Are you leaving your delivery team behind?

When you are making a commitment to collaborate with stakeholders to develop an important plan or strategy, I wonder if you are leaving someone behind? A couple of recent experiences have shed new light on this question for me.

Last week I was in Bangkok at the United Nations presenting at an international conference on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and their implications for partnership and collaboration. It was a fascinating week and I came back even more convinced of the need to build our collective skills to work together if we are to meet these important goals by 2030.

Many participants were from the developing world and there was much sharing of their experiences of trying to engage vulnerable groups from across the region to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’ in the effort to meet the SDGs. The group was asking questions such as “how do we hear from young mothers in traditional patriarchal cultures?” “How do we provide a safe space to talk to refugees?”

It was a fascinating conversation that took me away from my day-to-day client base of bureaucracies and corporates. Yet the question resonated strongly with me in the context of organisations I work with. When they are collaborating to create a strategy or plan, I am seeing that it is quite common for them to leave an important group of stakeholders out in the cold. Who do you think it is?

I am working with a client in Queensland – a large utility. They have been striving to improve the way they collaborate with their stakeholders to develop key strategies, with the aim of creating something that people own and are committed to.  After more than a year of great co-creation they arrived at a set of strategies for the long-term management of a shared resource. It was a great piece of work and a great collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders.

They have since handed the strategy to the delivery side of the business who build infrastructure and who will be responsible for delivering the plan over the next ten years. And this is where the trouble has started. Who do you think feels left behind and left out of the collaboration? That’s right, the delivery side of the business.

It is often at this point that the struggle begins. The strategy team – the ‘proud champions of change’ – feel compelled to convince the delivery team - the ‘vulnerable community’ - that this strategy is terrific, that the stakeholders who co-created it want to be a part of delivering it, and that the collaboration must continue. Of course, this attempt is often anything but collaborative and the resistance hardens. The whole collaborative strategy may even be at risk.

In my recent experience this tale is all too common. One side of the business gets enthused about and committed to a new way of working with partners and invests all their energy and focus in collaborating with ‘them out there’. Meanwhile, the people who actually have to deliver the end result are left behind,

So, if you are promising to collaborate with a group to develop strategy, how will you ensure you leave no one behind, including those delivery people on the other side of the building?


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.


Experimenting with a new thought....... by Bridget Marsh

As a coach my role is to help people think differently so they can behave differently....... so I started to think about what makes it difficult for people to think differently.

One of the possible causes is how we are taught in school.  In school there is usually a correct answer and we are rewarded for knowing it.  We are seldom rewarded for questioning ... anything, particularly authority.  Is it any wonder that in work we find this hard.

I'm not sure why I always found it difficult not to question, however I did.  So maybe I've always been challenged by the idea that there is a right way to do things.

In my working life I also challenged the 'right' way to do things.

When I was Head of School at Unitec School of Performing Arts we wanted to create a degree that was different, that would give us a significant point of difference.   I suggested a number of quite radical ideas including offering a degree where all the streams of acting, dance, choreography, directing, writing were taught together.  This was certainly a novel idea and took some time for my team to accept.

I also suggested that we could challenge the usual way of assessing students.

At first this was rejected but eventually my team chose to do it on their actual performing skills... not what they could write about acting and dancing.

What that experience highlighted for me was that even people who are normally creative in their work seemed unwilling to question or experiment with different ways of doing things.

I feel it is natural to question why things are done in one way and not another.  So it also seems natural to me to question others on their thinking.   But it doesn't make it easy for them to necessarily think differently.

To think differently starts with a desire for a different end result.  What we are currently doing isn't getting us the results we are looking for.  And a willingness to accept that we could be wrong....maybe not wrong, rather just not succeeding in the way we want to succeed.

So I get clients to experiment.....try a new thought.  Like trying on new ideas they need to see how it feels and imagine how they might behave with that new thought.  It doesn't change behaviour immediately because, depending on how long we have been thinking in the old way, we quickly revert to old behaviours.  However slowly over time we can change our behaviour.  And by behaving differently we get new results.  The next step is  to ask if these new results take us closer to the end result we are looking for or further away.  If it takes us closer then we can do more of the change.  And so it goes.....one thought at a time.

