A Dangerous Idea- Love your Enemy!

I watched a TV news item recently where Govt bureaucrats were engaging with farmers on the Darling River about water allocation. It looked a bit confrontational and unsatisfactory, with several seemingly intractable positions.

I was reminded of this yesterday at the Festival of Dangerous ideas, in Megan Phelp's-Roper's conversation ("Love your Enemy") about how kindness and conversation had a transformational impact on her life.

I was struck by her comment on the really dangerous ideas in our civil discourse- things like blinding certainty and dogma, and wondered how useful her insights might be in the challenges of attempting collaborative conversations with "difficult people" around some of the major water challenges like the Murray Darling Basin.

Briefly Megan's story focuses on how she shifted from an entrenched religious position to leaving her church and now advocating for change in how people engage- from zealotry to an anti extremism educator- see her TED talk here https://bit.ly/2SLVeH9

 While I'm not advocating that we need such extreme conversion in the situations facing water planners, it did seem that a lot of the same elements Megan faced are evident in our conversations internally and externally as we face difficult and complex situations, particularly when positions are a bit entrenched:

  • knowing and certainty
  • being right
  • telling not asking
  • fear of others views
  • one view
  • blaming others

and seemed to me that some of what Megan experienced in her transformation can give us great clues about different ways of behaving when we face those "difficult" people:

  • learn my story, understand theirs
  • listening is not agreeing
  • assume good intent
  • disagree without demonising
  • show empathy and kindness
  • be generous and show gratitude
  • it's OK to take in new ideas and maybe change your mind

In the twitter conversations that helped shift Megan, she noticed others using four small but powerful steps that made real conversation possible:

  • don't assume bad intent- they believe it
  • ask questions- hear them
  • be patient- pause, breath, then come back later
  • make the argument- if we want change, we must make the case for it

Perhaps a bit of love is not such a dangerous idea.


Wine, Castles and Complexity

I’ve just returned from a few weeks’ leave in Europe, including the beautiful Alsace region of France. And while I thought I was driving the route de vin for fun, it turns out I was learning something about complexity too.

The Alsace has long been a strategic cross-roads and has been claimed by both Germany and France at different times. It is a famous wine growing area, with the foothills of the Vosges Mountains draped in vines around beautiful, ancient towns.

High above the vines sit many famous castles and forts, built to safeguard the townships and trade routes below. And this is the thing that has been on my mind. While the townships continue to thrive, the castles high above are for the most part in ruins. And I can’t help but see this fact through the lens of complexity.

Here is my naïve and un-testable hypothesis. Towns arise more-or-less organically as people find ways to make life work together in a complex world. As times change lifestyles change too in an endless process of reinvention and emergence. Nobody is in charge and everyone is a decision-maker in their own small ways.

Consequently, the towns are still here and look likely to be here for another 1000 years.

But what of the castles? Unlike townships, castles don’t arise organically. They are planned, designed and built as a specific solution to a specific problem. They work while they work, but because castles exist in a complex World, that clever, fixed solution inevitably becomes a problem in its own right. Eventually, the castle is abandoned and the world moves on.

So to my questions from the Route de Vins: are towns a good example of how to make progress in the face of complexity? And do castles represent the risks of treating a complex problem as though we can solve it with a single ‘smart’ solution? One survives while the other is in ruins. Which brings me to my final question: In your organisation, are you building a castle because you ‘know’ the problem and ‘know’ the answer, or are you encouraging a town to emerge because you realise that emergence and constant innovation is essential?

I recommend the Alsace for further research….


Two things that collaboration is NOT

As I listen to people learning to collaborate, some of their difficulties seem to emerge from their ideas about what collaboration is and how and when it is used.  I heard two people recently experience ‘light bulb moments’. One suddenly realised that working collaboratively to tackle a complex problem is qualitatively different from project management. Another realised that working collaboratively is not the same as negotiating to get the best terms in a zero sum game.  These light bulb moments seemed worth exploring further.

Project management

Project management is described as the practice of initiating, planning, executing, co-ordinating and controlling the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at a specified time.

It is a highly efficient practice when bringing together a team who, between them, have all the knowledge and skill necessary to achieve project goals within the time frame.

It is NOT effective when the problem to be solved is complex and there is little agreement about the scope or focus of the problem, or any shared understanding of how to work together. In complex situations many people know something about the problem but no-one knows everything, while the way forward is uncertain and the outcome unknowable at the start. This uncertainty requires both collaborative leadership and collaborative skill, including the ability to say “I don’t know”, to demonstrate vulnerability, to work with uncertainty and to be willing to experiment, trying new ways of working and constantly checking together on what the team is learning together.

These are different ways of thinking and behaving from those needed by a project manager.

Negotiation

Negotiation is described as a bargaining process between two or more parties, each with its own aims, needs and perspectives, who seek to reach an agreement or resolve a conflict.

