Just try stuff…. (or let’s call it experimentation)

One of the best explanations I’ve heard of how to work in a complex environment was from a client last year when I asked her how she now approached her project.

She said that rather than trying to plan out the answer (which was her previous approach), she said she just tries something, checks to see if it is getting her closer to a useful result, and then either does more of that if it seems to be helping, or tries something else if it isn’t.

I was struck by the simplicity of her explanation, and find it a very useful way to describe an appropriate response to the demand for action that is ever present when tackling a difficult to solve dilemma.

I reflected on how we have learnt the value of “experimentation” with a recent issue facing us internally. We were reviewing our marketing approach and were frustrated by a lack of traction with our messaging with potential clients about what we do.

So while our past tendency and experience was to be sure an alternative strategy was robust and would guarantee success, we recognised that we are facing a complex dilemma where cause and effect are not obvious, and probably unknowable, and so perhaps we could just try something different without risking the our whole approach, and see what effect it might have.

We had some reluctance and anxiety in trying that, given the uncertainty and risks inherent in not knowing what might happen (heaven forbid- we might turn off potential clients or push them away!)

So we decided to try something different- a significant change to our messaging.

But we also added some discipline-

  • checking that we had an overall outcome in mind (a “light on the hill” reflecting our sales goals)
  • making the change manageable – keeping it “safe to fail” where we feel we can manage the risk
  • Making the changes quickly and over a short time period (so we can evaluate quickly)
  • And identifying what evidence and outcomes we needed to see over that period to either keep promoting the change, or for us to try something different

This experiment is still a work in progress, but it just feels like the right way to go when we are facing a complex issue. We know from bitter experience that being certain about the way forward has led to disappointment and frustration, and we are increasingly confident that just trying stuff makes more sense.


Is Best Practice Water Management a Myth?

Managing urban water challenges lies at the heart of a sustainable future and drives my work in the sector. As a coach, I talk to many managers and leaders grappling with difficult water projects, learning from both their successes and their failures. In my blog of November 2018, I shared some of the things I’ve learned about mindsets to enable great collaboration. In this blog I will explore one specific element of mindset for water managers.

The mindset I strike often is the idea that we must apply ‘best practice’ to our projects. But this can be a trap for us all. I have learned that when facing complex, multi-party water challenges, the myth of ‘best practice’ can limit, rather than support, progress.

What do I mean? There are many urban water and sanitation initiatives around the world, and from these are emerging many models and frameworks for how to achieve water outcomes. A good example is Sanitation 21, published by the IWA and partners in 2014. This document lays out a comprehensive, detailed ‘map’ for improving sanitation in the developing world. It includes process flow charts and step-by-step instructions and is explicitly an attempt to reflect best practice.

Its great strength is its careful detail about how to go about sanitation projects. Yet, I believe that without a collaborative mindset, this detail can also be a great weakness.

If you are building a water treatment facility, you will find a best-practice, step-by-step guide very useful. You know what the problem is. You know what the endpoint will look like. And if the construction plans have already been proven, they should work just as well here. But changing the long-term sanitation practices of a community is a qualitatively different type of problem. In this situation, there are multiple variables, only some of which we can be aware of and lots of players with different drivers and concerns. There are unique geologies, geographies, governance practices, climatic conditions, budgets and habits. There are social interactions and practices that we can’t possible understand completely. In short, every project is unique and what worked last time may not be appropriate here. In this context, if we attempt to rigidly apply our ‘best practice’ approach we are very likely to fall short.

A key weakness of the best practice myth is that by focussing on delivering a program we greatly increase the likelihood that we are doing this program ‘to’ the people we most need to work ‘with’. This is where mindset comes in. If I feel I have a clear, smart process to follow then my task is to apply it to the best of my ability. But if my belief is that my process map is a hypothesis I bring to the table, rather than the best practice answer, I will think and act differently. I will see stakeholders as co-designers of process. I will listen as loudly as I speak. I will be prepared to put my process back in my pocket and experiment together with this community.

Doing so will encourage innovation from the very people who are impacted by the problem in the first place, whereas doing my change process to them will likely drive them away.

But giving up my process is hard. Sharing control and taking risks makes me feel vulnerable. Isn’t it easier to stick to a proven pathway?

Easier, yes. But that is the trap of the best practice mindset.

 

 

Want to read more about how to successfully deliver complex projects and avoid the trap of best practice?

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders 1st Edition

Jennifer Garvey BergerKeith Johnston

Stanford University Press 2015

 

A leader’s Framework for Decision Making

David J Snowden and Mary E Boone

Harvard Business Review Nov. 2007

 

The Power of Co: The smart leaders’ guide to collaborative governance

Vivien Twyford et al

Twyfords 2012

 

https://extranewsfeed.com/making-sense-of-complexity-ee78755d56b9

Note this article was first published by the International Water Association


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?


What can El Capitan Teach Us About Managing Complexity?

