A new bout of solution-itis strikes home

A small group of residents in my home village are talking about forming a group and working towards a more clean energy future for our community. Everyone is excited about the possibilities, but it’s occurred to me that we may be suffering a collective bout of solutionitis.

Much of our talk is around building something shiny like a ‘community battery’; a visible, tangible solution to our collective climate change anxieties. It’s an exciting thing to imagine and the enthusiasm is growing.

But having done some more research and talked to like-minded groups from other communities, it seems that we may have fallen into the collaborators trap of leaping to a solution before understanding what the problem is. A classic case of solutionitis! While a big battery is a nice idea it may not be the ‘solution’ for what is a complex set of interrelated technical and behavioural dilemmas. Single answers rarely are.

It seems much more likely that the journey to a renewable community is less certain, comprising multiple ideas and actions. Walking this journey together is going to require a whole lot of collaboration through complexity. This means:

  1. Co-defining our clean energy dilemma together – what’s the problem we are trying to solve here?
  2. Co-defining our collective light on the hill – what does success look like for this set of dilemmas?
  3. Co-designing our processes – who are we as a group, what’s our governance, how do we do our work together and where do we get started?
  4. Co-creating potential ideas, projects, things to try.
  5. Testing the way forward, trying things, taking small steps together as we build clarity and confidence and find ways to move towards our light on the hill.
  6. Iterate, learn, fail, learn some more and do it all again.

Creating a more sustainable village is a complex problem and there is no single solution. Instead we are going to need to do the difficult work of working together over a period of years. We are going to need our collaborative mindsets and our commitment to working together. Do this and we can declare our current bout of solutionitis cured.

Wish us luck!

(The photo is a shot of our garden on a clear autumn morning this year)

Curiosity saved the project

I have my doubts that curiosity killed the cat, but I’m certain of its role in being wiser together (curiosity that is, not the cat). We can’t get different outcomes if we don’t bring different thinking to bear. And we can’t bring different thinking if we aren’t learning. And we learn best when we are at our most curious.

Questioning, inquiry, seeking to know are perhaps the fundamental tool of collaborators. Yet asking questions from a place of curiosity and learning can be very challenging, particularly when someone I strongly disagree with is trying to convince me of their argument. Defending comes easily. Seeking to understand more deeply takes self-awareness and effort.

For this reason we created designed specifically to encourage respectful inquiry across differences. Where people have expressed their position or made their opinion clear, this tool can help everyone explore more deeply and learn more authentically from each other.

If you have a group where opinions differ and where thinking wisely together is important, perhaps is worth a try.

Extending our thinking to be wiser together

“How are we going to implement this so that it works?” is a question that is often asked. All too often the default response is along the lines of “let’s do it the way we have always done it, but ‘more’, or ‘better’, or ‘with better enforcement’”. In other words, business as usual with the same results we’ve always seen.

If we are truly seeking to be wiser together when planning to implement a solution it pays to think creatively about how to do that, yet I know from my own experience that creativity doesn’t always come naturally. Sometimes things get in the way, such as:

  • Organisational norms about what is acceptable or not,
  • Unspoken assumptions about what is or isn’t possible or workable,
  • Group think where we rapidly line up behind an idea,
  • Unwillingness to say something out of the box lest it seem silly,

So far, so human. Yet, creativity and generative thinking are very human too, and with the right encouragement any team can be more creative.

Some teams can find a simple tool helpful, even if simply as a reminder to avoid the trap of BAU thinking. Our tool is appropriate for groups large or small and is designed to do just that. On its own it won’t save your project or the world, but as an action you can take in five minutes, it can help any group be wiser together.

and extend your thinking.

Why taking the risky action is the path to reducing risks

Are you circling the wagons or leaning in to manage angry stakeholders?

I once had a client at a council where the General Manager had taken a battering over the years from a small number of vocal and angry community groups. By the time I was involved, the GM had effectively pulled up the drawbridge and stopped talking to his stakeholders.

