Top Tips for Managing Complex Water systems

Managing water presents us with multiple complex challenges, such as integrated water management, reducing demand, managing catchments, solving water quality problems in urban or agricultural catchments, to name a few. These problems all tend to be problems of systems – the universe of people, politics, biology, chemistry, the climate etc. – that act on and interact with each other and the water cycle.

Because of all these interactions, systems are complex beasts, where any action is likely to have unpredictable outcomes. Solving them requires a special approach, so I thought I’d share three things I’m learning about how to make progress with complex systems.

1. Keep your options open

There are many possible ways forward in any complex system and long-term success may emerge from any place, or combination of places. Because we aren’t sure which actions will contribute to success it is important not to limit the options available to us. The moment we choose ‘the answer’ we necessarily turn our backs on all those other possibilities that just may hold the key to even better outcomes.

So, keep your options open. Test, explore and learn about your system as you move forward. Stay open to other possibilities as long as you can because you never know where that next step forward will come from.

2. Learn, don’t solve

Complex systems are ever-changing. Just think of the evolving pressures and possibilities impacting on an urban waterway over the past 100 years. The changing nature of a complex problem means there is no such thing as ‘the solution’. Rather, complexity requires an ongoing dialogue between emerging challenges and emerging responses.

So, reduce the focus on ‘solving the problem’ and think instead in terms of continuously learning how this system works and what new responses are now possible. Try things and learn some more.

3. Get the system in the room

Systemic dilemmas require systemic responses. No single factor or influence is capable of ‘fixing this’ alone. But how to ensure systemic responses? It is important to get ‘the system’ in the room. In other words, find ways to get the full diversity of actors, agents, influences and influencers together to learn, think and innovate. If great ideas can come from anywhere, we have to be talking together, everywhere.

So, get the system into the room and into the creative conversation. As you do so, keep your options open and seek success by learning and responding, rather than solving. Who knew complexity could be so simple?


When the Problem is the Problem

Recently I’ve been observing a government agency charged with improving the environmental outcomes of a waterway that flows through an agricultural district. The agency is filled with technical experts who have the job of writing ‘The Plan’, the aim of which is to ensure sufficient environmental flows.

In this context, the task for the Agency was defined in terms of how much water do we need to get back into the river system in order to ensure lasting environmental outcomes?

That definition of ‘the problem’ makes sense, but might other key stakeholders see the problem differently?

If I am an irrigator whose livelihood and lifestyle is based on extraction of water, how might I see this framing of the problem? If I’m the Mayor of a local agricultural community what might I fear? It is clear that the problem is at real risk of being interpreted by water users as “how much water will the government take from me, my farm and my community?”

That’s a pretty scary question to ponder and, and not one likely to inspire positive collaboration.

This experience illustrates how the framing of the problem can be the problem. What to do? Imagine if the water planning problem was defined as more of a dilemma: How do we ensure a healthy river supporting a thriving agricultural sector and vibrant regional communities? Now that’s a different problem, and one which invites people in rather than scares them away. And imagine if all stakeholders came together to create this definition of the dilemma that they all share. That is how to build commitment to work together.

Co-defining dilemmas can be a very powerful part of any attempt to tackle complex water management challenges. By doing this together you can ensure that your problem doesn’t become the problem. If you want to know more about where that task sits in the overall collaborative journey, you might take a look at our collaborative pathway here.


A Crazy Question for Water Managers

Here is a crazy question. In order to better manage our catchments should we ban all conversation about water?

Why would we do that? Because it is just possible that our focus on managing water is getting in the way of doing what it takes to improve water outcomes in our catchments.

My inspiration for this crazy idea comes from a long-term client, who is a manager in the public sector, responsible for regional water-quality improvements in wetlands, rivers and ecosystems. She said to me recently:

“I have always said that managing water is about managing people and managing relationships”.

