The four traps on the path to a digital water future

In its recent Digital Water report, the International Water Association lays out a map for the transformation water utilities are undergoing towards a digital future. The report draws on interviews with many industry leaders to arrive at eight key findings.

I do a lot of work with water companies, and I am working on a number of ‘digital futures’ projects. These experiences have highlighted some important, and surprising, risks to successful transformation. These are the traps that are likely to capture the unwary business as they walk the slippery path to a digital future.

Trap 1. The need for certainty in an uncertain world.

The world of digital technology is changing rapidly – even exponentially. This brings with it unavoidable complexity and uncertainty. The only thing we know for sure is that the technology and systems available in 10+ years will be different in ways we haven’t imagined yet.

The uncertainty of the digital future means managers will have less clarity than ever before. They will have to make decisions and find the way forward when the ‘right way’ is impossible to know. They will have to act even when the outcome is unclear.

The trap is apparent in the IWA report itself. The advice from leaders is to build a clear roadmap for the journey, identify priorities, outline strategies, allocate funding, get approval for plans. The trap is that doing so from a business as usual (BAU) mindset will lock managers into a fruitless search for certainty through endless planning. In a complex and emergent realm, BAU project management can’t deliver, yet it is often the only tool we know. Managers will continue to plan in order to act, when the transformative approach is to act in order to learn.

Trap 2. The curse of the expert.

The water sector is full of subject matter experts, operating in a culture that relies upon and rewards expertise. Knowing the science and applying it to problem solving has long been the key to success in the industry.

Yet in a complex and emergent world, we must recognise the limits to our knowledge, and the limits to our ability to work things out. Building a networked organisation to deliver emerging solutions to fast-evolving challenges, in a complex social, regulatory and political environment, brings with it the painful inevitability of saying “I don’t know”.

The trap is that that while we rationally recognise this and understand the logic of it, in many cases our organisational and personal identities are built on the ability to deliver, to have the answer or to solve the problem. The curse of the expert dooms us to relying on our experience and knowledge, even when these are insufficient to the task. Organisation who can’t break the curse will struggle to make the transformation to a digital future.

Trap 3. Knowing the solution before we understand what the problem is.

As the report highlights, moving to a digital water future will involve a wide range of stakeholders and a wide range of technologies. The promise is that getting all of the different parties to work and co-create together will ensure smart and implementable solutions.

The trap comes from the very human urge to get on and solve the problem - an urge that is very hard to resist, even when we rationally know that the problem is complex and messy. The technology providers will each come with a particular tech solution to an often-unspecified problem. Communities will be looking for a different range of outcomes. Water companies will have another suite of solutions based on a long history of providing safe water and sanitation. But what’s the problem we are trying to solve here?

Stepping back from ‘my’ view of the problem and solution is a very difficult thing to do. The tendency is to gloss over this part of the process and get into the exciting work of doing ‘new stuff’. The consequence is everyone running off in different directions. No alignment, No clarity. No results. If we don’t learn to be curious about the problem together, before considering solutions, we will put at risk the creation of a smart digital water future.

Trap 4. The need to control

The report describes a digital maturity curve from a transactional organisation through transitional, to dynamic and flexible, with strong networks within and between utilities and other stakeholders. This requires a less siloed, more connected and collaborative organisation.

The trap is that while leaders talk about collaboration, many continue to maintain control through BAU systems, relationships and structures. Some drivers are obvious – leaders are expected to be accountable for all that happens, so they naturally want to have their hands on the levers. But the key trap is in the less obvious drivers, such as the unconscious belief that ‘as a leader I should be the person who makes the decisions and calls the shots’. The flip side is the equally powerful tendency for team members to feel that ‘I had better take this to the boss, just in case I’m doing something wrong here’. In other words, all levels of organisations conspire to maintain existing power structures, even in the face of broad agreement that things must change. Without transforming the power dynamics, a flexible and collaborative organisation is out of reach.

These four traps aren’t the only ones that lie in wait for water businesses on the path to a digital future, but they represent the subtle complexity of the task. They also demonstrate that achieving a digital future is not simply a matter of focussing on smart technology. It is, at heart, a human journey, and all the more transformative for that.