This response to community anger is very understandable and a natural self-defence mechanism. Other ways we respond include to:

  • Get angry that they are outraged at us. “How dare they! Can’t they see I’m doing the right thing? Of course I can be trusted and it’s offensive of them to say otherwise!”
  • Go into defensive project management mode: Plan every move out before doing anything; Line up your ducks in an attempt to minimise the chance of pushback; For every move, seek permission from those up the line; Manage out any opportunity for untoward anger; Get stuck in analysis paralysis.

Of course the irony is that these actions are likely to exacerbate the very stakeholder anger you are trying to avoid. By managing to reduce outrage, we often increase the outrage.

Vulnerability is the secret to success

What to do instead?

Lots of things, many of which boil down to being vulnerable in the face of potential bad experiences. For example:
- Do more engagement, not less.
- Stop talking and start listening.
- Be curious without defending (“Is that right? Tell me more about why you feel that way….”)
- Talk. Remember that conversations build relationships, which make the transactions possible.
- Embrace uncertainty and do stuff. Less planning to manage out risk and more engagement, even when unsure about outcomes.
- Ask for their help.
- Extend trust to them, so that they might return the favour.

Back at this council with the besieged GM, I encouraged my client to go and talk to some of these people. To his credit he did just that and came back with a new spring in his step. It turns out that he and the GM’s number one ‘public nemesis’ grew up in the same suburb in the same city, and my client’s father coached the other guy at football. Connections were made. Barriers began to crumble. Frosty relationships began to thaw.

Circling the wagons is a natural response to scary situations and ‘leaning in’ to those situations feels very uncomfortable. But if you want to reduce the anger out there, leaning in to that vulnerability is the lower risk move. Can you risk doing anything else!

Three Ways to Achieve More Learning in Meetings

One of the things that clients most appreciate is our suite of tools for collaborators. In creating this toolkit we sought to ‘bottle’ as much as possible of our collective experience, philosophy and style, so that clients could bring that to their own work without requiring us to be in the room.

On the theme of making difficult conversations safer and get more learning together, here are three tools designed to help people talk and learn across different views, experiences and opinions. Each comes from the section of our suite concerned with encouraging exploration of issues prior to making decisions. Use them in any meeting or workshop. Note that each tool is designed to help people release their strongly-help ‘positions’ – if only briefly – and to go deeper. For more about this see .

This process asks people to have a go at articulating the reasons and rationale behind the opinion that they don’t support. In other words it encourages me to put aside my ‘position’ and walk in the shoes of another, if only briefly. Use it when you want people to really consider other perspectives before making choices.

This process pairs people up and encourages each person to use generative questions to explore the thinking behind the issue at hand. What you are really doing here is making it a little more likely that different perspectives will be drawn out, heard and more deeply explored, prior to making decisions.

This process is a variation on Practice Curiosity, with a key difference being that each person in a pair is invited to first be curious about and then to advocate for the position that they don’t hold or the view they disagree with. Once again it encourages people to listen as loudly as they speak – an important part of any effective communication.

If you are facing conversations that you fear may be ‘difficult’ and if you are looking for some ways to make them both safer and more useful, why not give these processes a try. Let me know how it goes, and feel free to be in touch if you’d like me to talk you through it prior to your meeting.

ChatGPT's take on Collaboration

Chat GPT was asked to explain the value of authentic collaboration. Here is it's reply, in full and unedited:

Authentic collaboration refers to a process in which individuals or groups work together towards a common goal by sharing their ideas, knowledge, and skills. The value of authentic collaboration lies in its ability to generate innovative solutions and foster a sense of community among team members.

Here are some key benefits of authentic collaboration:

  1. Diverse perspectives: When people from different backgrounds and experiences collaborate, they bring different perspectives and ideas to the table. This can lead to more innovative solutions and creative problem-solving.
  2. Improved communication: Collaborating requires open and effective communication, which helps build trust and respect among team members. It can also reduce misunderstandings and conflicts, leading to a more productive and positive work environment.
  3. Increased efficiency: By sharing knowledge and skills, team members can accomplish tasks more efficiently and effectively. Collaborating can also help to streamline processes and eliminate redundant efforts.
  4. Personal and professional growth: Collaborating with others can provide opportunities for learning and development, as team members can learn from each other's strengths and weaknesses. It can also help individuals build new relationships and expand their networks.

Overall, authentic collaboration can lead to greater creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction. By working together towards a common goal, individuals and groups can achieve more than they could on their own.

