Last week we acknowledged that our default response of NO could be based on fear. We learned that our fear-based response is really quite primal. It may have kept us from being eaten at some point in our past, but today could actually keep us from eating if we aren’t careful. Fear can be an extremely effective tool to manipulate ourselves and others.
The opposite, of course, is hope. Hope can be just as powerful, and if we aren’t discerning, can also be just as harmful and distracting.
My first exposure to some of the most solid logic involving hope came several years ago while listening to a Zen and the Art of Triathlon podcast. The string of thinking is that we should enjoy our suffering because pain creates endurance, endurance builds character, and from character we get hope. Until I saw them in this context, I had never really paid attention to the set of biblical versus where the thinking originated (Romans 5:3-5). This is solid and proven logic that can be applied to just about any endeavor from racing to public speaking to managing stormwater. As we put in the work we become more capable. Consistency and mastery in one area often leads to improvements in other areas, causing us to become an overall better person, employee, leader, etc. Actually achieving our goals today helps us to see future possibilities that were previously invisible to us. Our confidence (our hope) grows. And the cycle repeats.
Hope without some suffering can be disappointing. The endurance isn’t there, the character may be lacking, and the failure of realizing that thing or that place can be disheartening.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of millions of people full of hope bought lottery tickets; millions of dollars are given to casinos every year with hope that somehow we can short-circuit the laws and logic of success; and every year fishermen and golfers waste countless hours… (just kidding, there are usually no false expectations for me there). Sometimes in our world, costs are cut, inspection reports are fudged, and incidents are downplayed or under-communicated. New ideas are dismissed and forward thinkers are discouraged in the hope that we can squeak past the regulators just this one time. And sometimes it works. Someone has to draw the winning ticket. It might as well be us, right?
It’s a fools game. Realistic hope usually only comes after the work has been done and strength and character have been built.
If you are exhausted from the stress of holding your breath worrying that everything could fall apart at any given moment, you are likely full of one or both of these- an unnecessary fear or an unearned hope.
**acknowledgement – I have shortened the words of Paul over the years to fit my particular context, for good or for bad. To see his intended lesson, keep reading past the underlining in my Bible. At least get through verse 8.
Which is better – “We can’t” (followed by a million reasons why we don’t really want to) or “maybe” (followed by a million ways that this might work and a feeling that this could be the best thing we’ve ever done)? Which organizational culture would you rather bump up against? There are so many opportunities for us to contribute and make our world a better one. So why is it that way too often ideas, suggestions, and requests are shot down before we even get to the question mark? It’s certainly a problem in any bureaucracy, but I have also seen it shut down even the smallest and easiest of asks.
My 16-year old son has called me out a few times on my default. With him, my mind has an initial tendency to say no when he asks to go, to do, or to be. There are a number of drivers there. Some make sense, others are simply a default that I have committed to work on. He’s 16 – enough said, right? Well, actually, one day very soon he will be 18, then 21, then 30, maybe with a family. Are the risks of failure greater now or later? Sometimes I’m tired and just don’t need the hassle right now, and sometimes I really don’t know why I say no, it’s simply my default.
Way too often, my default is driven by fear – the what-ifs and what-coulds. Maybe he doesn’t survive unscathed some of the nonsense I participated in as a teenager – it’s way too easy to simply shut it down, and the short-term stakes seem to be way too high.
Fear is powerful. It can cause us to stay at home in with an illusion of safety, it sells products and it wins elections. It’s very difficult to advance in the face of fear. It costs us time, money, opportunities, and our health.
Fear is also instant. I have heard that our brains make decisions about 10 seconds before we actually know the result. While it takes positive news about 11 seconds to soak in, threats are perceived immediately. Fear speaks to our limbic system (our “lizard brain” per Seth Godin). Fear is fast, it is effective, and it can absolutely cripple us.
Think about the last request that came across your desk or when you heard successful application of a new way to solve an old problem. What was your default? Why? Did you miss a potential opportunity by letting your lizard brain speak first?
Of course, the opposite of fear is hope, and it’s just as powerful.
We’ll talk about that next week.
Intrapreneurship – the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization
I like the concept of intrapreneurship and I’d like to think I have behaved like an intrapreneur at times during my career. Being a long-time government employee, it may be a bit ironic that I am also a long-time wannabe entrepreneur. I enjoy reading about and listening to those brave souls who struck out on their own and made something for us. It’s always exciting for me to see someone do well by using hard work and their imagination. Injecting a spirit of entrepreneurship into any traditionally static world is fun to me, even when I’m on the sidelines watching.
