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).

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.

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.