Letting go of the need to know: an important water wise principle

I have been interested to read the IWA Principles for Water Wise Cities, designed to help leaders deliver safer water and sanitation through integrated planning. It is a great body of work with principles that I would endorse.

Yet there is one principle that I would add and it is let go of the need to know.

Let me present my argument:

The 17 IWA Principles are grouped in four logical levels of action. Each level represents a range of challenging issues and opportunities. Together, the four levels comprise a system of very high complexity and uncertainty, in which nobody has all the levers to hand and nobody has a complete understanding of how the whole system works.

And the thing about complex systems is that cause and effect is unknown and unknowable in advance. In other words, when managing a complex adaptive system, such as a city, its environment, politics and people, we can never know that if we take action X we will get outcome Y. We may in fact get Z. The complex realm is the realm of unintended consequences, unforeseen outcomes, side-effects and unwanted impacts.

For example, a government policy to invest in more affordable housing in a city drives residential development that then increases pressure on the city budget to build infrastructure to support new communities, which impacts decisions and budgets for basin planning and leads to long-term consequences for catchment management that the original social housing planners could never have dreamed of. And that’s just one policy of many.

In this space, water planners seek to make decisions and find solutions to drive better water outcomes. Yet it is clear that when working in complexity the desire to solve the problem is part of the problem.

My principle – to let go of the need to know - is about recognising that when facing complex urban water planning challenges, we don’t know the answer, because we CAN’T know the answer. We can’t even be sure what the problem is. But for deep experts brought up in an industry with 200 years of problem solving history, we rightly feel obliged to analyse, identify and solve.

This habit has two powerful impacts. Firstly, by imagining that we and our peers have the necessary expertise to solve problems we limit the experience, wisdom and insights that we draw on in finding solutions, thus hampering the innovation that the IWA Principles rightly identify as essential. We in fact become less expert by being ‘the expert’.

The second impact is on the all-important connections and relationships that integrated, systemic planning is built on. The more we imagine that we have things under control, the less we value the input of others. We might talk about working collaboratively, but if we feel that we are the experts why would we collaborate? From this mindset we constrain the collaboration and undermine the very relationships that ‘integration’ requires.

Collaborative water planning requires us to not know, because it is only from a position of not knowing can we authentically invite the rest of the system in to help us understand the problem and solve it together.

So, to be a true expert in integrated water planning, how to let go of the need to know is something you need to know.

Good luck.


Collaboration and a Doubtful Mind

I was reading a SMH article on the weekend about political backflips and how we might instead welcome changed minds  https://bit.ly/2whh65M,  and it reminded me of my recent blog about embracing self doubt.

My favourite TV interviewer is Leigh Sales - from ABC 7.30 report.

I like her even handed and probing way she questions in her interviews - no matter what side of politics is under scrutiny.

I recently came across a little book (On Doubt) she wrote in 2009 where she provides the background to her questioning that arises from possessing what she calls a doubtful mind - the desire to seek what is behind the certainty.

I was struck by her anecdote about Treasurer Wayne Swan in 2009, where he reportedly said "If you are experiencing self-doubt, it means you are aware of vulnerabilities and sometimes I think that might be a bit better than people who just assume confidence in everything they do, full steam ahead"

The nature of the collaborative process for tackling complexity is one of emergence - where the central tenant is "not knowing".

This nicely sums up the dilemma we see often, particularly with public sector clients, as they attempt collaborative processes to tackle some of the vexed and complex policy issues -  doubt equals weakness.

As Leigh states in her book - "A leader (especially a politician) who expresses doubt is seen as indecisive rather than capable of nuanced thought and self-reflection.  By contrast, certainty is considered a strength.  The leader who acts from unwavering confidence appears forceful and trustworthy".

So how to keep our leaders (and the participants) "safe" in a collaborative process, to be able to be vulnerable, listen and explore, when the natural tendency is to know the answer, or the question, or the direction?

I didn't get any real clues from Leigh in how to shift that tendency, but our experience is that it comes from practice, when the individual finds out that people often appreciate authenticity over bluster.

So maybe Leigh is on to something here....

Perhaps self-doubt is a key capability for effective collaboration.


