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…).




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.


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.


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…