Negotiating is useful at times of conflict, when the aims of parties have been established and are in direct opposition.  When negotiating people believe if they are to get what they want, the other party has to give up some part of what they want.  So the focus of a negotiation is about trade-offs ... what each party is prepared to give up in order to get something they want. Hence a good negotiation for one party often means a bad one for the other and can lead to resentment and damaged relationships.  The intent of a negotiation is about getting the best for ME.

Negotiation is NOT effective in building the essential relationships that support complex problem solving. People tackling a complex problem need to understand and respect each other’s perspectives, define the dilemma together and recognise that it is something they cannot solve alone. Learning about the whole system in which the complex dilemma is a part is also important. A different set of skills is required which includes curiosity, questioning, listening and reflecting.  Collaboration is about finding solutions that are best for US and the whole system affected by the dilemma.

This requires different ways of thinking and behaving from those of good negotiators.

I’m going to think about the other things that collaboration is NOT, so perhaps it becomes clearer what it IS.


What's So Hard About Water?

I recently attended the Local Government NSW Water Management Conference 2018, in the beautiful city of Armidale. As always, presenters provided plenty of food for thought and on the long drive back home one big question kept arising: What is so hard about water?

The water sector is filled with really smart people who between them could resolve just about any technical issue. Yet presenter after presenter talked about the struggles and challenges that confront the sector. If we are so clever, what makes water so hard?

Of course, we know that the hard thing about water is not the technical but the human elements. Some comments and observations from the conference include:

  • “Water reform will always be parochial. The battle is to get people to take a Basin-wide view”.
  • The different ideologies on display around privatisation. Some believe it’s part of the answer. Some feel it is part of the problem.
  • Different attitudes to specific projects, along political lines.
  • The need to improve regulation to ensure compliance and prevent ‘backsliding’ to old behaviours.
  • Recommendations from various reports about the role of collaboration in a more efficient water sector.
  • The ongoing need for governance reform.
  • “To appreciate water we first have to appreciate us”.

These are people challenges. To resolve they require very sophisticated people skills such as curiosity about others’ positions, listening, inquiry, non-defensiveness, vulnerability, co-creation and collaboration, to name a few.

The water sector is rich in expertise, yet to successfully tackle the dilemmas we face together, it is essential we build our ‘collaborative muscles’. It is one thing to talk about the need for collaboration. What is needed now is to invest in building the necessary skills so that together we can tackle and resolve the challenges we face together.

Find out how Twyfords approaches the task of building ‘collaborative muscles’ in the water sector using Collaboration Builder. If you have questions please get in touch.


Where Has All The Certainty Gone?

On Thursday 16th I attended the AWA NSW State Conference and came away with this one question: Where did all the certainty go? Every presentation I went to had something to say about change, about stepping “into the grey”, about “risk on risk” or “unknown unknowns”. I arrived at the conference knowing that managing water is complex. I departed with a new respect for just what that complexity looks like. Here are some of my highlights from the day, with a focus on the increasing uncertainty of the future of water. They represent my recollection and interpretations, so please don’t take them as a gospel version of what was said.

Jim Bentley, MD of Hunter Water, in his keynote spoke about the need to shift the culture from compliance to something new and emergent. In the face of disruption HW is seeking to play a positive role in the life and growth of the region. This means working with others across the region, understanding what they need and stepping together from the certainty of pipes and pumps “into the grey” of learning with stakeholders. Just what that looks like, time will tell. And how we do it? Watch this space.

Dan Berry of Water NSW described how the organisation grapples with the uncertainties inherent in managing bulk water and the system around that, particularly through drought. Just when things seem under control an external circumstance, such as the rapid growth of mining in the Hunter, increases regional demand and throws up new challenges. The world’s economy isn’t getting any more predictable, and neither is the climate, so Water NSW can expect the unexpected as a matter of course.

University of Newcastle academic Anthony Kiem took uncertainty to another level, presenting his analysis of paleo-climate data. Anthony suggests that the ‘normal’ climate is in fact more variable than our 100 years of measurement might indicate. The 1000-year record includes decades-long droughts and epochs of great rains. What would a 40-yr drought do for water supply today and how do our planners incorporate that scale of possibility into the system? Add the global warming overlay and the uncertainty ramps up more.

I watched Anthony’s presentation sitting beside Peter Miller of NSW Treasury. I couldn’t help but wonder what planning for this level of climate uncertainty may mean for the State and national budgets, and for all of us as taxpayers.

Emma Berry of Hunter Water presented on their Water Resilience program, building on Jim’s morning talk. Emma tells us that resilience is a function of adaptive capability and robustness: R = f(r,A). This applies not just to HW but to the whole community, so the question is, how does a water company work differently with the community to maximise collective resilience? HW are trying lots of great ideas, but clearly there is little about it that is certain and the ways forward must emerge in the face of this complex set of challenges.

