Are you planning to act or acting to learn?

Most of us would be familiar with the management aphorism: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail”, and there is a lot of truth to it. But there is a darker side to this saying as well, one which many of my clients struggle with. Clients like Bob.

Bob is a project manager, smart, competent and successful. He works in a large water company, but there are many like him in all sorts of companies around the world. Bob has a track record of managing a range of difficult projects from planning through to delivery. Most recently he took on the exciting task of working with a diversity of stakeholders to improve water quality and amenity across a large urban water catchment. Bob knows his organisation can’t deliver outcomes on its own, and he is committed to collaborating with others to create lasting solutions together.

But a few months in, progress wasn’t as fast or as easy as he had expected. In fact, he was very worried that the collaboration would fall apart. People seemed unsure, unhappy, frustrated at the complexity and messiness of the task. Bob felt it too. But, being an experienced project manager, Bob gritted his teeth and applied himself to the problem of how to ensure this collaborative group delivered outcomes.

Going back to first principles, Bob decided he needed a plan of action, setting out the steps he and his collaborators would to take in order to get outcomes in a timely fashion. So he sat down with some smart colleagues to create the document.

But there was a problem. He actually didn’t know what the next steps should be. He wasn’t sure what the problem was – is it lack of commitment or lack of clarity or lack of resources…? He wasn’t sure who should be a part of the problem-solving process or who wanted to be a part of it.

What did Bob do? Being a good project manager, he decided to gather more data so that he could answer some of these questions in order to write the plan. But hang on, what data did he need? Where should he get it? What will that data mean..? He needs a plan for this…

Poor Bob was stuck in the space of not knowing; paralysed by the need to get the answers in order to proceed. His powerful urge to line up the ducks on this project was clashing with its unknowability.

The lesson is that planning can only take you so far when collaborating in complex situations. Rather than plan in order to act, Bob found more success when he began to act in order to learn. In practice, that meant Bob and his collaborators confronting and acknowledging the inevitable uncertainty of the situations they faced, but not getting paralysed by it. Instead, they tried things, developing small experiments to run. And together they learned from those activities. Some things didn’t work so well. Other things were more effective. All have been useful to help shed further light on how to tackle this catchment management problem. Only by taking action has the group learned what it takes to make a difference to their waterway.

Taking action when we don’t have all the answers can be scary, but Bob has now been working this way for many months as part of our Collaboration Builder program, and together he and his collaborators have created actions that no plan could have covered. They have learned not to plan in order to act, but to act in order to learn.


If only we had a new meeting structure.....

In my past life at a major manufacturing company, I was frustrated in a job I had supporting the leadership team in one part of the business.

The team met regularly and always struggled to have effective meetings. They were getting bogged down in detail, meetings ran over and out of time, and generally were ineffective.

The boss's response was always about the structural elements we needed......and the wait for that certain something that would "fix" things":

  • if only we can get a new meeting structure.....
  • if only we could follow the agenda......
  • if only people would come better prepared....
  • if only we were all really clear on our roles in the team....

The pattern seemed to be a desire to get the structure sorted, then everything would be OK and we would be functional!

Unfortunately nothing we tried made any real difference!

In looking back, I've realised that I was seeing a common pitfall when tackling complexity- seeking a simple solution when faced with uncertainty, which instead delivers delay, frustration and avoidance.

I call it lining the ducks up. 

Unfortunately, in complex situations there is not likely to be a simple answer or answers, and it’s a fallacy that you can get all the ducks lined up- or that you even know what all the ducks are!

In this case it seemed that there were a few other ducks that we were avoiding- the less pleasant ones around poor relationships, lack of trust and competition.

In such circumstances, a more useful approach is to accept we may not understand the problem, resist the temptation to 'nail' the answer, and live with a little uncertainty while trying something.

An emergent approach is more appropriate as it recognises that one cannot order or design the pathway forward in such situations.