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by Bridget Marsh- Twyfords NZ Associate


Just try stuff…. (or let’s call it experimentation)

One of the best explanations I’ve heard of how to work in a complex environment was from a client last year when I asked her how she now approached her project.

She said that rather than trying to plan out the answer (which was her previous approach), she said she just tries something, checks to see if it is getting her closer to a useful result, and then either does more of that if it seems to be helping, or tries something else if it isn’t.

I was struck by the simplicity of her explanation, and find it a very useful way to describe an appropriate response to the demand for action that is ever present when tackling a difficult to solve dilemma.

I reflected on how we have learnt the value of “experimentation” with a recent issue facing us internally. We were reviewing our marketing approach and were frustrated by a lack of traction with our messaging with potential clients about what we do.

So while our past tendency and experience was to be sure an alternative strategy was robust and would guarantee success, we recognised that we are facing a complex dilemma where cause and effect are not obvious, and probably unknowable, and so perhaps we could just try something different without risking the our whole approach, and see what effect it might have.

We had some reluctance and anxiety in trying that, given the uncertainty and risks inherent in not knowing what might happen (heaven forbid- we might turn off potential clients or push them away!)

So we decided to try something different- a significant change to our messaging.

But we also added some discipline-

  • checking that we had an overall outcome in mind (a “light on the hill” reflecting our sales goals)
  • making the change manageable – keeping it “safe to fail” where we feel we can manage the risk
  • Making the changes quickly and over a short time period (so we can evaluate quickly)
  • And identifying what evidence and outcomes we needed to see over that period to either keep promoting the change, or for us to try something different

This experiment is still a work in progress, but it just feels like the right way to go when we are facing a complex issue. We know from bitter experience that being certain about the way forward has led to disappointment and frustration, and we are increasingly confident that just trying stuff makes more sense.


Is Best Practice Water Management a Myth?

Managing urban water challenges lies at the heart of a sustainable future and drives my work in the sector. As a coach, I talk to many managers and leaders grappling with difficult water projects, learning from both their successes and their failures. In my blog of November 2018, I shared some of the things I’ve learned about mindsets to enable great collaboration. In this blog I will explore one specific element of mindset for water managers.

The mindset I strike often is the idea that we must apply ‘best practice’ to our projects. But this can be a trap for us all. I have learned that when facing complex, multi-party water challenges, the myth of ‘best practice’ can limit, rather than support, progress.

What do I mean? There are many urban water and sanitation initiatives around the world, and from these are emerging many models and frameworks for how to achieve water outcomes. A good example is Sanitation 21, published by the IWA and partners in 2014. This document lays out a comprehensive, detailed ‘map’ for improving sanitation in the developing world. It includes process flow charts and step-by-step instructions and is explicitly an attempt to reflect best practice.

Its great strength is its careful detail about how to go about sanitation projects. Yet, I believe that without a collaborative mindset, this detail can also be a great weakness.

If you are building a water treatment facility, you will find a best-practice, step-by-step guide very useful. You know what the problem is. You know what the endpoint will look like. And if the construction plans have already been proven, they should work just as well here. But changing the long-term sanitation practices of a community is a qualitatively different type of problem. In this situation, there are multiple variables, only some of which we can be aware of and lots of players with different drivers and concerns. There are unique geologies, geographies, governance practices, climatic conditions, budgets and habits. There are social interactions and practices that we can’t possible understand completely. In short, every project is unique and what worked last time may not be appropriate here. In this context, if we attempt to rigidly apply our ‘best practice’ approach we are very likely to fall short.

A key weakness of the best practice myth is that by focussing on delivering a program we greatly increase the likelihood that we are doing this program ‘to’ the people we most need to work ‘with’. This is where mindset comes in. If I feel I have a clear, smart process to follow then my task is to apply it to the best of my ability. But if my belief is that my process map is a hypothesis I bring to the table, rather than the best practice answer, I will think and act differently. I will see stakeholders as co-designers of process. I will listen as loudly as I speak. I will be prepared to put my process back in my pocket and experiment together with this community.

