Just a quick entry. A great demonstration of how connected our world is today. Here’s a video showing the planes getting back in the air after the volcano-induced shutdown of European airspace.
The diversity that came together in Beijing was incredible. In just my Working Group alone, we had individuals from India, Germany, Pakistan, China, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Malawi, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, South Africa, Singapore and Indonesia. We had people in industry, education, banking, forestry, environment, and engineering, just to name a few of the professions and backgrounds of this group. Amongst other roles during the week, I facilitated this group of leaders throughout the conference. In 7 days, I learned a number of things from this amazing group of people, including:
When you have capacity in the room, get out of the way.
From the first day our working group met, it was evident that there was an immense amount of knowledge and capacity in the room. While many people are intimidated by the diversity that a group like this represents, I firmly believe that diversity is a key element of successful groups. Working Group 6 in Beijing affirmed that belief. The backgrounds, personalities and styles were diverse, but complementary. From the early stages of our process, it was clear that my job was to get the group comfortable with each other, the conference and their task (creating a 10-minute presentation for the conference participants on the last day). Once that was accomplished, I went into “un-facilitation” mode and let this group full of articulate, passionate and intelligent people move ahead.
Often times, folks in my position make everything about them and try to control every aspect of a process. That’s a bad move. In short, with everybody capable and comfortable, just get out of the way. Things will work out just fine.
Working Group 6: A study in intelligence, passion and capacity
Respect = progress
After I took a back seat in the Working Group 6 process, one key attribute of the group kept surfacing: respect. Throughout the week, the members of our group showed each other a tremendous amount of respect. They went out of their way to ensure everyone’s voice was heard. They listened intently to everyone’s ideas. They acknowledged each person’s strengths and contributions to the group. The group created a situation where everyone felt valuable and welcome.
Without this respect, the group wouldn’t have progressed as quickly and effectively as they did. Aretha Franklin would have been proud.
We need to use creativity and passion more often.
The end result of Working Group 6’s efforts was an incredible video discussing the economy and the need to shift to a more sustainable way of doing business. Tapping into the diversity of the group and respecting each other, the video demonstrated the power of creativity and passion in communicating and motivating people. Too often, we get bogged down in bureaucratic, stale ways of communicating. The term “death by PowerPoint” comes to mind.
A good demonstration of how creativity and passion motivates can be found in the video’s main editor - Rogelio Canizales Perez from Mexico. With only 24 hours to create and develop the presentation concept, the group had to put in a late night. After a certain point, though, it came down to editing the video clips and ideas that the team had put together. Rogelio stayed up until 6am editing the video to ensure it was ready for the 9am start time for the presentation. Rogelio later told the group that he felt so motivated by his teammates that it wasn’t a chore for him to stay up all night to create the video.
That’s the power of respect, creativity, passion and teamwork.
People are the solution.
As the week progressed, it became apparent that the conference participants could be put into one of two categories: those that saw people as the source of our problems and those that saw people as the solution to our problems. While both are right in a sense, those that saw people as the solution were able to communicate in a way that connected with the audience on a much more profound level that just blurting out facts and figures. Often times, discussions on sustainability and climate change become too technical, too abstract. The LEAD International Session participants used humour, music, drama, video and even dance to get people thinking and acting in a new way. Remember that if these issues are to be addressed, it’s people that will do the work, so try to connect with them in a meaningful way.
All in all, it was an incredible week and definitely worth the jetlag and fatigue that I’m feeling upon returning back to Canada.
(And I’ll try to track down the Working Group 6 video from Rogelio and post it here as soon as possible!)
- John, November 19, 2009
A message that I continually hammer home for the students in my Urban Studies class "Planning the Canadian City" is that they need to find interesting and imaginative ways of telling their story. Rather than have a series of exams where the students just regurgitate information, only to forget it the next week, the class is one large group project, with various assignments asking them to study a community and come up with recommendations for its future. In order to emphasize the importance of getting their message across, a 20 minute presentation is worth 40% of their entire term mark. The related paper is worth another 40%. The entire semester, I continually try to get them away from the standard, double-sided, 12-point, Times New Roman paper that they are forced to do in every other class. Outside of the classroom, that kind of report would be used as a coaster.