The Project Manager Trap Part 2

I recently wrote about the Project Manager Trap, where the skills we seek in our project managers don’t match those needed to deliver on complex projects. Too often, it seems, our aspiration to work collaboratively outstrips our capability to think and act collaboratively.

In this post I’m continuing that conversation with a few more sample skills I’ve pulled from current job ads in the water sector. If you want to know more take a look at our Collaboration Builder program, which is specifically designed to build 'collaborative muscles'.

A current employer is seeking someone with:

  1. Strong knowledge of strategic and technical solutions for water and sewerage

In a business as usual world the manager with this characteristic would say:

“I draw on my knowledge to quickly diagnose and solve problems as they come up, or to recognise when the team has found the way forward.”

But in the complex world of integrated water planning or catchment management the successful manager will say:

“I resist the urge I and others feel to solve the problem, rather bringing the players together to explore how we each experience the dilemma we need to tackle together. I openly acknowledge that even with our collective knowledge we can’t be confident how to approach this problem nor where best to start.”

  1. Strong project management skills

Typically this means:

“I make sure all the boxes are ticked, that good practice is followed and that we have our ducks lined up to ensure smooth progress.”

Whereas in the complex world we might need to think differently:

“Instead of being ruled by the project plan I embrace the emergent practice that complexity requires. I use my project management skills to help others be comfortable in the face of uncertain process, timeframes and outcomes, knowing this is the key to success.”

  1. Ability to balance competing demands and priorities in a sensitive environment

Again, the employer is probably expecting someone who says:

I juggle the competing demands and navigate the sensitivities to ensure outcomes are delivered on time.”

When in reality the collaborative thinking required would be more like:

I share the complexities and sensitivities with all collaborators, acknowledge I don’t know how best to prioritise, and work with them to navigate the way forward together. I embrace trial and error, recognising that we can’t be certain how best to do this.”

The difference between a traditional project management approach and the collaborative mindset is significant. As we move more into a world of integration and working ‘with’ others, we need to be recognising this and ensuring our people have the mindset and capabilities they will need in order to deliver what we ask of them.


Making Every Drop Count

In March 2018 the UN HLPW published Every Drop Counts: An Agenda for Water Action. It makes a number of clear recommendations about the future of the water sector internationally. My question is, does the sector as a whole have the requisite mindset and capabilities to put those recommendations into practice.

In particular, does the sector have what it takes to successfully integrate planning across water systems?

Here’s why this question is on my mind: The report notes that water needs to be managed as a system – usually as a basin, sub-basin or aquifer - and that water system boundaries tend not to correlate with political or administrative boundaries. In this context it makes the recommendation that the industry “implement integrated approaches to water management at local, national and transboundary levels…”

Having spent much of the past several years supporting water planners to do just that I’m concerned that the drive to do more integrated water management is outpacing the capacity of organisations to build the appropriate skills in their workforce.

Water professionals are highly capable with enormous expertise. Yet this deep well of capability tends to be about the technical challenges of water management, such as the impact of nitrogen on water quality. This expertise is less helpful when tackling transboundary integrated water governance.

To meet the challenge posed by Making Every Drop Count, planners will face more complex questions such as:

  • How to build trust across different groups
  • How to shift from a solution to a problem orientation
  • How to make progress in the face of great uncertainty
  • How to learn with your stakeholders, rather than provide answers to them

These are tough things for experts to do, and not things they’ve learned at school.

In my experience, successful integration of water planning across boundaries requires individuals, teams and organisations to grapple with different questions, such as:

  • How do we deal with complex situations like this?
  • What gets in the way of working with ‘others’?
  • What is involved in thinking and acting differently, more collaboratively?
  • How do we need to think and act in order to ensure others really own the plan?
  • How can I lead when I don’t have the answers?

These questions, and others like them, look straightforward on the page, but having worked closely with water planners to support them to build their capability in these areas, I have learned not to underestimate the struggle involved. Business as usual emits a powerful force that continues to suck people back into old habits and existing comfort zones.

So, the need to integrate water planning at multiple levels is critical. Most water planners know this. It is now time for their organisations to recognise that success requires an additional suite of skills and a real investment in their people.

Only that way can we make every drop count.


The risk of your 'like' bubble

I am noticing more and more as I surf the web how my apps keep managing my feeds - identifying what I click, like, find, etc, and tailoring the results so I get more stuff that will probably appeal to me.

