A plan or a target?

There’s been a lot of talk recently by politicians here in Australia about the benefit of plans versus targets, particularly in relation to reducing carbon emissions to ensure the future of our planet. This binary argument may be useful as a club to beat the opposing political party with but is it useful as a way to safeguard our future?

Let’s look at what they offer.

A plan is typically a series of steps or intended actions within a specified timeframe, developed to co-ordinate the activities of many people in order to achieve a desired outcome. Plan making is useful when the present situation is known, the desired outcome is clear and the intended actions required to achieve the outcome are obvious, known or at least knowable.

So important are plans to the successful completion of small and large scale projects that a whole discipline, as well as hundreds of project management software programs have been developed to co-ordinate the skills and personnel involved. One of the key requirements of a useful plan is that the enthusiasm and energy required from those who will carry it out can be sustained over the life of the plan. Unfortunately we have seen too many plans still sitting ... unactioned ... on shelves as testament to the desire to create a plan before getting commitment to making it work.

A target, on the other hand, is typically strategic, aspirational and longer-term. While it may be time-defined, it is future focused, so any attempt at including details of actions required to achieve it would be mere fantasy. At the time of setting the target they are unknown. While the target can be articulated with clarity such as “zero carbon emissions across Australia by 2050,” what this will look like in every sector is unknowable.

A target is intended to be aspirational, inspirational and motivational.  It provides some certainty as to intention.  It encourages all those with an interest in achieving longer term outcomes, even past their own working lives, to start thinking about and working towards achieving what may currently seem an impossible outcome. It provides a language to share ideas across sectors and find partners and collaborators in unlikely places. It encourages investment in specific technologies that may contribute towards achieving outcomes that at the time of setting the target are not even on the horizon.

No one person or group of people will manage the journey to the target, although many may contribute.  The target is like a ‘light on a distant hill’ inspiring us to act and learn together, even when we are most unsure. It will encourage individuals, teams, organisations and sectors to make small advances towards the target over time.  Celebrating every step that brings us closer to the target, small or significant, made anywhere, by anyone, attracts more people with a desire to contribute.  Success breeds success, across sector boundaries and among unlikely partners.

Targets and plans will make different contributions towards reaching a ‘light on the hill’.

It is helpful to start with a target. If it’s important and genuine, it will support individuals, organisations and sectors as they invest in and experiment with new ideas, technologies and ways of acting together. Solutions will emerge from uncertainty, new thinking and collaborative effort. Then plans and activities will have their place to deliver them.


Collaboration- is the map a bit blurry?

One of our clients, in commenting on using our Power of Co (PoC) framework, said what he really liked about it was that it gave his staff something concrete to do - they no longer just sat around looking at each other when collaborating- but rather they set about it purposefully and had a bit of a map to follow.

Others have appreciated the fact that it gave their teams a common language with which to approach complex issues, and to understand together some of the key elements they needed to keep in mind when collaborating.

However, clients have also reported some frustration in trying to apply the framework - while they appreciate the approach, they can find it hard to translate into day to day project actions.

We do hear comments like:

  • Yep, I get that commitment is key, but do struggle to know what that might look like, or how to test it
  • When I try to co-define the dilemma with a diverse group, I find it difficult to gain consensus, and so we often still seem far apart and holding different versions
  • I like the idea of people's fingerprints on what we are planning to do, but can't see obvious ways to make that happen
  • When we start looking for solutions, we always seem to focus on the obvious and struggle to think outside the square. It would be good to have some guidelines around trying alternatives

We also see some reservation from project oriented staff, and their bosses, due to a perceived lack of rigour and associated uncertainty in the PoC framework - ie no firm timelines, milestones, or tangible outputs. This is often reflected in complaints like- "but how do I know the process is working and will deliver the results...."

It reminded me of looking at an old small scale road map last night that my wife and I used some years ago to navigate a car trip around Europe- it gave us a bit of a guide, but I do often remember often being a bit lost when we arrived in the specific town and not sure where to go....

This further reinforces our current focus on developing something more like a 'turn by turn' guide to navigate our way in these complex collaborative times. Stay tuned for what such a guide might look like.


Can you "structure" emergence?

In our experience, an issue that constantly emerges, particularly from the leaders, is the lack of something tangible to 'anchor to' when staff are attempting to collaborate. They want to collaborate but are missing the measures, lacking project structure or a plan.

So for some years we have been delivering programs such as Collaboration Builder, and now an obvious and ongoing question for us is how to add rigour to the collaborative process without compromising the emergence which we believe is a key attribute of effective collaboration.

While almost all collaborative processes lay out principles and a broad guide, such as our own Power of Co Pathway, it is almost impossible to find a definitive process map of what to do, when and how to do it.

Now why is that?

We know that dealing with complexity requires a different approach to business as usual, and that structured problem solving methodologies do not work well in situations where uncertainty reigns, solutions are unknowable and even the problems are unclear. In these situations it is foolhardy to closely define the plan as it will likely fail to allow for new emerging directions that are the very heart of good collaboration- where the solutions emerge from the interaction, and can't be planned with "best practice" or even a "good practice" approach.

Yet clients want clarity and confidence. In an attempt to tackle that dilemma, we wondered what characteristics to consider in a useable guide. We landed on four which we use regularly as a lynchpin for our work- content, process, mindset and relationships. We then considered what might be useful under each heading to provide a bit of a map without compromising the flexibility and emergence critical for working in complex situations.

  • Content- recognising the tangible focus for working differently
  • Process- mapping out the collaborative frame
  • Mindset- shining a light on how people might think and act to hold that frame
  • Relationships- checking in on how the relational dynamics are being monitored and tackled consistent with the desired frame

The next step for us is to provide some more clarity on what these might look like, without locking in to a pre-determined plan. Stay tuned for updates, and let us know what you think.


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 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......


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!