of people in the entire venue.
Happily, the good folks at NFPA thought enough of my comments to create a subcommittee to address them. We met recently, had a constructive conversation, drafted new language, cut some old language, and submitted it back up the chain. Many more people will have their say before anything comes out in the 2024 edition.
I’m generally pleased with the Texas Task Force’s final product, and I’m optimistic about what will emerge from the Event Safety Working Group and the NFPA subcommittee. I have a pretty high regard for my contributions, and I’ve tried to benevolently exert my influence in each group. But no matter how much I want what I want when I want it, I (grudgingly) admit that I’m not the only smart person in any of these groups. The work is generally improved when it is challenged by people who aren’t as close to it as the authors. The value of careful vetting before going public is high enough not to rush something out the door, even if only the institution’s name is on the final product.
“Do Your Job”
This brings me to a related point about any group work – most of us are good at something, but few people are good at everything. I’m confident in my ability to analyze and articulate risk and safety issues involving live events. My lane is important but narrow, and I suck at many, many other things. When I’m in charge of getting something done, I surround myself with smart friends and encourage everyone to work within their own area of expertise.
This is hardly a new principle. For me, it is the wisdom of six-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Belichick. During the 2014 season, Coach Belichick hung a sign in the New England Patriots locker room that said “Do Your Job.” He explained that it meant three things: (1) DO your job, meaning to get your work done; (2) do YOUR job, meaning that each person should focus on their own task so everyone can rely on them and everyone can work at the thing they do best; and (3) do your job (WELL), meaning that excellence was required for the team to achieve its lofty goals. It works. I was a very happy Patriots fan in the stands when the outcome of that Super Bowl became clear.
In the world of events, I see this essential division of labor documented in contracts. Call me a nerd, but I love a well-written contract. In several of my recent cases, something bad unquestionably happened, and the legal issue mainly revolved around identifying the culpable party or parties. Hint: plaintiff’s lawyers sue everyone with deep pockets and defense lawyers try to push blame onto anyone but their client. A contract that not only contains legally effective terms, but also operationally descriptive provisions, can cut off a lot of arguments about who was supposed to do the thing that went sideways. You, dear reader, should love this sort of well-written contract too.
The Bystander Effect
Since we were little kids forced to do group projects, we have been familiar with the “bystander effect.” I recently read an explanation why so many people seem apathetic in collective situations. There are two parts.
The first part is diffusion of responsibility. Think of the line, ‘Anything that is everyone’s job becomes nobody’s job.’ If an individual sees something weird, but they also see no one reacting to it, then that individual is likely to ignore it too. “Not my job.”
The second part is pluralistic ignorance. The story of the emperor’s new clothes is an example; so is NASA repeatedly overlooking an engineering failure until it caused the Challenger explosion. The sociological term for this collective blindness is the “normalization of deviance.” By any name, this is why the call to See Something, Say Something is so ineffective. Not only are people not that observant (too much “confirmation bias”) – we are predisposed to go with the flow.
The challenge for every group is to encourage its members to take individual responsibility even for collective action, and to transcend our default position as sheep to assume the role of shepherds. To get everyone to do their job. Like everything else in my work, I am unaware of any one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, like our legal duty of care, we must behave reasonably under our own circumstances.
Personally, I live by the words of my Grandma Mary, of blessed memory, who quipped, “Don’t let them s—t on your head, open your mouth.” She was a genius with a double entendre. Maybe a motivational speaker about collaborative work, too.