At a deep level I suspect it is quite satisfying and gratifying - making me feel good as I read more stories that I like.

But part of me feels that this isn’t really OK, that I might be at risk of being somewhat manipulated – even just that I’m at risk of missing the bigger picture and perhaps missing out.

So quite a dilemma - because if I opt out I might feel worse off!

It strikes me that I see the very same curating happening with our clients, as they work to collaborate on complex issues across boundaries.

This most often manifests in a discussion about stakeholders - it seems that they often unconsciously select those they like (are easy to get on with, probably agree with, or at least they think might be constructive), rather than those who might disagree, and hold diverse views  that might take the activity in new and potentially challenging (but perhaps more useful) directions

So how might we force ourselves out of our “like” bubble? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Invite those who the organisation is most likely to be nervous about
  • Sit with the person you like the least in the room
  • Pair up with the person you know is most likely to disagree with you
  • Find the wisdom in the view you are most opposed too
  • Share information with those who you think are most likely to misuse it/or use it against you

While such actions may go against the grain, they might just reduce the risk that we compromise the power of our collaboration by relying too much on our curated feed, and not opening our minds to the diversity that we know is a requisite for improved outcomes.

What is your experience? Is your collaboration in a 'Like' bubble?


Making a leadership choice

I’m just back from a fascinating 5 week exploration of Japan. During a train trip out of Kyoto I stopped briefly in the city of Gifu where, very close to the station, is a very handsome golden statue of a daimyo, or feudal lord, called Oda Nobunaga. Our guide that day explained that Nobunaga was one of three 16th century Japanese leaders who unified Japan. The other two were Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu whose Tokugawa family then ruled Japan until 1868.

Our guide described the leadership styles of these three unifying leaders in the following way:

  • If you disagreed with Oda Nobunaga he would kill you.
  • If you disagreed with Toyotomi Hideyoshi he would influence you through powerful argument.
  • If you disagreed with Ieyasu Tokugawa he would wait and work with you until you found common ground together.

This quick story resonated with me.  Three men with very different personal leadership styles all with a hand in unifying Japan. Together they achieved a very difficult task. Perhaps, individually, they wouldn’t have had the same longterm success.

When I returned to work this week, I found my colleague John Dengate, reading Adam Kahane’s book “Collaborating with the Enemy; how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust”.  In Chapter 2 called “Collaboration is not the only option” Kahane describes four ways of approaching problematic situations:

  • Exiting unilaterally (or getting out) if we don’t believe we can change the situation and we can’t live with the situation as it is.
  • Adapting unilaterally to the situation if we can’t change it and need to find ways to live with it.
  • Forcing (the Nobunaga or the Hideyoshi approach) if we believe we have the power to change the situation ourselves without involving others.
  • Collaborating (the Ieyasu Tokugawa approach) when we believe we can change the situation but can’t do it alone; we must work with others to get essential outcomes.

Each approach is legitimate (well, perhaps not the killing bit in the 21st century).  The three Japanese leaders adopted their own style of leadership for better or worse.  However today, when facing a challenge we can choose, after asking ourselves key questions. Can we change the situation? Can we adapt to it? Can we influence or force the necessary change ourselves? If so, we can walk away from the situation, adapt to it, or force our own desired outcome.

If we believe we can change the situation, but need to do this with rather than to others, then we need to ask ourselves how do we step into a collaborative process?

Centuries apart, the options are very similar. Interesting isn’t it?


The Project Manager Trap

One of the most common things I see companies doing is asking their project managers, who are experienced and competent in one way of working, to lead complex, collaborative projects that require a very different approach. The outcome is stress and slow progress and a slide back to business as usual. It's a real trap.

I wonder if it is time to think differently about how and who we are recruiting and what we need to do to support them once they are in. To explore this question I’ve been looking at job ads for project managers in the water industry to see what skills they require of their candidates. Here are three, pulled verbatim off current job ads:

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;
  2. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;
  3. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

These are from the water sector, but job ads from many other sectors would look very similar. When working on well-defined, technical projects with clear objectives and limited scope, you want a manager to demonstrate these attributes in a traditional way. So if you want someone to build a pipe from A to B, all is well.

