Episode Four: One of One with Adam Kahane (A Track Changes Holiday Special Episode)

Dan Monafu: Hello friends of policy innovation. You’re listening to Track Changes / Changer de Voix, your *favourite* policy innovation podcast from Canada. I’m Dan Monafu...

Susan Johnston: ...And I’m Susan Johnston.

Dan Monafu: Welcome to our first bonus episode. That’s right - this is extra; gravy; more than you paid for. Just in time for your new year's resolutions, when a little extra inspiration is needed by us all.

Susan Johnston: One of our very favourite minds came to town a few months ago. Our eyes shone brightly as we realized that we could share this with you for the holiday season.

Dan Monafu: Yes, we’re so pleased to bring you our conversation with Adam Kahane. Mr. Kahane likes to work on the “stuck files” as he calls them, and we agree that the stuff he works on is really not small; he has worked with a diverse group of stakeholders on Colombia's conflict with FARC, he has worked in South Africa’s projects to help develop scenarios that supported that country’s transition to democracy in the early 90s, and we could go on and on.

Susan Johnston: Mr. Kahane has worked with people dealing with difficult situations in more than 50 countries. He leads the Montreal office of Reos Partners, a consulting firm with offices on five continents. Every few years, Mr. Kahane sits down to reflect on his latest experiences, and the fruits of his reflections usually come out in book-form.

Dan Monafu: If you haven’t heard of him yet and you work in policy innovation or related fields, we recommend Power and Love as a great introduction to his work. Mr. Kahane was kind enough to sit down with us for a longer interview. As we caught him on the final days of editing his latest book, naturally that’s where the conversation got started.

Susan Johnston: Just an aside - the first and last chapter of his book, entitled ‘Collaborating with the enemy’ are now online - there are links to them on our website if you want to check them out. Without further ado, here are our favourite snippets of from our conversation with Mr. Kahane.

Dan Monafu: I guess the first question would be: why this book now, and….

Susan Johnston: ...what brought you to write it?

Adam Kahane: Well, I think it was three things that came together over a few years. Cause I’ve been mulling it over, for the last couple of years. On the one hand, I kept coming back to what’s really the essence of this work on what I called earlier “solving tough problems”? And it’s easy to get caught up in the methodology and the latest idea about how to do these things and the specifics about particular situations. But I started to think there was something more basic that could either get in the way or get out of the way. And that more basic thing has to do with how do we work with...actually how do we live with people that we don’t agree with or like or trust?

So on the one hand, it’s my continued search for ‘what’s this really all about?’ What’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity? The second thing is that during the time I was working on the book, there was a period where there was just lots of things that I was dealing with. Ordinary things. Work frustrations and family frustrations and project frustrations. But what I noticed, because I was working on the book, is something that that I’m sure had occurred before but I hadn’t noticed it. Which is that I caught myself spending an awful lot of time, I mean hours a day, focused on what I wished other people would do. You know, what I wished the client would do, or what I wished my colleague would do, or what I wished my daughter would do. And I realized that this habit, which I have and I think a lot of people have, maybe most people I don’t know, is really not productive at all. It really is entirely wasted time. So, this gave me the idea that before you can get to the technique and the analysis and the methodology and the Gantt charts and the deals and the projects. There’s something else that has to be, if not entirely, to some extent, cleared out of the way, and that something is this dynamic of how we relate to Others with a capital O.

And the third point, which has come to me more clearly as I’ve been finishing the book is that this work on working together productively with people who are different or who think differently or who have different views or interests, which has been the centre of my work forever even though I’ve only recently formulated it in terms of collaborating with the enemy, that this work is actually going against the tide. Of course, there’s lots of things happening in the world, in all kinds of different directions, but there’s certainly a lot happening in the world in the realm of increasing polarization and fragmentation and demonization. So I got the idea that maybe I was onto something that was relevant, not just for people who are trying to do public policy or systemic reform or systemic transformation. But that this was….if I sort of over-glamorize it this is an effort to push back a tide, which is a dangerous tide in my opinion, so that’s a long answer to a short question.But there is a lot of things that have come together in it.

Dan Monafu: Is there a particular order you’d recommend people approaching your writings...how would you see the sequence?

Adam Kahane: Well, I love all of my children, all of my books, but the transformative scenario planning book is a methodology book. So it’s a specific way of doing foresight work or futures work or anticipation when...a specific way to do that not alone as an analytical function but with other actors as a collective-shaping-the-future function. But it is a more, I guess a more technical book. In a way this is the, this is a continuation of the...this exploration that started with solving tough problems and went to something I still think is very fundamental, this need to work both with power and love and not choose one or the other. But I’m, what I’m trying to do in Collaborating With The Enemy is to say something of more general use for anyone whose work requires them to collaborate, and not just with their friends and colleagues but also with strangers and opponents. And I was amused yesterday, I was pleased but amused that whenever I say the title, Collaborating With The Enemy: How to Work With People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust, people giggle. I mean I’m happy about that...

Susan Johnston: ...shared human experience...

