Guest Column | January 30, 2017

You Need A Bigger Problem

By Casey Freeman, JMW Consultants

We’re starting off 2017 with much anticipation of impending changes, especially when it comes to public policy that will impact the water sector moving forward. As Water Online Chief Editor Kevin Westerling has noted, federal agencies such as the U.S. EPA will look and act very differently under a Trump administration. With issues such as aging infrastructure, water scarcity, and contaminants remaining big threats, leaders in the water industry will continue to face tough challenges — all in the context of change and uncertainty.

While that’s not conventional good news, with the right perspective, it could work in your favor if you’re managing a major project. Some of the toughest problems I see project leaders encounter occur in the context of things being off track, but not dramatically so. For example, if you’re working on a multi-million-dollar infrastructure overhaul and you’re a few months behind schedule and 10 to 15 percent over budget — that’s not great, but it’s not dire, either.

In fact, being a bit late and over budget is not necessarily unexpected or abnormal for projects. And the engineers and others working on the front end of these efforts generally know that. Without something to distinguish this project from the last one or next one, there’s no compelling reason for people to shake up their approach.

The Case For Performance Is Upon Us

But let’s refresh the screen. In light of the current realities of managing water supplies and services in the U.S. with no clear indicators about the direction of certain public policies, the stakes are raised exponentially. Bottom lines could become increasingly fragile and successes versus failures could have sobering long-term implications for future investment decisions.

In recent months, these are the kinds of conversations we’ve been having with client organizations. In one instance, we were working with an energy company. The project we were brought in to support quickly became very different in everyone’s eyes — in fact, special. Working in a region where future oil and gas investment might be in jeopardy if the venture failed — the project’s significance in people’s eyes became about the future of oil and gas in the region. It meant jobs and homes and families’ futures. And there it was: A compelling reason to re-think what they were doing and why; a prize that was meaningful to the people who could make or break the project. Working on a traditional schedule and budget problem was not a sufficiently big problem. Working on the viability of the oil and gas business in their part of the world was a problem worth working on.

Or closer to home, consider the state of California and how it has dealt with water scarcity. After the driest four-year period in its history, state legislators passed strict legislation on communities’ water usage — and people had no choice but to view drought as a harsh reality, rather than the theoretical possibility it had been previously for many. They were issued a call to action as citizens — (1) to shift the way they think about water usage; and then (2) take action by making big changes in how they use water. With this much larger problem to grapple with, people made real and measurable changes in their water usage habits.

Never Miss The Opportunity Of A Crisis

In a perfect world, everything goes according to the schedule and plan and stays on budget. In our real world, there are a lot of tough calls to make under rough circumstances. I read an article recently in an investment publication contrasting how different companies are responding to tight budgets and margins that characterized two approaches as “lifestyle change or crash diet.” It’s a similar principle. You can cut people and cut corners, or you can re-shape how you get things done.

The thing about a greater problem is that it creates a greater possibility. It can wake people up to their work and why it means something. At the end of the day, most people want to do something that matters, and especially something that didn’t seem possible at first. The case for performance is upon us, and your people may be willing to go to greater lengths than you think.

Whatever project is top of mind for you right now, consider the context. What’s truly at stake? If you can reframe the challenge in a way that speaks to your stakeholders meaningfully, you could see this make a world of difference to your outcome.  There are never any guarantees of success, a group of people committed to fulfilling the possibility of a viable future for their community is a powerful thing — and will undoubtedly deliver something beyond what was predictable. So, do you need a bigger problem for your project?

Casey Freeman works with leaders and their teams to approach critical objectives in new ways — from significant cost savings and revenue increases to dramatic quality and productivity improvements. He supports clients in industries ranging from real estate and finance to natural resources and oil and gas, engaging in one-on-one leadership coaching as well as the design and delivery of programs tailored to the developmental needs of organizations. Casey is based in Houston, TX, and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University.