But many of my clients find themselves facing situations that aren’t so straightforward. For example, what if we need to work across a whole catchment to co-create a strategy for improving water quality? Applied, traditionally these very skills and attributes get in the way of progress.

To illustrate, let’s take each of them one by one.

  1. Strong, broad knowledge of the water and wastewater industry;

When applied to a traditional project management situation with a complicated technical project this attribute might look like:

I draw on my experience to understand the problems we are facing and identify the best technical expertise we will need to solve the problem. I get the right people in the room.

But applied in a complex collaborative project this attribute should look something more like:

I acknowledge that I don’t know what the problem is nor how it should be solved. I recognise the knowledge and experience others hold and value it just as much as my own. I value lived (non-technical) knowledge. I tap into the experience of those from outside the industry, recognising that diversity brings innovation. I don’t know who the ‘right’ people are.

See the difference? What about the second one:

  1. A proven track record in delivering on time and to budget;

Again, applied in a complicated, technical context this might look like:

I focus on the Gantt chart and critical path. Getting the job done on time drives my actions so I manage things closely to ensure milestones are met.

On a complex project this would look something like:

I constantly share the challenge of time and budget with my collaborators and look to them to find ways to move ahead efficiently together. I continually invest time in relationships and building trust, knowing that we deliver faster when we are more able to work together.

And thirdly:

  1. Advanced level of experience with risk analysis, mitigation and contingency planning.

Traditionally applied: I use my skills to minimise risk through careful planning and implementation. Nothing happens without my say-so.

Yet we may need something more like: I recognise the risks inherent in this situation and apply a safe-to-fail approach to making progress, learning from ‘failure’ as much as from success. I reframe risk as inevitable uncertainty and build the confidence of my collaborators to work within this paradigm.

Looking over these three examples it is clear to me that our management skills can be applied in very different ways and are likely to have very different outcomes. If you are employing a project manager to lead a complicated technical task then go for someone who will take the traditional approach. But if you are seeking someone to lead a more collaborative approach in the face of greater complexity, you will need someone who thinks and acts quite differently. You will probably also need to redesign your performance management and reward system as well so that their different thinking is supported rather than stymied.

So which type of project manager do you need and have you trapped them or will you support them to work differently?


Struggling to Collaborate

One day a man was walking in the deep forest and he came upon a twig in the path. When he picked it up he saw that there was a cocoon hanging from it.

 He took it home, put the cocoon into a glass jar and placed it on the kitchen shelf. He watched it carefully for some time and one day saw the cocoon move ever so slightly. He was very anxious to see the unknown butterfly, so he watched it  for several hours as it struggled inside its cocoon. Eventually he made a slit in the side of the cocoon and a beautiful, brilliant blue wing popped out. Then the butterfly emerged and crawled along the edge of the table slowly flapping its wings.

 After several hours, it was still crawling around so he realised that something wasn't right.

The next door neighbour was a biology teacher so went and told his story.

 "Ah" said the teacher, "I know what the problem is. You see, it's in the process of struggling to get out of the cocoon that the butterfly gains the strength to fly."

 

I was reminded of this story recently when reflecting on some recent client work in Queensland – in particular as a group workshopped a collaborative approach in tackling a complex issue.

A couple of the senior staff expressed concern about the impact on their team members - they seemed very keen to protect their staff from some of the confronting revelations that the group were exploring together.

I had seen similar patterns play out in a number of interactions - a desire as a leader to:

  • keep their people safe,
  • to help them through the difficult patch,
  • to smooth out the speed humps,
  • to control the situation,
  • to reduce the tension,
  • to minimise the conflict,
  • to manage the dynamics,

While no doubt well intentioned, the risk is that in shielding staff from uncomfortable situations, we may block key insights and unknowingly prevent the uncomfortable practice that leads to new thinking and skills.

Like the butterfly, people need to struggle a bit to exercise their new “muscles” needed to tackle the uncertain and emergent environments.


Got solution-itis? You may need to visit the dilemma doctor

In my travels I see a number of common ailments including:

  • Duck flu - recognisable by the persistent need to 'get our ducks in a row before talking to our stakeholders', when logic tells you that early engagement would be most useful.
  • The Screaming DADs - an affliction common in government, recognisable by the compulsion to Decide, Announce and Defend, while promising people they will be consulted.
  • Influenca - a nasty affliction recognisable by an irrational fear of allowing collaborators any influence over 'my project'.

