The Light on the Hill - a direction not a destination

The concept of the ‘Light on the Hill’ is useful for teams applying a collaborative approach (and Twyfords Power of Co framework) to a complex dilemma.

I’ve written a number of blogs about the difference between a project management approach and a collaborative approach.

Project management is both efficient and effective in situations where both the present and the future are known; when a team has a job to do such as developing a strategy, achieving a specific goal or implementing a plan. The project manager’s job is to:

  • ensure that each member of the team knows their part in the work to be done
  • support them as they do their part,
  • monitor them until the desired and clearly defined endpoint is reached,
  • evaluate and celebrate success.

However, when the problem is “wicked” or complex, often members of the team have different perspectives on it and “butt heads” as they argue over potential solutions to a very unclear problem or situation. The only thing that the team is likely to agree on is that none of them can successfully tackle the problem alone, they need to tackle it together.

Here’s an example of how seeking a “Light on the Hill” helped a group of stakeholders tackle a complex problem more effectively.

A client had been tasked with creating a Plan of Management for a city waterway. She was aware that over the past few decades while many such plans had been created the waterway continued to decline in water quality and amenity. Many people who cared about the waterway were unhappy and wanted change. She believed that another Plan of Management wouldn’t help. She wanted to engage with people who had energy for change; people within government, non-government and communities. She wanted them to create the change.  She brought together 60 stakeholder organisations and asked for their help. Stakeholders who were willing and committed spent time (several meetings) defining the dilemma they faced because of many uncertainties, ambiguities and doubts about what was possible or what would help. They explored the problem from all perspectives and what, collectively, they wanted to achieve. They settled on their desire to create “an iconic waterway for their city” ... their ‘Light on the Hill’. This was a shared aspiration but it was not the solution.

It became the simple idea against which the group could measure the success of any activity they tried.  It was not a solution to the problems of the waterway. It was a direction for the group to head for. The group developed a range of activities they could try. Each activity aimed to move them in the desired direction towards the ‘light on the hill’.  If it did, they could keep doing it. If it didn’t, they could stop doing it and try something else.

When facing complexity nothing is certain. So much is ambiguous, even unknown. The knowledge doesn’t exist so the team has to act to learn. The success of any action can be measured in relation to whether it takes them closer to their ‘light on the hill’. Every action provides new knowledge and this encourages them to keep working together.

This group continues to work on their project, learning from every activity and using their ‘Light on the Hill” to guide them as they go.


When being clear may instead dull the light on the hill

I was thinking about the value of a "light on the hill" to guide a complex project, and it reminded me of a great story a colleague told me about her project and the value of keeping it a bit "fuzzy".

She had a complex issue around evaluating a major environmental plan, and the group found some challenges when trying to set the direction. Given their interest in evaluation, they found themselves naturally gravitating towards seeing success as something like 'a set of measures or KPI's'.

However they were following a collaborative guideline at the time that asked them how they would know they had succeeded, and so they took some time to re-consider what they were aiming for.

After some discussion and consideration, they agreed on a set of success factors that were quite broad eg good environmental outcomes, confidence that the actions were delivering, etc, but still provided sufficient guidance to know they were on the right track (which is all you can really do when faced with complexity where even the problem is unclear, let alone the solution.)

However what the exercise did reveal was the risk that they were running by unconsciously narrowing their vision to an objective like a 'set of measures or KPI's'. They recognised that staying with such narrow objectives may have trapped them in a business as usual approach that would constrain the potential solutions, and restrict the innovative ideas that might be possible.

As it turned out, the real value of the broader and less distinct "light on the hill" only became apparent later, with a realisation that the really innovative outcome emerging from the work was the ongoing development of an "evaluative mindset" with those involved in the project, and those who were also drawn in to the work. While measures and KPI's did also feature as elements of the emerging solutions, the real value was the change in thinking as more people saw their role in evaluating success of their interventions.

So in this case, living with a fuzzy goal contributed to smarter solutions.


A Parent's Guide to Complexity

So there we were last night, finally in bed with reading in hand when my wife put her book down, paused thoughtfully for a moment before saying “the boys seem happy at the moment”.

And it’s true. They do. They seem happy, increasingly resilient, even a little more confident in themselves. Beat the drums and sound the trumpets! Which parent of teenage boys doesn’t want to be able to utter those words from time to time. Of course we want these things for our boys, but there seems to be a problem. We don’t really know how to deliver them.

We feed them: check

Clothe them: check

House them: check

Slip them some spending money from time to time against our better judgement: check

Drive them to parties and pick them up in the wee small hours: check

Provide access 24/7 to endless Netflix and computer games: check

Educate them and give them a range of experiences to draw on: check

Yet despite this, there have been times when each of them has been deeply unhappy, even intractably so. How can that be when we are so obviously ticking the teenage boy happiness checklist?

Raising boys is complex. (Raising girls they say is even more so God forbid). So this of course means that we poor parents are sentenced to long years of uncertainty, worry, intermittent feelings of failure and an abiding sense that ‘we must be doing this wrong’.

Those feelings are understandable and probably unavoidable. After all, they come with the territory of complexity. Yet I take comfort from this idea of creating confident, happy boys, comfortable in their own skin and ‘well-rounded’. We may not know what it’s going to take to get them there but we know that this is what we are working towards. Sometimes, as last night, it seems to be quite close. Other times it seems unattainably distant.

The point is of course that we are aiming for something. Our loosely-defined destination guides us every day as we learn this parenting thing. While we can never be sure how to get there, the idea is like a light on a distant hill inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure.

So if you are facing something complex, whether raising a family or delivering something at work, identifying your light on the hill and keeping it in sight can help you navigate the uncertainty.

Now can I go back to reading my book?


Experimenting with my migraines

I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!


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….


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?


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.


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.