I’ve had a crazy couple of weeks. First, I was up in Iqaluit as part of my climate change adaptation project. Then, I moved onto Switzerland to participate in the Global Environmental Governance Forum. After that, I headed to London to meet up with some friends from the LEAD Network. I’ve been writing as I go, but frankly, by the end of each day, my brain has been too full to do spend time uploading my thoughts.
The result is this super-entry – a collection of writings on my experiences over the last few weeks…..
Become the sponge
June 29, 2009
I’m in Glion, Switzerland at the Global Environmental Governance Forum. Developed by Yale University and the College of William & Mary, the Global Environmental Governance Project “seeks to link thought and action in an effort to improve environmental governance at multiple levels. Through grounded historical research, contemporary policy analysis, and track two diplomacy, it aims to lay the foundation for an effective analytical and political process for reinvigorating global environmental governance.”
This event is a unique look back at the development of the global environmental movement and institutions – particularly the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). I have been fortunate enough to be selected as part of a group of “emerging leaders” that were selected from 10 countries. The intent of this event is to hear reflections from the architects of the current system, look at current challenges with key players now in the system and then bring together the “emerging” generation to look at ways of improving the system. This event marks the first time in history that the five Executive Directors of UNEP have been together at the same time. To witness the discussions is a real honour. As I told many of my colleagues in the Emerging Leaders group, I’m going to be in sponge mode as much as possible over the next few days.
Here is a news report on the event produced by one of my emerging leader colleagues, Joe Ageyo:
There are approximately 80 people gathered here in Glion and the credentials of the people are astonishing. Just to give you a sense, here are some of the participants:
During this retrospective view, one primary thing stood out for me:
The issues haven’t changed. The timeframe is just more urgent.
The issues that resulted in the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the eventual development of the United Nations Environment Program are still with us. Tensions around development between developed and developing nations; degradation of natural resources; lack of coordination and cooperation amongst nations. These issues are as relevant and pressing – if not more so – that they were almost 40 years ago when these visionaries tried to forge a new way forward.
So if the issues haven’t changed, then the “what” is the same. It’s time to look at ways to build a new “how.” That’s always the toughest question.
June 30, 2009
We had a full day of listening to many of the current players in the global environmental governance system – most of whom work in the United Nations. Just like actors in many other systems, once they are imbedded, it’s difficult – if not impossible – for them to get perspective on what they do or how they fit into the bigger picture.
Rather than discussing how the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) fits into a larger system, they were talking as if UNEP was the system. I just kept thinking back to my entry from March 18th about the worm and the sauerkraut. A colleague of mine from the emerging leaders group – Jason Morris-Jung, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley – shared a similar saying from Vietnam that I think applies just as well with the folks in the UN system, based on my perspective of the last couple of days:
“To a frog in a well, the sky is very small.”
Gaining this perspective is vital, especially for an issues as complex as the global environment. There are so many actors, perspectives and solutions that one single organization – no matter how capable – can’t possible solve the issues alone. Gaining a perspective of how UNEP fits into a larger system would go a long way to determining how to build on its strengths within that context in order to create the most effective change possible.
When Bill talks, just listen.
June 30, 2009
The discussions during day 2 of the Global Environmental Governance Forum in Glion, Switzerland, often bordered on the hopeless. The severity of the problems and the difficulty of making real progress can be completely overwhelming at times. On this front, some gems of wisdom came from Bill Ruckelshaus, the first Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, who also returned to become its fifth Administrator. Oh yes, he also was the Director of the FBI for a while and the Assistant Attorney General during Watergate. I’m not kidding. One of those posts would be the pinnacle of a career for most mortals. Unbelievable.
While much of the discussion focused on the United Nations and national governments, Bill reminded us that the only way things really move dramatically is if citizens want it. He encouraged us to find ways to rally the citizens rather than the officials towards solving climate change.
Reflecting on his experience at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Bill said, “I worked for two Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Neither of them were exactly charter members of the Sierra Club, but they made strong choices on the environment because the people were demanding it.”
Bill also made some terrific points about focusing on hope rather than despair. Using Barak Obama’s campaign as a recent example, he emphasized that people will act and respond when there is light at the end of the tunnel.