Adam Kahane: Well it seems like nobody giggles when you say you wrote a book called solving tough problems and we’ve agreed with the publisher to put on the cover an image of a cat facing a dog. So the point is, I’m trying to write about something very basic and very everyday. This is not a book about how to negotiate with Hamas or solve climate changes, this is a book about what it takes to work together, not just with friends and colleagues but with strangers and opponents.

Susan Johnston: So if you were to sum up your latest learnings on collaboration, and working with others, what would they be?

Adam Kahane: First of all, I think the single most important argument in this new book is that the statement “you need to collaborate” is not a true statement. The true-er statement is “you need to collaborate sometimes.” And for me, I think the most interesting part of the book is this exposition that you always have four choices...well you always have some of these choices, maybe not all of them all of the time. You can force things; you can say “well I know what needs to be done and I’m going to make them the way I want them to be”, which maybe people do much of the time, including government. That I have the authority, I have the knowledge, I have the capacity to make it like this. You can adapt, which is saying “Look, I can’t change the situation so I just have to get along as best I can” which is what most of us do about most things. You can...in extreme cases you can exit, you can say “look this isn’t working for me, I’m just getting out” whether it’s getting out of the job or the project or the country or the marriage. Or you collaborate, which is...has lots of potential and lots of challenges. So I don’t think it’s true that you always have to collaborate. On the contrary I think what’s required is to be intentional about when to collaborate and with whom. And there’s lots of reasons why collaboration is the interesting thing to do or a promising thing to do or a useful thing to do. But, but, you need to be discerning about it because it’s also a complicated and a challenging way of getting things done. So the first point is that I’m not saying that you always have to collaborate. And the second thing that I’m not saying that’s never a need to collaborate within an institution or within a sector. So the work you’re doing on collaborative, systemic, experimental approaches within government or between different levels of government seems to me to be perfectly perfectly sensible. My focus, and the focus of Reos Partners has been on, has been in working on systemic challenges that no one organization or sector can address alone. And I think there are many such issues and, it’s only a subset of those that any one organization or sector or government alone can or should address. So, in issues of education or water or energy or food or justice or corruption, it’s not true that government alone can deal with these problematic situations. So in those cases, and it’s not all cases but its many important cases, in those cases, how do you work across organizations and sectors and this just happens to be the focus of the work that I and my colleagues have been doing for 25 years. And it is a different thing and the big respect in which it is different is that conflict is higher and control is lower. And it’s a totally different thing to collaborate with people who in the end you can just say “ok, we’ve been collaborating for a while but it is going to be like this.” That’s pretty straightforward. I’m more interested in the case where you can’t ever say that. And that is what the book collaborating with the enemy is about, and it argues, to preview it, that all the primary assumptions of straightforward collaboration, of conventional collaboration, that you need to collaborate, that you need to engage, that you need to agree on the problem and the solution, that you need to have a road map, that you need to change people. All five of these are not correct in situations where of high conflict and low control. And so a different kind of, a different approach is required, which, when you’re writing about a different approach you have to come up with a name, I’m calling “stretch collaboration”. That in all five respects, is fundamentally different from the way, from conventional collaboration. And I think these cases of high conflict and low control are more and more common, so we better figure out how to do it.

Dan Monafu: We mentioned that one of our policy innovation mantras is talking openly about failure and what works and what doesn’t work. After being part of so many exercises, can you anticipate when things might go wrong?

Adam Kahane: Well, when I was writing my previous book, I suggested to the publisher calling it “My Life as a Failure” but he didn’t think that would be such a good idea...but I’m very conscious of that the fact that not only have many of the things I’ve tried to do not worked, at least half maybe more, but also that almost everything I’ve learned that’s important, I’ve learned though failing. More specifically, I had this idea that things were one way. I tried to...I acted on the basis of the way I thought things were or the way that I thought things weren’t. And it didn’t work. So I am...as far as I’m concerned, trying….trying to never fail or having the idea that you mustn’t fail to me is a...I understand why people think that. We have to be prudent about it, especially as it concerns other people’s lives. But the idea that you could advance without failing to me is ridiculous. Really ridiculous. It’s a recipe, one for being extremely cautious, and two for failing on a big scale. Because then you’re just storing up the failure until then it’s catastrophic. So for me, these questions that you guys are working on about what does it mean to fail early, and small, and often, and forward, what does it mean to experiment in a prudent way, to try and figure out what works and doesn’t work, is crucial. And I understand why this is bureaucratically and politically challenging but I think...but I really don’t think there’s any choice. We say about this work that if you’re trying to address complex problematic situations, what you need to do is work systemically, experimentally and collaboratively. The systemic is...it’s challenging because it means working across organizational boundaries and disciplinary boundaries but intellectually it’s very...lots of people understand what it means to work systemically. Experimentally is harder, especially in a politicized and bureaucratic environment where people are always looking for what’s the mistake you made, and where it’s in the public domain. And collaboratively I’ve come to think involves a more human challenge of how can I co-exist and move forward even in the absence of agreement, and more importantly even in the absence of control. So if you control things, if you get people to do what you want them to do, if you can control the inputs and the outputs and the resources and the actors, then fine. But that assumption is very rarely true about anything important and so the real question is: how to operate in a context of high conflict and low control. And how to do that...how to do that
experimental work, not just alone, like a...you know, writer in her studio, writing and re-writing, or a painter, but how do you do it collectively and publicly. This is a whole other magnitude of challenge, but to me it’s absolutely unavoidable.