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.


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.


Two things that collaboration is NOT

As I listen to people learning to collaborate, some of their difficulties seem to emerge from their ideas about what collaboration is and how and when it is used.  I heard two people recently experience ‘light bulb moments’. One suddenly realised that working collaboratively to tackle a complex problem is qualitatively different from project management. Another realised that working collaboratively is not the same as negotiating to get the best terms in a zero sum game.  These light bulb moments seemed worth exploring further.

Project management

Project management is described as the practice of initiating, planning, executing, co-ordinating and controlling the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria at a specified time.

It is a highly efficient practice when bringing together a team who, between them, have all the knowledge and skill necessary to achieve project goals within the time frame.

It is NOT effective when the problem to be solved is complex and there is little agreement about the scope or focus of the problem, or any shared understanding of how to work together. In complex situations many people know something about the problem but no-one knows everything, while the way forward is uncertain and the outcome unknowable at the start. This uncertainty requires both collaborative leadership and collaborative skill, including the ability to say “I don’t know”, to demonstrate vulnerability, to work with uncertainty and to be willing to experiment, trying new ways of working and constantly checking together on what the team is learning together.

These are different ways of thinking and behaving from those needed by a project manager.

Negotiation

Negotiation is described as a bargaining process between two or more parties, each with its own aims, needs and perspectives, who seek to reach an agreement or resolve a conflict.

Negotiating is useful at times of conflict, when the aims of parties have been established and are in direct opposition.  When negotiating people believe if they are to get what they want, the other party has to give up some part of what they want.  So the focus of a negotiation is about trade-offs ... what each party is prepared to give up in order to get something they want. Hence a good negotiation for one party often means a bad one for the other and can lead to resentment and damaged relationships.  The intent of a negotiation is about getting the best for ME.

Negotiation is NOT effective in building the essential relationships that support complex problem solving. People tackling a complex problem need to understand and respect each other’s perspectives, define the dilemma together and recognise that it is something they cannot solve alone. Learning about the whole system in which the complex dilemma is a part is also important. A different set of skills is required which includes curiosity, questioning, listening and reflecting.  Collaboration is about finding solutions that are best for US and the whole system affected by the dilemma.

This requires different ways of thinking and behaving from those of good negotiators.

I’m going to think about the other things that collaboration is NOT, so perhaps it becomes clearer what it IS.


Project management versus collaboration - choosing your approach

When I’m asked “Why won’t our familiar project management approach work for this tricky project? Why should we try something that feels uncomfortable and different?” my response is along the following lines …

The project management approach

Project management is extremely useful when:

  • There is agreement on the scope of the problem …
  • Milestones and deliverables are clear and agreed …
  • This kind of problem has been solved before …
  • The appropriate expertise exists and is accessible …
  • There is certainty about what needs to be done …
  • The road ahead is clear even if at times the terrain may be bumpy …
  • The solution will be obvious when achieved.

Even if things don’t go quite according to the prepared plan, an effective project manager/team leader will get things back on track and back ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’.

And once we’ve solved this problem, we can solve another one like it using the same thinking and repeating the same project management techniques.

The collaborative approach

In contrast, the collaborative approach is most useful when:

  • The scope is hazy and everyone sees it differently …
  • No-one agrees when, where or how to start …
  • No-one has solved a problem like this before although many are working on bits of it …
  • Nobody has all the expertise, but everyone has some …
  • Existing knowledge is insufficient; new ideas and new thinking are needed …
  • The way ahead is uncertain; the diversity of views and our natural urge to return to certainty cause conflict …
  • The endpoint may never be reached; it keeps changing with new learning.