There are both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs in stormwater. I appreciate them both and like hearing their stories. As a matter of fact, some of the most rewarding and interesting work I have been a part of included a risk-taker or two on the team. There is something about being around people with new ideas that energizes me. I really enjoy seeing and studying new products, but what really gets me going is deeper and fresher thinking. I get a rush when someone causes me to reconsider long-held beliefs or rules-of-thumb.
I think we need more in our profession who are willing to think differently. Our world does have some economic drivers and rewards for those entrepreneurs who can offer a better mouse (or sediment) trap. But incentives for those of us working inside of large organizations are far from obvious. On the other hand, available resources required for innovation and influence can be directly related to the size of the company, agency, or office. Some of the largest are those who also hold the regulatory or ordinance-creating cards. We just have to find the MOTIVATION.
Traditional regulatory compliance is not innovative. It’s not even exciting anymore.
If you want to see my eyes light up, tell me about how you used innovative contract language to incentivize water quality protection. Tell me about how you were able to achieve the TRIFECTA or better on your last project. Let’s brainstorm on the best ways to convey our expectations, priorities, and the real reason we do what we do. Let’s create, let’s build, let’s let regulatory compliance simply be a collateral benefit of our commitment to protecting water quality. And if you happen to be a regulator, I’m even more excited to bounce ideas around – you folks have the keys to the future of the quality of our nation’s waters in your hands and heads.
We don’t have to be bureaucrats to work in a bureaucracy.
If you are looking for excitement beyond merely managing erosion and sediment because you have to, consider participating in a FREE WEBINAR this Thursday. The webinar is being provided by AASHTO and FHWA specifically for the benefit of departments of transportation. However, the lessons and program tools discussed should benefit anyone interested in making a good stormwater program great. I know you will enjoy learning about how Gabe Robertson of the Nebraska Department of Roads has improved effectiveness by electronically tracking commitments, actions, and results. Rob Shreeve will share construction stormwater lessons from Maryland, a state leading in DOT stormwater quality management. I’ll be warming the audience up for these guys up with an overview of program effectiveness and a reminder of why we do what we do. It should be a good event with plenty of time for audience Q/A participation. Be there or be square.
The AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence and the Federal Highway Administration will be hosting a free webinar as a part of their Stormwater Community of Practice forum for DOTs. The webinar begins at 11:00 am Eastern on Thursday, January 28th.
My part of the presentation will cover construction stormwater program effectiveness. Other DOT speakers include Rob Shreeve from the Maryland State Highway Administration and Gabe Robertson of the Nebraska Department of Roads.
Registration for the one and a half hour webinar is free. Just log in and dial up using the information provided on the Webinar Flyer.
Frequently, it is regulatory compliance, or more specifically, regulatory enforcement, that brings environmental awareness to a company or organization. Some of the best programs and hardest working companies got their environmental start with a good old-fashioned regulatory spanking. Many see increased regulation and enforcement as the only real solution to environmental restoration. This is unfortunate, but the stick is obviously effective to some extent.
The contradiction of compliance is revealed after a decent environmental effort is under way. Once momentum is built, it can be stifled or stopped altogether because of regulatory compliance. This is also unfortunate.
When we start bragging about getting all of the boxes checked and all of the regulators happy, we have a tendency to ease up on the gas. Why spend more money, or time and energy on getting above the bar of barely getting by? It can be a tough sale to management, contractors, and even stormwater professionals.
The truth is that mere compliance is never enough. If EPA isn’t getting sued from both sides - one always wanting more and the other always wanting less, then something is out of whack. Regulation is created to apply to the masses in a way that is economically achievable and just barely politically palatable to society. Clearly, the quality of our Nation’s waters needs more. Voluntary extra effort and self-set standards reaching above regulatory compliance are required.
The business case is largely based on risk and reward, but not just looking at the chances of getting caught or fined - those odds are very much stacked in the favor of the operator. The risk of living at mere compliance is similar to the risk of living on the edge in any area. Except that in the world of stormwater, most of the variables that can sink us, cost us, delay us, or at least create headache for us are way beyond our control. And just getting by really doesn’t have much of a pay-out.
However, the benefits of raising our own standards and achieving a bit more than is expected are priceless. Not only does compliance and it’s shallow benefits come along collaterally, but a larger audience is touched. When our neighbors, community, and advocate-friends see that we have gone above and beyond (the effort is easy to spot), they start to see us differently. When we show that we are interested in doing a good job and protecting some of their favorite places, we move from being a heartless industry, corporation, or construction site to being human. Once we make it into the category of human being, we are then capable of making mistakes, just like our former detractors. When care is shown above compliance-mindedness, understanding and grace often follows. If anyone needs regulatory civil understanding and grace, it is us.
