The environment in which local government operates is highly complex and sometimes chaotic. This is especially true around infrastructure. Large changes in demand and technology, plus increasing pressure to deliver value while under intense political scrutiny create significant challenges that require exceptional leadership. By Helmut Modlik.
Most of those responsible for local government planning, strategy and change management are from my own baby boomer generation. Studying for my MBA 25 years ago, a key aspect of my (and others) training and subsequent practice has been long-term planning based on examining the external and internal operating environment, then formulating a ‘best fit’ strategy and plan.
While this model has served us well, it is less suited to a present and future increasingly characterised by rapid, disruptive change with uncertain implications. The industries represented by Connexis – civil infrastructure, water, electricity supply and telecommunications – are all under pressure from such change. In electricity supply for instance, technologies are evolving at an unprecedented rate. Micro generation and storage and the emergence of electric vehicles have the potential to transform the energy and transport sectors.
If self-drive electric cars enable more intensive use of existing roads, will we need to invest in further infrastructure? As cheap, efficient solar energy and battery storage technology combines with high-performance electric vehicles, what will it mean for our transportation and energy infrastructure? With such uncertainty, how can we formulate reliable long-term plans?
New Zealanders are not alone in grappling with these issues. Some of the best international thinkers argue that a new approach and response is required. For example, the Cynefin model, developed by Dave Snowdon, is highly relevant. Snowdon suggests that all elements within an operating environment can be classified as:
- Simple – predictable / stable and analysed through past experience (best practice);
- Complicated – combination of predictable and unpredictable. Managed through a combination of past experience and prediction (good practice);
- Complex – relationship between cause and effect only recognised after the event but cannot be predicted. Approach is to probe – sense – respond (emergent practice); and
- Chaotic – no relationship between cause and effect so history offers no guidance. Approach is to act – sense – respond (novel practice).
Facing complex and chaotic issues, decision-makers need to fundamentally change their thinking, something Snowdon refers to as “intellectual honesty”. Leaders must be willing to accept that they cannot control or predict key elements of their operating environment. Their response should not be to plan for achieving a specified outcome (because insufficient information is available) but to invest in exceptional people who can thrive in the chaos, empowering them to experiment safely, and to learn and share their lessons. Done well, this approach results in rapid cycles of action and learning. Over time, chaotic elements can be understood, changed to complex, and even simple.
This approach is not without challenges. It requires exceptional leadership and commitment. It also requires skilful risk and investment planning and management, and an agile organisation. Most of all it requires exceptional people operating at the coalface.
While this may all sound too hard, it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. We can manage most of what we face through traditional thinking and approaches. The point is that when faced with the highly uncertain, we can either keep making enormously expensive decisions while pretending we know what’s going on and what will occur, or we can respond honestly and intelligently as Snowdon (and others) recommend.
Our ability to successfully respond continues to revolve around the quality of our people and our investment in them, which is where Connexis comes in. People are our business, and we are here to help local government build their people capability. People are the gift that keeps on giving. We need to focus our thinking and appropriate investment here as we move towards an increasingly complex and uncertain future.