Choosing your approach

Working in complexity requires a collaborative approach and a collaborative mindset. It can be very hard for acknowledged experts to admit to not knowing, and for leaders to say they don’t have a solution and need help to find one. To make collaboration work, teams and organisations need particular skills that, in our experience, cannot be learned in a classroom. These skills include:

  • A collaborative mindset or way of thinking (CQ) ..
  • An understanding of the ‘why’ of collaboration ..
  • A practical framework or pathway to follow ..
  • An ability to work in uncertainty, to take risks, to test boundaries ..
  • An ability to experiment, learn new things by trying and sometimes getting it wrong ..
  • Advocacy and enquiry, listening and strategic questioning ..
  • Confidence in collaborative processes and an ability to adapt behaviours to help groups ‘hold the collaborative frame’ and build trust and positive relationships, rather than become divided by differences of opinion, argument or actual conflict.

In our experience, teams and organisations are starting to understand complexity and the collaborative approach needed to tackle it. They accept that the relevant mindsets and skills can only be learned through doing the work and looking over the collaborative parapet to see a new way forward.


What to do when you don’t know what to do

One thing is certain … collaboration will take you into uncertainty. You start on the collaborative journey full of enthusiasm and energy. “This is exciting,” you say to yourself and your new colleagues on the collaborative journey. “We can learn to work together and we can achieve things that none of us could have achieved on our own! Let’s get started!”

But someplace and sometime on the collaborative journey, the group or individuals within it will say “I don’t know what to do next!”

Sometimes this happens because the way forward, which looked like a clear road ahead in the collaboration guidebook, becomes narrower and full of thorny disagreements. People who seemed initially very committed to working together seem to argue over small things. There are differences of opinion that seem irreconcilable. Meetings descend into arguments about personal opinions rather than opportunities to share and explore diverse perspectives.

Here are a few thoughts about how to move forward when you and your group just don’t know what to do next on the collaborative journey.

A road map or a set of handrails can help

It doesn’t matter what map or model of collaboration you’ve chosen, when things get tough ask questions. What does the model suggest as a next step? Where might the group need to backtrack? What principles of collaboration, if applied in this situation, might overcome a roadblock? What questions or activities might take the group out of their messy arguments into a space of shared exploration.

Share your concerns about what to do next and find a solution ‘with’ your collaborators

When you’re not sure what to do next, ask the group for suggestions. Let go of your need to manage, and be willing to say “I don’t know, I need your help.” Invite conversations in pairs or small groups, encourage suggestions and thinking together. Explore the assumptions collaborators have about each other and the problem they need to tackle. Document the outcomes of the conversations. Use the data to make decisions together. Collaboration requires practice – so keep practicing.

Try something active

Next time you meet, try an investigative activity. Ask your group what would be helpful for them right now. Would a walkabout or a site visit create a shared experience to build positive relationships? Perhaps exploring new and unfamiliar spaces would make it easier for people to express their vulnerabilities and learn from others. Perhaps being physically active would stimulate their ability to think and act together. Ask whether meeting in a different space might change the dynamics and help you all to move forward.

Test a hypothesis

Run a small but do-able experiment to help the group focus on something practical and provide a sense of achievement and learning. For example, establish your hypothesis that, if your collaborative group could design and run its own meeting instead of ceding responsibility to a facilitator, it would learn something useful about collaboration. Then run the experiment and check whether the hypothesis is correct. Check that what the group is learning through its experiments is moving it in the direction it needs to go.

Look for articles and books, conferences and speakers

Research what other people have done in similar situations of not knowing what to do. Ask whether anyone in the group has read a book or article about collaboration or been to a conference or event where someone gave useful advice? Ask for a 2-minute summary of what they learned and ask the group what suggestions arise.

Just do something concrete – something practical rather than theoretical

Sometimes it helps to ask your group to do something meaningful from which they learn together. Identify a right-sized but real-world problem, associated with the collaboration, that moves the group closer to its ultimate goal. Work out a way to solve it together. Have at least one member of the group watch the process used to solve it and have them report back on what was done and how the group worked together. Learning through doing is powerful and builds trust.

Accept the consequences of whatever the group has done.

Try any of these suggestions and own whatever results you get. Learn from them and move on. Don’t be burdened by regret or a sense of making the wrong choice. There is no wrong choice. Fail forward. Learn from every experience including mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

When you don’t know what to do … try something!