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)


Is this the most collaborative place in Australia?

What’s the most collaborative place in Australia?

You may be surprised to learn that it is between your ears – at least, it is if you are collaborating authentically.

I was recently reminded of this important locus of collaboration when gathering feedback from participants in our six-week program – How to Collaborate Effectively. Asked to share some insights from the program they said things such as:

“…pause…breathe…is my collaborative mindset in place?....begin…”

“Try to dial up the collaboration wherever possible and bring a collaborative mindset to the work.”

“Collaboration is between the ears!”

Of course collaboration is about doing things differently and if we want to ‘do’ differently we have to be different, to think differently.

In last month's newsletter I shared a post about the characteristics of the collaborative mindset. The place where those characteristics become action is between our ears.

For me this means that I must pay attention to my own state of mind whenever I’m working with others, or planning to do so. If I’m thinking like a collaborator I’m going to be able to act like one (I hope).

Is the space between your ears collaborative today?

We have a simple mindset health check tool to help you refocus your thinking. Check it out.


A Tale of Two Forums

A recent experience has illustrated how two quite different approaches to working with stakeholders can have a similar outcome if the same mindset is brought to the party.

In September last year I was engaged by the Department of Planning and Environment (now DCCEEW) to plan and facilitate the NSW Minister for the Environment’s Koala Summit. The Summit represented an important milestone for the Minister, the Department and the Government more broadly in their effort to review and refresh the state wide Koala strategy.

A date was set for the end of March this year and the process of planning began. 150 stakeholders from across the koala conservation and management sector were identified and invited. The agenda and process was developed in detail through many drafts. A large team of departmental staff were invited to participate and trained up as table facilitators.

We visited the venue twice to ensure everything would go smoothly on the day. Many meetings were held and many iterations of every detail worked through. We discussed risks, met senior people and the Minister to review how the day would run.

In short, there was a lot of effort invested in ensuring the success of the day. And while we were all nervous as 150 people showed up to discuss the potentially quite controversial range of issues, the day of course went well and participants valued the opportunity to work through those issues together.

Chalk up a victory for careful and detailed planning and head home exhausted!

The very next working day I had a call from a different team within the Department to say the Minister wanted another similar-but-different event to be held in six working days. We weren’t yet clear on objectives, who would be there or what issues were to be canvassed.

In other words, the preparation time for this second forum was at the other extreme; minimal!

The day before the new forum (!!) we met as a team and planned the event in detail and before we knew it there we were with another 60 stakeholders talking about those contentious koala-related issues.

And of course, the day went well and people valued the discussion. Head home exhausted again.

So how is it that two events with such different lead-times and preparation can produce a similar sort of result? Lots of good will and commitment from the teams involved and from participants helps a lot. But in addition I believe it’s the mindset that is important. We can run the best planned process but if we aren’t thinking collaboratively and appreciatively about our stakeholders we will get a poor outcome. Conversely, we can do something quite last minute with minimal prep but if we bring the mindset and expectation that people can be trusted to do great work together, we are likely to get a great result. The detail is surely less important than the collaborative intention.

This is not an argument for doing things without good preparation, as inevitable as those moments are, but it is an illustration of how a collaborative mindset is the key to success, whatever the circumstance.

Are you bringing a collaborative mindset to your work with stakeholders?


How to buy a car, and other tough decisions

I’m currently struggling with one of those biggish decisions that come around now and then. Yes, it’s time to think about replacing my car, which means I have to decide what to replace it with. What should I do? Mortgage the house and buy a Ferrari, obviously. But failing that?

My rational self (poor lonely thing) suggests I define the problem I am trying to solve with solution ‘new car’, then identify my relevant values, create some criteria, apply them to options and decide.

As if.

My emotional self (did somebody say red and fast?) is telling me that I’m not a middle-aged man with responsibilities, that stylish, fast, cool is what I need.

