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Improvement Requires Learning: Learning Happens at the Organizational Level, Too

How do organizations expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, encourage and nurture members to see the whole together, and work collectively to solve problems? Gareth Lock, principal of The Human Diver explains what is needed to create a “learning organization.”

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By Gareth Lock

Header image courtesy of Julian Mühlenhaus. Other photos courtesy of G. Lock unless noted.

Fourteen wildland firefighters died on July 14, 1994, when their attempts to limit the spread of a fire in the Storm King mountain area failed. Due to a series of factors, which were obvious in hindsight, the firefighters were trapped as the fire spread up the hill. They had no means of escape, and the limited time meant they couldn’t build fire shelters. This tragedy triggered the interagency TriData Firefighter Safety Awareness Study that recommended a permanent “lessons learned” program be established for wildland firefighters. In 2002, the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was created. Today, the Lessons Learned Center operates as a national, interagency, federally-funded organization with interagency staffing. Their primary goal is to improve safe work performance and organizational learning for all wildland firefighters. 

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They are a true learning organization. They have created behavioral changes regarding:

  • capturing data from events. 
  • sharing events across all wildland firefighters.
  • changing behaviours as a consequence of the identified and shared stories and analyses. 

Their website can be found here



So, what has this got to do with diving and diver training organizations? The goal of these diving organizations is to educate instructor trainers, instructors, and divers to a standard which they have defined in their own documentation. In the modern safety world, this documentation makes up part of the concept of “Work as Imagined” – what should be done to remain compliant and, as a consequence, keep divers and instructors safe—both operationally safe, and also safe from litigation.

However, these standards provide some “freedom for maneuver” because the real world is rarely aligned with what is written in a book, and even if the books could be written with all those variations, they would be so large that no one would read them! Consequently, there is a gap between what should happen and what does happen. What actually happens is called “Work as Done.” 

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Credit: Gareth Lock

The gaps between “Work as Imagined” and “Work as Done” are risks that individuals and organizations should manage, especially if the risks can lead to adverse events. Unfortunately, this gap was not recognized in time for the Storm King mountain event, which is why the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center was formed, and why for the last 10 years it has been operating as a learning organization closing the gap between “Work as Imagined” and “Work as Done.”

What is a Learning Organization?

The following definitions provide different insights into what a learning organization is.

  • Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. (Senge 1990: 3)
  • The Learning Company is a vision of what might be possible. It is not brought about simply by training individuals; it can only happen as a result of learning at the whole organization level…an organization that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. (Pedler et. al. 1991: 1)
  • Learning organizations are characterized by total employee involvement in a process of collaboratively conducted, collectively accountable change directed towards shared values or principles. (Watkins and Marsick 1992: 118)

In a learning organization, learning happens across the whole organization, and while some might be led and directed top-down, others will be informed bottom-up. What is common to both is the need to share the information to create learning opportunities, and then change behaviors afterwards. 

The Fifth Discipline

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In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge distills the concept of learning organization down to five principles. Note that while this InDepth article is written from the perspective of an “organization,” this term could also apply at a team level too. 

