Why sound decision-making is ultimately about how you deal with surprises

 We often focus on key decisions and are interested in how top performers, such as CEOs and top athletes, make decisions.

Apparently, all we need to do is to model their behaviour, glean into their secrets and then implement these in our lives.

Research into decision points in particular (what major decisions people have taken) seems to be of continuous interest because who would not want to improve their decision-making skills.

But the truth is that decision-making  is really about how we deal with factors that are not under our control.

Buying a house: what I did not see coming

I have been in the process of thinking of buying a house since last February when my flatmates told me they were going to buy a house of their own.

Eventually they did find a place, got their finance in order, and moved in.

It all seemed so simple (I did see lots of the hurdles and paperwork too) but they achieved their goal: owning a property in a beautiful area.

So I thought it was time too for me as well.

I had been saving up for my deposit, had attained my permanent residency that enabled me to get better loan terms, and I finally after months of searching found a property that seemed to tick most of my boxes.

I could not get the seller to agree on a price that made sense to me given that this place would have to be renovated before moving in.

I left it for a month, only to find out that the place had not sold, and they were open for a new offer…

I made one and suddenly they accepted. I thought they just needed to get it off the market and was very pleased.

I signed my contract and started arranging my finance happily oblivious that although I had done all of my due diligence, there is such thing as “things you cannot control”.

Things that we cannot control are those external things and factors, which come into our lives because of what other people do.

This, as you will find out if you are ever in a relationship or parenting, is very common. You think you are in control and oops you are not.

Turns out the person who sold me the house had not been exactly honest about his situation.

Now, when I was informed, I had nothing to say except to be amazed. This factor (which also cancelled my sale contract) was not anything I had prepared myself for.

So I was back in state 0, with no contract, having paid for different technical inspections, and having consulted both the Internet and my contacts about everything that had to do with buying a house.

I thought I had all the necessary information, I had even checked the flood maps (yep of course I did!), got the roof checked, and I was committed buying this house.

Except that one thing, which is and was completely out of my control. No decision process or decision tool could have ever prepared me to even consider such a factor that could derail the whole process.

What does this say about decision-making processes?

It has made me think about how we make decisions and has led to two important insights.

Decision-making is not about a single “decision point”.

The truth is most of our decision-making is a continuum of small incremental decisions, which, overtime, result in a major decision.

But you need all of those small incremental decisions to even start getting where you want to be and to make that big decision.

This same applies to leadership: if we want to become better leaders, we need to start taking incremental decisions towards that end while knowing that we don’t know what opportunities or failures life throws at us in the process.

The same thing applies how we adapt to climate change: adaptation at least for now is a set of incremental decisions (small steps) that we take in order to be better off now and hopefully at some point in the future.

Yet, some of the adaptation will be drastic once we reach particular adaptation limits and thresholds.

But again, those drastic decisions are not a sudden outcome but a series of decisions we have made along the way about how we want or have to live our lives and how our context (climatic conditions) are changing.

Second, there is no such thing as “enough information” because there are always external factors that can mislead or surprise even the best prepared person.

Gathering information is hugely important but we have to, or should, accommodate for such things as people’s behaviour and impact.

It is those moments that really dictate how we learn.

These Black Swans of decision-making are therefore in many ways a blessing (although that’s not say that they are not stressful).

Learning Loop with Black Swans

In Morten Hansen’s book Great at Work, he introduces the concept of the learning loop in which an individual starts tracking in how they make decisions, then observe the outcomes, and then do it again.

I completely agree that this is inherently vital for strategic/deliberate skill building: understanding where we are at, understanding how we can improve, and then use the real life context to give us immediate feedback in how to do things better.

But the real life context where the rare but certain surprises loom large, how do you maintain your loop in a way that it supports your goals especially when unforeseen and unexpected factors come into play?

In the end, I am still in the process of negotiating about the house but I have learned more about this decision process than I bargained for. And for that I am thankful (albeit not necessarily less stressed…).




Unprecedented yet so close: why heatwaves and flooding could be here to stay

This past week the news have sizzled with news about extreme fire events, large ranging bushfires in Sweden and Greece.

Japan declared last week the heatwave a disasters while being faced with an “unprecedented” heatwave. 22 000 people were taken to hospital and this has impacted the elderly in particular.

Portugal is set to face the heat this weekend, with temperatures likely to fair around +50. (Stay cool, Suraje!).

Wherever you look in the news, it seems that something more drastic and out of ordinary is happening across the globe.

When I’ve read these news items (and preparing a lecture on climate change adaptation), it has really made me think as to what we mean by “unprecendented” and how we judge the concept in today’s world.

It has also really brought to the fore the kinds of climate risks that we are likely to have to deal with in the future even more regularly.

Cyclones predicted to move further south

Last week a new study was published in Nature Climate Change that again raised the evidence bar on the possibility that cyclones could move further towards the poles.

This means for Australia that the cyclone zone, which currently is mainly located in the north and north-east could potentially move further south.

The fastest growing region in Australia, South East Queensland, is located currently away from this cyclone zone but this could change.

The fact that cyclones can potentially move further south should be a concern especially places like the Gold Coast where I live.

I was interviewed by local tv station as to what the implications of the study were and why this is a concern for governments.

After the news segment had aired on local news, I got lots of feedback. Friends made concerned comments, especially those who live on the coast or beachfront. What does this mean for them?

I didn’t really have an answer except what I said in the interview, that governments do need to start considering such potential risks especially given that cities like the Gold Coast have not been built up to cyclone standard.

Partly this is because the latest major cyclone occurred in 1974 and most of the city’s infrastructure and housing developments have occurred since.

Add to the fact that the city is situated on a floodplain, there are numerous challenges to consider in the planning process and how adaptation can and should unfold.

Considering climate risks and property

At the same time the City of Gold Coast has provided updated flood risk maps, based on the 0.8 meter sea level rise by 2100 and the 1-in-100 storm scenarios.


This allows people to check which suburbs are likely the frontline places to experience extensive flooding in the future.

New buyers in the property market, like myself, would do well to at least entertain the idea of checking out such information.

The council does in fact also provide property specific flood information on request but so far this has been focusing on past historical flooding.

What the interactive map does is to allow people to consider this aspect of risk and also gain a better understanding of their neighbourhood and area that they live in.

This also brings home the need to consider climate change adaptation already now, and how our cities are increasingly vulnerable to different weather and climate impacts.

Moving forward with Adaptation 

This is one of the reasons why in a few weeks we are organising an event at Griffith University that really looks at how different governments are responding to climate risks and what they are doing about climate adaptation.

This includes for example governments of UK and Ireland, our own state government, and also how such organisations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) summarise and provide the evidence base for decision-makers.

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I am particularly excited about this event as this will also include launching the book “Limits to Climate Change Adaptation” that I co-edited and that is the first comprehensive book on the concept of adaptation limits.

I have had numerous discussions about the book and the concept of limits prior and after the book has been published. Most often I get asked by policymakers how they can operationalise (use the concept) in their work and decision-making, and how it can be incorporated into policy.

Given the newness of the concept, in both theory and practice, I haven’t really had a robust answer to this yet.

But trust me, one is coming especially as we start understanding further what such limits are in practice, where these are emerging, and how communities, individuals and organisations start dealing with these.

The fact is that there is no “new normal” as the climate system continues to shift. What we do need are drastic emission reductions while also making sure that we are doing what we can to adapt to now and also putting in strategies that we can address climate risks also in the future.

Which reminds me… I’ve taken up a new role as a managing editor for the journal Climate Risk Management with kickass co-editors-in-chief Benjamin Preston and Suraje Dessai. Watch this space…

How to create leadership and innovation at work place 

I have just finished reading Richard Feynman’s book “Surely you are joking Mr Feynman!”

It’s a unique book in explaining how one of the great minds in physics thought about life, and more importantly how he maintained an innate curiosity and often questioned the very basic assumptions of physics in order to better understand the field.

I have been inspired by this level of curiosity as I feel I share some of such mindset (although mind you, there are lots of people who might deem part of that curiosity not necessarily positive).

I would classify myself as a continuous learner who is also interested in other disciplines and also non-scientific areas and how people have gained insights and develop skills across different spheres in life.

Feynman’s decision 

In one part of the book Feynman recalls what made him to commit to staying at  California Institute of Technology (Caltech) although he was getting lot of offers to teach at other institutes, with even higher salaries.

At some point at Caltech he didn’t feel quite happy and decided to go back to Cornell University so he called Cornell and told them to start making arrangements.

After the phone call, when he was crossing the Caltech campus back to his office, several people bumped into him and shared ground-breaking science from other disciplines that they had just discovered.

This was not just one person but several who had made profound discoveries, which also related to partly to Feynman’s own work.

It was there and then that Feynman decided to inform Cornell that he would never consider any other institute other than Caltech because he was in the midst of new innovation and insights.

I have since thought of this and why we stay loyal to particular institutions and disciplines.

With climate change adaptation, we have an increasing mass of people who are doing great research and innovation in both science and policy, yet most of us are dispersed across the globe.

So in this sense we wouldn’t have the luxury of staying/working at the same place.

A friend of mine who is younger and already higher up the university ranks than I am said to me that in universities, what you do is not to focus on trying to get particular people to work at the same university to achieve innovation, but you start creating your own critical mass.

That is why tenure track jobs, such as lecturing, are important because then you have the ability to start teaching your ideas but also to start supporting and guiding further research that you believe is necessary.

At the time I found this comment somewhat depressing because I would love to walk into the office on daily basis and have critical innovation to emerge from daily discussions with colleagues.

But most of us who work globally on climate adaptation are also starting to find that there is much innovation that we can contribute to also even if we are not necessarily physically in the same place via new technologies and platforms that enable closer collaboration.

Fostering leadership at work place

As a teacher and a lecturer, you do have the potential to start fostering the next generation and that, despite all the administration involved, is a noble task.

A colleague noted that we should look at each student as a potential leader where our role is to foster that leadership and enable the students to get transferable skills and contribute to sustainability in those professions that they choose and apply to afterwards.

According to my colleague, student success is really defined by what happens with their careers afterwards, whether we have managed to equip them with such knowledge and skills that they are easily employable and know how to seek and maintain employment in the field or sector of their choice.

I am constantly inspired by my friend Amy McPherson who heads the Accounting for Change company in this matter. She has a completely different way of looking at accounting that I have seen anywhere else.

For Amy, her work in accounting is about equipping people who are responsible for accounting in their organisations with knowledge, skills and mentoring so that people are able to even transition into accounting as a career.

Understanding your own personal success metrics, values and factors hence becomes invaluable as those will also determine what you do, why and how.

Fostering the next generation or transferring skills is an important journey and skill that most of us should embrace.

As Michael Bungay Stanier noted in the latest episode on Coaching for Leaders, we should all have 10 minutes each day to become more “coachlike”.

What it takes to become a leader and mentor

So part of the secret to an innovative and inspiring work environment is not only who we work with but how we see our own roles in that environment.

But being a good mentor or teacher does not fall from the sky.

It takes great amount of work and dedication and it also requires us to take on a more reflexive role as to what our real impact and our own behavior means and impacts on others.

Learning is a constant process in which we fail. And then we should look at our failures with curiosity and ask what we can learn from that and how we can do that better.

In this regard, the recent book Morten Hansen “Great at Work” is invaluable guide as to how each of us can start tracking what we are doing well and how we can potentially shift some of the less effective behaviours.

(Spoiler: this doesn’t actually mean we have to work more but learn to focus).

Although this is a pressing matter for good leadership and management, it applies to science in so many ways.

We as scientists should be looking at the new kinds of skills we need in today’s world, new methods and innovation we could learn to increase the robustness of our science, and how we communicate our research and opinions.

Also recognising where we should and can improve our skills and knowledge and then seeking opportunities to do so.

I am forever grateful I have been able to attend the Coaching for Leaders Academy for example as this has really given me a kickstart in developing my leadership skills and gaining also new friends along the way. (This is for you all Mavericks!)

But lastly, I am also aware that great leaders foster even greater ones, and this keeps me inspired to work on climate adaptation and hopefully being able to foster the next generation of thinkers in this space.




Why peer review should be fun but can make you cry

The life of an academic is very much focused on and surrounded by the process of peer review.

With peer review, I mean making and receiving comments on manuscripts that we have written or have been asked to read and assess for scientific journals.

Most of us review papers for scientific journals in the hope that we can support a rigorous scientific process in producing knowledge that has been considered from all angles.

I am yet to go through a peer review process that did not add value and improve my own writing and communication of my research.

But it is a tricky process in many ways and just having gone through it again, I wanted to reflect here on why we do peer review and how each of us could perhaps structure feedback in ways that is constructive and has the potential to increase the quality of work that is being assessed.

The challenges of conducting peer review

Peer review has a tremendously important role in keeping science honest and to make sure that what is being published is an adequate account of an issue under scrutiny.

But sometimes peer review and in particular getting review comments back is far from fun. Most academics winch when they open the dreaded email and know that time has come to read what someone thinks about our research.

The opinions can indeed be widely divergent. For example, in a recent peer review of a journal article I am writing with colleagues, we received 11 pages of comments from 3 different reviewers.

Many of these comments were helpful as these sought to clarify our terminology, analysis and presentation of the results.

However, as we have to respond to each comment, the 11-page document turned into 25 pages, and this is not including the changes we made in the revised manuscript.

This time around I felt that I was writing two new papers: revising the actual manuscript and then writing responses to the reviewer comments. 

One author noted that our conclusions were the best piece of the manuscript whereas the other argued that the conclusions were merely sweeping generic statements that lacked the insights presented in the paper.

One reviewer was very happy with the terminology whereas two others wanted us to use similar terms they would use.

In the peer review process, we have a double-blind peer review: neither the author/s or the reviewer know each other’s identity, or blind peer review where the author/s name is shown but reviewer names stay hidden.

Both of these have been put in place in order to maintain some level of integrity and reduce bias.

Although at times one can easily guess who the author and the reviewer are: just count the most number of publications starting with the same last name.

But anonymity can also lead to overly negative comments and sometimes to even outright manoeuvring especially when people work in the same area of research and might be competing for the same grants.

My first cry and peer review

When I was submitting my very first journal paper, I had worked hard in condensing my master thesis research into a journal article that was submitted as part of a special issue.

By the time I got my first review comments back, I was holding back tears when a professor at the department read them out to me.

Apparently my work added no new value to the field and was not publishable.

All the other submissions in the special issue moved into revision (opportunity to revise before final submission and publication).

Except mine.

I was devastated. At the time I did not even know how to submit a paper to another journal (I was fresh out of master’s degree and didn’t even know what the process looked like).

So I just let it go.

My next attempt was a journal paper based on a project I had been leading in Africa.

The peer review comments were conflicting: one reviewer thought the paper was very good, another thought that literature review was excellent but the results needed more structure, but the third…

The third reviewer said my paper was basically rubbish and there was nothing new or valuable in it.

The editor often intervenes in such cases and points out which comments the author needs to address. Here this was not the case.

But with the support of my professor, I persisted with the comments and re-wrote what needed rewriting and learned the submission process by heart.

And alas, my first paper was shortly published after I started my PhD.

I was so full of joy and pride that I had managed to publish my first paper.

But part of the experience also left me upset again. I could not understand how my paper did manage to see the light of day given the very conflicting comments.

With more experience, I do now understand the process better however and I actually find reviewing papers exciting and interesting, and quite fun.

Why reviewing is rewarding

There are several reasons why reviewing is actually a good thing to do (and we do it for free btw).

Good thing about reviewing other scientists’ work is that you get to see what is novel and new in the field and the kinds of submissions that are in the field at that point in time.

This helps in distinguishing your own thoughts often about which directions are emerging in a field of research, and keeps you on your toes as well as to what a robust scientific paper should look like.

I find that reviewing papers is actually a good way to keep up to date with the literature and also some of the more innovative methods that authors have been testing in the field.

I encourage my students to review when they can as this gives also access to how to situate their own research in the field and what they could be thinking about.

Also engaging in a robust and helpful review of others work helps you to become established as an expert and people might seek your advice also in the future when it comes to seeking particular experts for committees or initiatives.

At the same time, when I review someone’s work, I also have the responsibility of making sure that whatever is published contributes to what has already been discovered before.

This of course is a grey area in many ways because novelty can be claimed in many ways: for example a new method, a new angle, a new geographic region or sector.

But the main aim is to increase the quality of science.

How to be a helpful reviewer

Although this post has focused on the scientific peer review process, many of these relate to the basic principles of giving feedback on reports, which are essential skills in leadership and management as well.

In reviewing, I always look at several things that can improve the manuscript:

  1. Clarity of writing/ideas: is the writer explaining his or her logic clearly, are there concepts and sentence structures that make it easy to understand what the main aim of the manuscript is? Do the methods, results, and discussion contribute to the main aim of the article?
  2. Novelty of research/ideas: how is the manuscript contributing to knowledge in this area? Are they citing the main sources and building upon what is already known? Are the methods novel and insights different from what has been published before?
  3. Structure of the manuscript/report: are there specific elements missing from the structure? Is the flow between sections good?
  4. Recommendations: what kinds of recommendations emerge based on the research? How could these be implemented innovatively? What are the next steps/knowledge gaps identified?

On top of these, the tips I would give for someone starting out in academia is to understand the field (who has published what, which are the major debates you wish to contribute to) as this helps you to situate your own research in a niche or an area that has been overlooked.

This is particularly why PhDs are often required to spend most of their first year just going through literature and finding the gaps. In some areas this is easier and in others it is not.

Mind you, although I know all of this, it does not mean that all of this comes naturally to me. I find it even more difficult to judge my own writing but I do try to keep these guidelines when I start drafting articles and reports.

The point is that to the contrary of science being portrayed as a mere rational non-emotional process, peer review in particular raises often lots of emotions (not necessarily always tears, mind you).

And that’s ok because it also signals how much our work and that of others means for us and that we are putting our hearts and souls in the papers we write and science that we produce.


Is 1.5 degree goal an illusion?

This past week has been quite eventful given that major issues have been either discovered or experienced when it comes to climatic changes.

Japan has been experiencing significant floods with never before seen rain events while cities around the word have reported having broken all time heat records.