 

In June 2017, climber Alex Honnold became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes.  If that feat alone isn’t amazing enough, he made the climb in 4 hours, when the climbing guides describe it as a four DAY climb.

Coverage of the climb made me think of what it takes to manage in the face of complexity. When you find yourself in a situation that is volatile, unpredictable, with many elements that interact in unknown ways, you may find yourself thinking “I don’t know what to do”.  In that situation the trick is to be clear on the direction, while recognising you can’t know the precise steps that will take you there.

It’s a bit like I imagine rock climbing to be.  The climber knows the direction – up!  And the destination – to the top!  But a climber facing a new climb doesn’t know exactly how to get there.  Yet, they don’t stay at the bottom of the climb until they have solved the problem. Rather, they start.  They go up.  They head in the direction.

And on the way, they will often be wrong.   A new climb will lead them up false paths. Sometimes they may end up going down rather than up. Sometimes they will need to back track and make another choice.  But they are constantly learning and always clear about the direction they want to go.

The climber on an unfamiliar face is an experimenter.  She hypothesises: “If I follow that crack it should get me around that face”.  She conducts the experiment by following the crack and testing her hunch.  If it seems to be working she will keep moving forward and up. If it runs out, she will either return or strike out in another direction.

That’s the essence of managing in the face of complexity.  Identify the direction: we want to ensure the waterway is healthier and more suitable for all users.  Then test the ‘leads’. Follow those cracks that might take you to the top.  They won’t all be successful, but by experimenting your way forward you stand a good chance of getting where you need to go.

Alex Honnold had to use this approach even on such a well-mapped and well-known climb as El Capitan.  There were a couple of places where he had to leave the route and find his own way up.  Despite not knowing, he managed to make progress and smash every preconception about what it takes to achieve the goal.

So, you don’t have to leave the ground to experience the thrill of climbing.  Go forth and experiment your way to success.


The ABC of Complexity

As I write, the head of Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, has just announced a very significant restructure of the organisation and its 5,000 employees. CEO Michelle Guthrie was quoted as saying:

“This exercise today is about making sure we work collectively and in better and smarter ways to serve our audience.” “The initiatives … will improve collaboration and decision making,” “[These changes] provide for more flexibility in allocating resources.”

It sounds very impressive and sensible, but how confident can the CEO be that the restructure will deliver as expected? Complexity science would say not confident at all. Just consider some of the basic concepts of managing any complex system, such as a large corporation.

With a complex system we can only manage the current state, we can’t manage the future state.

In other words we have no way of knowing that if we do X we will get Y. An organisation is like an organism, with many separate parts all interacting in multiple ways, some of which we know about and some we don’t. Because every part of a complex system influences and is influenced by every other part, it is impossible to know with certainty the outcome of any action large or small. Complex systems are the realm of unintended consequences and emergent responses, meaning we can never be sure that the structure we bring in today will deliver the outcome desired tomorrow. The only thing we can be confident of is that we won’t get what we expect.

Beware Premature Convergence

Landing on a solution is what leadership is about, right? Except when we are dealing with something genuinely complex, it is much easier and more comfortable to name a ‘solution’ than to acknowledge and grapple with the inherent unknowability of the situation. The temptation to come to a position is powerful but the minute we start narrowing down – converging on a solution – we reduce our capacity to scan for the unknown, to explore other possibilities, to have our ideas doubted and tested and to test others. In complexity, the answer is never the answer anyway so staying open to what is emerging is a much more powerful strategy.

Experimentation is key

Nobody knows what is the ‘best’ structure for a large public broadcaster in Australia in the early 21st Century. Nobody can know. The changes announced today for the ABC, while couched in terms of certainty, in fact amount to an expensive, possibly disruptive and risky experiment in corporate design, as all such restructures do. They can’t be anything else. But leaders aren’t allowed to acknowledge that they are experimenting on their organisation. They particularly can’t acknowledge it to themselves. Yet, experimentation is in many ways the best strategy.

In complex situations we can’t know in advance the outcome of actions, so how do we manage? We create hypotheses and test them in ‘safe to fail’ ways. We experiment around specific ideas about how the system works and what might improve it. If we find those experiments successful we ramp them up. If we find them failing we dial them down, while learning as much as possible about why they aren’t working as expected. And then we do it again. And again. And….

Management therefore becomes a continuous exercise in ‘learning the way forward’ through incremental changes, using pilots, tests, trials, experiments. At no time can anyone say with certainty that the existing structure is ‘the best’, but they will be able to say that new ideas are constantly being tested and improvements introduced. Importantly, the brainpower of the entire workforce can usefully be employed in generating hypotheses, designing and running experiments, deciding what did and didn’t work and determining and making changes as a result. Rather than paying a big four consultant to ‘fix the problem’ a manager can rely on the employees to co-create something unique, fit-for-purpose and always, always shifting to meet emerging needs.

In some ways, managing complexity is very challenging, but to accept uncertainty and adopt an experimental approach is as easy as ABC.