Dan Monafu: What would you say to folks starting to see the magnitude of the difficulty of making change in the world?

Adam Kahane: Well there’s the magnitude of the difficulty and there’s the magnitude of the promise and beauty, so there’s lots of things of magnitude. I don’t know if it’s advice, because I don’t like giving people advice in general, but I’ll just say for myself, uh, if you have the opportunity to work with people and teams and in spaces where people are doing something that they really care about, that really matters to them, that’s really, you know, that’s important, that’s worthwhile, that’s energizing, then you can never go back to working in places where people are just doing what they’re told or doing what they need to do to get through the day.

Yeah I guess it is advice, if anybody wants it, which is to seek out those places and don’t spend your time, or any more time than you absolutely have to, in spaces uh that are full of resignation and apathy and and I can’t do it. And the other side of that, and this is the only thing that really matters, from a pragmatic point of view, the only thing that really matters is what am I going to do next. Everything else is just, you know, interesting stuff to think about, but it doesn’t matter, what other people ought to be doing, what somebody, somewhere else, is doing right or wrong. It really is entertaining but of no value.

Dan Monafu: This is excellent. There’s much to reflect on what Mr. Kahane shared. What we appreciate about him is that he is not afraid to ask simple questions, which have a lot to them when you start unpacking them. There’s also a certain humility Mr. Kahane exemplifies, one that comes when you’ve seen human beings at their best -- for example, seeing leaders genuinely trying to bring their countries out of crises and move forward in the most sensible way possible, often rebuilding from deep scars and entrenched mistrust...but also seeing people at their worst: when egos, systemic forces, or simply unfortunate circumstances quell hundreds of hours (and I guess in some cases, many years) of good work with one swift thoughtless act.

Susan Johnston: So why is this relevant to us and our work? Collaboration, or co-creation, is one of the first principles of policy innovation, up there with prototyping, experimenting, and always looking for outcomes. Mr. Kahane says that, and I quote, “you need to collaborate...sometimes”. Collaboration is not *always* the best way forward, and he reminds us that it’s important to say that.

Dan Monafu: That insight aside, our tactics for when we do need to collaborate need to be broader, and more nuanced as well. Mr. Kahane told us he is most interested in situations where you cannot afford to simply say “thank you very much, we’ve been collaborating for a while but it is going to be like this.” And, if we are honest, that has been the way governments have acted when they were the only game in town.

You’ve likely heard this too; I know I’ve heard it said many times, that government’s typical approach to collecting feedback or consulting, or collaborating, has been that it opens a relationship, makes it seem open and transparent, then goes into “a black box” -- afterwards, at some point government makes a decision, which it deems co-created. While this might not always be the case, it can *feel* like this for participants. We have to start treating this relationship, our relationship as government to our citizens and our stakeholders, as a situation where we cannot afford to say “thanks but we’re gonna do it our own way”. That has, and will always lead to damage in the form of lost trust, even if we can’t fully see the extent of it in the moment.

Susan Johnston: Thanks Dan - those are good points. This is where Mr. Kahane’s ‘stretch collaboration’ tactics come in. If, as a bureaucracy, we are are in fact moving into situations of higher conflict and low control, there’s value in all of us reading up on the methods that he proposes, since the traditional approaches may no longer apply.

Dan Monafu: Absolutely. This concludes our interview with Adam Kahane, as well as this, our very first bonus episode. As usual, tell us what you thought about our show - do you agree with what was said? Use our hashtag, #tccdv, tweet at us, email us, or like us on Itunes and Soundcloud. And we really want to thank Mr. Kahane for joining us. I’m Dan Monafu - @danutfm on Twitter…

Susan Johnston: ...and I’m Susan Johnston, @engagequestion. As this is our last episode for 2016, we wanted to give a shout-out to the wonderful team working on this project, which is for all intents and purposes a labour of love.

Dan Monafu: Alright, here goes: big big thanks and our gratitude to Nisa Malli, our now Toronto-based co-conspirator, friend, and copy-editor extraordinaire. A hefty shoutout to our
French-language counterparts, Kaili Levesque and Francis Nolan-Poupart, and many thanks for all the passion, energy, and next-level commitment you bring to our team. And finally, multiple hat tips to both Kaili Levesque and Anatole Papadopoulos, Executive Producers and fellow podcast-believers. We’ve been having a lot of fun putting this together.

Susan Johnston: Lastly, many thanks to you, our listeners, for sharing your passion about policy innovation and about doing things better. We’re going to take a break through the next year, but we’ll be back in full swing with episode 5. Stay tuned! Until then, we leave you with our Journey of the Mandarin. Cheers!