Where Has All The Certainty Gone?

On Thursday 16th I attended the AWA NSW State Conference and came away with this one question: Where did all the certainty go? Every presentation I went to had something to say about change, about stepping “into the grey”, about “risk on risk” or “unknown unknowns”. I arrived at the conference knowing that managing water is complex. I departed with a new respect for just what that complexity looks like. Here are some of my highlights from the day, with a focus on the increasing uncertainty of the future of water. They represent my recollection and interpretations, so please don’t take them as a gospel version of what was said.

Jim Bentley, MD of Hunter Water, in his keynote spoke about the need to shift the culture from compliance to something new and emergent. In the face of disruption HW is seeking to play a positive role in the life and growth of the region. This means working with others across the region, understanding what they need and stepping together from the certainty of pipes and pumps “into the grey” of learning with stakeholders. Just what that looks like, time will tell. And how we do it? Watch this space.

Dan Berry of Water NSW described how the organisation grapples with the uncertainties inherent in managing bulk water and the system around that, particularly through drought. Just when things seem under control an external circumstance, such as the rapid growth of mining in the Hunter, increases regional demand and throws up new challenges. The world’s economy isn’t getting any more predictable, and neither is the climate, so Water NSW can expect the unexpected as a matter of course.

University of Newcastle academic Anthony Kiem took uncertainty to another level, presenting his analysis of paleo-climate data. Anthony suggests that the ‘normal’ climate is in fact more variable than our 100 years of measurement might indicate. The 1000-year record includes decades-long droughts and epochs of great rains. What would a 40-yr drought do for water supply today and how do our planners incorporate that scale of possibility into the system? Add the global warming overlay and the uncertainty ramps up more.

I watched Anthony’s presentation sitting beside Peter Miller of NSW Treasury. I couldn’t help but wonder what planning for this level of climate uncertainty may mean for the State and national budgets, and for all of us as taxpayers.

Emma Berry of Hunter Water presented on their Water Resilience program, building on Jim’s morning talk. Emma tells us that resilience is a function of adaptive capability and robustness: R = f(r,A). This applies not just to HW but to the whole community, so the question is, how does a water company work differently with the community to maximise collective resilience? HW are trying lots of great ideas, but clearly there is little about it that is certain and the ways forward must emerge in the face of this complex set of challenges.

After lunch it was all about potable reuse, which we all know is where certainty goes to die. Ian Law from IBL Solutions, Wayne Beatty from Orange Council and David Sheehan from Coliban Water each gave terrific presentations on their particular experiences. I was struck by the sense that the technology is pretty good at dealing with microbial contaminants but perhaps less so with chemicals. I hadn’t realised the complexity of that problem, which must make it more challenging when talking to the community about safety. Ian provided a great overview of what is possible. Wayne showed us how Orange City have made it happen while David highlighted the importance of that small intersecting space between regulation, technology and community education. Uncertainty in each of those circles multiplies the uncertainty of the whole. Yet if drought is becoming more common, companies and communities must learn to grapple successfully with these issues.

The panel in the afternoon discussed the challenges of managing risk and – you guessed it – uncertainty. Andrew Francis of Centroc, Dr Nicola Nelson of Sydney Water, Karen Campisano of WSAA, Andrew Graddon of Newcastle Uni and Darren Cleary of Hunter Water talked about “risk on risk”; that is, risks that add to or multiply other risks. Across the sector uncertainties come in all shapes and sizes. In the West a great challenge is finding the workers. Another is ongoing structural reform in local government, meaning the picture is more complex than ever. Technological disruption is rampant. Community expectations change by the minute. For example, in several jurisdictions there is a push on to allow access to water storages for recreational use.

Panelists agreed that the need to collaborate was more important than ever. Partnering with stakeholders, communities and other utilities to find new ways to respond to emerging challenges seems to be the way of the future.

That was about as far as I got in the day; a day full of insights and information. But there is no doubt that the one word ringing in my head as I drove home was ‘uncertainty’. Where has all the certainty gone, and more importantly, how does the water sector build the skill sets and mind sets that are required to function effectively in the grey of complexity? Perhaps that’s a discussion for the next conference.


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?


What Can The Fonze Teach Us About Managing Water?

I grew up watching the American Sitcom Happy Days, which followed the adventures of Richie Cunningham and friends, including the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold character Arthur Fonzarelli – the “Fonze”.

You remember the Fonze, don’t you? He could out-fight and out-cool any opponent. But there was one thing he struggled to do and that was to say “sorry”. Remember that episode where he had to apologise for something and struggled to get the words out? “I’m ssszzzz….I’m suuzzzzzz…. I’m SORRY!”

I’ve realised that most of us suffer a similar problem and the more expert we are the more we suffer. But it isn’t ‘sorry’ we struggle with, it is something even more difficult to say.

“I dddddnnnn….I dddoonnnnnnn….. I dnnnnnttt… I don’t know!”

Phew.

I have been working with lots of scientists and planners in the water sector over the past couple of years and it has become quite apparent that the sector as a whole has a problem with those three little words. Water experts are under pressure to be just that – experts - and for most of us that means knowing our work.