With hindsight we may have been better to step back from the boss's single-minded focus on the "right" approach (in this case the meeting structure and logistics), and given space to learn a bit more about what else might be happening (poor relationships, etc).

We might then have tried some different actions like listening a bit more, checking assumptions etc, and perhaps been more functional as a team!

Perhaps if we had set the ducks free....


Finding the grit in the dilemma

We were just creating a new Dilemma Tool for the June newsletter, and had a big "ah ha" moment.

We were going to use a simple picture of what a dilemma statement might look like to provide readers with a guide to exploring the issue they face. I was a bit dissatisfied with it as it seemed too glossy and aspirational - too 'nice'. Then we realised that it perpetuated 'business as usual' thinking around outcomes. It was focusing more on the aspirations and desired outcomes of the project and less about the existing realities that increase its complexity.

So we decided to flip the statement - rather than the aspiration first, we will put the reality of the situation first - the context of the situation in which the dilemma sits.

In our experience, such contexts include relationships and trust, politics, power and governance, competition, timeframes, levels of messiness and controversy, and behaviours.

We now believe that if we first get a sense of the context, then the dilemmas we describe are more likely to be realistic and grounded.  Any statement we create is more likely to provide a solid foundation for further exploration to guide and support the collaborative problem-solving process.

A more gritty, and much more useful starting point.


The four traps on the path to a digital water future

In its recent Digital Water report, the International Water Association lays out a map for the transformation water utilities are undergoing towards a digital future. The report draws on interviews with many industry leaders to arrive at eight key findings.

I do a lot of work with water companies, and I am working on a number of ‘digital futures’ projects. These experiences have highlighted some important, and surprising, risks to successful transformation. These are the traps that are likely to capture the unwary business as they walk the slippery path to a digital future.

Trap 1. The need for certainty in an uncertain world.

The world of digital technology is changing rapidly – even exponentially. This brings with it unavoidable complexity and uncertainty. The only thing we know for sure is that the technology and systems available in 10+ years will be different in ways we haven’t imagined yet.

The uncertainty of the digital future means managers will have less clarity than ever before. They will have to make decisions and find the way forward when the ‘right way’ is impossible to know. They will have to act even when the outcome is unclear.

The trap is apparent in the IWA report itself. The advice from leaders is to build a clear roadmap for the journey, identify priorities, outline strategies, allocate funding, get approval for plans. The trap is that doing so from a business as usual (BAU) mindset will lock managers into a fruitless search for certainty through endless planning. In a complex and emergent realm, BAU project management can’t deliver, yet it is often the only tool we know. Managers will continue to plan in order to act, when the transformative approach is to act in order to learn.

Trap 2. The curse of the expert.

The water sector is full of subject matter experts, operating in a culture that relies upon and rewards expertise. Knowing the science and applying it to problem solving has long been the key to success in the industry.

Yet in a complex and emergent world, we must recognise the limits to our knowledge, and the limits to our ability to work things out. Building a networked organisation to deliver emerging solutions to fast-evolving challenges, in a complex social, regulatory and political environment, brings with it the painful inevitability of saying “I don’t know”.

The trap is that that while we rationally recognise this and understand the logic of it, in many cases our organisational and personal identities are built on the ability to deliver, to have the answer or to solve the problem. The curse of the expert dooms us to relying on our experience and knowledge, even when these are insufficient to the task. Organisation who can’t break the curse will struggle to make the transformation to a digital future.

Trap 3. Knowing the solution before we understand what the problem is.

As the report highlights, moving to a digital water future will involve a wide range of stakeholders and a wide range of technologies. The promise is that getting all of the different parties to work and co-create together will ensure smart and implementable solutions.

The trap comes from the very human urge to get on and solve the problem - an urge that is very hard to resist, even when we rationally know that the problem is complex and messy. The technology providers will each come with a particular tech solution to an often-unspecified problem. Communities will be looking for a different range of outcomes. Water companies will have another suite of solutions based on a long history of providing safe water and sanitation. But what’s the problem we are trying to solve here?

