Guest Column | August 30, 2016

Collaborating To Confront Water Scarcity: 5 Things To Know

Deborah Kiers

By Deborah Kiers

As water organizations in the U.S. and beyond gear up to find new ways to deal with water scarcity, my colleagues and I are increasingly asked what we’ve learned working with water corporations in Australia. The first thing that comes to mind: Deal with water issues before scarcity arises. A recent Water Online article by my colleague Jane Hughes makes this point, stressing the importance of collaboration in finding solutions to defeat drought.

Whether it’s working together across organizations, communities, or regions, collaboration is becoming essential to the viability of a multitude of efforts globally. Yet survey after survey shows that a majority of collaborations don’t deliver the results intended.

Why? Collaboration is something we know is effective, but people don’t always have a shared understanding of what it is. Whether you’re a water organization, a business delivering water sector technology or equipment, or another stakeholder, understanding collaboration could be your game-changer. Here are five things to know about how it works.

1. Collaboration is not cooperation

People often use the words “collaboration” and “cooperation” interchangeably. But these are very distinct concepts. Since ancient civilization, people have engaged in cooperation — for example, through trade and contracts. If you go to the market and purchase vegetables that a farmer grew hoping to sell them, that transaction is the result of a cooperative effort — separate self-interests coming together and both parties getting what they want. It’s very common, and most of us are involved in cooperation every day.

As a colleague of mine says: Collaboration can’t be bought, but it can be inspired. When people collaborate, they are connected to something larger than themselves and share a greater purpose. They’re reaching beyond the personal credit or compensation that might usually be their motivation because they’re more interested in the greater good. So if you’re a leader in the water industry and want your people to break through and perform in a way they never have before, you may want to focus on creating an environment of collaboration.

When collaborations work, successes are often attributed to best practices, having chosen the right partners, or good communication. When collaborations fail, the reasons cited often include cultural mismatches in or a breakdown of trust. But collaboration success defies conventional analysis. This is what we’re witnessing in the Australian water industry right now: a realization that collaboration doesn’t mean sharing best practices with your peer group, but working side by side to tackle a common challenge. We’re seeing the most successful water corporations in the region partner in new ways to develop technologies, educate consumers, and anticipate future challenges.

2. Conversations matter

One of the key capabilities required for successful collaboration is the ability to engage in critical conversations at the outset, as well as deal with inevitable setbacks along the way. At these important junctures, certain fundamental conversations arise which, for better or worse, set the stage for future decisions, behaviors, and actions of those involved.

The primary medium in which work is done today is, quite simply, conversation. The nature and quality of different types of conversations — those spoken as well as things that remain unsaid — have a big impact on thinking, behavior, and action. A lack of insight and ability in this area can substantially increase the likelihood that the partnership will fail — whether succumbing to confusion or mistrust, failing to seize opportunities, or responding ineffectively to external threats.

The good news: It is possible to develop the thinking and behaviors required for effective collaboration by building a competence in managing critical conversations. For instance, five years ago, my colleagues and I were called in by the managing director of a rural water corporation in Australia. The organization was emerging from the worst water crisis in history, steeped in controversy because of huge budget shortfalls, a massive irrigation project far behind schedule, and a flawed tariff structure. Almost no one involved believed the newly-appointed leader could right the ship. But within two years, more than $3 million in cost savings had been identified, the irrigation project was well underway, and the tariff system was being rewritten by a working group comprised of local water committees.

Their path from crisis to success started with a very candid conversation among all the key players involved. That, with a lot of work along the way, led to a subsequent articulation of — and agreement on — a new way forward collaboratively. It was an approach everyone could not only live with, but take a stand for.

The rewards for getting it right like this are high: the opportunity to resolve potential difficulties before they arise, the ability to shift perspectives that govern day-to-day interactions, and the capability to produce actions that are consistent with effective partnering. It can also pave the way for breakthrough results.

3. There’s never a blank slate

When embarking on a collaboration, each partner brings to the table very real, habitual ways of getting things done and dealing with people. In addition, each partner brings its collective experience and knowledge — not only insights and capabilities, but also attitudes, beliefs, and strongly-held points of view. This means it’s virtually impossible to start a collaboration with a blank slate.

The ability to discuss the undiscussable starts with setting known issues on the table from the start and moving to raise more challenging subjects such as:

  • Are our specific objectives and time frames aligned?
  • Which types of information and capabilities will be shared — or not?
  • What are our top priorities and performance expectations for each other, and how will we measure success?
  • How will the collaboration affect accountabilities and roles of key individuals or teams? How will we deal with duplicated roles and responsibilities?
  • What specific joint priorities will we set beyond our respective agendas?
  • How will we handle the aspirations and expectations of our people, so that they align with our shared goals?

These matters have to be addressed, as opposed to allowing critical issues to remain in the background. Even highly capable leaders regularly fail to raise difficult issues which can make or break the partnership, unaware of the potential negative impact of unspoken conversations.