By this logic, to manage the water in a system we must manage the people in that system. Yet when I watch my clients grapple with issues such as catchment planning, most of the conversation is about how we use water. Maybe that’s part of the problem?

What if, instead of talking about nutrients, pollution, entitlements, regulations, soil and so-on, we talked about communication, relationships, learning, sharing, understanding other perspectives, challenging assumptions, our fears, hopes and dreams? What if we talked about how we experience each other as neighbours, competitors for resources, fellow-users? What if we focussed on how we can best collaborate to learn and experiment together?

What if we didn’t talk about water at all, but instead talked about us, the people of the catchment? Would that make a difference to the outcomes we achieve?


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....


Collaboration must be a choice

I have been experiencing some challenging client sessions where there was some resistance to learning a collaborative approach, as people couldn’t see it was appropriate for their circumstances.

Over Easter I had time while camping in the Wollemi National Park, to read a very interesting book - “Collaborating with the Enemy” by Adam Kahane.

Kahane suggests there are four choices in problematic situations-

  • Exiting - when we can’t change the situation, and can’t bear it
  • Adapting - when we can’t change it but need to live with it
  • Forcing - when we can change the situation and we can do so by ourselves
  • Collaborating - when we can change the situation but need the help of others to do so

I was chewing on this in the very crowded campsite and realized I had experienced some of these choices in operation

  • Most of us were adapting - we couldn’t change our fellow campers but we didn’t want to exit this beautiful spot, so we put up with it - the baby screaming right next door, the two campers who almost sat on us to get some shade…..
  • However the guy next door certainly took unilateral action when he told the students next door to turn their loud music off and get to bed at 10.30 - and he forced the result very successfully!
  • I did speculate that if he had been dealing with one of the other more experienced and organized family groups, then the only way to deal with serious problematic behaviour would have been through building a relationship and finding a solution multilaterally - he would have probably come unstuck trying to force an outcome

The other key point that Kahane makes is that both forcing and collaborating may be appropriate and effective at different times during a complex engagement, and one will only know after the event as to what worked when.

It has made me more sensitive to the choices that clients face when considering collaboration in complex situations - and allowing them time to consider and test what approach may suit them and the situation best.


Project management versus collaboration - choosing your approach

When I’m asked “Why won’t our familiar project management approach work for this tricky project? Why should we try something that feels uncomfortable and different?” my response is along the following lines …

The project management approach

Project management is extremely useful when:

  • There is agreement on the scope of the problem …
  • Milestones and deliverables are clear and agreed …
  • This kind of problem has been solved before …
  • The appropriate expertise exists and is accessible …
  • There is certainty about what needs to be done …
  • The road ahead is clear even if at times the terrain may be bumpy …
  • The solution will be obvious when achieved.

Even if things don’t go quite according to the prepared plan, an effective project manager/team leader will get things back on track and back ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’.

And once we’ve solved this problem, we can solve another one like it using the same thinking and repeating the same project management techniques.

The collaborative approach

In contrast, the collaborative approach is most useful when:

  • The scope is hazy and everyone sees it differently …
  • No-one agrees when, where or how to start …
  • No-one has solved a problem like this before although many are working on bits of it …
  • Nobody has all the expertise, but everyone has some …
  • Existing knowledge is insufficient; new ideas and new thinking are needed …
  • The way ahead is uncertain; the diversity of views and our natural urge to return to certainty cause conflict …
  • The endpoint may never be reached; it keeps changing with new learning.

Choosing your approach

Working in complexity requires a collaborative approach and a collaborative mindset. It can be very hard for acknowledged experts to admit to not knowing, and for leaders to say they don’t have a solution and need help to find one. To make collaboration work, teams and organisations need particular skills that, in our experience, cannot be learned in a classroom. These skills include:

  • A collaborative mindset or way of thinking (CQ) ..
  • An understanding of the ‘why’ of collaboration ..
  • A practical framework or pathway to follow ..
  • An ability to work in uncertainty, to take risks, to test boundaries ..
  • An ability to experiment, learn new things by trying and sometimes getting it wrong ..
  • Advocacy and enquiry, listening and strategic questioning ..
  • Confidence in collaborative processes and an ability to adapt behaviours to help groups ‘hold the collaborative frame’ and build trust and positive relationships, rather than become divided by differences of opinion, argument or actual conflict.