And then I stumble across thought-provoking Professor of Psychology Ellen Langer from Harvard University, who, if I understand right, suggests that:

  • When we are stuck between options and can’t decide, this tells us that the options are psychologically equal for us, so just choose one and go for it. Choosing randomly in this case makes as much sense as any other approach.
  • In a complex world where we can never have all the data, we still tend to believe that there is a correct answer and we can know what it is. News flash: There isn’t and we can’t. Make a call and live with it.
  • The idea that we can correctly predict the outcome of any choice in a complex world is an illusion. So again, make a call and live with it.
  • We can never know what would have happened if we’d made a different choice, so don’t worry about it. Make a call and live with it.
  • The search for more information is an attempt to find the data that will allow us to distinguish between alternatives, thereby making the right option ‘obvious. But that data doesn’t exist, so put the spreadsheet down. Make a call and live with it.
  • Don't be fooled into seeking the right decision. Rather, seek to make the decision right. Make a call and make it work.

Wise words. So let me try randomly selecting my next car. I roll the dice and…. What do you know? Ferrari it is.

If you are interested in more from Professor Langer, check out of This Working Life on ABC RN, or her .


A Flower, a Bear and a Cross-Eyes walked into a classroom...

It's the time of year when parents and kids are negotiating the start of a new school year, which always takes me back to the day my son took me by the hand nearly 20 years ago to show me his brand new classroom. I didn't expect to learn something about engagement, governance and collaborative decision making.....
Angus was five years old, in week one of 'big school', when he took me to see his classroom. I noticed that the desks were arranged in clusters and that each cluster had a label.
His teacher, Mrs C. explained that each group of students had been asked to decide on a name for their cluster. I saw the 'Bulldogs' and the 'Cool dudes' amongst others and asked Angus "what's your group called?"
"We're the Flowers"
"Oh!" I was a bit surprised that any group with Angus in it had such a poetic name and Mrs C. explained.
"There are two boys and three girls in Angus's group. Everyone was asked to vote for the name they wanted but the girls got together and voted as a bloc, while Angus and Ethan voted individually. The girls had the numbers and that's why their group is the Flowers."
At this point Angus beckoned to me and whispered in my ear... "Ethan and I aren't Flowers. I'm the Bears and Ethan is the Cross Eyes!
It seems that the lovely Mrs C. ran an engagement process but not a collaborative process designed to generate ownership of outcomes. Apparently, when you feel like a Cross Eyes, you don't want to be a Flower.
So this year I'm continuing to take inspiration from Angus and Ethan to help clients not just engage their stakeholders but to collaborate authentically to be wise together. If that sounds good to you, why not check out how we can help you ?


A painful Metro journey in Paris

I’ve been reading about the history of the Paris Metro, having recently been back to France. The fabulous book I’m reading begins:

“In the five decades leading up to the eventual opening of the Metro in 1900, businesses, citizens, government ministers and city officials scrutinised more than 60 different proposals to build an urban railroad in Paris.”

So over 50 years multiple stakeholders made multiple attempts to design the best railway for the City of Light. And for 45 of those 50 years no consensus could be found about the preferred option. It became a national embarrassment and a source of real pain, as the population grew well beyond the capacity of existing horse-drawn options. Yet despite the urgent need an agreed solution remained elusive.

It is a very contemporary story in many ways, as major urban transport projects continue to suffer ‘’. But it’s relevant in other ways as well, and to everyone who works with others on difficult projects.

Apparently a key cause of indecision for planners was the question of the purpose of a rail system. Was it to be focussed on connecting the existing regional rail termini, (think Gare du Nord, Gare du Lyon etc), or was it to be focussed on getting Parisians to work every day?

In other words, what is the problem the rail system was to solve?

Through 60 different proposals the many different stakeholders proposed solutions to the problem as they saw it. The city government saw the problem in terms of local voters and their commuting constraints. The federal government saw the problem as one of regional and national connection. Other stakeholders added to the confusion with their own perspectives.

Though ostensibly talking about the same thing – a rail system in Paris - everyone was trying to solve a different problem, so it’s not surprising that the answer eluded them.

Ultimately, the federal government threw up their hands and acknowledged that this was something that the City Fathers (and they were mostly fathers) should take the running on. The problem came into clearer focus and in no time at all the first tunnels were dug and the first elements of the now famous Paris Metro were laid.