We saw this in an infrastructure project that was one of the most geographically challenging undertakings in Australian history. Five partners came together to deliver this high-profile, multi-million-dollar road upgrade on a tight deadline — all in the context of dangerously dry and shifting soils. The beginning of the effort was rocky, largely because none of the partners had ever before participated in true collaboration. Yet they ultimately delivered ahead of schedule and under budget, with awarding-winning standards for safety, quality, community contributions, and environmental protection.

The starting point was getting people together to ask the tough questions up front. Then came agreement about the type of no-blame culture that had to be developed, and a collective commitment to air any concerns or grievances along the way. That’s what they did, effectively surfacing unspoken issues, equipping people with an awareness of what it means to really listen to one another, and keeping everyone’s eye on the prize. In short: Effectiveness in any collaboration involves addressing not only what people are saying, but also what’s not being said.

4. Someone’s problem is your problem — and could be your defining moment

In every collaboration, critical incidents or events surface that may serve, for better or worse, as turning points. These circumstances can be positive, such as meeting a deadline ahead of schedule, an innovation that dramatically elevates outcomes, or outstanding performance against targets. More often, however, the incident arises by virtue of a problem or setback. If poorly managed, communication can shut down and collaboration can turn to mistrust or defensiveness — ultimately leading to the partnership’s demise. Yet these same events, appropriately recognized and managed, can act as powerful leverage points.

Too often when a significant problem arises, each stakeholder begins a slide into explanations, justifications, and finger-pointing. Even smart, well-educated, capable people can revert to past behaviors, turning their focus to saving face and assigning blame. This can rapidly spiral into a vicious cycle of mistrust and recriminations where collaboration becomes increasingly difficult, knowledge and resources are hoarded instead of shared, and the promise of the endeavor gives way to an endless tangle of battles.

Looking back, leaders can often point to the pivotal moment when things took a turn for the worse; but often the unraveling appears as a mysterious process they were powerless to halt.  At such a moment, it is critical that the partners focus not on what is wrong with the collaboration or with their partners, but rather on what is missing that could provide impetus for the next level of success.

In an epic oil and gas project, my U.S. colleagues were called in to support an ambitious effort to develop a remote deep-water gas field. For decades, the world’s most powerful energy companies had failed to do so. When five joint-venture partners took on the challenge, the effort almost failed before it really started. What steered the project away from collapse — and put it on course for completing the design and engineering project phase in record time — was redefining that moment of near failure. Every key player was brought in to discuss what had to happen and when, and to agree to a broader vision they were committed to delivering. It was a little grittier than that, yet also a case where the “devil” was not in the details — but rather, the bigger picture that would unite the partners and motivate their eventual success.

It’s inevitable that collaborations will encounter problems. At these times, it’s the ability to return to a vision of a shared future that allows for a profound and solid relationship even in the face of setbacks.

5. The end game: results

This talk of motivation, vision, and aspiration is not happening in a vacuum: Collaboration is all about results. Many parties embarking on collaborations focus so powerfully on what they consider to be cultural issues — merging styles, structures, and operating practices — that results take a back seat to the formation of the partnership itself. Maintaining this internal focus places the cart before the horse and virtually ensures that opportunities and goals will be missed while partners are working on their relationship, versus their business.

The purpose of any collaboration is, after all, not to build a partnership but to achieve some advantage that each partner is unlikely to realize on its own. A clear articulation of this advantage — what future it promises, what opportunity it holds — provides a basic framework in which the partners can move forward powerfully together. Grounding the collaboration in a set of well-defined principles provides a clarity of focus that guides leaders in important decisions and allows new structures, processes, and systems to emerge in support of the goals at hand.

Some tips for delivering action and results include:

  • Involve all parties in developing targets that are a win for everyone
  • Establish and track shared metrics that show progress toward a breakthrough outcome
  • Set clear, aggressive targets that demand new behaviors
  • Ensure targets are an expression of a compelling aspiration

Most important of all is the creation of a game worth playing: an aspiration so large and uplifting that all involved are inspired to act. At a leading urban water corporation in Australia, the general manager for People and Culture described the phenomenon this way after a significant shift upward in performance: “Everyone knew where they were going, and why — and importantly, what their contribution was.” In this instance, the “game worth playing” evolved from “let’s be a really great water utility with really happy and capable people and satisfied customers,” to “let’s transform the water industry for our community and beyond.” This elevated sense of purpose was ultimately their game-changer.

The people involved in a collaboration can transcend obstacles when they are drawn forward by some meaningful possibility. When the success envisioned is more powerful than moments of disappointment or failure, the necessary thinking and behaviors can be developed, and the extraordinary benefits of collaboration can be realized.

Deborah Kiers has partnered with global clients in a range of industries, including construction, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and defense.  She supports top executives and organizations in efforts to improve performance, build effective partnerships, and develop the leadership capabilities required to be successful. Prior to joining JMW Consultants in 1993, Deborah held management and advisory positions in both the public and private sectors. In 1992 she was awarded a Harkness Fellowship by the Commonwealth Fund in New York. She earned a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard University, where she won the Littauer Award for academic excellence and leadership. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.