After lunch it was all about potable reuse, which we all know is where certainty goes to die. Ian Law from IBL Solutions, Wayne Beatty from Orange Council and David Sheehan from Coliban Water each gave terrific presentations on their particular experiences. I was struck by the sense that the technology is pretty good at dealing with microbial contaminants but perhaps less so with chemicals. I hadn’t realised the complexity of that problem, which must make it more challenging when talking to the community about safety. Ian provided a great overview of what is possible. Wayne showed us how Orange City have made it happen while David highlighted the importance of that small intersecting space between regulation, technology and community education. Uncertainty in each of those circles multiplies the uncertainty of the whole. Yet if drought is becoming more common, companies and communities must learn to grapple successfully with these issues.

The panel in the afternoon discussed the challenges of managing risk and – you guessed it – uncertainty. Andrew Francis of Centroc, Dr Nicola Nelson of Sydney Water, Karen Campisano of WSAA, Andrew Graddon of Newcastle Uni and Darren Cleary of Hunter Water talked about “risk on risk”; that is, risks that add to or multiply other risks. Across the sector uncertainties come in all shapes and sizes. In the West a great challenge is finding the workers. Another is ongoing structural reform in local government, meaning the picture is more complex than ever. Technological disruption is rampant. Community expectations change by the minute. For example, in several jurisdictions there is a push on to allow access to water storages for recreational use.

Panelists agreed that the need to collaborate was more important than ever. Partnering with stakeholders, communities and other utilities to find new ways to respond to emerging challenges seems to be the way of the future.

That was about as far as I got in the day; a day full of insights and information. But there is no doubt that the one word ringing in my head as I drove home was ‘uncertainty’. Where has all the certainty gone, and more importantly, how does the water sector build the skill sets and mind sets that are required to function effectively in the grey of complexity? Perhaps that’s a discussion for the next conference.


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?


What Can The Fonze Teach Us About Managing Water?

I grew up watching the American Sitcom Happy Days, which followed the adventures of Richie Cunningham and friends, including the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold character Arthur Fonzarelli – the “Fonze”.

You remember the Fonze, don’t you? He could out-fight and out-cool any opponent. But there was one thing he struggled to do and that was to say “sorry”. Remember that episode where he had to apologise for something and struggled to get the words out? “I’m ssszzzz….I’m suuzzzzzz…. I’m SORRY!”

I’ve realised that most of us suffer a similar problem and the more expert we are the more we suffer. But it isn’t ‘sorry’ we struggle with, it is something even more difficult to say.

“I dddddnnnn….I dddoonnnnnnn….. I dnnnnnttt… I don’t know!”

Phew.

I have been working with lots of scientists and planners in the water sector over the past couple of years and it has become quite apparent that the sector as a whole has a problem with those three little words. Water experts are under pressure to be just that – experts - and for most of us that means knowing our work.

Of course it is important and sensible that water experts know a lot about water, but the need to know and to be seen to know is not always helpful. As we tackle more and more complex issues such as catchment management, water quality regulation, decisions around direct potable re-use, our habit of ‘knowing’ can become a barrier to success.

The reality of course is that in the face of complex issues, we don’t and can’t know. When facing something new at work, we don’t and can’t know. When struggling to collaborate on difficult questions, we don’t and can’t know. And the beautiful thing about saying "I don’t know" is that when we admit that – to ourselves first and then to others – we make space for those others to work with us to find the answers that none of us could have found alone.

So let’s go easy on ourselves, recognise the limits to our knowledge and make it ok for ourselves and our peers to say “I don’t know”. In many situations, to acknowledge that we don’t have the answer is the best strategy, or as the Fonze would say; “correctamundo”!


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.


3 Waters and a Question of Trust

I was talking with a client recently who is tackling a tricky waste water infrastructure issue and I asked what had helped get progress in the face of some seemingly intractable issues between the regulator and the utility.

The client replied that the lack of trust between the two organisations set an undertone that put them on different pages and made it virtually impossible to work together. It was only by addressing trust first - taking the time to build the relationships and being able to have real conversations together - that they now trust what each brings to the table, and are able to work constructively on the challenges.

I was musing on this in relation to a recent media report on the current NZ government initiatives to tackle the country’s 3 waters infrastructure challenges. One risk is that the obvious urgency for a solution may drive a structural and/or regulatory response rather than working with the whole system to develop the best solution.

A high degree of trust will be necessary to allow a frank and honest discussion on what may be the appropriate solutions, especially given the complexity of the situation and the many players involved - 68 territorial authorities, existing water utilities, regulators and central government.

This is the type of complex multifaceted issue that does not suit a unilateral solution - be it regulation, structure or whatever – and it will take the combined talents of those impacted to find a multilateral answer or answers. Taking it slow is quite appropriate, and a solid investment in the trust bank by all players will be an essential ingredient for success.


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?