A new study published in Nature used paleoclimatic data (past climate records) to show that it is highly likely that we have underestimated the degree or level of climate change that we are already committed to.

This new study sets the Paris Agreement’s goal to stay below 1.5 degrees into question, a temperature goal that is also the focus of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5 degree report to be released later this year in October.

Yet, for those who do not necessarily work on climate change or are not following this area of research and policy that closely, what does it really matter if it’s 1.5. or 2 degrees or 4?

Sadly, this is not some kind of a game where we just pick goals and then see who comes closest to what.

The difference between degrees of warming is drastic as some ecosystems and their services that we rely on can stop functioning even with 1.5. degrees of warming, let alone 2 degrees or 4.

This is a world most of us do not want or cannot fathom.

Adaptation Limits and Planetary Boundaries

Some critics have noted that perhaps we need to accept that focusing on 1.5 degrees is futile as a goal given the latest science and changes we are already seeing; that the science community would do better to tackle the real big questions as to what actually happens with more drastic warming of the planet.

Others have voiced concern over talking about 4 degrees as this could take away focus and commitment from the 1.5 goal that has now been globally agreed on, and what changing extremes mean for adaptation limits.

What might be useful in this discussion is the link to another body of research, that of earth and planetary boundaries.

These concepts have been researched by Professor Will Steffen and others and are often used to provide a global set of trends in areas such as population growth, and ecosystem and biodiversity loss etc.

While we might look at our own city, our own neighbourhoods, state or country and try to determine what kinds of limits we face in adapting to climate change, all of these are part of a much bigger complex system that has its own diverse limits and thresholds that we seem to be stepping closer and closer to.

The intersection of these is that we need to keep in mind both a broader planetary boundary perspective but also the context specific details of where adaptation takes place.

Yet, often there is strong focus on one kind of risk for example on rising sea levels but not compounding risks necessarily where for example seas begin to rise, erosion increases, cyclones become more intense, droughts become longer and common plants and ecosystem services change.

We cannot cover all risks at once and we do not have the data or capacity to provide exact specific details how all of these risks and impacts accumulate and interact over space and time.

But what we can say is that countries, communities, households and individuals need to at least begin to consider particular risks while also understanding the interconnections that different risks and systems have.

 Geostorm Leadership?

I recently saw the movie Geostorm that describes the world in 2019/2022 and how particular kinds of geoengineering efforts including using a global satellite system to control weather are failing.

The world the movie describes shows a high level of political cooperation on the “fixing strategies” to create this shared system of planetary control.

In Fred Kohman’s book on Transcendent leadership, he notes how in a marathon people are not running to follow a leader. People run because they have a goal and leaders are often simply just closer to the goal.

What this means is that transcendental leaders actually get people’s commitment to the mission, and not just to the leader.

It is the mission that people believe in and the leader’s job is mainly to excel in helping people to reach and spread that mission.

This has led me to reflect what exactly is our mission when it comes to climate change and temperature goals, and what leadership style can deliver the most support for such mission.

And if we have already moved past 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming, what then?

This calls for a discussion on the role that science can contribute to urgent policy decisions but also deeper reflections on how we all see our own roles in producing or using knowledge in a warming world.

At this point, I have no real answers except that as a scientist I am committed to exploring these questions further and hopefully some of the science that we produce can answer these questions.






How to measure leadership and adaptation in 3 dimensions


This past week I had the chance to spend time with some really amazing women who are the next generation of great minds, critical yet equipped with a good sense of humour.

In one of our conversations we spoke about leadership and self-perception, and how when we embark on self-development (or start dating), we need to define who we are.

My friend noted that essentially each of us has 3 kinds of perceptions: who we aspire to be, who we think we are, and who we actually are.

Essentially, this also very much relates to brands. It is extremely important for a brand to be consistent, to know its values and aspirations, and then leverage those to deliver something of value to customers.

In academia, it seems that most of us are ‘brandless’ as the underlying main assumptions has been that to make it as a scientist, all you have to do is to do great research and then write a scientific paper about it.

This thinking, however, is hugely in the past.

Nowadays if you do want to be known for your work, writing a paper is not enough. We need to start thinking what we want to known for e.g. which keywords/concepts people immediately think when they hear your name.

Start with your values and aspirations

In the masterclass on career development that I ran in Cape Town last week as part of Adaptation Futures 2018, this is exactly what we focused on.

There are a range of strategies and tools that we can use to convey our message but if we are not clear what our values and aspirations are, then it is difficult to create a consistent brand for ourselves.

Building a great LinkedIn profile and being active on Twitter will both only benefit you if you have a story and you know which story you want to tell.

The strategies and tools available to us are put in best use if we have gained personal clarity as to how we want to position ourselves. Hence, focus on the ‘black box’ first.



During the conference, I had the chance to meet early career researchers and practitioners. I spent an hour with one student who has a year to finish his PhD and is starting to think about work opportunities and what he wants to do.

One of his issues was that he has done lots of research but in all different topics. So we sat down and I challenged him to think and reflect what the red string is that connects all those topics.

This is not about just comparing yourself to others. Once a friend said to me that each person’s life is like a painting. The main pitfall that often stops us is that we look at other people’s paintings and feel inadequate as we admire the colours and the lines they have chosen and used. This makes us unhappy about our own painting.

But if we focus on what we are painting, the colours that we want to use, and the lines we want choose, then we can actually start getting somewhere that we think is meaningful and right for us.

3 dimensions for climate adaptation

My friend’s words have stuck with me ever since, and the more I have thought about this, the more this actually relates to climate change adaptation as well.

When we talk about measuring adaptation, its success and progress, we are inevitably faced with a subjective assessment as to where we are at.

But more than that, I think the same 3 dimensions show up in this discussion as well: where we aspire to be with adaptation and what we think it should deliver, where we think are in terms of adapting, and where we actually are.

Honing out those details will prove difficult as these can mean different things to many people and organisations.

Just this past weekend, the Expert panel on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience released its report on measuring progress on adaptation and climate resilience, with a set of 54 indicators.

What I think will be the most challenging parts of any such effort are a) the development of the baseline as to what we measure against, but also b) long-term tracking of moving from aspirations to actual implementation and action. .

What is important here is the alignment of our 3 dimensions, and asking questions around those dimensions should encourage us to define specific steps and tasks.

Looking to the future from now

Separating these 3 takes a lot of self-awareness however and sometimes we are not able to do this by ourselves but need also to ask others what they think about us, or how they think that particular adaptation initiative is progressing.

I recently came across Marshall Goldsmith’s “FeedForward” technique which is about exploring these kinds of aspects of our lives with the help of others. This technique is about asking questions how you could better achieve a goal in the future and ask for advice which kinds of steps you could take along the way.

Another emerging topic is that of measuring ‘subjective resilience’ that has been suggested by Lindsey Jones and Tom Tanner as an alternative in understanding and measuring how resilient households are.

This all relates to asking different kinds of questions, using subjective measures and people’s self-perception as proxies in defining what they think resilience is and means.

What these examples demonstrate that there are different ways to understand the different dimensions of ourselves but also of the people that we aim to assist and lead.

The question then is how we take some of these forward and how we put in place techniques and strategies to measure the strategic alignment between the aspirations, the perceived progress, and the actual state of play.


3 defining features of Adaptation Futures 2018

This week I attended Adaptation Futures conference, a bi-annual conference that is attended by people who work in climate adaptation science, policy and practice.

This conference was particularly interesting given that it was held in Cape Town, South Africa, that is going through a severe drought. At some point it was not even clear whether the whole conference could take place because of the fear that day 0 might arrive before the conference.

Day 0 would have meant that the whole city has run out of water. This luckily did not happen yet.

But it does provide a point for reflection to all of us: in the future with increased temperatures and droughts, what does ‘normal’ life look like for us? We all had to abide by severe water restrictions and I found myself thinking why this is not everyday practice in all of our countries…

Can we measure it?

In this conference one of the issues that was clearly on top of the agenda was how to measure and define adaptation success and effectiveness.

Several sessions focused on measuring and defining adaptation success, monitoring and evaluating adaptation, and what “effective” adaptation consists of. Lots of good work is being done in this space by GIZ and other organisations that aim to inform also the UNFCCC processes.

I also chaired a session on the topic (defining and measuring adaptation success) that was organised by multiple partners led by professor Lisa Dilling.

We were not sure if our session on measuring and defining adaptation success would be interest to a broader audience. But we were very wrong.

We luckily had been given a large room with 5 tables but so many people showed up that we had to improvise and split our facilitators so that we could form a large sixth group outside in the hallway.

The discussion was very lively and focused on three key questions: understanding adaptations success across roles, scales, and contexts, empirical basis for adaptation success, and our own assumptions in researching adaptation success and whether we pay enough attention to unintended consequences and maladaptation.

What the session reinforced to me is that there is really a passion and appetite in trying to find out and understand better how we can implement and plan climate adaptation.

We had practitioners, researchers, students, donors, and many IPCC authors to attend the session and we were extremely pleased with the engaging buzz in the room (and in the hallway).

This should not maybe come as a surprise because this topic has been brewing for years: how do we demonstrate that our efforts to adapt to climate change are actually going to make a difference?

This is not a just donor-led discussion about how they can ensure they are spending their money wisely but a broader debate in the field because if we do not understand which factors are conducive to adaptation success, we are missing an opportunity to truly make a difference.

Role of Personal Leadership

Several sessions mentioned also the concept of leadership, which I was very happy about. The session chaired by Professor Mark Pelling from Kings College London focused on exploring different aspects of leadership.

Likewise Professor Coleen Vogel in her reflections on adaptation science, practice and policy also spoke about the need to find leadership and how integral that is for leading ourselves but also others.

The message is clear that we need good leadership. We should not wait for a strong leader to emerge but that we are already leaders in ourselves.

To me that also reflects an integral part of adaptation: when we talk about adaptation, it’s not just focused on future generations but it’s also about us.

It’s also about our lives today and how we can take steps both in our personal and professional lives to think and act on adaptation.

This again to me also highlights the need for deeper reflection on our own assumptions, norms and values. And it also means that we need to think about our own leadership skills and how we can empower others to excel in their roles to the best of their ability.

Are we doing the same old?

But some of the more critical thinkers voiced concerns that much of what was presented at this conference conformed with the norm: the usual things we would expect to hear in climate adaptation conference.

This perhaps reflects the criticism of adaptation community that it still remains internally focused rather than drawing in on other disciplines. As such, this comment is not new.

From a disciplinary development perspective, the building of shared principles, theory and frameworks is actually a positive development.

This means that more and more people are agreeing on what constitutes adaptation, how it should be implemented and researched, and we can start drawing more consolidated robust messages that are also relevant for policy.

But even if disciplinary consolidation is important and crucial for the formation of adaptation as a science, we should not settle for just researching those areas that are accepted as proper areas of research in the science community.

We must strive for innovation ad stay relevant in order to ensure that climate adaptation science, policy and practice are cutting-edge and applicable.

This means we need look outside our field and embrace current and emerging areas such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain technology, bitcoin and crypto currency, bioeconomies, culturomics, agile organisations at scale, branding and spread of ideas, leadership and management, and what all these mean in a changing world.

Therefore, my call for Adaptation Futures 2020 is to focus on and enable innovation in and for climate adaptation that is truly transdisciplinary, engages with recent and emerging trends, and that really interrogates the nexus between adaptation theory and practice.

This means also exploring different conference formats, eg TED talks, speed-dating in network building, and strong support for our early career professionals to work on the hard hitting areas where innovation is emerging.

I am truly excited about the possibilities we have to make adaptation into a world-class leading science, and will continue my efforts to do so.



Is conservation missing the boat on climate adaptation?

This week I have attended the 5th European Congress on Conservation, organised by Society of Conservation Biology.

My reason attending this conference is that I am curious as to how climate adaptation is treated/examined in other fields (it’s also in Finland, which of course is a plus).

In general, I want to have a better understanding of conservation and ecosystems research as these are obviously integral to climate adaptation approaches such as ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. 

Coverage of climate change and adaptation

In the opening plenary of the conference, the Executive Secretary of IPBES, Dr Anne Larigauderie, spoke about the important linkages between Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)  and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate change has been getting coverage in other presentations as well but mostly in terms of mitigation, carbon offsetting, bioplastics and bioeconomies.

What is interesting to me who thinks about climate change and adaptation on daily basis is that much of the research presented at this conference is directly relevant to climate but the link is often not simply made.

I went to a presentation on indigenous communities and how they were using local knowledge to preserve biodiversity. The presenter outlined the main threats to conservation (increased floods, droughts and extreme events) but climate change was not one of these.

One keynote had even climate change in the title but focused mostly on ecosystem and conservation planning without discussing what changing climate means for conservation planning.

But luckily I am not alone in these observations.

A colleague from a government ministry noted the exact same thing and posed the question: why are we not talking about climate adaptation in the context of conservation in this conference?

In the conference program, there are only 4 presentations/posters that mention the word “adaptation”.

Those that do mention adaptation (mind you, I am one of those 4 and 1 of those cancelled attendance) do not really look at climate adaptation but how climatic variables potentially impact on species. The closest that this comes was a talk on assisted migration of species in changing climatic conditions, and how novel tree planting methods could count as adaptation to climate change.

Participants that I have spoken with at this conference about including climate change and adaptation in their research either a) give me a bewildered look or b) are very interested in thinking how they could consider this in their research.


Building bridges between concepts and disciplines

Much of the research conducted in conservation and biodiversity has lots to offer to climate related research.

A researcher I spoke with is actually looking at what the disappearance of salamanders does to an ecosystem with a case study in Belgium. These species are highly impacted by a fungus related disease that can wipe out whole populations.

This to me is very relevant for how we plan for a changing climate. We need to understand this kind of research (super complex I might add!) to understand how ecosystems function, and how these could be impacted by climatic changes.

But what this conference has really reinforced to me is that we need a stronger bridge between conservation science and adaptation science.

There are many lessons that both sides are overlooking at the moment.  Such lessons could provide much richer research and generate broader lessons that can feed both into conservation and adaptation planning and policy approaches.

Sustainable livelihoods and well-being are for example investigated across presentations, and how protected areas could be planned and what they need to consider.

Another neat concept is that of “conservation culturomics” where researchers are using big data to understand better how our cultural preferences impact on our views on species conservation.

There has been also discussion on biodiversity offsetting but yet again in the absence of linking that to climate change and what role changing climate could pose for such efforts.

Main take home messages

My aim with this post is not to put down the conference by any means. The presentations in themselves have been excellent and the organisers have done an amazing job in putting the conference together.

What I am trying to do however is to raise awareness of the importance in conducting research in a non-stationery rapidly changing climate that needs forward-thinking.

I appreciate that climate adaptation in particular is not an easy to issue to include in modelling efforts but this is not why it should be excluded.

The missing of adaptation could imply partly a gap in future-oriented thinking. If we focus on researching what is happening now, we need to also draw lessons what this could mean for the future in the long-term.

What then when increases in temperature propel species to move or causes significant population decline? Or when an ecosystem composition changes so significantly that the current plans and models are no longer accurate? In such cases we can come up to adaptation limits that then necessitate very different actions.

But what I have also learned from this conference is that my understanding of climate adaptation and of those who specifically work on this topic is very different, and that many other areas of research contribute indirectly to adaptation science.

That, to me, also calls for more reflection as to in what context and how adaptation fits across different disciplines, and how my work can better draw from and integrate with those working in conservation and ecosystems research.

ps. and this was written even before Will Steffen’s keynote on planetary boundaries that won’t paint a pretty picture…



Rebuilding in a changing world

This week, several news items have focused on rebuilding and relocation. There are many areas that have experienced devastating disasters where people still rebuild, often because they do not necessarily have a choice.

Others are willing to take more risks and assess for example living in a flood prone area as a gamble that they are willing to take if they can benefit from lower property prices.

In some cities, planners are looking at ways that the city can accommodate increasing flooding and higher water levels by making structural changes that also reshape the way areas are planned.

All of this again tells us relevant stories about coping with change and exposes the diversity of factors at play that need consideration when deciding how to restructure or rebuild in a risk prone area.

Norfolk: making space for water

One such example is Norfolk city in the state of Virginia that is now looking at their infrastructure and city planning through different view than before.

Given that increasing floods have began to impact on the city, there is an increasing awareness for the need to re-think how city has been built and planned, which areas are protected from rising waters, and how do you transition to living with water.

The city plans to become a showcase how you can integrate climate adaptation with economic development.

The zoning is made in 4 different categories as to what to do with the land:

“The vision divides the city into four color-coded zones. Green and purple represent relatively safe areas where the city should focus future development and improve existing neighborhoods. The red zone—mostly downtown and the Naval base, and including Tidewater Gardens—are areas of dense development that need protection. The yellow zone represents the boldest move: areas where the city can’t afford to build expensive flood protection but must instead rely on some combination of adaptation and retreat”

So far so good. But the reality is as well that the city has many areas that are lower in socio-economic development and it is often these areas that flood.

So any solution that is being put forward how to live with flooding needs to also consider who is asked to move or make changes.

Rebuilding is not always an option

But in some areas rebuilding does not make financial sense anymore. In West Haven, Connecticut, some people have decided not to rebuild their homes after the super storms Irene and Sandy.

 Yale Climate Connections shortly covered what happens when people decide against rebuilding.

The Federal government’s flood-plain easement program has made it possible for some homeowners to get financial assistance to buy somewhere else at higher ground:

“The houses are removed, and the property gets put into an easement so it can never be developed. Then, the city and federal partners restore the land to marshland habitat, which can absorb floodwater”

The idea is that these areas can then help the city to withstand future storms and thus contribute to the overall resilience of the area and community.

But not everyone moves away from risk prone areas. Some people are actually taking advantage of lower property prices in flood areas, even when knowing that this option might be a risk in the future.

In Brisbane, the devastating floods of 2011 have left some suburbs highly desirable for first home owners because the drop in property prices in the flooded suburbs. This is sending a signal to those who did not have afford before to buy in these areas that there is now an opportunity to do so.

Yet, risk and insurance analysts are warning that this is a gamble that should not be taken lightly. Given the predictions of heavier outpours, there is also potential that such flooding will reoccur.