  • Shared vision – a shared vision is an important characteristic of a learning organization, as it provides a common goal to the members of the organization. As a result, they feel motivated to learn to achieve a common goal. The vision for the organization must be built by the interaction with the members, not by the organization itself. Through this authentic interaction, members feel motivated to learn to achieve that common goal.
  • System thinking – this means the organization doesn’t look at issues at the individual level, it looks at them at them with a view that recognizes the interdependence of the components. So, when changes are made to one part of the system e.g., changes to training courses or equipment configurations, the wider perspective is taken to see what other things are impacted. Or, when one instructor has identified an issue, it is addressed system-wide and not just seen as “their problem.” The identification of trends is unlikely to happen quickly. This means that by the time the individuals’ problems are widespread, they are much more difficult to correct. Learning organizations are proactive, not reactive.
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  • Team learning – organizations can only become successful learning organizations if the leadership focuses on the learning of the whole team rather than the learning of an individual. Team learning happens through the accumulation of individual learning, and learning organizations encourage openness and boundary-crossing of established groups or teams. In the context of diving, this could be through co-teaching or taking part in larger projects with members from different teams coming together and sharing ideas and then taking them back to their own original teams and others who were not present. Instructor trainers and examiners play a crucial role in organizational learning because they have access to many different individuals across the organization.
  • Personal mastery –this is where the individual puts 100% of their effort into the task, bridging the gaps between what they know and what needs to be done. In the context of teaching, this could be improving their own personal knowledge to pass onto students about a parallel and linked activity like communication, leadership, decision making, or situation awareness. While an organization can provide training opportunities, the individual must want to learn and improve themselves for the change to happen.
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  • Mental models – in the context of a learning organization, this is about ensuring the models (expectations) of the individual are aligned with what the organization’s values and goals are. This happens through personal engagement and visible leadership. 

What is needed to create and support a Learning Organization?

If the goal is to capture, analyze, and share information so that behaviors can be changed, what is needed to support this?

There are a number of building blocks required for an organization to evolve into a Learning Organization:

A Supported Learning Environment: 

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Photo Credit Gareth Lock.

An environment that supports learning has four distinguishing characteristics:

  • Psychological safety. To learn, members of the organization cannot fear making a mistake, be that speaking up, asking a naïve question, making a contribution, or presenting a minority view. Instead, they must be comfortable expressing their thoughts about the work at hand. This is not about being brave; it is about the environment being safe, and leaders create this environment through role-modelling. Bravery is needed to overcome fear; if there is no fear, there is no need for bravery. This video provides more insight into what psychological safety is. A series of four blogs on the The Human Diver website expands on this in more detail too.
  • Appreciation of differences. Cognitive diversity, the ability to think differently and through different lenses, has been shown to be a key factor in successful organizations and teams. This diversity can increase energy and motivation, spark fresh thinking, and prevent drift. However, it can be hard for some to separate standard operating processes and standardized equipment from a fixed view of the world.
  • Openness to new ideas. Learning is not simply about correcting mistakes and solving problems. It is also about crafting new approaches to problems. The members within the organization should be encouraged to take risks and explore the untested and unknown. This is linked to learner and contributor safety in Dr. Timothy Clarke’s “Four Stages of Psychological Safety.”
  • Time for reflection. There is an essential need to reflect on what happened and not immediately move onto the next task. Learning can be catalyzed through an effective debrief. In the DEBRIEF model I teach, “F” relates to follow-up/file so that the lessons identified can be learned. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause between activities and encourage an analytic review of the organization’s processes.
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Graphic Credit Gareth Lock.

Concrete learning processes and practices.

Learning across the organization doesn’t happen immediately, nor does it happen without effort being applied by the leadership and members. There is a need for structured processes and tools which allow and encourage the generation, collection, interpretation, and dissemination of information. This could be something as simple as a forum with two key themes: “I need help to solve a problem” and “a lesson I have just learned.”

To achieve maximum effect, the knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways, and this is one of the challenges in the diving sector given the geographically dispersed nature of most organizations. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or the whole organization, and the knowledge shared should move sideways and vertically (both ways) across the organization. 

The knowledge-sharing process can be internally focused, which looks at how an instructor failed to deliver a class effectively, or handled a difficult student, or why drift is happening with students post-class. Alternatively, knowledge sharing can be externally focused, where students or potential instructors are surveyed to understand their perceptions of the organization. 

As well as having the culture needed for learning, there is a need for a tool or forum that allows this learning to be shared. Such tools ensure that essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it.

A few questions for you to consider. What learning systems or processes exist within your team or organization to manage the information flow from event to learning and altered behaviors? How do you know it is working? What would make it more effective?

