Where are we putting our energy in the energy debate?

Questions about energy production have emerged afresh in recent days, with Australia’s federal opposition party announcing a plan to build seven nuclear power plants as the keystone of the nation’s future energy mix. Meanwhile in my home town the federal government announced approval of a large offshore wind farm zone.

So there’s a lot of energy in the energy debate at the moment.

And of course each plan – be it a nuclear or offshore wind – has its committed devotees and its strident detractors, and each group is investing a lot of energy in convincing others that ‘you’ are wrong and ‘I’ am right.

In doing so I think there is a lot of misplaced effort because it seems clear people really aren’t arguing about energy. That’s just the label on the box. What we are really fighting over are things like:

  • Trust. If I don’t trust you why would I trust your ideas? I don’t believe anything you say.
  • Politics. How can my team get an advantage here? Why should I believe you when you are obviously being political?
  • Power. Who gets to be heard and whose view is given credit? How does this debate help me wield influence? How do I prevent them from wielding influence on this?
  • Control. How do I maintain a sense of agency in a fast-changing world?
  • Certainty/uncertainty. What feels like common sense? Which set of ideas seems to match what I think about how the world works?
  • The need to win. I really want to beat those guys, be seen to win the argument and show the world that they were wrong.
  • Relationships. People I like think this way, people I don’t like think that way, so how can I build credit with my tribe?

These are all very human drivers of behaviour.

Yet we try to win arguments about things like energy policy with ‘facts’. In reality, they often come a distant last in this race.

Only last week our Commonwealth Scientific Agency, the CSIRO, released the findings of their updated review into the comparative costs of different energy sources. Some would say the numbers clearly demonstrate that nuclear is likely to be the most expensive option of all. Yet the aspiring future government of the nation can simply ignore this data as they prosecute their nuclear argument. Why? Because it isn’t about the facts, and the facts are contested in any case. Why? See list above.

In an effort to convince others that we are right and they are wrong, and much like energy policy itself, it’s easy to invest our effort in a strategy that provides a poor return. If we try to rely on the facts alone it’s likely we are wasting a lot of effort. If we really want to connect with others and convince them we need to work on relationships, on trust, on control.

This means listening, engaging, learning together, even being prepared to be mistaken about some things. If we really want the best outcomes this is the work we need to be doing.

When seeking to convince others, where are you putting your energy?


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)


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.


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.


How to look at your project from another perspective

When seeking to be wiser together we are often called to walk in each other’s shoes, to look at the world from a different perspective. In short, to try to get inside another person’s head. Of course this is easier said than done, requiring effort, some discipline, and perhaps a simple structure to help.

Among our simple toolkit for collaborators is one we call . Like many of our tools it’s designed for use in any meeting or workshop, large or small. It is consciously simple and ‘low tech’ meaning anyone can use it any time. I find that clients use this tool as a gentle prod to walk in each other’s shoes rather than focus always on our own view.

Simple? Yes. Subtle? Probably. Useful? Like anything that helps us be more thoughtful, absolutely. and be wiser together.


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.


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.


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.


Vote 'Yes' to Listening and Curiosity

Vote 1 Polarisation
In Australia we are deep in the public ‘debate’ about the upcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution. In the national media at least it tends to be less a debate and more a noisy process of defending one’s own opinions and deriding the others’.

The unseemly nature of the public discourse is perhaps inevitable given that we are looking at raw politics at play. But even without the political nature of the discussion a referendum is always polarising because it forces a binary choice. Yes or no. Support or don’t support. I am right, which means you must be wrong.

The dynamic that is forcing Australians into one of two camps – pro or con - comes at a cost to our national harmony. It’s also a great example of what to avoid when working with diverse stakeholders on complex issues, because binary debates are not only overly simplistic, they always force people further apart.

When I work to convince you of why I am right, while at the same time refuting your attempts to do the same, we can’t help but become further entrenched in our own positions. The distance between us can only grow, and we each become even more ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the other.

How to get unstuck
What can we do about it? When in this situation we need to reverse the polarising nature of the discussion, and find ways to talk that bring us closer together rather than drive us apart. Ultimately we want them to be curious about our ideas and perspectives, but this can be challenging because in order to do this we probably first need to be curious about and interested in their ideas and perspectives. That is, we need to:
- Stop talking and start listening.
- Be authentically curious about what they are saying and why.
- Help them articulate their position more clearly.
- Be genuinely open-minded.
Then perhaps they will start to explore our opinion.

When collaborating, don’t set up situations that become referendums on the question at hand. Rather, set up conversations full of exploration and learning. That’s how we make progress together on complex issues. I vote yes to that.