Finding proper risk assessments for floods should be on people’s agenda but most often people focus on the price of the property. I can understand why as most first home owners often do not have other assets and have saved hard to get the cash deposit that is required for a loan.

Cultural adaptation to changing climate

But these issues are also highly emotional. One of the key cultural constraints on climate adaptation is people’s preferences to what particular landscapes look like, and that often drives decision-making as to which land uses and strategies are preferred.

We all attach some level of security in knowing that places look like they do, and we expect to be able to live our lives in familiar environments.

This is an interesting space in particular for research when new innovative thinking is emerging and city planners are starting to question some of the old assumptions how a city or town should be built, and how do you rebuild after disaster.

But it is also the nature of disasters that is changing.

A study published in Nature this week has found that hurricanes are starting to move more slowly, which means that they will inflict more damage.

There are also questions around what we mean by “normal” weather and this is also part of a changing mindscape as to what we call normal, and what “new normal” could potentially look like.

Responding to these challenges will require new innovative thinking, leadership and really fostering a collective discussion about what climate change adaptation could and should look like in a particular community, state and nation, and what we want to preserve and change.



Trends in the making? Finance and Climate

In the past week, several trends again are emerging, which to me are clear signals that we are seeing change.

One of these is the continuing list of banks that are going to stop lending to activities and organisations that damage the environment.

The latest bank to join others is the Royal Bank of Scotland, which now is going to stop financing energy and mining projects that cause environmental damage.

This “climate aware lending” is just part of the financial disclosure movement that aims to increase the transparency of climate risks within banks and finance industry but also to start changing the way banks lend to different sectors.

Such restrictions in the area of finance could potentially mean that those sectors where environmentally damaging activities are the core business are going to have to rethink the way they operate.

Climate risk considerations in the finance sector

In the last National Climate Change Adaptation Conference in Australia, we heard for example from one of the Australian banks, NAB, and how they are taking direct actions to reduce their climate risks.

Consideration of climate change and its impacts on business operations is therefore increasingly seen as prudent risk management rather than environmental green washing where everyone needs to get on board if only to promote the business brand.

The recognition that climate change has serious consequences to business operations is also recognised in the Australian insurance industry. One of the major insurers, SunCorp, released its climate change action plan just last month.

This is partly based on the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). For those not familiar with TCFD, it is a global effort to start basically getting the finance sector climate-ready and aware of the risks and also opportunities how to respond to increases in risk:

The work and recommendations of the Task Force will help companies understand what financial markets want from disclosure in order to measure and respond to climate change risks, and encourage firms to align their disclosures with investors’ needs.

This comes at a time when Europe’s largest asset management company is also recognising climate change as a significant issue but also an opportunity for the industry.

Changes in Maryland and California

Maryland and California have also been in the news this week, with references to a “new normal”.

Elliot City in the state of Maryland received its second 1-in-1000 year rainstorm in two years that engulfed the city.

The Maryland event is by no means simply just due to climate change. If you read the Washington Post article detailing what happened and why, you quickly gather that there are plenty of factors that play into why a city floods: the topography, how its located, how its urban environment has been built, the list goes on.

To have such a rare event to happen twice within the span of two years is however now raising discussion as to how a city should plan for such events but also what does this mean for long-term planning.

In California, as Alice Hill reports, the wildfires of 2017 were the strongest and fiercest that the state has ever seen. Yet, this is likely to be only just the beginning given that climate change is contributing to the conditions for wildfires:

“as compared to 1986, wildfires in the western United States have begun occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long. Of the twenty most destructive California wildfires since 1932, when the state began keeping records, eleven have occurred in the past ten years—and four of those took place just in 2017”

So calling these events just flukes or dramatic yet single events is probably not feasible. This trend needs clearly observations and as the authors point out, in addition to drought conditions in California, the Wildland-Urban-Interface (settlements built close to fire prone areas) is another factor that is contributing to the losses and damages from these fires.

Yet, prudent risk management calls for more adaptive and flexible strategic planning that includes monitoring of fires and updating fire maps, and having a better understanding how emergency management operations should take place under the “new normal”.

What does this has to do with us? 

These emerging trends might sound like something that are the problems of higher authorities and the finance system.

But in the long-run, any decisions that big firms and in particular re-insurers make in this space, will eventually trickle down to people like you and me.

If the nature of the events that we face changes (e.g. increases in flood frequency, hail damage, bushfires), the insurance and banking sectors will both be significantly impacted as are also disaster management agencies.

But there are also good news.

The climate disclosure movement will hopefully result in more prudent risk management, which is going to be in the end beneficial.

Broader consideration of how particular institutional practices, such as those in disaster management, need changing can also result in innovation and reduced risk.

So perhaps some parts of the “new normal” are actual improvements in how we consider risks and plan better.


Time for a new paradigm in capacity building? 

This week a news item caught my attention, an interview piece with Saleem Huq, the director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development. The commentary focused on the issue of capacity building, climate finance and how this is being dealt with in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This is often a heated topic for debate especially when it comes to overseas aid and now climate finance: how do you build capacity in people and organisations in a way that is meaningful and effective?

This is not obviously just an issue for development aid or for developing countries; many organisations also struggle with how to effectively build capacity of their staff.

Capacity building: the common story

Saleem’s explanation of how this happens is worth a read (read here) but it pretty much tells a simple but familiar story where a consultant goes to a country, depending on the contract spends some time there, runs a few workshops, flies back home, files a report, makes recommendations and gets paid.

As Saleem aptly notes,most of the money that has been spent (I won’t say “invested”) has gone to private companies in the developed country that allocated the money and if any capacity has been built it has been of those “consultants”.

Now, the objectives of the project or program have been fulfilled. Yet, at the country level, the real question is what was left behind.

This is what one of my good friends from Vanuatu calls “capacity substitution” and not capacity building.

True capacity building is where you leave something behind e.g. a set of skills that people can continue to use in the long-term, a system that keeps generating that knowledge in a way that has long-lasting impact on how a particular job is done.

So why is it so easy to accept the mantra of “let’s build some capacity” but so difficult to actually define what that means in practice, let alone to implement capacity building in a meaningful way?

Short-term learning sucks

I have my own capacity building stories as well.

I once participated in a program that was supposed to boost my capacity as a leader. The program consisted of attending three workshops in a year, without any follow-up in between.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Attending workshops is invigorating when you have a chance to really focus on a topic, meet new people, gain new knowledge and share experiences. I am not against workshops.

But I am against short-term learning.

At the time, I was lucky enough to be already in the Coaching for Leaders Academy, a community that has truly changed my life and my leadership group who keep me accountable for who I am and can be.

Leadership is something that can be learned but it needs long-term commitment, everyday practice and constant monitoring of your own behaviour, those of others, and deep on-going self-reflection of values and principles.

Many capacity building programs and projects however use the tip of the iceberg model where individuals gather together for a burst of knowledge and then return back to work or their institutions without a long-term plan how they should use that knowledge or how they should grow as leaders.

Or the all too common model that Saleem notes in his article where only one person travels to another country and provides his/her expertise without being able to develop long-term systems to build specific capacities within that country or department or organisation. 

How to judge value 

But I don’t want to be too cynical here either. In order to truly understand what capacity building means, we also need to ask those whose capacity is being built.

Some people like the workshop model and it suits them well. Some are too busy to engage in a more long-term format and can find such short meetings more valuable.

But I would say that the majority of us need the long-term view and commitment to change things and learn new skills.

Still, the value of a capacity building program ultimately lies with those who participate.

If we want to truly understand what value for example “building resilience” or “capacity building for climate adaptation” workshops, programs and projects have, we need to do a proper follow-up to see how such knowledge and skills have changed people’s lives.

We need to also think how we can truly built systems that are long-lasting and can help people not only to learn new skills but also maintain those skills in a changing context.

There is no silver bullet here as each individual and organisation is different in their needs, ways of learning, and commitment to then implement what they have learned and have capacity for.

New paradigm for learning and building capacity?

But perhaps it is time to start thinking in a more long-term systematic way what the target group whose capacity we want to build needs, the best modes of learning to deliver access to new knowledge and skills, and how we can then measure and evaluate what success looks like in that context.

Saleem suggests investing more in universities that are building capacity and have a track record in doing so.

This is not a bad idea especially given how universities are now becoming more flexible in the way they teach, embracing new opportunities such as flipped classrooms where students go through material at home and come to class to debate and reflect.

If we are serious about capacity building, we need to truly innovate in the way we design such programs and projects, delivering value to the participants directly, and enabling long-term sustainability of those skills and systems.

I am very excited to see what kinds of innovations emerge and are embraced in this area, and of course continue to advocate for lifelong learning as the main capacity building skill that we all need.



How to buy a property in a changing climate

I have been toying with the idea of finally having something of my own rather than paying someone else’s mortgage with my rent.

This seems to make sense from investment point of view and I am inherently interested in the kind of information people need to make smart decisions in this space.

When I have started to look into this, it all seems getting complicated as the string of decisions that one has to make and risks that need to be considered becomes surprisingly long and complex.

Past risk management= future guide?

Proper risk management in the past has been somewhat straight forward when it comes to house hunting: if you find a property that you would like to buy, you could get your hands on historical records (well I would and then again I probably deviate from the norm) whether the area has had flooding and to understand better the past damages from other hazards to the property.

This kind of information on historical flooding is often with local governments and insurance companies and can be used to estimate also risks in the future or at least likelihood that the past floods would repeat in the same location.

Yet, a few examples just these past days show why such risk management based on history might not serve us well in the future.

Just last week, storm winds and heavy rain passed over the state of Tasmania and devastated most of Hobart, the capital.

The damage bill of the “worst storm in decades” is likely to be millions, and the commentary in the news has classified the event as highly unusual and thus unexpected. One of my friends commented on the storm that it was odd as those kinds of storms “just don’t occur in Tasmania”.

Insurance, more frequent events and property values

In Canada, insurance claims have been increasing and there is also the issue of more frequent flooding leading to insurance companies not wanting to give insurance:

“From Halifax to Victoria, we’re seeing growth in the uninsurability of homes,” …People who can’t get insurance because the frequency of flooding is too high.”

This has direct linkages to mortgages and property values: if people’s houses are constantly flooded even several times, the damage costs and higher insurance or loss of insurance could lead to mortgage defaults.

It’s relatively straight forward to make a claim on a flooded basement the first time but if that happens two or three times, it’s likely to get harder. And being hit by multiple events such as bushfires and flooding can mean that insurance premiums go up.

Perhaps households don’t need to make those decisions alone. It is likely that insurers and reinsurers will put in clauses and prices for such areas that they simply do not attract those people who think about long-term investments.

The markets will eventually respond to natural hazards. People could be less likely to be able to get insurance or renew their existing insurance if the frequency of flooding increases significantly in their area and for example highly unusual events become the norm.

In Australia, banks for example have been encouraged to at least examine potential climate risks. And some banks have responded to this. For example, NAB states that “The impacts of climate change and climate-related policy are having a growing effect on our business, our customers, and the communities in which we operate”. 

There is a growing recognition among the banks that climate related risks like sea level rise will eventually impact property values.

A new study just in April 2018 from Harvard University and University of Colorado showed how property values on the coastal areas in Miami are gaining value much slower than those on higher elevations.

So what about just normal people?

I would love to end this blog post in a robust set of advice or recommendations on how to invest in a smart way in property even if some of the climate risks eventuate and how to better understand the insurance system and the current mechanisms.

But I’ve only hit on the tiny top of the iceberg here of the kinds of issues that we do not usually think about and am not sure am much wiser yet on how to do so.

I do recognise that someone working in the climate risk space, such risks seem very real and relevant to me when I think about long-term decisions and investing in property. And there is potential I am risk averse above what is required.

Yet at the same time, I have access to information and knowledge in this area and to experts who could have at least some of the answers.

But there are likely many people out there who, even if only occasionally, think about such risks and would like to have consistent information on how increased climate extremes can have impacts on their investments. So who should they turn to?

As long as climate risks are “potential future risk”, it is unlikely that these are factored in decision-making in banks and mortgage decisions, evaluation of property values, or insurance availability.

But once they are, this could mean quite big changes in how such investment decisions are made in the future. This means also a new need to communicate such risks to customers who will be impacted.

If there is anything to go on from the Harvard study, I will not be buying right on the coast next to the beach or on a floodplain. Other than that, I think I just need to pick the risks I can live with and can know about now.

Ps. I am very interested in comparing notes so if you have any ideas/experiences in how you made a decision in this area, please comment even if it’s just to tell me to stop being so risk averse ;).

Communicating climate adaptation: what could go wrong?

This past week I have attended the Climate Adaptation 2018: Learn, Collaborate, Act Conference in Melbourne that gathers scientists, policymakers and non-governmental organisations to hear the latest discussions and science on climate change adaptation.

I was asked to chair a panel session on Communicating around Climate Adaptation with four super stars: Karl Braganza, Doug Parsons, Hallie Eakin, and Merryn McKinnon. Each one of them brings a great depth of knowledge about communication in general and adaptation in particular.


Doug is the host of the podcast America Adapts and has really forged a consistent pathway in communicating climate change adaptation to the broader masses while finding amazing guests on the show who really know the ins and outs of climate adaptation.

Karl is a climate scientist who works at the Bureau of Meteorology and truly understands what it takes to communicate science to non-scientists.

Hallie is Associate Professor at School of Sustainability in Arizona State University where her research focuses on exploring climate adaptation and sustainability challenges in countries like Mexico, and the invisible factors that impact on our decision-making.

Merryn is a lecturer at Australian National University with a PhD in science communication and holds workshops for scientists on how to communicate.

What did we learn

The aim of our session was to discuss experiences in communicating climate change adaptation, how to target particular audiences but also to explore whether climate adaptation communication differs from more general communication around climate change.

Instead of the norm of having Questions and Answers from the audience, we flipped the Q&A and asked the audience questions instead during the session (thank you for everyone who participated in such a lively manner!).

We began the discussion with a question “what is the main message about adaptation is that we need to get across?”, with an added bonus question: if you had 30 seconds with Donald Trump, how would you deliver a punchy message about adaptation?

Maybe wrong person to pitch that to but the discussion was particularly lively and further reflections also led to questions about communication’s effectiveness and what we determine as a success in communication.

I was particularly impressed by one participant’s communication strategy and how he has started evaluating “success”: his focus nowadays is more on decision-makers and getting meetings to explain science behind climate change and its implications.

The success of his communication is therefore measured in securing the next meeting with a policymaker rather than the number of times people have cited a piece of data.

Best fails revealed  

One of the questions that I asked the audience was their experience of failing in communication. I am a big fan of experience-based knowledge and that the greatest learning opportunities are in those moments when something has actually gone wrong.

I am glad to say that a few brave souls did step forward and told us their personal stories, which I found fascinating.

A lady discussed her experience with an international organisation where she had been a junior staff member and was asked to travel to a developing country to give a briefing on how that country could apply for more climate funds and become accredited to a particular fund.

She did not do much background research on the country, and went to deliver the presentation. The lengthy presentation was full of details on the mechanisms how such accreditation processes happen and how this country could position itself better in the process.

The government officials were very polite, thanked her for her detailed presentation and the information she had delivered. So far, so good. Then the officials, in the nicest way possible, added that the country, in fact, was already accredited to this particular fund.

Another scientist reflected on her experience in communicating weather and climate information to indigenous communities in Latin America, and realising from an audience question that the format that they were using to communicate rainfall was completely misunderstood by the community members.

But this only became apparent during the presentation when an old lady posed a question: is that bar (that was supposed to signify amount of rainfall) the location of my house?

While these specific examples are not necessarily about pure climate adaptation, these kinds of experiences are precious and should be cherished, not forgotten, because they remind us about the many things that can go wrong when trying to communicate with an audience that we don’t necessarily understand well.

Know your audience and what they prefer

One of the consistent themes in this panel discussion was the old but true wisdom of knowing your audience: do your background work and research who you are talking to, what information do they actually need, in what format, and who should be presenting information in the first place.

For example, some participants lamented “death by powerpoint” presentations that are usually the norm in conferences as presenters try to cram in as much information as they can. In the end of 3 days of conferencing, people are exhausted.

But others who worked with businesses noted that powerpoint was often the best method to deliver information because the people in business expected powerpoint presentations.

Another audience insight related to the way we run our conferences. We should make conferences testing grounds for different communication and engagement methods where we could see what works, and learn from each others’ experiences.

For example, we could organise discussion forums about the best methods to deliver adaptation relevant information to a particular audience based on our experiences.

But we also reflected on what our own communication preferences are: for example, when given the option to do a 3-minute TED talk at a conference, no one opted to do so as other formats (normal 10-minute presentation) gave them more time to say more.

With today’s technology, there are more and more opportunities and ways to communicate but we must also be willing to test such opportunities ourselves so we can understand how a particular method or format works.

Insights to be remembered

Summing up the insights is hard but here are a few that I will be keeping in mind:

Adaptation brings often a more hopeful message than mitigation (e.g. you should drive less and cut emissions): adaptation is an opportunity to reframe some of the negative discussion around climate change.

We should focus on what people are doing already in terms of adaptation, what they could do better, and how we can support them. If they come back for more information, then we have been effective.

Scientists are not always  best placed to do the communication especially since very few scientists have undergone actual training about how to communicate. Knowledge or communication brokers can help in simplifying the main message.

Do your research beforehand and know your audience, understand what communication methods they usually prefer, and what is most of value to them.

Think about which decisions they have to make and what information would be most useful.

And as Merryn noted, when we try to communicate a complex issue, we do not need to “dumb it down”.

Good communication (and the whole panel agreed on this) is practice practice practice: you can deliver crystal clear ideas even on complex issues but you need to be prepared to do the hard work of training yourself to do so.

(Apparently testing different communication styles on your friends and family can work but be careful: they can only show genuine interest a limited number of times).

Is climate adaptation a science?

This is my pet topic, it has been ever since I started my PhD in 2009 and dived head on  into the world of climate change adaptation.

I identify as an adaptation scientist much to the dismay of some as there is an on-going debate as to whether climate change adaptation is simply a topic of interest, an actual discipline, or a discipline about to turn into a science.