Stepping back from ‘my’ view of the problem and solution is a very difficult thing to do. The tendency is to gloss over this part of the process and get into the exciting work of doing ‘new stuff’. The consequence is everyone running off in different directions. No alignment, No clarity. No results. If we don’t learn to be curious about the problem together, before considering solutions, we will put at risk the creation of a smart digital water future.

Trap 4. The need to control

The report describes a digital maturity curve from a transactional organisation through transitional, to dynamic and flexible, with strong networks within and between utilities and other stakeholders. This requires a less siloed, more connected and collaborative organisation.

The trap is that while leaders talk about collaboration, many continue to maintain control through BAU systems, relationships and structures. Some drivers are obvious – leaders are expected to be accountable for all that happens, so they naturally want to have their hands on the levers. But the key trap is in the less obvious drivers, such as the unconscious belief that ‘as a leader I should be the person who makes the decisions and calls the shots’. The flip side is the equally powerful tendency for team members to feel that ‘I had better take this to the boss, just in case I’m doing something wrong here’. In other words, all levels of organisations conspire to maintain existing power structures, even in the face of broad agreement that things must change. Without transforming the power dynamics, a flexible and collaborative organisation is out of reach.

These four traps aren’t the only ones that lie in wait for water businesses on the path to a digital future, but they represent the subtle complexity of the task. They also demonstrate that achieving a digital future is not simply a matter of focussing on smart technology. It is, at heart, a human journey, and all the more transformative for that.


Ever heard of a micro dilemma?

At Twyfords we’ve used the word ‘dilemma’ to describe the kind of problem that is sufficiently complex, messy, intractable or tricky, to require a collaborative response.

This month I’ve been working with local government and non-government groups in major cities and in regional centres. I’ve taken questions on whether dilemmas that require collaboration are always huge, such as our national mega-issues of how to address ‘climate change’, ‘obesity’ or ‘social disadvantage’? Or can they be more tactical like internal controversies about priorities for our current budget? Or can they be operational, such as how can our project team become more innovative? Or can they even be at a micro level, about the next small step in working together?

How do you tackle something big, intractable and messy without becoming overwhelmed? I think we can learn from the old saying that we need to do it slowly and carefully, one bite at a time.

Does size matter?  Yes, I think it does, but probably in reverse to what most people are thinking.  Dilemmas come in all sizes; they can be strategic, tactical and operational, sometimes all at once.  But the response that really matters is at the micro level.

In our experience each big dilemma will contain bite-sized micro dilemmas about “what do we do now?” .... or  “what can we do next?”.  The important action for leaders is sharing these micro dilemmas even when we think we know the answer. We are often tempted to ‘lead from the front’, see an issue or a problem ahead and offer our solution to the team without sharing it or asking for help. This can impact on our team’s experience of us as collaborative leaders, reducing their trust in the process because our behaviour doesn’t feel very collaborative to them!

A leader becomes a collaborative leader when he or she is prepared to say, whenever it is relevant, “I’m not sure what to do here, what do you think?”  When we are prepared to be a little vulnerable, not to be the ‘one who knows’; when we really want to encourage others to offer their expertise in the form of new ideas; that’s when collaboration starts to happen.

Think about the last time you stepped back deliberately from being the expert, didn’t offer ‘the solution’ and invited others into your dilemma thus opening up the conversation for everyone to share.  You were building your team’s appetite for collaboration, one bite at a time.


The Heat(er) is on!

I was at our ski lodge over the long weekend enjoying the best start to the ski season in 20 years, and found myself in an engrossing and funny conversation over dinner.

The topic was the lodge heating system, and we had great fun contemplating a social credit system like in China to ensure compliance to the lodge conventions or "rules" around energy conservation.

