First, people recognize that the green line really does depict the “seismic” process that individuals or groups go through when dealing with a complex and novel problem.
Second, they also recognize that they have been acting as if the red line, not the green line, was how things worked. It’s a lovely moment to behold, like that moment of truth in the Hans Christian Anderson story when the child points out that the Emperor has no clothes.
We need more of these moments, when a trance of social collusion in a myth is broken, and people are freed to trust their experience over proclamations from an authority. It’s good news, this freedom, except of course for the duped Emperor and his obliging court… and their proclamations!
After all, the red line can be managed. It lets you predict the time and money required to get to the solution, and manage the process to stay on schedule and budget. Much of the field of project management is founded on the illusion of the red line, with its orderly cascade from being presented with a new project to the ribbon cutting ceremony.
The green line, of course, is a force of chaos that managers know well, for they are skilled in suppressing that uncontrollable green line process. When the chaos can’t be suppressed, managers use another important skill: Telling a red-line story about the process (aka “status reports”), reinforcing the illusion that the red line really is the way things work.
The main problem with managing from a red-line perspective is that the chaos depicted by the green line is also known as “learning,” and it thus represents the emotional roller coaster familiar to anyone these days who is cursed to be working in a group on a “wicked problem.”
Countless hours are spent in meetings that go nowhere, and that, because of this lack of traction, must be repeated endlessly. There are always “bad stakeholders” who refuse to play by the rules of the game, and who have enough power to sabotage the implementation of the solution, if not the planning process itself. And just when a viable solution is in sight, some new stakeholder shows up and declares (without any gratitude for the hard work done by the other stakeholders to date) that the whole premise of the project is deeply flawed — that “the real issue is” some new factor that the project team has been avoiding. And so the planning process must be rebooted.
These are all symptoms of the process of being forced to wade into the swamp of possible solutions with a group of diverse stakeholders that doesn’t yet understand what the “real problem” is. Such is the territory of contending with problems that involve many stakeholders, have been around for a long time, and are steeped in immense technical and scientific complexity, aka wicked problems. There are no experts who’ve solved similar problems before, or who have the proven process that can guide the project directly to a robust solution. (Those were the days!)
Sure, it’s possible to create and follow a red-line cascade of steps from problem definition to robust solution. It happens all the time with tame problems. The red line is thus a depiction of already knowing, and if the problem you’re working on submits to a linear, red line set of steps to arrive at its solution, then lucky you!
You must resist the temptation, however, of “taming” a problem by artificially narrowing its scope to fit the circumstances, or by excluding stakeholders from your planning process because they’re likely to be unruly. For a professional to do so is unethical (hence the term wicked problem), and never ends well. Many of the most spectacular project failures in the past few decades took the low road of taming a wicked problem. And many times the results of such shortcuts just exacerbate the problem, making it that much harder to address effectively.
These Delta Dialogues are rooted in a new approach to planning, a highly inclusive approach that accepts the green line as essential, because it represents the learning process, and because it leads to shared understanding among the stakeholders, something more valuable and enduring than a mere “solution” to the Delta’s problems.
After six months of meetings and phone calls throughout this first phase of the Delta Dialogues, how much shared understanding is there?
The late September Dialogues meeting offered a test of just that question, in the form of an extended exercise.
When participants in the Delta Dialogues arrived at the Delta Conservancy’s offices in West Sacramento, eight easels were standing around the room, with big blank sheets of paper on each. Soon, representatives of eight different interests — fish and recreation, water users, agriculture, Delta levees, state/federal water agencies, state/federal regulatory agencies, NGOs/environmental, and local government — were asked to pick a board and make two lists. First, name your top three needs in a plan for the Delta that includes conveyance. Second, name your three biggest concerns.
After they’d done this, the different interests were asked to look at each other’s boards. Then, they affixed stickers of different colors to the needs and concerns of others. A green dot was placed next to concerns or needs that they had predicted. A red dot showed that they hadn’t expected that interest to have that need or concern. A blue dot conveyed a lack of understanding.
As each interest read and discussed and posted stickers next to the needs and concerns of others, the room filled with the smiles of expectations met — and some pleasant surprises. They understood each other in most cases. And, when the expressed concerns and needs of others were different than they expected, the surprise lay in the fact that there was so much agreement.
“It was refreshing,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Piepho, once the exercise was over. “Others are thinking the way I’m thinking.”
“We found out that we may have said things differently,” said Dick Pool, representing the commercial and recreational fishing industries, “but we were saying the same thing.”
After that, John Cain of American Rivers deadpanned: “I was thinking the same thing.”
The most surprising need, expressed by state and federal water agencies, was their need for the least disruptive solutions in the Delta that enhance the Delta “as a place” with a strong economic, agriculture, recreation and other things. The stakeholders present also were surprised by water users’ expressed need that a conveyance system be compatible with existing activities and ecosystem functions, including fishing and farming.
Surveying the room, facilitator Kristin Cobble whispered to her colleagues, Eugene Kim and Jeff Conklin, “We have a lot of shared understanding here.”
The demonstration of shared understanding and the detailed discussion that began during the exercise and continued through the meeting left some participants saying it was the strongest meeting so far. Several indicated that they wanted to move into more detailed conversations around what one called “shared solutions.”
In the afternoon, the discussion jumped between specifics and broader conversation about how to move forward with the conversation in the most productive way. Conklin drafted a jagged line on a graph — “like a seismograph,” he noted — to explain the chaotic, difficult sorts of conversation that go into the weeds, but are in fact the way that human beings talk when they learn and address wicked problems.
Such a jagged line is different than the traditional problem-solving process of gathering and analyzing data and focusing on a problem for a long time before formulating a solution. That may sound good or simple, but problem-solving doesn’t work like that, Conklin said. What really should happen in efforts to address complex problems is that participants go back and forth between the problem and potential solutions over and over again in a process that, if mapped, looks like the jagged line.
Some participants said they thought the group got along well enough that they could take the jagged path by addressing more difficult issues and even courting disagreement.
The September meeting also included a new addition to the dialogues: Tom Zuckerman. A Delta landowner who has had a variety of different roles, Zuckerman had been identified as a leader in the Delta in one of the monthly phone calls that have been part of the process. He said he had “been through lots of processes. I’m getting old with a limited amount of energy and time.” He said he wanted to “watch and listen” to the meeting before signing on.
The final meeting of this first phase of the Dialogues is scheduled for October 26.
As the first phase of the Delta Dialogues draws to a close (our final meeting is at the end of this month), we asked our participants to explain what this process was all about, what they learned, what the impact might be, and why we should continue this experiment. Here’s a five-minute video compilation of what some of them said:
Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far, we think it’s essential that this process continue. We’re working on designing the next phase of the Delta Dialogues to extend this work for another year. If you have thoughts, please share them in the comments below. Stay tuned.