What do you make of this summary? It seems hard to disagree with any of it, but at the same time, I know that there is much more to say in answer to this question. Meanwhile, are you living up to ChatGPT's expectations of your authentic collaboration?

Exhausting Lessons in Communicating Across Barriers

As my wife will attest, I’m not a French speaker, but I do have a (very) basic vocabulary. This means that communicating when in France can be quite challenging, sometimes embarrassing, often hilarious. It struck me that my struggles to communicate in a foreign language are a little like the struggle to communicate with those who think differently to us in everyday life. 

For example, I have a client in the stakeholder engagement team of a large utility. Their communication struggle tends to be with the internal infrastructure team who design and build the pipes, who come from a different background and see things through a different lens. Sometimes the teams feel like they are speaking different languages.

So what can a month in France teach me about that challenge? Well, despite my limited French I did manage to communicate using:

  • Multiple channels, sometimes writing things down, even using facial expression and hand gestures to get my meaning across.
  • I listened as loudly as I spoke. I concentrated very hard on what was being said to me and invested a lot of energy in clarifying meaning.
  • Most importantly perhaps, I was highly motivated to communicate, as only being stranded on a rail platform in a foreign land can motivate a person. I wanted to understand and to be understood. I cared deeply about what was being said to me.

For my client this means trying diverse channels to deliver and receive messages to and from the engineers. It means really listening. Asking rather than telling. Being curious and wanting to know how ‘they’ see it.

Communicating in a foreign language is an enjoyable challenge, but it can be completely exhausting, which probably indicates how much I was investing in trying to communicate. I know that working with collaborators can be exhausting too, but perhaps that’s an indication of your commitment to working authentically with others. Working across barriers is tiring, but worth it.

The photo is of Estaing, one of the many beautiful villages we walked through on the Way of Saint James.

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Over the years I’ve had a number of experiences that left a lasting impression on me, supercharging my belief in the value of doing ‘with’, not doing ‘to’. One such experience taught me that it really matters whose story is being told and who is telling it.

In this instance I was contacted by a local Council, asking me to facilitate a couple of public meetings to discuss Council’s proposed rate rise. The two meetings had already been scheduled and advertised. They were expecting a pretty negative reaction from ratepayers and were looking for someone to “manage the room”.

It was a pretty constrained and uninspiring brief, but in the few days prior to the first meeting I hatched a plan that, I hoped, might make the process more meaningful and useful to all.

The first public meeting arrived. I did my best to ensure Council made its case clearly and that ratepayers were heard. Council told their story of budget pressures and the need to repair things such as roads and bridges. After everyone had been heard I asked everyone to indicate their level of support for the rate rise, by placing a sticky note on a ‘spectrum’ from very low to very high. As expected, people on the whole didn’t want to pay higher rates. No surprises there.

Then before closing the meeting I called for some volunteers for a working group that would meet the following week with Council to dig deeper into the rates issue. We left the meeting with a dozen or so volunteers, many of whom were quite actively opposed to rate rises.

On the appointed day the group convened at Council and began a day of sharing, listening, questioning and learning. The day included a bus tour around the city to see first-hand the problems with existing infrastructure. The netball courts were unsafe. Rusty guardrails on the mountain road were no longer fit for purpose. The century-old wooden bridges were desperately in need of replacement. Stormwater drains needed work.

Working group members came back from that trip saying things like “I didn’t realise how bad the mountain road is” or “I had no idea it was so expensive to replace a drainage culvert”. At the same timer, Council staff heard stories about hardships among the community and the surprising expenses that small businesses faced.

The next evening we all went back for the second public meeting. This was another large event, open to all community members. This time, members of the working group were invited to share their experience and what they had learned. While much of the detail was the same as Council had already presented, these community members were telling their story. They spoke about their roads and bridges, and their kids who need safe sporting fields.

Was it received differently to Council’s story?  Definitely. The final act of the process was to once again ask everyone at the meeting to indicate their level of support for the proposed rate rise on the same spectrum of support. And wouldn’t you know it? This time around, the majority was in favour.