The debate often divides people into two camps:

On the one hand, there are those who argue that pure focus on adaptation leads to a narrow self-referencing scientific community who ignores most of the lessons already learned from other disciplines.

On the other, there are those who argue that climate adaptation is evolving into its own discipline and/or science that draws upon the richness of other disciplines while still developing its own theory and practice.

For those outside of this field this following discussion might seem trivial and unnecessary. But for those of us who research and work in climate change adaptation it is an issue that seems to divide people. People even get quite emotional about it although often in the end they say it doesn’t really matter.

But, it does.

It does because the way we define something also influences on how we think it should be approached, which methodologies and theories should be used, which assessments are most reliable, and who has authority to make claims in this particular area.

The next generation of adaptation scholars is growing up right now

During my PhD I co-authored a commentary with five other early career researchers on the kinds of issues that climate change adaptation as a field of study is facing, how to take some of these issues forward, and what that means for the development of the field.

In our piece, “ Climate adaptation research for the next generation”, one of the core questions we posed was “How much knowledge specific to adaptation does one need in order to contribute to the field and what should the balance be?”

The answers to this question are still very relevant because the answer that we each give clearly signals also the way we think about climate adaptation, and what it means to truly “know the field”.

I ended up arguing about our statements with more senior people who did their studies at a time when climate change adaptation did not even exist as a separate issue for study.

For them, it is easy to argue that climate change adaptation is just a new lens that we now use to study social science issues, and that we should ground our work in existing disciplines and not purely on climate change adaptation as this is not a discipline.

That viewpoint is certainly alive but, however, history.

Climate adaptation now has its specific conferences, forums, journals, university courses and networks and we have seen the emergence of adaptation ‘experts’. As Dovers and Hezri noted in 2010, climate adaptation has evolved into its own epistemic community.

More recently, Saleemul Huq also noted the following: “There may not be an adaptation science yet…but there is certainly one in the making and in five to 10 years from now there will be a body of knowledge specific to climate adaptation”.

This relates to what it means to “grow up” in a scientific sense in the realm of climate change adaptation. My co-authors and I all did our PhDs more or less grounded in climate adaptation while we drew upon many different disciplines.

But we all shared a somewhat common understanding of climate adaptation, its strengths and weaknesses and theoretical underpinnings because we had been following the field and had an understanding of its history.

The need for consolidation  

Given the prominence of climate adaptation for research and policy and increased available finance, we are seeing increasingly people entering the field and the emergence of adaptation specific expertise.

Yet, we lack in many ways the global consolidation of the field, acceptance and agreement of the common methodologies and frameworks, and what qualifies as expertise in this new field.

Don’t get me wrong, we definitely do not lack frameworks since every new project, organisation, and program comes up with its own framework for climate adaptation that then drives project outcomes and research outputs.

This is in fact a major frustration that I have encountered many times from stakeholders in the Pacific Islands where the array of different climate adaptation frameworks and methodologies sometimes seems confusing.

Simultaneously the Paris Agreement has as one of its goals “global adaptation goal” that then needs to be measured and tracked, making adaptation a very much global issue.

So the question is: how do we consolidate a field that is forming, and consists of many different strands of knowledge, experiences, policy agendas, and a mix of global-local scales? And how do we validate adaptation expertise?

How to consolidate the field: Concise guidance on climate adaptation

For many who enter this field, whether as a scientist or practitioner, it can be overwhelming trying to grasp what climate change adaptation is. In this learning process it is essential that there would be common guidance to explain which are the key foundational papers in climate adaptation and how these have shaped the field.

One good example of this is Lisa Schipper’s and Ian Burton’s Reader for Adaptation to Climate Change which has collated major papers in the field, and provides so to say history of many of the core ideas that are still used in the field. Many of these foundational papers are highly cited and still pop up in reference lists in even recent papers.

There is also PROVIA guidance on how to assess Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation that provides guidance for academics, policymakers and alike on the most commonly used methodologies and tools available. One of the very reasons for the guidance has been in fact the increasing number of available tools and methodologies leading to confusion what works and where.

A new Global Centre of Excellence for Climate Adaptation has also been established that is going to synthesise much of the available information on adaptation and provide consolidation of that information. Australia likewise has its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility that has supported much of this synthesis and new research into what adaptation looks like in the Australian context.

These movements to me signal the process of recognition of climate adaptation as its own distinct sphere, whether as adaptation science or discipline.

What I am certain of is that there are more and more scholars and practitioners who are taking firm steps in becoming climate adaptation specialists and who will identify themselves more with this new discipline or science than any other area of study.

Time will tell what that science looks like but for now, my dream is that one day we do have a globally recognised robust adaptation science that has commonly accepted and tested methodologies, underpinning theory, degrees and curriculums, and certification of expertise for best practice.


There’s plenty of space for leadership here.


leadership, organisations, memory, institutions, principles, decisions

How to maintain and access organisational memory

It struck me the other day when I was speaking with a colleague that institutional knowledge and memory is really retained in people. With institutional knowledge and memory I mean the knowledge about who does what, how things really work, who you need to talk to to get access to particular information.

It is the informal rules that everybody just knows, or most people know, in that department or institution about how decisions are really made.

The trick is that much of this is informal knowledge, as it is both distributed and held by people, and it also changes over time when particular individuals leave their positions within the hierarchy.

New people always bring new ways of thinking and doing things, and each of us shape our role the way that we think it is best done. Such personal knowledge and preferences in particular are often not necessarily communicated in official terms as we find our way around a new institution or a new position.

Others must learn to understand how we like things to be done, while we must also exercise same kind of understanding of how others conduct their roles and what their values and aspirations are that drive their behaviour.

So it is no wonder why learning a new job or role is stressful especially since there are so many informal rules that exist in a parallel universe to those official norms, rules and practices that we read in institutional policies and strategic plans.

Knowledge-based memory loss

But this is just one aspect of institutional knowledge and memory. Another has to do with the knowledge people hold about their specific area of expertise and the networks of people and ideas that they have built over time.

When these people leave an institution, a clear gap emerges. Yet, this gap often goes unnoticed until something goes wrong or that specific expertise or contacts are needed.

Many organisations are worried about this trend because they understand the value of expertise and the time and cost associated with filling that void.

But many do not understand or recognise that institutional memory is broader: it is about which assessments have already been done, how did the institution tackle a particular issue ten years ago, which partnerships have been most effective in achieving particular outcomes, and so on.

New people move into positions who do not know that ten years ago a similar risk assessment was already conducted for the exact same reason but the report was never fully utilised.

Yet, sometimes you get same people asking for the same solution and analysis who commissioned the same approach ten years ago.

So how do you tap into this knowledge, maintain it and make it accessible so that institutions and individuals can learn from past processes and develop new strategies that build on what we already know but add new value?

For many institutions this is a crucial void because without documentation of past decisions, assessments, and outcomes, many keep doing the same things over and over again.

Effective learning becomes harder.

But both kinds of knowledges, the broader what has been done before, and the more individual informal principles, need to be clarified and made more accessible.

Principles need to be written down

I am a big fan of information and knowledge management and I believe that here this can play a crucial role in enabling us to make better decisions.

If we know and understand what has been discovered and done before in the organisation, we can more easily ask more specific and helpful questions and find ways to innovate.

So having an institutional repository of knowledge is a key step for any organisation that allows people to access knowledge, and also contribute to maintaining such institutional memory of which ideas were supported, when, and how they were used or not used in decision-making.

Documenting such knowledge can be helpful also at a more personal level.

We all use a range of principles in our lives that determine how we make decisions. But most often we would not know what these actually are until we undertake some deeper level analysis as to why we made a particular decision.

Ray Dalio, as interviewed in the Freakonomics podcast, describes how being clear about our personal principles is crucial not only for our personal understanding of ourselves and how we operate but also how others think and behave:

Writing principles also helps, of course, because it makes clear what you’re making decisions on. In other words, if I know your principles, and you know my principles, and we agree on principles of how we’re going to operate with each other, it becomes fantastic, and you have that idea-meritocratic decision making”

Ray has made a habit of writing down the exact principles that he uses in making a particular decision, and then after learning what the outcome of that decision is, he goes back and revisits his decision-making principles to learn where he can improve.

This kind of reflection helps to build a personal decision-making principles repository that is highly useful also in understanding our own minds and ways of behaviour.

For institutions, and for those in particular working in climate change adaptation, identifying current decision principles in use, and re-examining those over time as climate change impacts increase, could offer significant windows into how to make better decisions under uncertainty.

If we can better understand the organisational and institutional memory and knowledge, and our own principles and that of others, we stand in a better position to argue better but also observing how such principles are used in practice.

I am yet to do this exercise but this could be a fun game: have a decision principle diary and dedicate pages for writing down notes on a particular decision you made, track how that turned out, and evaluate those principles that you used.
There is lot of research already around this, something that I will be sharing in a blog in the next few weeks.

But for now, my takeaway message at least is that if we want to make better decisions, we need to understand and document the past, talk to others who “know” how things work at our institution, and construct then our own decision principles as to how we can best operate in that environment.

And please, before people leave your organisation who have been there for years, invite them for a cup of coffee or lunch, and learn as much as you can whatever knowledge they hold. Because once they leave, that knowledge is gone as well.

How risk framing, climate and leadership are linked

This past week there was a piece of news that has caught many people’s imagination: the slowing down of Atlantic Ocean circulation. The Atlantic Ocean circulation is a stream that brings warmer water towards north and is the reason why Western Europe can enjoy warm weather during summer.

But a new study has found that this current has been slowed down to a record low.Scientists are linking this event to climate change and how our actions are actually impacting the oceans in such significant terms that we have not seen before.

The fear of this stream slowing down is not new. It captured the imagination already in The Day After Tomorrow movie where most of the northern US is covered in ice and snow due to the failing of this stream.

Similarly, this week we have heard about the fires in Canada and how these fires are increasing the risks and also costs of fire management and losses and damages . Increases in such fires are likely in the future due to climate change.

In this equation we don’t even know how to measure the long-term detrimental damages to ecosystems themselves as most of the calculations that we do are those of financial assets, such as houses, roads, other infrastructure that we can put a dollar value on.

Despite these news, many are likely to brush off these as freak events or that there is just not enough data or that the uncertainties are too high to count as definitive evidence.

The very reason why such comments often surface have to do with the way individuals and organisations frame risks, and how these choices further push additional actions or allow inaction.

Risk typologies as an illustration

In a paper “When is transformation a viable policy alternative?” that I wrote few years back with Professor John Handmer we explicitly focused on risk management but more broadly in answering the question: once we settle on a particular framing of a risk, which factors come into play in making a decision how to deal with it?

We wanted to explore and expand on a risk typology that looks at the very definition of a risk or a problem, and the extent that these framings then impact also on what kind of information we seek, where we get that information from, how we estimate uncertainty, and a variety of other factors that have a significant impact on the decision that we take how to solve that particular problem.

These kinds of issues are particularly relevant for emergency and disaster management organisations but have also wider applications.

In our typology we looked at three different kinds of risk framings: routine problems, non-routine problems, and complex problems, and the extent that each of these framings is capable to accommodate change.

Routine problems (Type I) are about resistance and maintenance: the focus is on keeping the system functioning as it is. We are fairly confident with these types of problems that we understand the extent of uncertainty and can make quick decisions on how to deal with these problems. The current operational procedures are enough and no major changes are required or undertaken.

Non-routine problems (Type II) are still within the realm of our experience although these types of problems can stretch the knowledge that we have. Non-routine problems, such as extreme heatwaves, often necessitate new kinds of approaches to deal with “freak events” but often do little to actually necessitate change in operational and strategic plans and management.

Yet, most of the problems that our societies and organisations face today are what we call Type III: complex unbounded problems. Such problems are “often outside of previous experience, have high uncertainties, involve multiple scales, and have high levels of unpredictability”.

With such problems, we know that we do not understand the extent of the uncertainty, we need to access and draw on as many knowledge sources as possible, and we need to implement transformative changes in the way we are thinking and operating currently. Type III risk frame allows organisations to acknowledge what they don’t know and enables deeper reflection as to what needs to change.

Links to leadership?

Much of this research really demonstrates that there are multiple ways of seeing a problem, which in turn impacts on our willingness and ability to foster innovation and find new ways of doing things.

Our typology, although firstly written with a focus on emergency and disaster management organisations, applies very much to leadership and management more broadly.

Think about your own team and the time that you had disagreements about the problem: which risk framing or problem type did you and your team members subscribe to?

Did your staff or people higher up clearly have a different view of the extent and nature of the problem?

How did this influence in how you as a leader or manager sought out advice or information, and how did you make a decision how to deal with the uncertainties?

In the workplace, it is possible to have all of these risk types represented in discussions.

Two people holding opposing views about what the problem even is are unlikely to agree on the same solution.

The common rule of thumb is that until you have a shared understanding or agreement what the problem is (routine vs. nonroutine vs. complex) it is very difficult to also start changing some of the management practices that are in place.

But understanding the different framings and having an open dialogue about what each sees as the problem can lead also to a more broadly accepted and shared definition of the problem at hand, and hence impacts also on the kinds of solutions that are considered.

This is is my hope regarding climate change: that we start recognising it as a complex unbounded problem, which demands significant changes in the way we operate our institutions and write our policies.

What makes and counts as “impact”?

 All of us aspire to make a difference in something, whether it is in our profession, with our family, with friends, or at a broader scale.

But how do we know that we are actually getting there, and our work is having an impact and changing the way things are done or the way people think about an issue? The focus is obviously on positive change here as impact can go both ways from positive to negative.

Demonstrating impact

In academia, it used to be relatively simple how we measured “impact”: we count how many times a scientific article has been cited. The more citations, the more popular the paper, the more “impact” your ideas and research is supposedly having.

Yet, nowadays we are starting to recognise that creating an impact is not all just about citations. In fact, there are so many competing ideas and articles that we need to do more to show we are actually generating an impact.

Now academics aim to write guest blogs or their own blogs, use Twitter and Linked In to share news about their research, appear on short videos, do podcasting, give interviews to newspapers and university media about their work.

We are also engaging more and more in scientific assessments, such as those of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and participate on advisory boards in our area of expertise.

These activities can help in providing more avenues in getting our message across. But is academia even the best place to produce lasting change, one that is capable of changing people’s lives?


Getting from ideas to impact

Much of what I have observed in the last two years about ideas and impact comes down to branding and developing a public profile. Take someone like Adam Grant or Simon Sinek: both are highly successful authors of popular books who do research and then write about what they have found.

Both, I would argue, are having and have had a significant impact on people’s thinking on leadership and management through popular science. So why do some people become big names and others do not who might have similar ideas to share?

Both Adam Grant and Simon Sinek have strong individual brands. We know what they do, what they stand for, and there are multiple channels on how we can access the knowledge that they create: websites, Linked In posts, podcast interviews, podcast series like WorkLife with Adam Grant, books, interviews, articles, you name it.

The point is that both of these authors are working hard on keeping themselves relevant, reaching a bigger audience, and having something valuable to say that is resonating with people.

It does not have to be complicated at all. Most ideas that spread fast are actually simple yet profound.

Both Adam and Simon have that quality that speaks to many of us: providing simple yet powerful messages about what good leadership and management looks like, the kinds of steps that others have taken to get there, and how we as well can aspire to become better leaders and managers.

There is in fact nowadays a whole industry out there to help people to get their message across and heard: there are professional gurus who provide advice on how to build your brand, how to improve your website and communication channels, how to do public speaking, how to score speaking gigs.

All of that advice is useful to some extent but what I would really want to know is that how we do we know that our ideas are changing someone’s life in practice?

Do we count the number of Twitter and LinkedIn followers, how many times our blog has been viewed, the times our work has been cited? How do we know that our words and thoughts have changed or influenced someone to do something differently?


Not all ideas are (or need be) life changing

So why do we even need to consider whether we are having a life changing impact? Most academics would probably argue that they are mainly focused on progressing the scientific field and are not in a habit of changing people’s lives as such.

Impact for me counts as being able to contribute to the development of ideas in my field, questioning the core assumptions that we have made about how to adapt to climate change and what that even means.

Whenever I have encountered a colleague or a student who has read my papers and have found those ideas helpful, I count my blessings and count that as an impact.

Granted, it’s probably not life changing but idea changing at least: being able to influence how someone thinks about the field and hopefully spurring in them a growing inspiration to keep developing their own ideas.

Understanding your personal impact factor

For me, it is useful to think impact in terms of what resonates with other people. But more importantly, if you want to measure your impact and understand how your work is changing something, developing a personal impact factor can help.

Given most of our skills, professional fields, and avenues to make impact can be vastly different, it is worth considering different ways in how we could or should measure our impact.

There are both formal and informal methods in doing this. To get to the bottom of online impact, we can do a search on the number of times people have referred to our idea or work; for authors, the number of times our work has been bought or downloaded; number of public speaking invitations.

But to truly understand how our work and ideas are changing something in the world, we should go to the core of change: people. Asking people who are interested in your work for feedback on how they view our work and ideas, and gaining a better understanding what has resonated with them is crucial.

This “soft” stuff is certainly harder and time consuming to track and understand. But it is more rewarding if we can truly grasp what about our work, ideas, and behaviour has produced a positive impact.

In developing a personal impact factor, thinking about who we have been influenced by, in which ways, and how that made us take particular actions, can provide guidance in how we would like to measure and see impact of our own ideas and work.

3 daily steps that will make you a more mindful leader

In the past few weeks the universe has bombarded me with different postings about leadership and mindfulness. This does not seem like such a trivial matter that it would warrant a separate blog posting. But it turns out being a mindful leader is not a common practice and it’s hard to maintain especially in a somewhat frantic work environment that most of us find ourselves in.

For someone like me who is inherently fascinated by different aspects of leadership, the emphasis on mindfulness seems crucial. So what are the actual benefits in leading more mindfully, and how would you implement something like this in your own leadership style?

In a recent book “How we work: Live your purpose, reclaim your sanity and embrace the daily grind” by Stanford Academic Leah Weiss notes how being aware and perceptive of suffering at work can actually lead us to greater personal growth and enhanced emotional intelligence.

