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.



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.

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.