The ailment I've seen most recently though is Solution-itis, a surprisingly debilitating condition.  You know you are suffering from solution-itis because you have many, sometimes dozens, of solutions but you don't all agree on what the problem is.

Solution-itis: A Patient History

My client in government has taken on the task of solving a complex and long-standing problem relating to how water is managed.  For years - even decades - attempts have been made to tackle the situation. Agencies, industries and communities have the resolve to fix it.  The funding is there.  Yet all attempts to date have been unsuccessful.  Why so?

In talking to my client it quickly became clear that we were dealing with solution-itis.  That is, every stakeholder, for many years, had been advocating for their preferred solution to the problem as they see it. My client found herself bombarded with an array of uncertain solutions to unknown problems that she simply couldn't work with.  She became almost overwhelmed with the task of doing something with all these proposals and, ultimately, began to doubt her managerial ability because progress felt impossible.

Solution-itis at its worst.

The cure is at hand

So what's the cure?  Simple really.  My client and her many stakeholders have since been to see the dilemma doctor.  In a couple of workshops they gained the confidence to stop talking about solutions and to focus instead on understanding together what the problem is - what is the dilemma that they collectively need to resolve in order to be able to find a lasting solution?

After a short course of co-defining the dilemma all stakeholders now understand it and have plotted out how they will collaborate in coming months to co-create the solution.  The solution-itis has cleared up and the prospects are good.  Importantly, all participants recognise that they did this work themselves; that they didn't really need the 'expert doctor' after all.  That's very confidence-boosting.

If you are facing a complex problem be on your guard for solutions-itis.  It is an uncomfortable affliction and at its worst can be debilitating.  The good news is that a trip to the dilemma doctor is certain to put you back on the road to solution.

Next patient please....


The Secret to Doing Strategy Collaboratively

Many clients come to me saying “we want to create this strategy and we want to do it collaboratively so that everyone owns the actions and everyone will be committed to implementation”.

It’s a great aspiration, because we know the alternative tends to be another orphaned strategy gathering dust on a shelf, beside its orphaned sister strategies.

But having watched clients grapple with the task, I have learned more about the challenges of creating a strategy that everyone owns.  I have also drawn some conclusions about what works, so here is my key insight into creating a strategy together.

Focus on the how rather than the what

A typical strategy would comprise, among other things, a list of agreed actions, projects or deliverables.  For example, in catchment planning those actions could be about naturalising storm drains, fencing waterways, limiting fertiliser use, etc.  In other words, there is lots of detail about what we will do under this strategy, what actions are to be done by whom and by when.

But isn’t that exactly what those orphaned strategies are full of?  The problem isn’t a lack of actions, it’s a lack of ACTION.

I see all my clients struggling with this.  Everyone wants to focus on solutions, which at face value makes a lot of sense.  After all, ‘fixing the river’ is what we all care about isn’t it?  But in focussing on the solutions it is so easy to ignore the single most important element of any collaborative strategy, which is how are we going to work together differently to create an agreed way forward and to implement actions we identify?  By focussing on the what, we ignore the how, and condemn our brilliant strategy to the orphanage.

What does the how look like?

There is no single right way to do this, but here are some questions that a meaningful collaborative strategy might address:

  • How can we be most creative together?
  • How can we ensure our diversity is a strength rather than a weakness?
  • How do we manage the power differential between us?
  • How do we build consensus around ideas?
  • How do we work together given our different priorities, even different world views?
  • How can we acknowledge and deliver what our constituents need, while creating something new together?
  • How do we make decisions together?
  • To what extent are we comfortable with experimentation and uncertainty?

You get the picture.  These are How questions that will form the basis of a very different conversation and a very different strategy.  Note, we aren’t asking how we will work together today, we are asking how we will work together for the foreseeable future as we collaborate to improve the catchment.

When co-creating strategy it is the conversation that is important, listening to each other, struggling with the how question together, building relationships that will build our commitment to each other and to a shared goal.

A collaborative strategy lays out a process, relationships and governance that all are committed to by which you will together identify problems and solve them as you go.  Remember, it is how, not what that matters.