Observing ourselves experiencing situations, asking questions about why we feel and act as we do, can all trigger a more focused and mindful approach to our work. This includes practices such as “monotasking”: focusing on one task at a time and giving it our full focus.

But what really struck a chord with me this week was Harvard Business Ideacast podcast episode on how to lead with less ego. In the episode authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carte shared their insights what they have learned about the kinds of mindful practices, which can be done on daily basis and that have a significant impact on people’s approach and experience at work.

Begin the gratitude and service mindset

The research results confirmed the most effective traits of leaders: being compassionate, selfless, and focused. Effective leaders are people-centred but not pushovers, compassionate yet willing to make the right decisions, and focused on personal growth including feedback.

I love the quote from Jacquiline in the show:

“I think that if leadership is all about me I probably shouldn’t be a leader. I think that when we look at what does selflessness mean, it doesn’t mean about not being competitive; it doesn’t mean about not being driven, about not being results oriented, about making the tough decisions”

In their research, Rasmus and Jacquiline met many leaders who really were people-centred and compassionate. A core question of leading with compassion comes down to two things: practicing gratitude and focusing on being of service.

A gratitude practice can be done easily in two minutes at work, when you come into the office and are about to start your day and before every meeting. The aim is to calm down, become focused, and then express grateful thoughts for those people that you will meet during that day and who you work with.

Practicing gratitude increases your compassion and also connects you to your colleagues, staff and stakeholders in a new way that keeps you focused and emotionally aware of what they might be going through or what seems to matter to them the most.

Similarly the question we should be asking as people-centred leaders is how we can be of service to the person we are working with or meeting with. Having this inner thought before we meet with our staff or during a meeting can enable us to have a heightened focus on how we can support this person the best or what they need from us in order to succeed and excel in their roles.

The point is: being a leader means you should be self-confident but not self-centrered. A good leader has the humility to take feedback and grow from that, but also to really look at opportunities for his or her employees in helping them to succeed at work.

Embrace radical transparency

One of the most inspiring stories on this comes from the brand new podcast series “WorkLife” with Adam Grant.  Adam interviewed Ray Dalio, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates. (I’ve now told this story already to so many friends that I thought I have to include here as well as the actual transcripts probably do it more justice).

Bridgewater Associates under Ray’s leadership has a policy of radical transparency. This means that everyone, including the CEO, are open for feedback and criticism. In Ray’s eyes, criticism is essential in helping people to grow. In the episode he explains how he doesn’t have time to waste precious mental resources on the kind of bickering that people usually keep up:

“One of the biggest tragedies of mankind is people holding in their opinions in their heads, and it’s such a tragedy because it could so easily be fixed if they put them out there and stress-tested them in the right way. They would so raise their probability of making a better decision. Everybody’s giving high fives, they’re all smiling at each other. But they’re not dealing with the things they need to deal with”

This, to me, is another level of mindfulness and self-awareness that is painful and can cause us suffering but in the long-run eventually if we open up the opportunity for self-discovery, we are more capable of leading with integrity, becoming people-centred, and eliminating wasted time on negative feelings that go around in our heads.

Yet, most of our workplaces don’t encourage “radical transparency” and especially if we work in organisations that are ego-driven rather than ego-balanced, it is not always a good idea to speak up. Unless you happen to work for Ray where that is required (with 1/3 of new employees quitting in the first 18 months).

Get a 360 and focus on what was said

If you do want to get to know yourself better, and get feedback, there are also other ways. 360s are increasingly used by many businesses and organisations where a consultant comes in, interviews many people who work with or for you, and you get a summary of what people have said.

As Tom Henschel notes in Coaching for Leaders episode 341 the key thing with a 360 assessment is not to start guessing who said what and then hunt them down, but focus on what was being said.

This also requires a renewed level of self-awareness, self-compassion and also being mindful about how our behaviour at workplace can be interpreted from many different angles. Focusing on what people said can help us in seeing some of our actions and words in a different light and enable us to improve in our leadership skills and styles.

Tom also puts in a word of caution how such assessments can be misused. 360s should not be used for performance reviews because they are based on people’s feelings and thoughts about one person and not data as such to actually review and rate the performance at work.

To sum it up, becoming a mindful leader requires a handful of steps that are both easy and hard to take and implement:

  1. Cultivating gratitude towards yourself, your colleagues, family and people you come across can help in creating an attitude of true compassion. Take a few minutes each day to express gratitude (but don’t be a doormat, great leaders always know the difference).
  2. Being of service: Compassion is also created by having the thought prior or during the meeting: “how can I be of assistance/service to this person today? How can I help this person to achieve what they need?”
  3. Practicing internal and external focus and reflection: Handling feedback and the learning loop: keep at eliciting feedback from your peers and family and don’t look at failure or miscommunication as a dead end. We learn, as Leah Weiss notes, by suffering at work if we practice both internal and external focus and reflection on the feedback we are getting and giving.

Much of this sounds like soft tactics that don’t serve us well in an environment where everyone is trying to get ahead. But practicing these things daily can actually change the way you lead: with more focus comes also emotional intelligence and self-confidence.


Can we keep a score on climate?

Last week I attended Climate Update 2018 event in Brisbane where we heard from various eminent speakers on the state of climate and what different organisations, such as the Queensland government, are doing in this space.

In his presentation at Climate Update 2018, Mark Howden from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focused on the latest climate science: for example 2017 was the hottest year on record.

Many of the graphs showed how we are losing ice at a rate not seen before, how the poles are melting away, how carbon emissions are tracking at upper levels, and how the numbers of natural disasters have increased in recent years.

Especially if you work in climate change space, we receive these kinds of news sometimes almost at a daily rate. But how do we keep up with this information? How do we know where we are actually at? And once we know where we are at, how do we put in strategies in place to start influencing the goals and outcomes we want?

This raises also questions such as how many times does a place need to flood until we recognise that this is the new business-as-usual? This comes down to tracking and measuring where we are at.

Measuring climate change adaptation and state of the art

In my field, climate adaptation, there are countless reports and frameworks looking into how we could track, measure and monitor our activities and whether we are making progress in adjusting to the current and predicted impacts of climate change.

One recent initiative that has aimed to advance our thinking is the recent report by UNEPDTU that focused on understanding the latest knowledge on the kinds of metrics we can use to track and measure climate adaptation, including how successful it has been.

As the report notes, there are diverse frameworks and methodologies now in use for measuring and tracking adaptation, all of which are used in a highly disorganised way. This means that there is a lack of common agreement how such measuring should be done.

To complicate matters, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement  notes that there is now a global adaptation goal.

Yet, we still do not have a definition or idea what that goal could or should look like in practice, which of course influences what we are to measure.

Capturing information on mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases) uses a single measure of calculating how many tons of carbon have been released or alternatively not released. These are the yearly numbers that for example companies produce to showcase their actions for climate change and how they are going “low carbon”.

But with adaptation, we are far from agreeing on a metric partly because adaptation is often seen as a social process that is context dependent. Yet, we do need to find innovative ways of tracking and measuring that are not just dependent on big data or scientific assessments but in factors that can engage communities to do better and perform better.

Eventually, it all comes down to winning or losing.

4 Disciplines of Execution

In the leadership and management literature one of the influential books has been the 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey and Huling.

Why influential? Because it provides a pragmatic way for organisations to manage change, achieve their wildly important goals, and finding a way to stay focused on reaching those goals in the middle of the “whirldwind”.

The whirlwind is the everyday-life that most of us face and that permeates often our decisions and time use. The daily emails, responding to urgent requests; it is a space that we occupy to do the work we do. If you find yourself asking “where did this day go?”, you are likely to have been in the whirlwind.

The good news is that there is a different way of thinking that can help in getting focused on achieving your goals. This comes down to these 4 disciplines:

  1. Focus on your wildly important goal. Be clear about the goal and narrow it down so that you know what you need to do to reach it.
  2. Act on lead measures. Which actions do you need to take to reach the goal? Which factors can you influence?
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard that lets you know how you are progressing.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.

The accountability is important because

“Great performers thrive in a culture of accountability that is frequent, positive, and self-directed. Each team engages in a simple weekly process that highlights successes, analyzes failures, and course-corrects as necessary, creating the ultimate performance-management system”.

What the authors have found is that especially keeping a scoreboard has fuelled organisational change. The idea behind a scoreboard is to increase engagement but also giving people a sense of whether they are winning or losing, and if so what measures they can take to influence the outcome:

“Great teams know at every moment whether or not they are winning. They must know, otherwise, they don’t know what they have to do to win the game. A compelling scoreboard tells the team where they are and where they should be, information essential to team problem solving and decision making”. (p. 66).

Much of this will come down to engagement and the ways that we are able to show people what the current situation is, where we are heading, and what measures we can take to either advert the undesirable outcome or support the accomplishment of the goal.

Creating a Scoreboard for Engagement

Reading this book has led me to ask questions around how we could use such an approach in climate change adaptation. We certainly gain glimpses of where we are at with climate change by looking at all the biophysical data, such as the rate of melting icesheets or the record number of hot days each year (higher than usual).

We have the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but these come out every 5 or 6 years, which is a long-time to wait for the state of the art knowledge on climate change.

This kind of data we do have but what kind of data would lend itself to create a Climate Scoreboard? For climate adaptation in particular, what would a global, national or local climate adaptation scoreboard look like?

Would it be number of disasters averted, number of households protected during or from flooding, number of insurance claims reduced? If the Climate Adaptation Scoreboard would be in the middle of the town, next to the bank, what information would be most compelling to give people a sense of engagement and progress?

In creating scoreboards, there are 4 essentials that are critical:

  1. Keep it simple. Show only the essentials. Make sure the scores are readily available and simple enough to get the main message across.
  2. Visibility: can people see it?
  3. Lead and lag measures: Lead measures are factors the team can influence (doing), lag measures are the result we want (what the team is getting).
  4. Winning or losing? Quickly determine what the current status or situation. This needs to follow the 5-second rule: can the team tell in 5 seconds where they are at?

In this process, the importance of data cannot be emphasised enough:

“Data is like light- the best growth agent known. When winners are given data that shows they are losing, they figure out a way to win. With the lights on, they can see what they need to do to improve” (p. 74).


The critical question then is to identify the data that we need to grasp the state of progress and then how to use that data to visualise where we are at.

The core of the book is really about engagement and innovation: when you have clear and wildly important goals, people will engage especially if they can see how their activities are moving the needle towards something worthwhile. Identifying ways how we can make and track “adaptation wins” will be crucial and am hoping in the next decades we can see true innovation in this space.





Why finding a bouncing-ideas-buddy will pay off: the secrets of collaboration

In science and in many related fields, the lone genius assumption persists: that individuals act and think alone, pour themselves over data in solitude and emerge with a solution that is revolutionary and inspirational.

Many do buy into this story.

Yet, the stories we actually hear are often those of insights that have emerged through collaborations.

In the most recent episode of Hidden Brain podcast, Daniel Kahneman spoke about his life, his collaboration with Amos Tversky, and how this collaboration has been life changing in many ways.

Kahneman and Tversky met almost by accident at a university in Israel and started trialling ideas together, there was lots of laughter and this deep collaboration, as we now know, resulted in amazing ideas and new innovation around judgment and biases in the study of human mind and decision-making.

The basic message is that it is extremely rare to find someone in science who you can work this way with. Most people compete against each other and developing a truly collaborative relationship also means sharing recognition of what has been achieved, something that seems harder and harder in our individualistic world.

Even Kahneman notes that collaboration is not a smooth straight path but it has always its tensions. So if you manage to maintain such a relationship over the years, you are very lucky.

During my career so far, I have been fortunate to have many collaborations, yet one such deep life changing collaboration with only one person. We have had our own battles but we have come through all of that. The way our brains sync, inspiring new ideas, building upon what the other knows and doesn’t know, is what I would argue results in true empowerment and innovation in science.

What breaks a collaborative spirit

But there are multiple factors that actually break a collaborative spirit and cause people to lose confidence in their abilities and the quality of their work.

Eric Barker notes 3 key factors, which enable collaboration: building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing a purpose.

Missing any of these three is likely to result in sub-optimal performance and to be frank, in a workplace where people do not trust each other and won’t put their best ideas forward.

Building safety means creating “belonging cues” that according to Alex Pentland at MIT  are behavioural cues that we give to each other about belonging in a group. Such cues are hugely powerful because they are

“number one predictor of team performance — more predictive than intelligence, skill or leadership. In fact, you can ignore all the information exchanged by a group and know how well they’re going to do just by looking at belonging cues”

From management perspective, if you manage your team in silos, you are missing the opportunity for these cues to develop and for people to feel safe. This links strongly to another issue: silo management also shuts down information flow and reduces people’s feelings of ownership and belonging to a team.

Teams that do not share vulnerability keep competing against each other. If you do not share vulnerability and admit weaknesses, it is likely people will not connect to each other and great opportunities for shared learning are missed.

Likewise, not establishing a shared purpose results in individuals missing out on the bigger picture, reduces their drive to do things better and encourage each other to push the project or task forward.

I would not be surprised if someone did a study and showed how the absence of all these factors, or weak performance in all three, actually stifled innovation and collaboration.

What needs to change and how?

According to Patty McCord, one of the main issues with current management approaches is the perception that people need to be managed, given incentives, and then further managed to make sure they deliver.

But what if we gave our staff freedom and responsibility? Patty notes that treating your staff like responsible adults and giving them responsibility and freedom is essential to make people simply powerful.

Needless to say, much of this comes down to leadership and management. There are countless books, podcast episodes, and articles just devoted on this topic: how do you keep momentum going with your team, how do you empower your staff, and also inspire yourself to truly keep with the principles of innovative collaboration. This is not a trivial focus given how much all these factors influence the outcomes.

Another has to do with transparency: decisions should be transparent to everyone involved and information should be shared across the project team. Cutting the flow of information leads to misperceptions on what the direction is, where people are expected to go, and which goals are most important in that process.

Likewise, Eric Barker’s 3 key factors are critical here. If you build safety, let people show their vulnerability and constantly work in generating positive responses in that process, and establish a shared significant purpose, this will grease the wheel of collaboration in a ways that will result in true shared innovation.

What would it be like “to be able to come in and work with the right team of people—colleagues they trust and admire—and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together”?

It’s the kind of collaboration many of us still daydream about but something that can become a reality. It requires hard work, and as Danny Kahneman very perceptively notes, lots of laughter and trust in that ideas can be bounced around and that failing together is pretty awesome.

In many ways, collaboration and innovation are coupled together so strongly that we should be extremely careful to make sure we work hard to enable both. Human connection is the best remedy for innovation, combined with laughter and a shared sense of purpose.

But perhaps most importantly: not every collaboration is the making of stars. Just calling project work “collaboration” does not result in deep connections and innovation. It’s actually hard work and needs to have the enabling conditions and attitudes in place to truly succeed.

To sum up: 

  1. Find collaborators in your field or outside of it who have a passion for innovation, and are not afraid to develop ideas together. This can be hard given how much focus we place on individual track records but each of us in any case bounce ideas off each other. So find a bouncing idea buddy and go for it.
  2. Foster an environment where people are not afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses and failures. Talking about failure is often difficult but leads to more transparent and empowered conversations and makes us just more human.
  3. Be real. Be real about your purpose, goals and visions. This requires a good dose of self-awareness but is essential for meaningful collaborations: once you know where you need to go, it will be easier to also find those who want to go there with you.



Why inclusivity should be the new game in town: Women, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and leadership

We often hear about the glass ceiling that stops women in advancing their careers and how that ceiling, in the era of gender equality, is easier to break through. More and more women are becoming directors, earning degrees, and making significant contributions in science, politics, and everywhere else.

Given last week was the International Women’s Day, this topic is very timely and we are increasingly seeing different organisations to truly embracing gender equality not just in words but also in practice.

The bottom line is this: as a leader, if you want a highly effective successful organisation, then gender equality is something you need to pay close attention to. This is not about emotional arguments or feminist anger about differential treatment but just very basic logic: if you empower all of your employees to excel, you will get results.

It is about creating a culture of change that enables both men and women to thrive. Workplace equality is about creating opportunities and recognising that everyone of us needs to be supported in order for us to work together.

Accenture for example has just launched a new project Getting to Equal that explored how people consider workplace equality and which factors enable best cultural change in organisations. As Ellen Shook from Accenture eloquently writes

People are the heart and soul of any organization and culture lives and breathes in each of us. When we commit as individuals to make change, collectively we lift each other up, paving the way for workplace equality”

But promoting workplace equality is not about treating everyone the same because women do face very different sets of challenges when it comes to leadership positions, and career development.


Women and differential career impacts

Two recent papers in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) raise very good and complimentary points what it means to be a woman with child caring responsibilities while trying to contribute to the scientific field. Both papers come to the same conclusion: it’s still actually hard.

Here’s why:

A study done by Miriam Gay-Antaki and Diana Liverman looked at 100 women who have been participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports. The Assessment reports are significant in many ways: authors who are nominated and participate in the assessment reports are recognised for their expertise globally, being an author gives significant prestige to one’s career, and being involved in the process gives authors opportunities to increase their professional profile and also expand their network and stay on top of the recent scientific developments in their field.

What this study found was that many women did not feel that their opinions were listened to as much as the men’s and family responsibilities were some of the major barriers to their full participation in the IPCC assessment process. Women also reported that

“if they had children, childcare responsibilities were their biggest obstacle, particularly those who were single parents or with babies. Several confessed that this responsibility might have negatively impacted their performance during the IPCC”

An opinion piece by Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science also notes the serious impact that women with childcare duties face when it comes to career development and attending conferences.

The “baby penalty” impacts women more seriously than men as many women choose not to go to a conference because it is just too hard and expensive to organize care for their child or children.

But what the authors note is that actually enabling both genders to attend will increase innovation and diversity of ideas and also result in added benefits:

“Solving the childcare–conference conundrum will benefit not only primary caretakers, other parents, and scientific innovation and discovery but also the institutions and businesses associated with the conferences”

There are practical considerations that go with attending conferences that relate to costs and also the lack of social network and support that are particularly hard on single mothers and single parents overall.