When stakeholders get their fingerprints on a process, when they are extended the respect required to learn together, they are able to write their own story about the dilemma, rather than accept someone else’s. And this story carries a different power.

Whether you are the CEO of a Council, a Health Care organisation providing services to clients, or a manager with a team to work with, inviting your stakeholders to write their own version of the story can be an essential component of success.

Oscar Winners, Net Zero and the Skills Gap

Everything, everywhere, all at once is a great title for an Oscar-winning movie but according to one commentator it’s also the essential approach for progress towards a low carbon future.

I recently attended a thought-provoking panel session hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (my alma mater as it happens), where global specialists on transition planning and implementation talked about the road ahead. It was more than a throwaway line from a panellist that everything, everywhere, all at once is what we need to be doing. Reaching net zero is hard and requires all hands to the pumps.

We heard that what is required is a “global collaborative effort to scale up” the transition across all sectors and all countries. That got my attention, along with the ensuing discussion about the economy-wide shortage of skills necessary for helping companies transition to low carbon operations.

What are the skills of doing  everything, everywhere, all at once to meet our Paris commitments? Obviously there are a lot of technical skills required, such as scenario planners, financiers, electricians and a thousand others. Yet I believe there is a less obvious capability that will be needed and that is the suite of skills required to work across business-as-usual boundaries to make the systemic changes needed. These include:

Systems thinking as we grapple with whole supply chains and circular economies to find smarter ways to do more with less.

Experimental mindsets we will need in order to try things that just might work (and just might not), and to learn as we go.

Relationship building, essential to making the connections across networks of stakeholders, even where we are in competition for resources, market share, scarce dollars and scarcer people.

Customer, community and stakeholder engagement required as we bring the whole system into the room (figuratively and even literally) to co-create new ways of doing business.

To do everything, everywhere, all at once we will need an awful lot of collaborators, which raises some questions: Where are companies going to find people with these skills, and where are people going to learn those skills? Where are you going to look?

I'm making my own small contribution to closing the skills gap in April, with a short workshop on the core collaborative skill of co-defining the dilemma. Check it out and book .

Diving in to a collaboration mystery

“It has been great just to spend time on this together. We so rarely come together like this.”

“I was pretty sceptical walking in but having been a part of this workshop over the past few days I feel quite positive. It has been a very useful.”

When I hear comments like these from participants in workshops I’ve been facilitating I find it gratifying of course. But I also find it a little frustrating. My automatic thought is “if it’s so useful, why don’t you do this more often?”

I can’t remember when participants last found that the time spent working together in the room wasn’t useful. So it has always puzzled me that workshops with diverse people from across the organisational system aren’t a regular thing. I know I am biased but they feel so self-evidently productive from where I sit.

The quotes above are both from senior leaders in state government at the completion of a set of workshops I recently ran. Over three days this group tackled the task of creating a high-level plan for a new bit of complex policy. It is challenging work involving some quite challenging concepts and practices, yet after three days they felt they had made excellent progress.

So why aren’t workshops among senior people more of a thing?

I put this question to the project team, who had so ably helped to design and facilitate the sessions (big shout out to them). Their blunt reply was that “most workshops are pretty crappy”.

At which point it all made sense. Why would busy leaders want to come together for those terrible ‘talkfests’ we keep seeing? In their shoes I would run a mile too. Yet the opportunity cost of not coming together regularly seems very high, when I consider how productive diverse groups can be. Not only do they foster new ideas but they build shared understanding and much greater ownership of and commitment to the outputs. Doesn’t every leader want that?

The message seems clear. Nobody wants to waste time in a talkfest, and poorly-managed meetings have given all workshopping a bad name. But a thoughtfully designed and facilitated ‘workfest’ is a different beast. While I understand the impulse to avoid poor meetings, a great workshop always adds value.

At least I now know why workshops aren’t more common; People are understandably scared of wasting their time. So my next question is how can organisations best avoid poor meetings and boring talkfests while finding ways to do productive work together?

Hmmm…that’s a good topic for a workshop…..

The image is of a game of Underwater Hockey, a great sport that was a big part of my life at one time. If you haven't played it, go and check it out where you live. Like all team sports it involves lots of collaboration, and successful teams are more than the sum of their parts. photo credit Caleb Ming for ESPN