Doing so will encourage innovation from the very people who are impacted by the problem in the first place, whereas doing my change process to them will likely drive them away.

But giving up my process is hard. Sharing control and taking risks makes me feel vulnerable. Isn’t it easier to stick to a proven pathway?

Easier, yes. But that is the trap of the best practice mindset.

 

 

Want to read more about how to successfully deliver complex projects and avoid the trap of best practice?

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders 1st Edition

Jennifer Garvey BergerKeith Johnston

Stanford University Press 2015

 

A leader’s Framework for Decision Making

David J Snowden and Mary E Boone

Harvard Business Review Nov. 2007

 

The Power of Co: The smart leaders’ guide to collaborative governance

Vivien Twyford et al

Twyfords 2012

 

https://extranewsfeed.com/making-sense-of-complexity-ee78755d56b9

Note this article was first published by the International Water Association


A Dangerous Idea- Love your Enemy!

I watched a TV news item recently where Govt bureaucrats were engaging with farmers on the Darling River about water allocation. It looked a bit confrontational and unsatisfactory, with several seemingly intractable positions.

I was reminded of this yesterday at the Festival of Dangerous ideas, in Megan Phelp's-Roper's conversation ("Love your Enemy") about how kindness and conversation had a transformational impact on her life.

I was struck by her comment on the really dangerous ideas in our civil discourse- things like blinding certainty and dogma, and wondered how useful her insights might be in the challenges of attempting collaborative conversations with "difficult people" around some of the major water challenges like the Murray Darling Basin.

Briefly Megan's story focuses on how she shifted from an entrenched religious position to leaving her church and now advocating for change in how people engage- from zealotry to an anti extremism educator- see her TED talk here https://bit.ly/2SLVeH9

 While I'm not advocating that we need such extreme conversion in the situations facing water planners, it did seem that a lot of the same elements Megan faced are evident in our conversations internally and externally as we face difficult and complex situations, particularly when positions are a bit entrenched:

  • knowing and certainty
  • being right
  • telling not asking
  • fear of others views
  • one view
  • blaming others

and seemed to me that some of what Megan experienced in her transformation can give us great clues about different ways of behaving when we face those "difficult" people:

  • learn my story, understand theirs
  • listening is not agreeing
  • assume good intent
  • disagree without demonising
  • show empathy and kindness
  • be generous and show gratitude
  • it's OK to take in new ideas and maybe change your mind

In the twitter conversations that helped shift Megan, she noticed others using four small but powerful steps that made real conversation possible:

  • don't assume bad intent- they believe it
  • ask questions- hear them
  • be patient- pause, breath, then come back later
  • make the argument- if we want change, we must make the case for it

Perhaps a bit of love is not such a dangerous idea.


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.


A Crazy Question for Water Managers

Here is a crazy question. In order to better manage our catchments should we ban all conversation about water?

Why would we do that? Because it is just possible that our focus on managing water is getting in the way of doing what it takes to improve water outcomes in our catchments.

My inspiration for this crazy idea comes from a long-term client, who is a manager in the public sector, responsible for regional water-quality improvements in wetlands, rivers and ecosystems. She said to me recently:

“I have always said that managing water is about managing people and managing relationships”.

By this logic, to manage the water in a system we must manage the people in that system. Yet when I watch my clients grapple with issues such as catchment planning, most of the conversation is about how we use water. Maybe that’s part of the problem?

What if, instead of talking about nutrients, pollution, entitlements, regulations, soil and so-on, we talked about communication, relationships, learning, sharing, understanding other perspectives, challenging assumptions, our fears, hopes and dreams? What if we talked about how we experience each other as neighbours, competitors for resources, fellow-users? What if we focussed on how we can best collaborate to learn and experiment together?

What if we didn’t talk about water at all, but instead talked about us, the people of the catchment? Would that make a difference to the outcomes we achieve?