These are really, really important points. At every international session I go to I’m reminded of the differences in power that citizens have in various countries across the world. Regardless, it’s essential that the average citizen rallies behind the environmental issues we face if they are going to be solved – whether in Canada, Brazil or Ethiopia. The challenge – as is discussed often in this blog – is how to effectively communicate in a way that helps people understand the issue and inspires them to act.
When someone with the knowledge and experience of Bill Ruckelshaus talks about hope, collaboration and engagement as the way forward, I’m even more convinced that these are the necessary ingredients to meet the issues of our time. He also pointed out that if we could create some sort of super-position that merged his roles as the Administrator of the EPA and the Director of the FBI, that would help too.
A wake-up call
July 1, 2009
Day 3 of the Global Environmental Governance Forum and it was time for the Emerging Leaders to become the focus and try to develop some ideas and actions for improving the system. As it turns out, revising nearly 40 years of international effort in 8 hours isn’t all that easy.
There was a lot of great discussion and lots of great ideas that came out of our discussions, but an interesting thing happened along the way. Ambassador Di-Aping of Sudan stood up and told us in no uncertain terms that what we were proposing was the same-old, same-old. And you know what? In many respects, he was right. We were unnecessarily limiting our discussion and ideas. Despite not being imbedded in the system ourselves, we were thinking that way. In talking with my colleague Kristen Hite, this may be understandable because we didn’t take the time to clearly articulate what our vision was. Without this, it was fascinating how we turned into frogs in a well (see the June 30 entry).
The time constraints were extremely tight and the discussions were very exciting, but without a collective direction within our group, we were unable to move our discussion beyond conventional thinking. It took a wake-up call from someone outside our group to bring us to that reality.
Lessons learned/re-affirmed? Vision is vital and so is diversity of perspective.
Finding the right music
July 2, 2009
At the Global Environmental Governance Forum, a stream of discussion was around whether this broad issue was like a symphony – where there are multiple players, but they need to work together to make great music; or was it like jazz – where you have a basic structure that is improvised around (see my entry from June 18th. Great minds think alike.)
While I think both analogies are helpful, another one came from Mark Gold, one of my colleagues at the conference and the Executive Director of Heal the Bay in Los Angeles. The institutions of global environmental governance don’t seem to be having a substantial impact on the key issues of our time. Our structures, decision-making and processes aren’t doing the job.
Mark suggested that in the light of what we learned over the past few days, we might need a different kind of music that is anti-establishment and will radically shift things in order to make new progress. Symphony or jazz might not be the right tune. In short, Mark recommended:
“Don’t forget punk.”
Climate change through the lens of art (or art through the lens of climate change).
London, July 3, 2009
I was able to attend a fascinating event at the Tate Britain gallery in London the other night. It was entitled “What can Turner and Rothko tell us anything new about climate change?” and was run by some friends from the LEAD network – Sarah Hendel-Blackford, Steve Colling and Rachel Madan. The intention of this project is to explore how works of art can express issues of climate change.
Steve, Sarah and Rachel discuss the issues with the audience.
Focusing on an exhibition of works by Turner and Rothko the discussion looked at how interpretations of art can articulate issues of climate change. The interactive discussions got into specific elements like sea level rise, but really focused on the emotional side of facing a problem as daunting as climate change.
I was intrigued by the idea of using new types of media to discuss climate change. So far, the majority of non-Al Gore spokespeople on climate change have been scientists. As a generalization, no one would accuse scientists of being the most inspiring communicators. By using art to express the issues and emotions that climate change exposes, Sarah, Steve and Rachel have opened the door for new kinds of discussions to happen. For an issue that is so complex, overwhelming and sometimes confusing, we need a lot of ways to get the message across. My brain is full of ideas of how develop similar initiatives to expand the conversation.
In our work, we have benefited from using an approach of bringing together two seemingly unrelated concepts: composting and jazz music. Each applies to a separate phase of work, but they ultimately come together to create successful processes.
In the composting phase, you take the time to add the necessary ingredients for a successful project plan – timelines, tasks, responsibilities, and most importantly, frameworks and objectives. At this time, you’re asking crucial questions like “What are we trying to achieve?”, “How will we approach the work?” and “What are the best methods to meet our objectives?” Each one of these questions is like the green, brown and black material that you put into a composter to create vital, nutritious soil.
