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)


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.


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.


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!