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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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Credit: 123rf.com

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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Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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