What did strike me was the way the passionate committee members were approaching the pretty complex issue of lodge energy consumption and management. The approach reminded me of the "expert" and "technical" model that we see constantly in organisations we work with- while complex, the problem is pretty obvious, and so is the answer- we just need to design the new system, and tell people to get with the program.

The answer in this case could be to commit to a fairly expensive automated system of thermostatically controlled radiators in each room.

I was chewing on this later over a schnapps with some of the guests, and we explored the situation. Some interesting things emerged- one guest admitted that they always turned the radiator in their bedroom to full on each night and opened the window- he liked the fresh air to ward off the inevitable germs from his coughing fellow guests.

Another recounted that he liked overriding the boot room electric dryers in the morning because he just loved the feeling of his feet sinking into hot ski boots before braving the elements.

And I'm quite partial to the ambience of the gas fire in the lounge, and had turned it up while we chatted. I then noticed another guest had opened the balcony door to cool the overheated room.

I had this sinking feeling that all the planned good work around technical solutions was being unknowingly undermined by the guests.

I was seeing a complex system at work- not just the technical heating system, but also all the inclinations of those interacting with it- compounding a dilemma around managing lodge heating and the implications for our electricity bill.

While on my 2nd schnapps, I had a fuzzy realisation about what that might mean- that it is crucial when facing a complex issue that all the perspectives are on the table and understood before attempting to find a solution. It doesn't just mean the technical operation, but also our assumptions and habits, and how people think and act that change the way the system reacts.

If we tapped into the guests as a first step, we would build a much better picture of the problem we faced, and how the system really works. This could well lead to some more creative and lower cost solutions, rather than relying on the "obvious" answer.

Then I turned the fire up- brrr it's cold in here......


When the Solution is the Problem

Seeing clients and projects thrive is one of the great pleasures of this job, one I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy lately in the context of a tricky catchment management challenge. In this instance the collaboration is up and running well, the various stakeholders are committed to working together and innovative ideas are coming to fruition.

But four years ago when I first talked to this client – a District Manager in a state department – things were very different. In my first phone conversation with her I could hear it in her voice: Frustration, exasperation, and real self-doubt. Charged with tackling the task of improving water quality in a complex waterway, this manager had hit the wall and did not know how to move forward.

As we talked some things became clearer. “The problem is”, said my client, “every man and his dog keeps coming to me to tell me how to improve the water quality. But every suggestion is different and I don’t think we know what we are trying to solve”.

This insight was a genuine breakthrough. It illustrated so clearly our powerful human urge to get to work solving problems – even before we know what the problem really is. Once we had talked this over, I could hear a change in my client’s voice. “That’s right” she said. “That is why we haven’t been able to make progress! It’s because we are all trying to solve different things. No wonder I’ve been feeling so stuck.”

And then the real admission of vulnerability: “I was beginning to think I’m a terrible manager”.

With these realisations made, we were able to embark on our Collaboration Builder program, which brings everyone together to focus on the problem, rather than their pet ‘solution’. Using some simple collaborative tools, a cross-section of stakeholders was able to let go of the urge to ‘fix it’, and to embark on a slower, richer journey of building a shared understanding of just what it was that contributes to poor water quality. Through a series of discussions they built a shared picture of the water quality ‘system’ and some of the forces at play.

Importantly, this process helped everyone see that their solution was likely to be only a part of the puzzle at best. And this realisation helped grow a powerful commitment to work together on the deeper drivers of water quality outcomes.

Four years later the commitment continues, the project is thriving and with various awards under their belt, the success is evident. Collaboration Builder is designed around the idea that defining the problem together is the engine of successful collaboration. It is nice to be able to look back at this project and see just how powerful an engine it is.


Strategy shining new light on collaboration

I was preparing for a short session on collaboration for a client this week, assisted by the local PA. She was setting up the data projector, but we were a bit low to the screen. "No problem" she said, whipping out an inch-thick book to sit under the projector. "At least one use for the strategic plan", and she went on to wonder why the only people who seemed to look at it were the planners......