Leadership that reinforces learning

Organizational learning is strongly influenced by the behaviour of the leaders within the organization. When leaders actively question and listen to members, which leads to dialogue and debate, those within the organization feel encouraged to contribute and learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective debriefs, the prevalence of these activities will increase. At the same time, if leaders close conversations down with statements like, “We’ve always done it this way,” then input and contributions will cease, and learning will wither.

Leaders don’t need to have all the answers themselves. In fact, the strength of a leader in a learning organization is the ability to ask team members  curious questions. When I teach my human factors classes, I am not too bothered about whether the students succeed in getting home to GemaBase, but I want to know and understand their thought processes involved. Positive outcomes are seductive, but it is the decision-making process that counts when it comes to learning. Curious questions include: “What criteria did you use?”, “Why did you think the way you did?”, “What alternatives did you consider?”, “What were your assumptions based on?” The questions are not designed to yield particular answers, but rather to generate open-minded discussions so that learning can flourish.

In Summary

This might have appeared to be an intensive blog, which doesn’t give much practical advice on how to create a learning organization. However, the first steps to creating a learning organization are in your head as a leader or member of that organization. The tools and interactions needed to capture, process, and share the information come second.

For those who want to embark on a journey of learning, once you’ve got the attitude, work out how you start the conversations with those who have the knowledge. Then encourage them to share their stories, their learning, and their changed behaviors. There are plenty of remote conversation tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or WhatsApp to facilitate this. However, if you don’t have a psychologically safe environment, then your conversations are going to be limited. 

If you’d like to know more about how to create a psychologically safe environment, get in touch, as I have access to tools and processes which you can use to assess and develop it within your organization or team. 


Since 2011, Gareth has been on a mission to take the human factors and crew resource management lessons learned from his 25 year military aviation career and apply it to diving. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal to bring human factors, non-technical skills, and a Just Culture to the diving industry via a number of different online and face-to-face programs. Since then, he has trained more than 350 divers from across the globe in face-to-face programs, and nearly 1500 people are subscribed to his online micro-class. In March 2019, he published “Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors” which has sold more than 4000 copies and on May 20th, 2020, the documentary “If Only…” was released, which tells the story of a tragic diving accident through the lens of human factors and a Just Culture. As a presenter at dive shows and conferences round the globe, he has shared his knowledge about and his passion for diving. He has also been called upon as a subject matter expert to assist with a number of military diving incidents and accidents focusing on the role of human factors.

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Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.

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Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini 
English text by Vincenza Croce

Hal Watts, Terrence Tysall, and Bill Stone in March of 1993.  This was the last stop in the U.S. for a test dive of the Cis-Lunar Mk-4 rebreather prior to Stone’s San Agustin expedition (1994) for its first real sump dive.

“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.

The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.

But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.  

Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.

In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.

Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.

The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.

Hal Watts speaking at aquaCORPS tek.93 Conference

First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?

Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries. 

The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.

We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces. 

Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan. 

We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.

It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.

Mr. Scuba’s Magic Bus!

But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.

Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft. 

We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.

After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.

Hal Watts set the world deep air record to 120m/390 ft in 1967

Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?

This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.

The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit. 

Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland. 

When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.” 

PSAI’s ad in aquaCORPS Journal circa 1994 offering deep air training.

He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.

Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.

Please tell us about Sheck.  What was your relationship with him like?

Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching. 

Sheck Exley and Hal Watts at a NSS-CDS conference

After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.

I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?

Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.

I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course.  I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.

Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom. 

Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor mixing up some trimix in the garage.

Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?

Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training. 

Forty Fathom Grotto aka Zuber Sink
An early Sheck Exley mix course at Forty Fathom Grotto
An Eric Hutcheson drawing of Forty Fathom Grotto

Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.

Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?” 

I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.

Dive Deeper

ScubaGuru: LXD 029 : Hal Watts – Record Deep Diver & Technical Diving Pioneer

Netdoc: Netdoc chats with Mr Scuba, Hal Watts

InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner

Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies

Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022. 

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