The moral of the story is not that progress comes from wearing down your stakeholders so that they give up and walk away. Rather, it’s that any collaborative project requires a shared sense of the problem being tackled. Not just ‘how do we build a rail system in Paris’, but ‘what specifically is important to each of us in the situation we face and what are the questions we most need this rail project to resolve?’

If Parisians had this conversation back in 1850, perhaps they could have saved themselves decades of pain and megatons of horsemanure. Sounds like a lot of projects I know.


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.


Am I Getting My Ducks in a Row, or Collaborating?

When we are worried about how our stakeholders will react, the urge to get the ducks in a row can become irresistible. But of course the more we try to manage out risks before talking to our stakeholders, the more it can look like we are doing this project to them, rather than with them. And anger grows. We are giving energy to the very thing we seek to avoid.

This dynamic can be quite paralysing.

How do you recognise when you are lining up the ducks, rather than engaging authentically? Can you see yourself here?

I am probably getting my ducks in a row when I seek…

When authentic collaboration requires…

Complete clarity and agreement as well as sign-off on structure, process, rules, governance .... Stepping into messiness

Early conversations, before we know what this is about or how we will work together on it

Adequate agreement initially on the problem or the way forward

Really clear and agreed objectives, goals, measures and milestones Building a shared understanding of the problem or situation and the desired destination

A willingness to take the next step despite not knowing

Ongoing reflection on what is and isn’t working

Control of both the process and outcome Making decisions together (doing ‘with’ not ‘to’) to grow commitment and ownership

Learning together by doing together

Shared accountability and agency through co-define, co-design and co-creation

A plan to manage difficult relationships and diverse opinions Exploring and investing in relationships and trust among collaborators

Listening to, acknowledging and valuing the diversity of views

Approvals and sign-offs by the powers that be The courage to try something new together

Tacit agreement from the boss to proceed

To put off getting started until I’m more confident Acknowledging that uncertainty is unavoidable and the right time to start is right now
To manage out all the risks Living with some uncertainty and risk. Putting them on the table and managing them together

Perhaps rather than get our ducks in a row we can find ways to let them go where they will, showing us the way to more authentic collaboration.


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!


Are you managing risks or managing outrage?

By treating people as human we stand a chance of reducing their level of outrage, which is likely to reduce their sense of the risk.

I have recently had cause to delve back into the world of risk communication, where I was reminded of a couple of fundamental pieces of work that continue to feel relevant, even as the world seems to be filling up with outraged people.

The Factors That Contribute to a Perception of Risk

The first idea is that there is only a low correlation between the actual level of physical risk in a situation and the amount of concern it generates. Dr Peter Sandman and Dr Vince Covello have done a lot of work in this area over the years. They offer a list of factors that contribute to our perception of risk. You can find one such list , where you will need to scroll down a little to find it.

A key point for me is that as the proponent of a project or a change it is easy for me to 'know' the risk is low. But this bears no relationship to how risky it feels to others. If I feel like an innocent bystander subject to something I don’t want, it is hard for me to see this thing as anything other than risky, with lots of negative consequences. At which point I create the Facebook page.

Regardless of the actual risks posed, if a proposal ticks some of these boxes the project feels risky, which amounts to the same thing as far as stakeholder outrage goes. Which of the factors might your projects be tapping into?

This idea is neatly expressed in Dr Peter Sandman's famous equation: Perception of risk = hazard x outrage.

In other words my sense of the danger something presents is driven by how upset I am about it, rather than the other way around. While it always seems clear to me that my outrage reflects a rational assessment of the actual risks involved, Sandman shows us that the extent to which I think something is risky is largely driven by my level of emotional engagement. If I'm upset I think it's dangerous. If I'm not upset, I think it's safe.

Managing Risk Perception

These ideas from the risk comms world give us a strong clue about how to respond to an outraged community and it isn’t to present all the facts about why the project isn’t dangerous. Instead we must treat the outrage, rather than downplay the risk. This means listening, admitting negative impacts where there will be negative impacts, walking in their shoes and seeking to understand their perspective. Being vulnerable. Even apologising if that’s relevant.

By treating people as human we stand a chance of reducing their level of outrage, which is likely to reduce their sense of the risk.

Sound risky? Perhaps that’s our emotional response talking.