Take the time to "compost" in your process planning and it will pay dividends down the road.
I call this the composting period, because at this point in time, there is no big, exciting progress being made. You’re learning about the project, the circumstances and any new information related to the community, organization or methodologies that you’re going to use. A lot of people just want to get on with it and see this as a waste of time, but just like composting, if you are able to be patient and persistent enough in your project planning, you’ll see real benefits.
After a certain point, however, you need to stop planning and start acting. In our work, this means the beginning of engagement with community members or staff of an organization. Cue the jazz music.
A key characteristic of jazz is improvisation. The players in the band build off interactions with each other as they move through the music. Our work attempts to bring out the collective wisdom of a community or organization. The difference here is that we don’t prepare a plan for folks to comment on or approve, but we build something with them. With so many diverse community or organizational members – the members of our jazz band – you really want to highlight and build off the views, experiences and talents that these diverse people bring to the process. Unlike the composting period, you don’t have the luxury of reflecting and studying ad nauseum. If the jazz musicians on stage stopped to discuss and think about a new direction they were going to take the music, it wouldn’t be much of a performance. In our work, you have to be able to adapt and respond in a way that keeps the process exciting, engaging and moving forward.
It’s at this point where the composting period and the jazz music come together. When we start to build the music with the folks we are engaged with, we don’t make indiscriminate decisions based on rationale that changes from day-to-day. Instead, we build off of the structures and key directions that we developed in the composting period. Rather than creating an inflexible workplan, the time taken early in the process actually provides a level of clarity that allows us the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances while meeting our most important objectives. Without this structure, it would just be chaos. I’ll leave it to jazz legend Charles Mingus to conclude:
"You can't improvise on nothing, man; you've gotta improvise on something."
- Charles Mingus
The journey of developing the Cochrane Sustainability Plan has been quite remarkable. Over a 4-month period, nearly 500 citizens contributed their views in the visioning process. A group of 75 committed citizens were intimately involved in the process and were the real authors of this plan. Over 11 months, these folks contributed over 700 hours of meeting time to help create a plan for the future of their community. Most of that time was during a compressed 5-month period.
In leading the process to create this plan, a key attribute of these citizens began to become apparent:
They were focused on getting it right as opposed to being right.
This is an important distinction – especially when trying to create a plan that an entire community can use to work together. These citizens of Cochrane contributed a remarkable amount of time, knowledge and passion about their community, yet they were able to listen to one another and respect each other’s opinions. Without this, the process would have devolved into a competition of superior ideas or views, rather than a collaborative effort for the future of the community.
Is this what you use to hold onto your ideas?
Often times, we tend to hold onto our ideas or viewpoints with a vice grip. This is particularly prevalent with things that we care about. Mixed in with this are elements of ego, open mindedness and past experience. When the objective is to create as much common ground as possible, however, we need to take the long view of where we need to end up. That’s what was so inspiring about the citizens of Cochrane in our process – they stayed focused on the long view and didn’t worry about being right all the time. In your work, it’s an important question to keep in mind:
Am I trying to get it right or am I trying to be right?
- John, May 22, 2009
Late January 1991. My high school basketball team from Regina was in a Saskatoon locker room waiting to start the final of a tournament against a tough team from Edmonton. Our assistant coach was harping on his usual message: the five guys on the court needed to know:
As he finished his speech, he coined a new phrase for his message: samepagedness.
For the rest of the season, before every game, he would stress the importance of samepagedness. We went on to win the city championship that year and earned a bronze medal at the provincial championships. Cue Bruce Springsteen singing “Glory Days.”
Fast forward to the present day. I use this story all the time in my work. Why? This captures what we are trying to do in our work with communities and organizations. Whether developing community sustainability plans or organizational strategic plans, the objective is the same: create samepagedness. If we are trying to mobilize as much action as possible to address the issues of our time, we need to continually develop samepagedness. Different members of the community or organization need to know what we are trying to achieve and what everyone’s role is.
18 years after that season, I’m still using that lesson I learned. I don’t miss those short shorts we wore on that team, but I sure would like some of that hair back. Mine seems to be disappearing.
- John, April 29, 2009