Of course it is important and sensible that water experts know a lot about water, but the need to know and to be seen to know is not always helpful. As we tackle more and more complex issues such as catchment management, water quality regulation, decisions around direct potable re-use, our habit of ‘knowing’ can become a barrier to success.

The reality of course is that in the face of complex issues, we don’t and can’t know. When facing something new at work, we don’t and can’t know. When struggling to collaborate on difficult questions, we don’t and can’t know. And the beautiful thing about saying "I don’t know" is that when we admit that – to ourselves first and then to others – we make space for those others to work with us to find the answers that none of us could have found alone.

So let’s go easy on ourselves, recognise the limits to our knowledge and make it ok for ourselves and our peers to say “I don’t know”. In many situations, to acknowledge that we don’t have the answer is the best strategy, or as the Fonze would say; “correctamundo”!


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.


3 Waters and a Question of Trust

I was talking with a client recently who is tackling a tricky waste water infrastructure issue and I asked what had helped get progress in the face of some seemingly intractable issues between the regulator and the utility.

The client replied that the lack of trust between the two organisations set an undertone that put them on different pages and made it virtually impossible to work together. It was only by addressing trust first - taking the time to build the relationships and being able to have real conversations together - that they now trust what each brings to the table, and are able to work constructively on the challenges.

I was musing on this in relation to a recent media report on the current NZ government initiatives to tackle the country’s 3 waters infrastructure challenges. One risk is that the obvious urgency for a solution may drive a structural and/or regulatory response rather than working with the whole system to develop the best solution.

A high degree of trust will be necessary to allow a frank and honest discussion on what may be the appropriate solutions, especially given the complexity of the situation and the many players involved - 68 territorial authorities, existing water utilities, regulators and central government.

This is the type of complex multifaceted issue that does not suit a unilateral solution - be it regulation, structure or whatever – and it will take the combined talents of those impacted to find a multilateral answer or answers. Taking it slow is quite appropriate, and a solid investment in the trust bank by all players will be an essential ingredient for success.


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?


What IS a collaborative mindset?

I’ve just read a couple of articles posted to LinkedIn today that, in different ways, are practical demonstrations of a collaborative mindset.

The first is an interview with Margaret Gardner AO on Australian Leadership. It’s a long interview but the three bits that caught my imagination were, firstly, that good leaders are generous. Margaret says “I think the truly remarkable thing (about examples of exceptional leadership) is the variety of ways exceptional leadership can be demonstrated.  But anyone who’s any good is generous. Leaders who make the biggest impact are generous in outlook and generous in how they work with others.”

Secondly Margaret makes the case for leaders who experiment. “I often feel we need to reignite the feeling of experiment and boldness.” She wants to hear leaders say “We could follow this bold new path because it would be consistent with what we think is a better life for our people or a better way of operating in the world.”

Finally Margaret refers to the person who “will cause the thing to happen, and in the end nobody is quite sure where it started because he doesn’t need to claim he started it but wants to make sure, with others, that it happens.”

Leaders who ... want to make things happen ... are willing not to have the answer but to experiment ... don’t look for accolades for what they do ... all demonstrate a collaborative mindset.

The second article is about someone I’d never heard of because I’m not a follower of sport. His name is Dwayne Casey, an American basketball coach who took his skills to Canada for seven years with significant success. In his seventh year, he led his team, the Toronto Raptors, to the best record in the NBA and won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. However, two days later he was fired!

Instead of a frustrated or petulant response Dwayne sent a letter to the Toronto Star in which he thanked his team’s supporters without whom the team would not have been successful and he thanked Canadians for “teaching our all-American family the Canadian way. That being polite and considerate to one another is always the best way. That diversity is something to be embraced and celebrated. That taking the time to learn about each other’s cultures is the surest way to find common ground and understanding.”  The letter goes on to say how important it had been for Casey to raise his children “in a country that shows through its words, actions and laws that all people deserve basic human rights, and a chance to reach their goals through education and hard work.”

Casey showed respect for the opportunity he’d been given and the values of the country where he’d lived. He chose to go beyond basketball to a bigger picture. He opened his heart and mind to a positive response of gratitude.

 People who ... demonstrate respect for others’ values ... look for the bigger picture in adversity ... stay positive in negative situations .. also demonstrate a collaborative mindset. Without these characteristics, I can’t see how a leader could collaborate successfully.


The Project Manager Trap Part 2

I recently wrote about the Project Manager Trap, where the skills we seek in our project managers don’t match those needed to deliver on complex projects. Too often, it seems, our aspiration to work collaboratively outstrips our capability to think and act collaboratively.

In this post I’m continuing that conversation with a few more sample skills I’ve pulled from current job ads in the water sector. If you want to know more take a look at our Collaboration Builder program, which is specifically designed to build 'collaborative muscles'.

A current employer is seeking someone with:

  1. Strong knowledge of strategic and technical solutions for water and sewerage

In a business as usual world the manager with this characteristic would say:

“I draw on my knowledge to quickly diagnose and solve problems as they come up, or to recognise when the team has found the way forward.”