It struck a chord, and reminded me of a similar experience a few years back, when I was at a Council, and the planner brought out at least 4 versions of a Parks’ Strategy prepared over a number of years. She lamented the lack of ownership of each, and how the planners had been singularly unsuccessful in getting any of the recommendations implemented

Given this gap between planning and implementation seems to be a bit endemic, how might we tackle it?

People are more likely to own the result if they have been part of the process of designing it, so the challenge might be to get the implementer's fingerprints on the plan in some way. This may be tricky given there is often a gap between planning and delivery, both geographically and with timeframes. However, it might provide a potential pathway for greater ownership and implementability.

So perhaps a good question at the start of planning is "who eventually needs to implement this, and how can they can get their fingerprints on the planning process?" i.e. making the co-design more explicit, and inviting others to see it as 'our plan' rather than 'their plan'.

You have at least a couple of choices:

  • You continue with your current approach and develop the plan as you normally would, especially as you tend to engage with those implementers anyway as part of your planning consultation.......
  • Or you sit down and consider how you might think and act as if all the implementers were with you throughout the planning process...  If they were sitting here, what would they need to say, see or hear that would have them all over this plan...?

Thinking in this new way will likely raise practical questions of involvement, resourcing, interest, and so on, but perhaps the real issue is less about the extent of the implementers involvement, and more about the mindset of the planners:

i.e. how do I think about this so it is more likely that those implementing this will see it as their plan too and have the energy to make it happen?

This will prompt different behaviours from the planners more consistent with "our plan", and generate a plan better illuminated in delivery.

Damn, now where is that book to support my next presentation........?


Opening the gate between planners and deliverers

Collaborative processes work best when a collaborative group works and learns together to tackle and resolve a complex problem.  However, sometimes we experience a disconnect between planners who co-create strategy and policy, and those people who deliver those solutions on the ground which can be frustrating and counter-productive.

I recently worked with a group of stakeholders who were working together to design ways to improve community access to a creek.  After sharing ideas, information and activities, they recommended to one of their stakeholder councils that a gate should be installed in a fence to allow access to an attractive part of the waterway. An order was generated in council and passed on to outdoor staff. A gate was duly designed and installed to Council’s internal specifications.

The problem was that the final product didn’t meet the needs of the community who were to use it. It was high and difficult to open, awkward for cyclists, pram pushers and dog walkers. How did this go so wrong, when it seems so simple to get it right? Definitely a case where the implementers were disconnected from the planners.

Almost a decade ago when we wrote our book about collaboration and introduced a framework we call the Power of Co, we included an important fifth step, Co-delivery of solutions that had been generated to resolve complex dilemmas. In Chapter 8, we suggest that co-delivering actions moves us “into the new space of implementation” to “the end we had in mind from the beginning.” We warned that Co-delivery requires action, effort, energy, knowledge and trust, which we were confident would be built up during the first four steps of Commitment to collaboration, Co-Define Dilemmas, Co-Design Process and Co-Create Solutions.

But what happens if the creators of the plan are not the people who deliver it? In our experience this happens a lot.  Sometimes years can elapse until funding can be found, or barriers can come down, to enable delivery. Can the planners genuinely think beyond the strategy document and focus on both generating and delivering the strategy?  What could they do differently as they plan?

Our experience working with clients indicates a number of things they could try. They could:

  • think about the ‘light on the hill’, the aspiration against which the success of the strategy can be measured. Are these likely to be shared by the deliverers?
  • consider who is likely to deliver the strategy and over what period of time.
  • seek data about any potential issues or roadblocks during delivery.
  • recognise that the final plan needs to be owned and understood by those who will implement it and those who will benefit from its implementation.

The experiences we’ve had over the past decade would suggest there is more to be done by the planners as they collaborate, not just after the event, but in the way think and act as they work.

New thinking by the creek planners about co-delivery might have saved the time and money replacing the gate, and built new and positive relationships between planners, council staff and users of the creek.


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?