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?


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.


A Parent's Guide to Complexity

So there we were last night, finally in bed with reading in hand when my wife put her book down, paused thoughtfully for a moment before saying “the boys seem happy at the moment”.

And it’s true. They do. They seem happy, increasingly resilient, even a little more confident in themselves. Beat the drums and sound the trumpets! Which parent of teenage boys doesn’t want to be able to utter those words from time to time. Of course we want these things for our boys, but there seems to be a problem. We don’t really know how to deliver them.

We feed them: check

Clothe them: check

House them: check

Slip them some spending money from time to time against our better judgement: check

Drive them to parties and pick them up in the wee small hours: check

Provide access 24/7 to endless Netflix and computer games: check

Educate them and give them a range of experiences to draw on: check

Yet despite this, there have been times when each of them has been deeply unhappy, even intractably so. How can that be when we are so obviously ticking the teenage boy happiness checklist?

Raising boys is complex. (Raising girls they say is even more so God forbid). So this of course means that we poor parents are sentenced to long years of uncertainty, worry, intermittent feelings of failure and an abiding sense that ‘we must be doing this wrong’.

Those feelings are understandable and probably unavoidable. After all, they come with the territory of complexity. Yet I take comfort from this idea of creating confident, happy boys, comfortable in their own skin and ‘well-rounded’. We may not know what it’s going to take to get them there but we know that this is what we are working towards. Sometimes, as last night, it seems to be quite close. Other times it seems unattainably distant.

The point is of course that we are aiming for something. Our loosely-defined destination guides us every day as we learn this parenting thing. While we can never be sure how to get there, the idea is like a light on a distant hill inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure.

So if you are facing something complex, whether raising a family or delivering something at work, identifying your light on the hill and keeping it in sight can help you navigate the uncertainty.

Now can I go back to reading my book?


Experimenting with my migraines

I get migraine headaches regularly, and while I take a specific drug to manage them, I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to find a lasting solution.

I had fallen into a pattern of dealing with my migraines as though I knew the problem, that being overtired or stressed were the causes.  I would try everything to fix the causes, while using the drugs as necessary.

The problem was that no matter how much I slept more, rested my neck, using relaxation and meditation techniques, it made no difference overall to the frequency of headaches.

My toolkit was exhausted. I didn't know what to do.

So when I recently saw an on-line Migraine Summit advertised, I thought why not see if it can help me with some new ideas.

As I watched a series of webcasts from doctors around the world, something clicked for me. Migraines are really really complex, and my 'cause and effect' thinking, and single solution focus was not helping.  I realised that perhaps I needed to let go of my belief that I was in control of what was going on, and that I needed to think and do differently.

So rather than having an answer, I'm taking a different approach.  Rather than apply my 'solution' I have set a goal - fewer migraines and fewer drugs - and just try things to see if they get me closer to that goal.

My experiments so far have included tackling mild sleep apnoea, looking at pillow height, diet and hydration, the sequence and type of daily activities, computer usage at night, and sleeping comfort.

And a key in helping me check progress is not a plan forward, but a daily journal of activity, results and learnings from the experiments I am undertaking.

I'm more accepting now that I can't know the answer, and I don't even fully understand the problem, but I'm more confident than before that I'm making real progress towards my goal.

So key realisations for me have been:

  • recognising the complexity of my situation
  • accepting there is a lot I can't know about this, and I will probably never know the “answer”
  • acknowledging that I need to try different things,
  • finding ways to keep track of what helps and what doesn’t
  • and keep trying….

and I feel a lot better about my slightly less sore head!