Double glass ceiling and financial pressure

The glass ceiling is thicker however for women who are single mothers, work full-time and don’t necessarily have family living close by. There are several practical reasons for this: many women cannot attend conferences, especially single mothers, due to additional financial costs of a) taking the baby with them (flights, babysitting services on location, travel insurance) and b) leaving the child with a carer. For example, night-nannies in Australia cost between $300-400 dollars, not including daytime care or childcare centre drop-offs/pick-ups.

Single mothers who should do fieldwork are in the same situation: taking a child with them to a foreign country requires often hiring a babysitter and paying for flights and travel insurance, and leaving the child at home again means similar costs in babysitting. Many women make these sacrifices out of their personal budgets so that they can continue their research and develop their careers.

Why should we be worrying about this?

What this means in the long-run is added personal financial and professional pressure. Women cannot drop everything because there is an important evening meeting or workshop event in another city. Extra costs impact on their ability to take a loan or mortgage, or put money away for emergency issues such as car breakdowns or extra medical services if she or the child suddenly gets ill.

This also means that impromptu conference or workshop is often out of limits as they need to plan much more carefully which engagements they can participate in. Single parents are obviously on single salaries, which means that they also have less opportunity to cover these costs by themselves. All of this also has a tasking effect on innovation and idea development in organisations: faced with such challenges, women, as the IPCC example demonstrates, might be worse off in performing at their best.

What I am trying to highlight here are the practical realities that many women face, even those with husbands at home who might not participate as fully in caring for children as mothers do. Many of these issues are often not recognised or are ignored in project budgets and workplace regulations, sometimes simply because those in higher leadership positions might not be aware what kinds of everyday arrangements parents have to make to pursue their careers.

Increasing inclusivity and empowering new leadership

I’ve raised this issue at multiple fronts because this is something that we need to recognise and talk about. For example, Harvard Business Review has just began a new podcast series, Women at Work, that focuses on discussing specific issues facing women at the workplace. This would be a great opportunity for the show to engage also with how women who are single mothers can develop their career not despite, but because of, their carer responsibilities.

Dorie Clark is a highly successful female entrepreneur who is frequently giving advice and devoting her expertise in helping others to learn how to have become successful entrepreneurs. Her insights are so inspirational and I secretly (and now publicly) hope that this issue facing women especially who are full-time working single parents will be something that will also feature in her future advice.


Calisi and the group raise a number of ways how parents can be better supported at conferences:

  • Childcare: conference organizers could organize childcare at the conference venue and have this subsidized from registration fees or from donations from scientific societies; offer discounts for those with carer responsibilities if they cannot attend all days of the conference.
  • Organise a parent/caregiver social network. Many parents will be juggling same challenges during conferences and would benefit greatly from establishing contact network with other parents and exchange tips. There are opportunities for this clearly with WhatsApp groups or even using Slack for dedicated parent/carer group.

Liverman and Gay-Antaki also report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is starting to consider these gender issues: they have more women in leadership positions now and hopefully this can lead to more women being supported also financially to attend the IPCC assessment meetings and being offered more flexible ways to contribute.

Some grant and funding bodies are also beginning to pay for carer costs and my university is engaged with the Athena SWAN process that focuses on gender equity in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine).

I am excited about this program and hope that the next steps can include more support for mothers to travel with their children to conferences or to do fieldwork or support for carer costs while the parent might be away in a conference.

In the end, this is not however just about women versus men. It’s about appreciating diversity, increasing inclusion and making sure that we all have the best opportunities to excel in our roles.

One of the best explanations how organisations can achieve this is an episode on Coaching for Leaders  about how Deloitte is changing its operational culture to become more inclusive. Deepa Purushothaman, National Managing Principal of Inclusion at Deloitte, explains this approach and really hones in how this can be done.

More and more wonderful examples how organisations are changing to match the challenges and opportunities that our modern world brings. Being a parent is actually very closed to aligned to leadership and many times leadership begins really at home. Many women are already taking these leadership roles and should be supported in also being able to excel as leaders in the workplace. Accommodating the different challenges will increase workplace satisfaction, increase innovation and simply make us all more happier.


The fine line between productive habits and stalling points

 I came across recently Morten Hansen in Coaching for Leaders episode 337 where Morten discussed his recent book Great at work.

Morten’s five year study shows that the most successful people who excel at their work do not work more but less. They are more focused when they work and they also are agile learners: they ask for immediate feedback and learn from that; they change their routines and constantly seek to improve what they do.

Many of us have heard about Malcolm Cladwell’s 10 000 hours concept: you need to fine-tune a habit or routine by keeping at least 10 000 hours at it if we want to excel. This is true for talent development for sure: we do need to practice in order to improve and become better in a task or a skill.

Yet, Morten’s study actually shows that there is a fine line between a productive habit and a stalling point. Once we form a habit that becomes part of our routine, it can become a “stalling point”: we settle into using this habit or routine and lower ambition in that area of our life because we are already so good at it. In other words, habits are an excellent way to create comfort and kill innovation.

It’s common wisdom that great leaders are great learners. This has to do with the kind of humility that such people embody: they recognise that despite all of their achievements they are still learning. They also recognise the need for what Morten calls “the learning loop” where they continuously seek to learn and ask for feedback. Such an attitude gives them real time data how they are doing and progressing.

Interestingly Morten Hansen debunks annual performance reviews. It makes no sense to review performance annually because there is no feedback loop or opportunity to learn. Finding a more agile way to measure impact would be beneficial but in my mind this would also require clearer setting of goals, and creating personal tracking metrics that would start generating data to see how a particular goals is being progressed.

Tracking learning and soft skills

As a demonstration of how one can constitute an immediate learning loop and start tracking soft skills, Morten tells about one director at a hospital in the US who decided she needed to be able to track how well she was leading meetings and asking questions. She began to track each meeting and noted down the number of ideas generated and the number of ideas implemented. She sought to improve her way of asking questions and generating debate and innovative ideas.

During the next 12-months, she wrote down after each meeting how many innovative ideas her team came up with and then also tracked how many of these were actually implement. After 12-months of tracking, she could clearly see massive improvements in herself and in her team, and also in the overall improvements in patient care and staff satisfaction.

Point is: soft skills are trackable, even if it is harder to do so.

I have thought about this for a long time in a university context. Most of our metrics focus on the number of publications and the ranking of the journal (impact factor) although many universities are starting to broaden the definition of “research impact”.

But there are so many other ways that academics actually add value other than writing purely scientific peer-reviewed articles. We write different commentaries to news outlets, blogs, we give interviews, engage with community groups and governments, we host podcasts, make infographics, give keynotes and speeches at various events, find new research gaps and needs from talking to wide variety of people, lecture and build the next generation of researchers. Many of these are soft skills that are not as easily tracked as statistical information.

In my field of climate adaptation, many argue that since adaptation is a vague and often such an all-encompassing concept (everything is adaptation) that we cannot really measure how well we are doing it. But perhaps we are looking into wrong metrics to show actual progress?

Perhaps what we need to do is to start asking different kinds of questions as to what counts as adaptation, whether it’s the number of people who agree that they have benefited from an adaptation project, the times they have been able to make an informed decision on how to protect their assets from extreme weather event, a clear decision they have made based on climate adaptation information. In the end, it all comes down to having a clear goal and clear steps how to get there.

Start with clarity

The importance of knowing what your goals are, what the process is how you are supposed to achieve them, what you should and can make decisions on; all of this has to do with clarity.

Ann Latham writes in Forbes that we really need to understand four kinds of clarity: strategy, productivity, process and confidence.

Latham argues that

“When people know precisely what they need to accomplish, how, when, and with whom, they can ‘get in the zone’ and make great strides”

This also applies to such issues as confidence. If you know what your decision space is (what you can make decisions on) at work, such clarity will enable you to confidently drive your work and tasks forward. Organisations and individuals need to invest in such clarity and transparency so that everyone is super clear what they aim to achieve, why and how. This also relates to learning: we have to take a focused approach on what we want to learn and where we can improve our skills.

Find your learning points

Perhaps what we really need are “learning points” instead of stalling points: we need to recognise where we have fallen into a routine and where we actually can direct our learning to improve our skills in that category or sector.

For some of us, this sounds like another additional thing we need to schedule into our lives. Yet, Morten says the best way to learn is active learning on the job. This means make a commitment prior you go into a meeting e.g. “this week I want to learn to ask better questions/learn how to ask for feedback/learn to negotiate”. Then use your next meeting to try to learn that, and try to get immediate feedback on how you did.

Learning points can be implemented on daily basis as Morten notes: try out your strategy or idea on your peers first and get feedback. Then use that feedback to pitch the idea or strategy to where you intend it to go, whether it is top management or the top journal in your field.

What in your own life could you measure that you currently think you are doing pretty well? Can you recognise any routines that have accumulated over the years and that you feel very comfortable with? Where have you stalled and stopped to grow because you feel you have mastered something? Where is your learning point?

And when it comes to climate adaptation, do we even have learning points yet?

Cyclone Gita and the perils of organising conferences in a changing climate

This past week hundreds of people gathered to Wellington, New Zealand  , to attend the second Pacific Climate Change Conference 2018. The conference, organised by the Secretariat of the Pacific Environment Regional Program (SPREP) and University of Victoria, focused on showcasing the latest research in the Pacific Islands and featured several international keynote speakers from Professor Dan Nocera from Harvard University, Emeritus Professor Will Steffen from Australian National University, and Professor Michael Mann from Penn State University.

One topic that was clearly on everyone’s minds was that of increasing extreme events. Several talks, including Michael Mann’s, reflected over the current cyclone categories we have in use and whether these needs to be changed given that, for example, Cyclone Winston that hit Fiji in 2016 exceeded the current category 5 in wind strength (highest category currently in use). SPREP’s Director General, Kosi Latu, also noted that we are seeing a change in the nature of cyclones hitting the Pacific region.

This is not just a purely academic exercise in terms of categories but one with real consequences. As Michael Mann pointed out, a better understanding of the exact nature of the expected strength of a cyclone means that people and communities should and can take measures that reduce their risk to adverse impacts.

Tropical Cyclone Gita that had devastated much of the Pacific island nation of Tonga during the previous week impacted the conference itself. The basic recovery in Tonga is assumed to take at least 6 months  but this is a conservative estimate given that recovery of communities and livelihoods is likely to take much longer. Tonga for the record has not had a major cyclone in the last 60 years.

As I am based in Australia, I received on Sunday night an international travel warning prior to the conference about Cyclone Gita. The warning itself sounded like attending the conference would not be a good idea: potential state of emergencies, heavy rain, road closures, emergency packs.

I managed to get in but many others were stranded in Australia and the Pacific: keynote speakers couldn’t fly in, the conference organisers started sending emails to people to confirm where they were, could they attend, whether they were still planning to attend, and when.

The conference began with a lot of reshuffling of schedules, replacing speakers, all however in a relaxed atmosphere as people were doing their best to attend and cope with the changing schedules. I was very pleased to see how well the conference organisers handled all the changes and uncertain conditions during the conference.

This conference however is not the only one this year to be impacted by weather and climate. Although not confirmed yet, the Adaptation Futures 2018 Conference in Cape Town , the bi-annual gathering of international adaptation scholars and practitioners, is also reconsidering whether the conference can go ahead. Cape Town is running out of water, and the current advice is not to lock in travel arrangements until we have more certainty about water availability in the Cape Town area. This is obviously nothing compared to the people living in Cape Town who have to deal with drastic reductions in water availability on daily basis.

Changing ways of where and how we communicate?

This all has got me thinking that part of our changing climate with more intense and extreme conditions will also impact on our scientific and policy communities in ways that we are not yet even aware of. This also reflects the very powerful way that industries, such as tourism, will need to start considering a future where there is a higher likelihood of business disruptions.

In a world where we should be cutting down on air travel and where we might have to for the simple reason that the planes are not going to fly because of extreme heat or extreme storms, we should start looking at other ways and technologies that could assist us in communicating the way we would do at a conference.

There are already examples of on-line only conferences and even courses. The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has installed their first international virtual classroom that is only the second such installation in the world . The teachers can interact with up to 84 participants in the classroom, split them into groups, and even monitor their attentiveness level during the session.

But what has truly inspired me is Chris Fussell and the way that McChrystal Group is approaching global communication. The US Special Forces use a daily session via videoconference that includes all Special Forces members globally. This is thousands of people online at the same time in an online forum where information is shared and discussed across all levels of the organisation. This includes also a chat room function where members who need to discuss a particular matter quickly can connect at the same time and share that information.

Although the book in question, One Mission, is focused on creating agility and better decision-making processes within one organisation, there are many lessons that can be applied also to wider communities, such as those working in climate adaptation.

These platforms are emerging and could be used more effectively in the future as well when it comes to conferences. For example, as a single parent, it would be great to be able to participate via online option in cases where I simply cannot travel to the town or country in question where the conference is being held.

Having access to Internet is of course something that most of us in the developed world take granted. But given its increasing availability, this could also open up doors for developing country participants to attend conferences even if they don’t have secured travel funding. The education sector is a great example of these kinds of options where online courses can be taken even to secure a degree such as Coursera.

Most of us are already taking advantage of such platforms as Zoom. Coaching for Leaders Academy for example runs on Zoom platform and enables people from across the world to connect with the fellow Academy members and progress their leadership development regardless of timezones and location.

The point?

The point here is that just this year two major conferences are already being impacted by factors outside of their control relating to weather and climatic conditions. But this is not just a matter of securing enough water for participants or re-arranging presentation schedules in the aftermath of a cyclone.

For me, here lies a more fundamental point: we do need to start considering what these activities look like under a changing climate. The message that came through during this week’s conference is that we have already passed many thresholds and limits, and that business as usual life is unlikely to be the norm in the future.

This has also serious consequences to for example private sector. Disruption of supply chains for example is a major issue that will have cascading impacts on our food supplies, domestic and international tourism, access and availability of medicines. The list could go on because in our globalising world most systems are by now interconnected.

Yet, rather than looking at these things as major challenges, perhaps we can find significant opportunities in having to re-think some of the more traditional ways of convening large groups of people. How can we foster personal connections online that can enhance the way we share knowledge? What would it take to convene a conference solely online where people still feel like they actually connected with each other? Or to change the operating rhythm of a scientific community as Chris Fussell outlines in One Mission?

And no, the irony is not lost on me on what am proposing: most of our global communication channels, including Internet, are also at the perils of extreme weather events. But at the same time the new technologies offer great opportunities for increasing connections globally and sharing knowledge in ways that we have not seen before.

If you do have experience in using technologies with large groups of people, or have seen some really innovative ways to do this, please do share.



Why “failure dodging” is hurting your career

Lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to fail. Most of the advice out there in leadership and management is about success: how to have a successful career, how to build a successful company, and how to become a success full stop. Who would not want to know why Oprah has succeeded, and how people like Tim Ferris are out there interviewing celebrities so that we can also learn the keys to success.

But what is intriguing about all this advice is that there is another strand of thinking emerging from the leadership literature that focuses on understanding failure.

We are inherently programmed not to favour failure: in school, no one likes to be the worst performer in sports or math, and many of us stop trying new things because we could fail. Much of this is often due to social pressure and our wish to be accepted but also because failing makes us uncomfortable.

The best synthesis of what this failure approach is all about comes from my long time idol Will Smith. He certainly has been super successful from being a rapper to motivational speaker to a movie icon. He has broken through so many stereotypes and yet this is what he has to say about failure:

Fail early.

Fail often.

Fail forward.

What I think is so powerful about his insights is that “practice is controlled failure”. Being successful means you are ready to and constantly seek failure so that you can learn and push yourself to be better.

In Adam Grant’s recent interview with Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female skier ever, the focus was really on what was driving her passion to compete and succeed. Lindsey actually discussed how failure is experimental learning:

“Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it”

So failing is one part of life but perhaps even more importantly the trick is really how you deal with failure. We can listen to all the podcasts and interviews how to imitate and reach success, there is a whole industry around that. I mean, who would not want to rehearse the 55 significant morning routines that highly successful people do instead of doing the hard yards of 55 ways to fail?


Failure dodging

Failure lifts up a mirror to ourselves and much of what we see is not pretty. So most of us would rather not deal with that. This is what I call “failure dodging”.

Failure dodging happens when we deliberately plan everything so carefully that we eliminate any possibility of failure, or more precisely: so that we do not have to experience failure.

But just as at work as in parenting, letting ourselves experience failure and letting our children do the same are actually great moments of true learning. But it is much harder to change our mindset in those moments when things have gone wrong and we feel defeated.

I am speaking here from experience. I definitely am guilty of “failure dodging”: I’d rather sometimes not try something new if the odds are there is failure involved. Even more so if there are other people around who can see me fail. It’s all partly irrational: you can’t be expected to be perfect from day 1 for example in a job that you have never done before.

Being afraid of failure, however, often stops us from innovation and learning new things and essentially can stall our careers. Embracing failure does not mean we should just fail on purpose so we can learn but find new ways of thinking and dealing with failure when that occurs.


Focus on certain failure 

So what are some of the techniques to try if you are stuck in failure dodging and would rather daydream about success? I would encourage you to actually do the opposite and imagine that you have already failed. Imagine all the things that would happen: what would your colleagues say at work? What would prospective employees say when they looked at your resume and knew about your failed start up? What would your peers say if your paper and idea got the worst reviews?

Now, go to that place and start working backwards. What did you not consider? What options did you not look for? Were you so stuck in focusing on what your problem is that you missed opportunities to think differently?

This is an actual approach to decision-making and risk identification by Gary Klein. He claims that by accepting massive total future failure, people actually start being more creative about why something like that happened, and have a better chance to identify risks and opportunities to prevent the failure from actually happening. It’s another way of embracing failure and learning at the same time.

In the end, dealing with failure is about practicing critical reflection: why we react to something like we do. By truly understanding our core motivations and feelings, we can also better embrace failure as a new opportunity and a new challenge.

This of course does not apply to every kind of failure and not for everyone. Some things are too heavy for anyone to deal with alone. The talk about “failure as an opportunity” can also become depressing in those cases where things are just too complicated.