In our experience, teams and organisations are starting to understand complexity and the collaborative approach needed to tackle it. They accept that the relevant mindsets and skills can only be learned through doing the work and looking over the collaborative parapet to see a new way forward.


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.


What to do when you don’t know what to do

One thing is certain … collaboration will take you into uncertainty. You start on the collaborative journey full of enthusiasm and energy. “This is exciting,” you say to yourself and your new colleagues on the collaborative journey. “We can learn to work together and we can achieve things that none of us could have achieved on our own! Let’s get started!”

But someplace and sometime on the collaborative journey, the group or individuals within it will say “I don’t know what to do next!”

Sometimes this happens because the way forward, which looked like a clear road ahead in the collaboration guidebook, becomes narrower and full of thorny disagreements. People who seemed initially very committed to working together seem to argue over small things. There are differences of opinion that seem irreconcilable. Meetings descend into arguments about personal opinions rather than opportunities to share and explore diverse perspectives.

Here are a few thoughts about how to move forward when you and your group just don’t know what to do next on the collaborative journey.

A road map or a set of handrails can help

It doesn’t matter what map or model of collaboration you’ve chosen, when things get tough ask questions. What does the model suggest as a next step? Where might the group need to backtrack? What principles of collaboration, if applied in this situation, might overcome a roadblock? What questions or activities might take the group out of their messy arguments into a space of shared exploration.

Share your concerns about what to do next and find a solution ‘with’ your collaborators

When you’re not sure what to do next, ask the group for suggestions. Let go of your need to manage, and be willing to say “I don’t know, I need your help.” Invite conversations in pairs or small groups, encourage suggestions and thinking together. Explore the assumptions collaborators have about each other and the problem they need to tackle. Document the outcomes of the conversations. Use the data to make decisions together. Collaboration requires practice – so keep practicing.

Try something active

Next time you meet, try an investigative activity. Ask your group what would be helpful for them right now. Would a walkabout or a site visit create a shared experience to build positive relationships? Perhaps exploring new and unfamiliar spaces would make it easier for people to express their vulnerabilities and learn from others. Perhaps being physically active would stimulate their ability to think and act together. Ask whether meeting in a different space might change the dynamics and help you all to move forward.

Test a hypothesis

Run a small but do-able experiment to help the group focus on something practical and provide a sense of achievement and learning. For example, establish your hypothesis that, if your collaborative group could design and run its own meeting instead of ceding responsibility to a facilitator, it would learn something useful about collaboration. Then run the experiment and check whether the hypothesis is correct. Check that what the group is learning through its experiments is moving it in the direction it needs to go.

Look for articles and books, conferences and speakers

Research what other people have done in similar situations of not knowing what to do. Ask whether anyone in the group has read a book or article about collaboration or been to a conference or event where someone gave useful advice? Ask for a 2-minute summary of what they learned and ask the group what suggestions arise.

Just do something concrete – something practical rather than theoretical

Sometimes it helps to ask your group to do something meaningful from which they learn together. Identify a right-sized but real-world problem, associated with the collaboration, that moves the group closer to its ultimate goal. Work out a way to solve it together. Have at least one member of the group watch the process used to solve it and have them report back on what was done and how the group worked together. Learning through doing is powerful and builds trust.

Accept the consequences of whatever the group has done.

Try any of these suggestions and own whatever results you get. Learn from them and move on. Don’t be burdened by regret or a sense of making the wrong choice. There is no wrong choice. Fail forward. Learn from every experience including mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

When you don’t know what to do … try something!