But in the complex world of integrated water planning or catchment management the successful manager will say:

“I resist the urge I and others feel to solve the problem, rather bringing the players together to explore how we each experience the dilemma we need to tackle together. I openly acknowledge that even with our collective knowledge we can’t be confident how to approach this problem nor where best to start.”

  1. Strong project management skills

Typically this means:

“I make sure all the boxes are ticked, that good practice is followed and that we have our ducks lined up to ensure smooth progress.”

Whereas in the complex world we might need to think differently:

“Instead of being ruled by the project plan I embrace the emergent practice that complexity requires. I use my project management skills to help others be comfortable in the face of uncertain process, timeframes and outcomes, knowing this is the key to success.”

  1. Ability to balance competing demands and priorities in a sensitive environment

Again, the employer is probably expecting someone who says:

I juggle the competing demands and navigate the sensitivities to ensure outcomes are delivered on time.”

When in reality the collaborative thinking required would be more like:

I share the complexities and sensitivities with all collaborators, acknowledge I don’t know how best to prioritise, and work with them to navigate the way forward together. I embrace trial and error, recognising that we can’t be certain how best to do this.”

The difference between a traditional project management approach and the collaborative mindset is significant. As we move more into a world of integration and working ‘with’ others, we need to be recognising this and ensuring our people have the mindset and capabilities they will need in order to deliver what we ask of them.


The risk of your 'like' bubble

I am noticing more and more as I surf the web how my apps keep managing my feeds - identifying what I click, like, find, etc, and tailoring the results so I get more stuff that will probably appeal to me.

At a deep level I suspect it is quite satisfying and gratifying - making me feel good as I read more stories that I like.

But part of me feels that this isn’t really OK, that I might be at risk of being somewhat manipulated – even just that I’m at risk of missing the bigger picture and perhaps missing out.

So quite a dilemma - because if I opt out I might feel worse off!

It strikes me that I see the very same curating happening with our clients, as they work to collaborate on complex issues across boundaries.

This most often manifests in a discussion about stakeholders - it seems that they often unconsciously select those they like (are easy to get on with, probably agree with, or at least they think might be constructive), rather than those who might disagree, and hold diverse views  that might take the activity in new and potentially challenging (but perhaps more useful) directions

So how might we force ourselves out of our “like” bubble? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Invite those who the organisation is most likely to be nervous about
  • Sit with the person you like the least in the room
  • Pair up with the person you know is most likely to disagree with you
  • Find the wisdom in the view you are most opposed too
  • Share information with those who you think are most likely to misuse it/or use it against you

While such actions may go against the grain, they might just reduce the risk that we compromise the power of our collaboration by relying too much on our curated feed, and not opening our minds to the diversity that we know is a requisite for improved outcomes.

What is your experience? Is your collaboration in a 'Like' bubble?


Making a leadership choice

I’m just back from a fascinating 5 week exploration of Japan. During a train trip out of Kyoto I stopped briefly in the city of Gifu where, very close to the station, is a very handsome golden statue of a daimyo, or feudal lord, called Oda Nobunaga. Our guide that day explained that Nobunaga was one of three 16th century Japanese leaders who unified Japan. The other two were Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu whose Tokugawa family then ruled Japan until 1868.

Our guide described the leadership styles of these three unifying leaders in the following way:

  • If you disagreed with Oda Nobunaga he would kill you.
  • If you disagreed with Toyotomi Hideyoshi he would influence you through powerful argument.
  • If you disagreed with Ieyasu Tokugawa he would wait and work with you until you found common ground together.

This quick story resonated with me.  Three men with very different personal leadership styles all with a hand in unifying Japan. Together they achieved a very difficult task. Perhaps, individually, they wouldn’t have had the same longterm success.

When I returned to work this week, I found my colleague John Dengate, reading Adam Kahane’s book “Collaborating with the Enemy; how to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust”.  In Chapter 2 called “Collaboration is not the only option” Kahane describes four ways of approaching problematic situations:

  • Exiting unilaterally (or getting out) if we don’t believe we can change the situation and we can’t live with the situation as it is.
  • Adapting unilaterally to the situation if we can’t change it and need to find ways to live with it.
  • Forcing (the Nobunaga or the Hideyoshi approach) if we believe we have the power to change the situation ourselves without involving others.
  • Collaborating (the Ieyasu Tokugawa approach) when we believe we can change the situation but can’t do it alone; we must work with others to get essential outcomes.

Each approach is legitimate (well, perhaps not the killing bit in the 21st century).  The three Japanese leaders adopted their own style of leadership for better or worse.  However today, when facing a challenge we can choose, after asking ourselves key questions. Can we change the situation? Can we adapt to it? Can we influence or force the necessary change ourselves? If so, we can walk away from the situation, adapt to it, or force our own desired outcome.

If we believe we can change the situation, but need to do this with rather than to others, then we need to ask ourselves how do we step into a collaborative process?

Centuries apart, the options are very similar. Interesting isn’t it?