Btw, turns out that Gary Klein is really into something significant with his idea of imagining failure. A recent study at Stanford has developed a new tool, brain-machine interface, that can track the way a brain prepares for an event. By rehearsing a certain activity before actually doing it could increase the rate of success.

I would encourage you to see where this fear of failure, or “failure dodging” is showing up in your life. Is there something at work that you have thought you should try (new method, new way of communication, new skill) but you are holding back for fear of failure? Do you have ideas for scientific papers or research that you are afraid might get harshly judged in the peer review process?  A sport you’d like to try but have put off because you don’t know how to do it yet?

These are pretty simple questions but I think embracing everyday failures and learning from that is essential. But perhaps most of all, it’s about self compassion: not expecting ourselves to be perfect, and practicing the Growth Mindset: I can’t… yet.




6 essentials in developing an academic career

 I’ve recently been approached by several early career researchers (ECRs) about how to network, how to focus their careers and how to start building their profile while they are still in an early phase in their career. In the university system, there is often not much advice on personal branding for academics or how to effectively network or on the use of social media platforms as often the expectation is that your published research speaks for itself.

But in today’s world where much of our visibility is increasingly linked to an online presence, ECRs need to think about how they get noticed while they are still getting to know their area of expertise. This means being more strategic where to invest your energy in career development.

I’ll share my lessons learned here both based on my own personal experience as an ECR but also from the management and leadership literature and podcasts from which I have picked up many of these ideas.

Know yourself

This is such a cliché yes but so true at the same time. Everyone should spend some time mapping out their interests, values, and what inspires them. I came across recently a Passion Assessment, which basically asks 6 questions e.g. what are you passionate about, what cannot you stop doing, etc. There are a number of different assessments out there (some paid, some free) where you can reflect over your values and strengths.

I have for example done the the Strength Finder Assessment  to have a better idea where my key strengths lie and what that means as to what I am good at and like to do. It all sounds very simple and often it is, you don’t need an assessment necessarily but rather inner reflection as to where you want to go and what you are interested in. This relates also to your personal brand: what do you want people to know you by?

Linked In

Regardless what people say about LinkedIn, over 90% of managers and employers go online to find you when your CV comes in. I think of LinkedIn profiles as living CVs where you state your experience but also tell about what you have learned in which job or degree, and showcase your skills. There is a great article by Brenda Bernstein on what this exactly means in regards to structuring your profile and what things should stand out.

One essential is the obvious: a picture. People want to know who you are and uploading a photo will make you more human and not just a name. It’s worth investing your time in creating an updated profile that also tells a story of who you are, what your interests are, and where you see yourself contributing the most. One specific profile I love is Mara Bun, she manages to write in a very funny but insightful way why she is now where she is and how she got there.

What I find most useful in LinkedIn is the ability to keep up to date with my field and networks but also to connect with new people who I might not be able to meet somewhere else. Recently a maple farmer who is also a decision researcher got in touch after seeing my comments on decision-making in LinkedIn. Now we are discussing different aspects of decision-making and it’s a great way to learn more through such personal connections.

Note to self: If you want to connect with someone who you do not personally know, send a connection request with a personal message. This will indicate that you are actually interested in the person and it is not just about growing your network. I rarely accept LinkedIn invitations without a message because I want to know the people I connect with. Brenda has more to say on this so listen here for her interview in Coaching for Leaders podcast, it’s brilliant!.



Many academics might not see the necessity of Twitter, especially since it requires active use if you want to stay ‘visible’ to broader number of people. I began using Twitter only last year but I have found that it’s a great way to follow other people and topics in my field.

Twitter also makes it easy to stay up to date what is happening in conferences and workshops that I cannot attend in person. For example, during United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change CoP 23 last year, it was easier to get an understanding where interesting side events were by following the Twitter feed.

Posting about your own research on Twitter is also good for a number of reasons: it has a greater likelihood to be picked up by more people, it can increase your citations, but also get you noticed by more prominent people in your field. Re-tweeting important news and articles also stores these in your profile that you can check later for references.

Make a plan how you want to use Twitter (daily? weekly? during conferences?) and be consistent in what you tweet about and how often. Note also that bad tweets can ruin reputations so have a think what you write and how that could be perceived.



Conferences have so many opportunities for career development and I always encourage PhDs to attend as many conferences as they can. These are great ways to stay up to date with the recent science in your field but also meet the people whose papers you read.

Volunteering at conferences is good because you often get to do many different roles, learn about event management, and assist experts who you might not otherwise have a chance to talk to.

Many early career researchers get discouraged when your abstract is accepted to a conference “only” as a poster. But poster sessions have many benefits that you don’t get in regular oral presentation sessions: people have more time to discuss, are more relaxed, and you learn as much about them as they learn about you.

Something that is not possible when giving a somewhat rushed 12-minute oral presentation to a large group of people where the majority is already busy checking the program which session to attend next.



Online platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn are useful in networking. But pretty much the best way to reach a person is still email (Dave Stachowiak: indeed!). Why? Because everyone reads their email.

If you have met someone at a conference or have read their work and have questions or just want to connect, find out the person’s email and write to them.

Sending an email to an author of a paper you found particularly compelling is a great way to connect but also to establish a conversation about the topic. Some people might not respond but the right people will. And those are the ones you want to have conversations with. There are also limits to this: bugging an author vs. being respectful of their time.

During my PhD, I once emailed a professor ahead of a conference we were both attending and asked whether he could answer some questions I had regarding his theoretical framework as I was developing mine. He never replied. At the conference, I bumped into him and made a comment about the email. It was awkward but it turned into a funny conversation since he was so embarrassed. Now we’ve been working together on papers for the past six years.


Make your research relevant

One of the best ways to contribute to your field is to make sure your research is addressing key knowledge gaps in the research field. I know most PhDs worry about whether their research is going to be novel enough, and spend often the first year busily reading literature to make sure they can find a gap to contribute to.

There are several quick ways to check where the field is at. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports are a great source as often these have identified which issues are still unclear, which concepts we need a better understanding of, and what is still not yet known. The assessments reports are also good as they summarise the literature and main arguments, and give you a good indication which authors to follow.

Likewise, documentation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on climate adaptation and different agenda items, and reports such as the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report 2017 , all note areas where new research is necessary.

As an avid podcast listener, I would also encourage listening to different podcasts on your field and even others that deal with interesting topics. True innovation often comes from blending and merging ideas from different disciplines together in a new novel way.

To sum up:

  • Know thyself: Think about how you want people to perceive you and know you for; what are your core strengths and values? How can you leverage those in developing your career?
  • LinkedIn: This is your living CV. Make sure it’s up-to-date, with a profile picture, and use the sections to tell a story who you are, and what expertise and experience you have.
  • Twitter: Make Twitter part of your career strategy. What keywords can people find you with? What are you tweeting about? Be consistent.
  • Conferences: Use conferences and poster sessions as opportunities to connect with your peers. Volunteer if you can as this will be great for your CV but you can get to meet experts you would not otherwise have a chance to talk to.
  • Networking: Go “old school” and email people who you admire in your field.
  • Make your research relevant: check what the latest major science reports have identified as key knowledge gaps.

It’s never too early or too late to start developing your career and brand, even if it is just to get your research noticed by a broader audience. There is much more to this of course than what I’m detailing here, but these are at least some of the first basic steps that can be helpful in starting that journey.

What’s in a decision?

This week’s two key news items have stuck with me: Cape Town running out of water and UK Met Office announcing we might already see an annual global temperature increase of 1.5 in the next five years. Both are good reminders that even though we have models and science to project future changes, the global system is still unpredictable and in this case it seems the models are not fast enough to keep up with current changes.

So far the discussion on climate change impacts has been future focused. For example, sea level rise projections have ended in the year 2100 and research is showing that many people do not think climate change will impact them but merely future generations. Yet, the situation in Cape Town and the news from the Met Office both indicate that change is happening faster than we think. A piece in Financial Times noted that even with all the modelling, we can still be surprised:

“South Africa’s weather services have told politicians that their models no longer work and their long-term climate change predictions have arrived 10 years early. Rather than pleading that such anomalies could not have been foreseen, city leaders must now assume that unlikely events will occur”

The UK Met Office in turn released a report noting that with the current trends in warming, there is a likelihood the global annual temperature could reach already 1.5 degrees. This in a way is timely as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is reviewing the second order draft of a Special Report on 1.5 degrees, and what such a change would mean for the world. The report is likely to cover issues relating to sustainable development but also how different sectors are impacted.


For someone who researches decision-making, these events raise many questions around how we know which decision at this point in time is the correct one to make. How does a city like Cape Town use this event to plan so that people have reliable access to water in the future? How do governments, which are often full of competing priorities and slow to change, react to a faster changing context? How do businesses change their practices if the resource they rely on is diminishing rapidly?

With climate change, many people argue that it is a new problem and given that, we do not have much experience to draw on what to do. Yet, at the same time, there are lots of cases that we can draw from, even if some aspects of climate change impacts remain novel. But there are ways that we can harness each others’ experiences and learn from that at a global scale.

An episode on the Hidden Brain podcast explores the different dimensions of how we behave and make decisions. In a recent episode Professor Dan Gilbert, the Harvard University scholar, explains why our decision-making processes are often flawed and where there are opportunities to improve in how we make decisions.

Dan Gilbert says that if we want to make a good decision, we should become “surregators” and seek people who have already had a particular experience with the decision that we are contemplating:

Almost any decision you’re debating, large or small, many people have already made it, and they’ve made it in both directions. There are people who are doing the things you’re only imagining”

The advice clearly relates to individuals. If you are contemplating buying a house, your decision is likely to be better if you first talk to people who own a house and learn from their experience what to avoid and what to consider.

But at a grander scale, it is about knowledge sharing and transfer. There are already many communities who have observed at first-hand impacts of climate change: coastal communities in Northern Australia, in the Pacific Islands, Asia, Africa and the Arctic. We have also many stories from the past where humanity has faced great challenges. All of this collective knowledge, whether held at individually or as a society, can provide lessons what we can do and what effective (or ineffective) adaptation to climate change looks like.

Learning from those communities and past adaptation projects is crucial because they have already been somewhere where many of us are likely to be heading. What has worked? Where and how did they fail or succeed? Collecting such knowledge is important as having access to other people’s experiences helps us to learn and reach a decision of our own.

It also reminds me of what it is being a genuine leader: to learn from your own mistakes and successes but also of those of others. Best way to do this is to reach out to those who are already where you want to be, and have access to their knowledge and experiences.

And talking about learning: Cape Town has just joined the cities of Amman, Mexico City, Greater Miami and Hull in England, to share experiences and to learn how to manage water and improve water resilience in these cities. The cities are working with Arup and testing the City Water Resilience Framework (CWRF) that can then provide lessons for other cities.

Anyone starting their PhDs or master degrees, now would be a great opportunity to really study how such mega cities are responding to water scarcity and/or flooding, what kinds of decision processes are used to decide how water is used, and what these lessons can offer to other places. How to respond effectively to faster changing trends than projected is also something IPCC will need to cover in the 6th Assessment Report. Perhaps these examples can provide those lessons that we need to really change the way we plan and think about “weather” and “climate”.


Don’t think of a (damaged) reef

A rather fierce debate has been circulating in recent weeks in Australia about the state of the Great Barrier Reef, “the largest living thing on Earth”  and what should be done about it. Great Barrier Reef in the state of Queensland is one of the seven wonders of the world and pulls in large number of both domestic and international visitors each year.

Just to sum up the debate for those outside of Australia, several high profile academics, such as Professor Terry Hughes at James Cook University , recently published research showing an increase in the frequency of coral bleaching events worldwide (when water gets too hot and corals begin to die), including the Great Barrier Reef. This means that the reefs do not have enough time to recover from one bleaching event before next one occurs. Bleaching occurs due to normal than higher sea water temperatures, which impact on coral reefs.

The tourism industry has attacked these studies and called for defunding of Professor Hughes’ work. The sector is obviously nervous: if the reef gets a bad reputation, this can influence people’s travel decisions whether to come to see the Great Barrier Reef or not.

The government is now determined to invest 2.2. million dollars in installing underwater fans among other strategies in the hopes of cooling the water and enabling the reefs to persist in their current condition. Another strategy will be the culling of crown-of-thorn starfish from the reef, a program that again is against scientific experts’ advice and has not proven effective. These investments and strategies have gone to the expert panel review, which rejected them as ineffective and potentially causing more adverse impacts on the reef itself.

While Professor Hughes has continuously argued that the real cause of bleaching (increasing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and warmer sea temperatures) should be addressed, much of this debate has multiple views and frames that different actors are using to justify why their option to help the reef is the most effective.

To me, this is a classic case in how the definition of the problem drives the choice of the strategy or option.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Berkeley, explains in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” , how words are our frames to understand the world.

Try not to think of an elephant when you hear the word ‘elephant’. Most of us can’t not to think of an actual elephant because that word already has a particular frame in our mind.

Lakoff puts this simply: “frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions” (p. xv).

The party that is successful in using particular words and creating a frame in people’s mind (what the issue is about) has more buy-in from the public and better chances of influencing which strategy people vote for or accept.

It is not just about how you speak but which ideas you are able to spread by using particular words. Once people share or start accepting the particular idea that you are proposing (a particular frame), it will drive also the information or knowledge that they accept as valid in that particular case:

“To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off” (Lakoff, 2004, p. 17).

The reef debate illustrates this well: we have the frame of climate change (warmer sea water temperatures because of increases in emissions), science (studying the state of the reefs and bleaching), economy and livelihoods (bad reputation of the reef diminishing jobs and income), and invasive species (culling particular species off the reef to increase reef health). Each frame has a set of knowledge and information that is used as evidence.

All of the frames are interconnected in real life. But each will drive a different set of strategies to deal with the problem. The question is: which of these strategies are actually effective, can ensure the long-term health of the reef, and well-being of people who depend on the reef for their livelihoods but also for those who want to experience the beauty of the reef as tourists? (not to mention all the marine life and its wellbeing as well).

The science is clearly showing an alarming trend in the frequency of bleaching events and shows that something is occurring in the reef environment that did not use to happen. The tourism sector is aware of this frame of environmental damage but is trying to push a healthy reef frame in its efforts to continue attracting tourists to the area. The political frame seems to be focused on short-term solutions against scientific advice where some results can be gained by quick action.

The struggle for the reef and explaining the causal factors for its condition will go on without a doubt, but recognising and thinking about these frames can provide at least some clarity into where the conflicts are and why. Yet, not thinking about the damaged reef gets harder when the evidence of the changing trends is in.

As a scientist, my hope of course is that any policy or strategy decision is based on the most robust science possible. At the same time I recognise that I don’t understand yet all the complicated factors in this debate and I look forward learning more about the governance of the reef.

To end this with Lakoff’s words: “reframing is social change”. Whoever is most successful in spreading their ideas will eventually gain the most support for whatever action they propose, whether this is giant underwater fans or action to drastically reduce emissions.

What I do think though is that whatever decisions are made regarding the Great Barrier Reef, a long-term management strategy is needed that is responsive to changes in trends that include both slow-onset processes and extreme events. We are still learning how such strategies can be implemented on the ground. Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a learning process first and foremost but one that is clearly already here and not in the future.

The 3 mindsets in making constraints beautiful

Most of us have a tendency to keep a mental list of all those things in our lives that are stopping us from doing what we really want to do or that are constraining us from reaching our full potential. But although there is much advice out there how every situation has a positive side, how do we actually take challenges in our lives and consider them as positive?

What really opened my eyes on this issue was Dave Stachowiak’s interview with Mark Barden, in Coaching For Leaders (episode 207), who is the co-author of A Beautiful Constraint . In A Beautiful Constraint, Mark Barden and Adam Morgan argue that “constraints get a bad rap” usually because we are so focused on explaining our limitations and why things are not progressing. But Barden and Morgan argue that constraints are actually great, and that it is the very nature of constraints, which actually fuels innovation:

“By making a constraint beautiful, we mean seeing it as an opportunity, not a punitive restriction, and using it as a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving our ambition”.

Why did Mick Jagger develop his own style on stage? Because he was so constrained by the space on the stage that was all the space he had to move in. Why is Jerry Seinfeld so successful that people laugh even if he is only talking about the process of buying milk? Because he sets constraints on himself: he excels in making jokes about the very mundane things and not those that are usually expected from comedians.

But we rarely land straight away in this space of inventiveness when we are faced with severe constraints in our lives whether personally or at work. When you do not have the same resources that others have or when you get a task that seems almost impossible to deliver, 3 different mindsets come into play:


  1. Victim: The first reaction that most of us have is being a victim: Why did this happen to me? What can I possibly achieve given that I am already behind because of this situation?”. If we stay in this mindset, we lower our ambition and work within the constraints more or less. We choose less ambitious options and strategies, and get our task done. But our results remain less than optimal results and we are likely to explain to ourselves and others that this is because we were “constrained”.
  2. Neutralizer: The second stage is “How can I get this task/reach this ambition despite these constraints?”. In this stage, people start looking at how to circumvent the constraints that are at play in the situation. This means not lowering the ambition but delivering the results by using other strategies.
  3. Transformer: This third stage is looking at the constraints and actually using them to elevate innovation and even scale up ambition. This means getting to the stage where you are excited about why things are so hard, and actually decide to deliver the best work because of these constraints.

First Barden and Morgan thought that people are either a Victim, Neutraliser or Transformer and that is how they could analyse company, brand and product success. But during their research, they came to realise that no one is purely in one mindset but it is rather a continuum of mindsets that many of us go through. In this light, it is more about recognising what mindset you are having in a particular situation, and progressing over time towards understanding the beauty in your current constraints.

This movement across continuum is painful however as we need to have self-awareness and reflection to first of all to let go of the idea of being a victim. Not everyone is capable of moving from that mindset and that is something we need to understand and embrace. Also, often it is far easier for an outsider to point out the beauty in your constraints rather than you discovering how amazing they are. This is because our everyday life and the stories we tell to ourselves what our lives are like and why are often deeply emotional and resistant to change.

