Guest Column | July 30, 2018

Tackling A Big Water Challenge? Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Angela Payne

By Angela Payne

How your focus on the future can help you deliver real-time results

In his recent interview with Water Online, American Water Works Association (AWWA) President David Rager emphasized the importance of providing a plentiful water supply across the country. Importantly, he also addressed why: Because it’s necessary for so many aspects of our lives. As Rager discussed with Chief Editor Kevin Westerling, the three most important things for a healthy community — public water supply, public sanitation, and refrigeration — all require water. To stay on track with the imperative to keep ample water supplies safe and flowing, persistence will be required with critical efforts to repair and replace infrastructure.

Water sector leaders are under pressure to deliver more than ever before, yet often without optimal levels of resources. It’s a reality that calls for a very deliberate shift in mindset when taking on major projects. If you can effectively create a new context for your people as you take on seemingly impossible challenges, you can position your organization to meet objectives far above and beyond past performance.

Each step of this work entails real focus and discipline, yet each is manageable. And when you put them all together, you will find that you and your team can make unprecedented progress, even under less than ideal circumstances.

Talk about what matters and create a future-focused context.

A good way to start is by talking with people about what’s important to them, and why. The idea here is that you can begin to get people connected to something bigger than themselves.

Let’s say I’m on staff at a water utility, and you’re my boss. It would be one thing to announce to my team that we have a tough deadline to complete repairs on some city water lines, that the timeline is tight, and that we’re under great pressure to get it done right — meeting all quality standards, deadlines, and budget constraints. My predictable reaction to that approach? I’ll feel some stress and I’ll do my best to deliver, but I may also resent the undue pressure on my colleagues and me. And I’ll have no connection to the work beyond that.

But what if you pulled together our team and said we had a problem to help the city address — that there were old, creaky pipes causing far too much leakage, and on top of that, potentially compromising water quality? And what if we all had a conversation about what was compelling about fixing the problem? We could end up framing the daunting project in a way that really mattered to us. Instead of fixing pipes for the city, we could decide we’re stepping up to help protect the people in our community — to stop the loss of precious water, to ensure water quality, and to prevent a potentially catastrophic problem down the road.

The latter conversation is the one that can get you off to a productive start. It’s a way to shift the context of your challenge by talking about the future difference your work will make.

Resist resistance: Keep people’s eyes on the impact of your efforts.

Once your people have established a connection to what they want to accomplish, it’s time to set your timetable and targets and press forward. The early days of such efforts typically go rather well because there’s been a recent shift in people’s lens on the work — from something that’s being imposed upon them to something they’re inspired to make happen. The notion of being able to deliver something that hasn’t been done before tends to be very motivating for most of us… at least at first. It can get tricky when it becomes clear to people that striving for new levels of performance requires relentless effort, often with no immediate gratification in sight. This is when resistance can surface and threaten to stymie your initial progress.

My colleagues and I worked with an oil and gas company striving to deliver a liquid natural gas (LNG) project on a faster timetable than anyone in the region had ever achieved, while at the same time addressing high-profile environmental concerns and strict regulatory standards. The teams involved had coalesced around the ambition of meeting all demands so that they could (1) help ensure the environmental and economic health of the region, and (2) set a new standard for the industry. When the going got tough and voices of resistance surfaced, the venture’s leadership team consistently returned people’s focus to the “why” behind what they were doing.

The leadership team also took care to build opportunities for short-term wins into the timetable. This helped to keep teams highly focused as they generated meaningful real-time results. When people involved in a project have that sense of everyone is pulling together and making a difference, it can perpetuate the kind of confidence and resolve that will prevail over any resistance.

Allow obstacles to fuel breakthroughs.

We all know that obstacles are inevitable when we set out to achieve difficult things. When you endeavor to make something big happen, the issues that arise can loom large as well. But that can end up being good news. Nothing gets people’s attention like an unexpected impediment, whether it’s a sudden supply shortage, community opposition, or a technology malfunction. You’re not on a well-traveled path that’s been cleared; you’re charting your own course and clearing the way at every step.

I advise people that when a problem comes up, rather than approaching it with the view that something is wrong, you can see it as an opportunity for success. If you think about it, when you face an obstacle, you’re being shown exactly where your attention needs to directed.

Let’s say you’re leading an infrastructure project and there’s upheaval in the community about disruptions to their neighborhoods. That’s an opportunity to meet with community organizers, learn about their concerns, and see if you can find a way forward. If the concern is about your hours of operation that impact school bus routes, perhaps there are adjustments you can discuss and agree upon. If the concern is about where environmental testing samples are being taken, you can sit down and talk about compromise testing locations. If there’s internal strife about scheduling, or one team claiming that the other one isn’t delivering: Get yourself in the middle of it and talk it through.

While avoidance may seem attractive as a “path of least resistance,” it almost certainly gets you on a path to derailment. On the other hand, there can be unanticipated positive results when you truly listen to people’s concerns and find strong solutions. Individuals and teams who are seemingly at odds can become unexpected allies. Time and energy that were being spent on smaller details get redirected to the big picture and the ultimate prize. When you can turn a concern into a commitment, your teams gain more momentum, your people become more confident, and your collective efforts can begin to feel unstoppable.

While major projects can come with significant worries, with a new lens on your work, you can lead your team to dramatically higher levels of performance and success. It’s about re-framing your water challenges in the context of the future, while defying resistance and embracing obstacles as opportunities. With everyone’s eyes on the future and how you can help shape it, your organization can accomplish amazing things in the present.

Angela Payne is a leadership expert and author with a background in a range of industries, including natural resources management. As a member of JMW Consultants’ North American Team, she coaches top executives and facilitates training sessions for leaders and teams seeking to step up their professional games. She is based in Boulder, CO.