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.

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 ABC of Complexity

As I write, the head of Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, has just announced a very significant restructure of the organisation and its 5,000 employees. CEO Michelle Guthrie was quoted as saying:

“This exercise today is about making sure we work collectively and in better and smarter ways to serve our audience.” “The initiatives … will improve collaboration and decision making,” “[These changes] provide for more flexibility in allocating resources.”

It sounds very impressive and sensible, but how confident can the CEO be that the restructure will deliver as expected? Complexity science would say not confident at all. Just consider some of the basic concepts of managing any complex system, such as a large corporation.

With a complex system we can only manage the current state, we can’t manage the future state.

In other words we have no way of knowing that if we do X we will get Y. An organisation is like an organism, with many separate parts all interacting in multiple ways, some of which we know about and some we don’t. Because every part of a complex system influences and is influenced by every other part, it is impossible to know with certainty the outcome of any action large or small. Complex systems are the realm of unintended consequences and emergent responses, meaning we can never be sure that the structure we bring in today will deliver the outcome desired tomorrow. The only thing we can be confident of is that we won’t get what we expect.

Beware Premature Convergence

Landing on a solution is what leadership is about, right? Except when we are dealing with something genuinely complex, it is much easier and more comfortable to name a ‘solution’ than to acknowledge and grapple with the inherent unknowability of the situation. The temptation to come to a position is powerful but the minute we start narrowing down – converging on a solution – we reduce our capacity to scan for the unknown, to explore other possibilities, to have our ideas doubted and tested and to test others. In complexity, the answer is never the answer anyway so staying open to what is emerging is a much more powerful strategy.

Experimentation is key

Nobody knows what is the ‘best’ structure for a large public broadcaster in Australia in the early 21st Century. Nobody can know. The changes announced today for the ABC, while couched in terms of certainty, in fact amount to an expensive, possibly disruptive and risky experiment in corporate design, as all such restructures do. They can’t be anything else. But leaders aren’t allowed to acknowledge that they are experimenting on their organisation. They particularly can’t acknowledge it to themselves. Yet, experimentation is in many ways the best strategy.

In complex situations we can’t know in advance the outcome of actions, so how do we manage? We create hypotheses and test them in ‘safe to fail’ ways. We experiment around specific ideas about how the system works and what might improve it. If we find those experiments successful we ramp them up. If we find them failing we dial them down, while learning as much as possible about why they aren’t working as expected. And then we do it again. And again. And….

Management therefore becomes a continuous exercise in ‘learning the way forward’ through incremental changes, using pilots, tests, trials, experiments. At no time can anyone say with certainty that the existing structure is ‘the best’, but they will be able to say that new ideas are constantly being tested and improvements introduced. Importantly, the brainpower of the entire workforce can usefully be employed in generating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, deciding what did and didn’t work and determining and making changes as a result. Rather than paying a big four consultant to ‘fix the problem’ a manager can rely on the employees to co-create something unique, fit-for-purpose and always, always shifting to meet emerging needs.

In some ways, managing complexity is very challenging, but to accept uncertainty and adopt an experimental approach is as easy as ABC.