How does this relate to leadership? Turns out that leaders who understand the intricate blessings of constraints are actually more effective and innovative. This is because:

  • “They believe that transformers are made, not born
  • They steer their organisation toward constraints, not away from them
  • They set a high level of ambition, and legitimise that ambition
  • They know when to reject compromise for that ambition
  • They get people to believe that it is possible
  • They use tension and storytelling to generate a longer-term emotional commitment
  • They encourage and enable their teams to challenge the organisation’s routines and assumptions
  • They know how to manage the transformation threshold” (p. 227-230)

In my research, I’ve spent lots of time trying to understand why climate change adaptation is not being implemented, and analysing the kinds of constraints that seem to be blocking action. There is now a massive literature on barriers and constraints to climate adaptation and we now have a very detailed understanding of these constraints: why climate adaptation is not a priority in local and state government policy processes, why people are having hard time engaging with climate change as an issue, why governments and communities struggle in coordinating actions that could result in co-benefits, why scarcity of human and financial resources decrease opportunities for adaptation, why multiple levels of governance complicate policy implementation.

The next steps would be to take all of these constraints and ask how we can make them beautiful. What kinds of compelling questions can we ask that can propel us from the victim mindset to neutraliser and even transformer? How can we scale up ambition when faced with constraints? How can we use resource scarcity as a tool to fuel innovation? What does it take to turn a fixed mindset towards one that embraces the process of learning?

I realise I am not doing justice to the book or its ideas here as there is just too much to cover for one blog post so I strongly encourage to visit A Beautiful Constraint and get a hold of the book as well. Perhaps one day Barden’s and Morgan’s definition of constraint as “a limitation or defining parameter, often the stimulus to find a better way of doing something” will become a dictionary term where we accept our constraints and fuel innovation through harnessing these factors for more personal and professional growth.

Bats are boiling and green turtles are turning female: how close are we to adaptation limits?

This week’s Twitter feed has been particularly concerning, some would say crazy, regarding the changes and shifts in weather and climate trends that are occurring worldwide. In Australia, bats are boiling in the sky  and the asphalt is literally melting as heatwaves have come through in various parts of the country. In the US, NOAA has just released a report announcing that 2017 was and is the costliest year on record for weather and climate related disasters, and 2017 is also the 3rd warmest year on record for the US.

Terry Hughes, Professor at James Cook University, was just part of a large study looking at the bleaching of coral reefs worldwide. The study concluded that bleaching events are occurring more frequently, which means that the reefs do not have time to recover in between the events. This shorter space between events, such as natural disasters, was also a concern in a study that we did with disaster agencies in Australia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu: many of the staff and volunteers have had their rest and recovery periods shortened as the disasters seem to be occurring more and more frequently.

What worries me is that these kinds of news are coming through daily, with studies after another noting how particular trends have shifted and changed over time. This is not about a fluke event, an anomaly that can’t be explained, but most of these studies are starting to clearly show a trend towards warmer temperatures and even unexpected impacts such as bats boiling and turtles changing sex. As much as it would be nice to think that we’ll be alright and just need to get on with things, the future is starting to look rather bleak for many of the core ecosystems and their services that we rely on. What would the world look like if there was no Great Barrier Reef, or the keystone species such as turtles would have disappeared?

Our book on Limits to Climate Change Adaptation could not be more timely the more that I read news and hear about these impacts. Many of the chapters really provide detailed explanations how communities are relocating in the Pacific and what different impacts really mean in practice. To me, all of these discussions signal the increased necessity to study and collect these changes in a systematic manner so that we have a better understanding of the concept of adaptation limits and also how we know when we are dangerously close to one.

So far much of the literature has focused on conceptualising adaptation limits but we now need to move past that and start really thinking what constitutes an adaptation limit in practice, how that evaluation is done and how we can build in signals in our planning systems, business plans, and community observations about when a limit is seen to be close enough. For a community living on a tropical island, this could be an instance when the reef is being bleached x number of times a year, reducing significantly the potential to fish and use the natural resources associated with the reef. Bleached reefs will also have an impact on the scale of coastal protection they can give, another important area for further research.

As the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees and the Sixth Assessment Report are getting underway, the concept of adaptation limits needs serious attention. This is not a matter of inserting a synthesis table on adaptation limits in one chapter but needs to be considered in each sectoral chapter especially under Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and also in the Special Report.

There is a clear linkage also here to the concept of Loss and Damage (L&D) and that evidence base is still also very anecdotal, which means that much of this information and case studies are unlikely to reach the IPCC process. Documenting these cases has already begun in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g. in Climate and Development journal and by Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative) but more comprehensive assessments are necessary especially on country and community levels. In these processes, we need to also think how we deal with missing or shifting baseline data and what that means for robust assessment.

But in the end, this is not just about science but about the way we live our lives and how the things we treasure, such as amazing wildlife, coral reefs, and nature in general, might in for a ride of a lifetime that is not going to end up well. I do have hope that people making these decisions will wake up and there is so much innovation already happening in the energy and technology space. But the actual question as to how far we have already moved towards particular limits still remains. For this end, the scientific community is gathering such knowledge but the political systems and businesses will need to also get on board and use that knowledge.

For my part, I do want to understand the decision-making processes better in governments and businesses, and how science could support or inform such processes in a way that is useful both from scientific, business and political perspectives. Not every event or impact can be traced directly to climate change but having seen the science, for me personally it is high time to move past the ‘true-or-not’ debate and start thinking strategically how we can deal with what is happening already now in a more insightful manner. Now if anyone can tell me how to do this effectively…

Entrepreneurial Editor: How to edit a book more or less gracefully

I have been reading Dorie Clark’s Entrepreneurial You , which is an amazing collection of hands on advice from podcasting to writing blogs to authoring books. Dorie’s main message is that there are multiple ways that we can contribute and develop our careers. What makes the book fascinating is that much of the advice is grounded in her own experiences but she has also interviewed a great number of others who have succeeded in developing a business and built careers.

In this spirit of openness about her lessons learned, I thought I’d share my recent experience in co-editing a book and what lessons I can take from that might be helpful to others. I’d like to make a disclaimer here to say that this blog post is very much about my lived experience and not that of the publisher or my co-editor. For me, capturing experience-based knowledge is very crucial and that is what I’ll focus on here.

Three main ways dominate in how a book gets authored: you either reach out to your contacts whom you know and ask them to contribute, you issue an open call and see what you get (cast a wider net), or you go at it alone. Each approach has their merits and constraints: sole authorship has full control, asking your friends and colleagues means you might get more accountability in quality and timeliness (they don’t want to disappoint you) and casting a wider net means you are able to capture more diversity in authorships, regions and countries. But sole authorship means you might miss some linkages and issues, asking your friends could mean you all share the same way of thinking, and casting a wider net might result in significant delays and controversies what everyone is supposed to be writing about.

The idea for the book Limits to Climate Change Adaptation was based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (2014) that had identified a knowledge gap in regards to the concept of “adaptation limits” and what that means in both practice and theory.. Given that there was not much literature on this, we decided to issue an open call to see who identified firstly their research with the topic and which countries and regions we could cover. The number of responses was great with many people wanting to contribute. But the end result was that once the excitement died down and the reality hit about writing an actual chapter, many early enthusiasts did not return a manuscript draft and/or stopped responding to emails.

As an editor, this was frustrating as I could see the potential in many of the abstracts that had been submitted but I was not able to muster up their courage to get them over the line to start writing. Still, we got more chapters than we had expected and I am very thankful for all the authors for sticking with the process and providing such good insights from their countries and disciplinary backgrounds. I am also pleased that we did an open call because it helped to connect to new people whose research I was not previously aware of.

Because there is not much empirical evidence on what actual adaptation limits are, how they differ from thresholds, and what the actual line is between adaptation constraints and limits, it was challenging to get all the chapters to consider these concepts in the same way. We asked all the authors to build on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group II, Chapter 16) so that we could provide a more coherent approach that could also be helpful in informing the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. I strongly believe that the book has contributed to this gap, with many specific chapters on relocation, migration, agriculture, coastal infrastructure, and even psychology. The chapters truly showcase how different disciplines approach climate adaptation differently including methods, analysis and the way results are derived.

One thing that I cannot emphasise enough is that a good book cannot happen without great reviewers. I am truly thankful for the people who reviewed and provided comments and their time to improve the chapters. I am lucky that many of the reviewers we contacted were interested in the topic and really took the time to help us to assess the chapters.

One thing that I had not prepared for was the long process that editing a book truly is. This may sound naïve but most editors and authors make a plan in the beginning of the milestones that should be achieved but these often are constantly shifted when people’s lives get busy, reviews take time, and manuscripts have to go through final edits. I was lucky enough to have a co-editor who already has an established contact with the publisher. This made things much easier as he knew the procedures and protocols on agreements, something a newbie to publishing must learn as part of the process. Co-editing with someone more experienced is a great way to learn these things. If you have an idea for a book, it’s worth asking around those in your field whether they would be interested in collaboration.

Getting the book out however is half of the job. If you want your book to contribute to the current discussions on the topic, you need to make sure it ends up in the hands and minds of a broad audience and eventually the right people. I haven’t figured out yet a perfect way to do that but given my work is usually with professional scientific community and policymakers, I’m using LinkedIn and Twitter to spread the news and I am also writing to my contacts who might be interested in the book. I am not getting paid for the book so this is different from those authors/editors who derive income from how many copies are sold. My contribution and passion to have the book read has more to do with wanting to contribute to the scientific and policy discussions on climate adaptation.

Given this is the first published book on the concept of adaptation limits to my knowledge, I do have a need also from the scientific perspective to make sure the knowledge we have collated in the book can feed into science and policy discussions whether it is Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the work that research organisations and NGOs do on the ground.

It would be great to hear from you who have editing and publishing experience how you’ve managed the process of showcasing your work and getting it out there. Any tips on what you’ve found effective? This can be in terms of letting people know about your work or how your research has fed into policy and science processes.

One final thought: people always say look at the competition and see where your ideas fit and can add value. In science, picking up a less examined concept or a knowledge gap can be challenging but it is a good opportunity to contribute to your field and broader scientific community.

Finding Your Mindset: Fleas in a jar

What do you get when you put together fleas jumping in a jar, epigenetics, and Michael Jordan? Surprisingly you don’t get scientific evidence for innate talent (you were born with wings) but a mix of mindset-environment interaction, which can either break or make you.

In a recent article in Forbes about how people excel and help each other grow, Benjamin P Hardy shared some of his personal insights in how he has been helped by others to excel. What he concludes is that often our environments play just as a big part of who we can and do become as does what we have abilities for: “The expectations of those around you establish your own personal rules and expectations”. If you are a flea jumping in a jar, you adjust your jumps to those of others and the height of the jar that you are in.

In a curious but not too disconnected way, this also applies to mindsets. Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” outlines how our mindsets direct the way we feel, think and behave because mindset is where we really all start from in evaluating our capabilities and defining who we are as a person. Dweck also recognises the importance of the environment in which we work, play, and grow in, and how that makes a crucial difference how we think about our own capacity and that of others to learn.

How many of us know people who just seem to excel in sports, at work, in leadership so naturally that it seems just innate? Yet, Carol Dweck debunks the idea of innate talent. She argues that if we use the fixed mindset (we are not naturally talented in something, cannot learn to be and hence should not try) then that will direct the way we live our lives and think of ourselves. The growth mindset (ability to learn and see in others the capacity to learn) enables you to learn. Fixed mindset favours “effortless success” as it’s based on your talents whereas the growth mindset recognises that learning and excelling in something actually requires hard work. Dweck has found that often the most talented sports (like Michael Jordan) and business people are not the ones who were discovered at age of 5 with amazing superior talent but actually those who are willing to put in the hard work and keep trying.

This is not a new revelation as such. We’ve been hearing similar messages for a long time about success: put in the hard work and you can excel. The difference I think is that in the era of social media and global online interactive platforms, there is a growing expectation that you can be discovered by anyone and made a star relatively quickly. Granted, this is happening to some but for the majority of us if you want to build a good brand you need to put in the hard yards and make consistency your best friend. Showing up consistently is about commitment but also about long-term learning. You don’t become great by merely sitting on a coach and dreaming big. Each high achiever has gotten off the couch.

How we perceive our own capabilities and those of others profoundly influences also how we act towards them and how we even interpret other people’s behaviour. I am constantly reminded of this with my son. He gets very annoyed and frustrated when he can’t learn something straight away (granted he is not even three yet) but my reaction to it has changed. Rather than getting frustrated myself, I try to focus on the learning opportunity and remind him and myself that most things in life are the result of learning: trying and trying again until you get the hang of it. Creating an environment where you can fail and learn is essential for growth mindset but especially for children it’s crucial they hear that message and understand what that means.

The number one signal that someone is in the growth mindset is their unstoppable desire to learn. People with fixed mindsets think of themselves as “finished products” who already know everything. People with growth mindsets recognise their limitations in what they know and are eager to learn as much as they can. As Dweck points out, this has direct relevance how people lead: imagine a company director who has a fixed mindset. They are much more likely to shut down new innovative ideas coming from staff or from outside the company because they already know the best ways of doing things. People with fixed mindsets derail companies even if they are genius in what they do because they won’t give credit to others (since they have to know it all) and they fail to embrace innovation and change because they are not interested in learning.

Although Dweck’s book can easily be interpreted that you either have a fixed or growth mindset, the lines are blurrier than this. We all have certain areas in our lives where we practice, even if unknowingly, a fixed mindset but in other areas we are eager to learn and really put time and effort in it. I think the important message is how we can tip the balance in our lives towards the growth mindset in more areas and not feel like we have failed when we catch ourselves in the fixed mindset mode. In fact, the two mindsets have completely opposite attitudes to failure: with a fixed mindset, if you fail, you are a failure, whereas with growth mindset, if you fail, you’ve tried and can learn from that.

I’d challenge you to consider your own life with this frame in mind. In which areas do you find yourself thinking: “I don’t know how to do this”, “I am not good at this”, “I am just not a person who can do…”? These are the red flags of a fixed mindset. You don’t have to excel in everything and it’s rare for someone to be great at each thing they try. But for 2018, what is one area in your life that you recognise where you have fallen into a fixed mindset but you want to change? It can be anything small, even how you enter into arguments, a sport you don’t think you can master, or why all your plants seem to die… (“I do not have a green thumb”).

For me, my two priority fixed mindset areas are “I’m not good at group sports” and “I hate statistics”. For 2018, these are things that I want to explore further even if it means just learning how to structure a survey and analyse statistics, or how to fail at group sport (Hm can you detect a mindset there?). But doing a group sport might just make me discover that years of disliking it have been years wasted.

I’d love to hear what areas come up for you when you think about fixed mindsets or even examples where you feel you already have a growth mindset and what strategies you use to help you keep learning. Learning from each other is one of the most important conversations we can have because sharing our experiences can propel us towards changing the way we think about ourselves and others around us.

ps. Not jumping high enough? Science says changing jars matters for learning: if you jump with high achieving fleas, you’ll jump higher and faster.

Are we heading to Hothouse Earth?

This past week the news have not been any getting better. The heat waves are still affecting countries: in South Korea, temperatures around +39 are said to prevail at least 23 consecutive days and in southern Europe, temperatures are still abnormally high.

In California, wild fires are ranging to the extent that now the military has been called to help out. Reinforcements have also arrived from Australia and New Zealand, while the Yosemite National Park is closed “indefinitely” due to the fires.

One of the very first fire tornadoes has made its appearance in California although authorities are still debating what to officially call it.

This is keeping with last week’s theme of “unprecedented” when so many new records are being broken.

As a scientist, and someone who is researching climate change for living, many of these events are more than alarming.

But what do we really know about how the Earth has changed?

Hothouse or Stablished Earth?

Conveniently just this week a perspective by Steffen et al. (2018) was published on what our Earth System is actually doing at the moment and where we are likely to be heading.

The Paris Agreement was put in place in 2015 with the aim of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees of warming, or at least 2 degrees.

Yet, globally emissions are still going up and the 2 degree warmer world is starting to look more likely.

However, the authors of this new paper argue that going beyond 2 degrees is actually a potential emergency for our planet where many of the feedback processes that currently cool the Earth might actually start warming it.

Once particular tipping points have been passed, it is not easy or even possible to try to make major changes to redirect the direction of global change.

Range of different tipping elements are also observed where different increases in temperatures are likely to impact on a range of processes, which interact and accelerate warming:

STeffen et al_TippingELements.jpg

Our understanding of these processes, their interactions, and their consequences is still very limited and Steffen et al. 2018 suggest a range of further research priorities that scientists could pursue to unveil some of this information.

There is also the notion that once we go past 2 degrees, and tipping points are activated, it could be likely that we are not able to control or manage different processes as noted by one of the authors Johan Rockstrom: 

“We are the ones in control right now, but once we go past 2 degrees, we see that the Earth system tips over from being a friend to a foe. We totally hand over our fate to an Earth system that starts rolling out of equilibrium.”

It is not a pretty picture.

But what the authors do note is that we are not necessarily there yet and that we still have a choice: we can attempt to keep warming under 2 degrees and perhaps push the Earth System deliberately towards “Stabilised Earth” scenario.

But even if we could live in a Stablished Earth, it will be still very much warmer than anything that the Earth has experienced, meaning adaptation will remain a constant feature in such challenging circumstances.

Is there hope for adaptation?

The question that I keep asking is when do we know that we have gone too far in the pathway given the complexity of tracking global processes, and their interactions.

And more importantly, what can we do even to adapt to a constantly changing context where feedbacks, tipping points and processes could accelerate changes at scales never seen before?

In a Hothouse Earth, we are however not likely to be able to adapt: as the authors note, “a Hothouse Earth trajectory will likely exceed the limits of adaptation” (Steffen et al., 2018, p. 5).

Yet, the hopeful message is that we still have a choice and this is very much why we need stronger action and global commitment to act on climate change.

While the California fires and European heatwaves cannot be necessarily directly linked to climate change yet, there is the potential that this is what we need to start adapting to.

This then calls for changes in how we manage emergency and disaster services, what kind of fire fighting equipment is available and used, and how we train the staff and volunteers to cope with these new fire conditions.

These are things we can already do while maintaining flexibility for other options in how we manage climate related risks.