Environmental regulatory compliance can force a bad actor to get in line, but it can also keep a good organization from becoming great.
Inspired by THIS Seth Godin blog post, I’m once again questioning some of the most beloved, promoted, and defended BMPs of our time. In the post, Godin tells us that the world is looking for people who are polishing things until they work. Are we stormwater professionals giving society what it expects? When was the last time you tested your approach or favorite BMP in a controlled setting? Have you actually seen water flowing through your “Best” management practice? Can you confidently defend your favorite as being most effective?
Ditch Check Testing at Auburn University Erosion and Sediment Control Testing Facility
Godin says, “It’s the testing that separates the professional from the mere hack.” Once we label something as best, from that point forward we must defend its title. We have said out loud that my product or application or strategy is better than all others (definition of the best.)
This also applies to less-concrete areas such as collaborative partnerships, company vision, and regulatory approach.
The post doesn’t tell us to sit on an idea or product until it is perfect. No one that matters expects that. We simply must have the courage to question a few of our favorite things, including ourselves. As we see the inherent imperfections, and our image of best becomes less clear, then we have an obligation to make change.
A successful professional stormwater life (and really any other life as well) should be all about testing and iteration.
The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been the world’s busiest airport since 2000. In 2014 over 96 million passengers walked through the 7 concourses, 2 terminals, and 209 gates of ATL. Nearly all of my flights have an Atlanta connection. It’s always an impressive experience for me. If the layover permits, I skip the Plane Train between the arrival and departure concourses. With all of the sitting on a travel day, I enjoy a good stroll when I have the time.
Last week, as I walked from Concourse B to Concourse D for a late night flight back home, I found myself all alone in the long hallway between B and C. It’s impressive that an average of over 250,000 people visit ATL on a given day. What’s really startling is that the vast majority of those are squeezed into about half of the 24 hour day. The realization of being alone in such a chaotic place was surreal and extremely relaxing at the end of my very long day. The experience made me think back to other ironically peaceful places and times I have experienced.
Once during a mountain bike race where I was separated from the packs ahead and behind me and I smiled as I breezed down the quiet trail; standing to the side of a loud and frenzied birthday party of one of my kids when they were young, appreciating all of the different personalities that make up family; and piled up in a tent with a rambunctious family being warmed by an electric blanket powered by a cord that ran to the front porch of my grandmothers house. I also remember a time of peace during a winter surveying project. In the mornings we walked into the fields on top of ice. At the end of the day, we walked out in ankle-deep melted slush. The temperatures were almost as bad for an Alabama boy as trying to measure and communicate in metric. This was my surveying project in SI units and a “tenth” of a meter is much different than a “tenth” of a foot. But, the scenery and sounds and smells were incredible. It was awesome to try to take it all in.
I’ve had some peaceful moments on construction sites too - the smell of dirt does something for my soul. I have also been in some really “peaceful” places where I never really settled in or settled down enough to fully enjoy them.
I usually don’t know when or why a moment of peace will come but I’m guessing they are available more than I realize. I think the key lies in being open and aware of opportunities for peace at all times so that when they do come around, regardless of the setting, we can catch a taste.
My wish for all of us this holiday season is that even among all of the chaos and frenzy, we will be open and aware enough to at least catch a glimpse of true peacefulness.
First, I am anti-stereotyping. I believe that we were all created as individuals and should be treated as such. I have argued with just about every diversity training instructor I have ever encountered (and being a 25-year government employee, I’ve seen my share). My issue usually begins with an exercise designed to help me better understand old people, Asian people, or people of color. I appreciate the effort to attempt to get me to see cultural and social differences, but I stand on my belief that we need to be extremely careful when lumping or classifying others. Lately, I have seen some benefit to grouping ourselves.
Over the past several months I have been trying to pigeon-hole myself. Not to qualify myself for anything, but to better align my thinking and goals and future with who I really am. I have shared with you my essential intent – to get better and to help others get better every day. This search is for the sole purpose of getting better at getting better.
I am currently reading a book called, Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People who Think Differently. I just learned from it that my mind likes a KVA pattern of learning and doing. Who woulda thunk it? Apparently, in order to get my mind to focus more quickly and completely, I need the following experiences in order: kinesthetic, visual, then audible.
I mentioned a presentation to Auburn students in my last post. I didn’t share that I almost didn’t make my deadline. I have been busy, the invitation date presented a tight time-frame, and I felt the need to create a presentation from scratch. However, I found uninterrupted time to prepare. It was within my ability but was almost not within my will to get finished. My problem was my inability to focus. I struggled to be creative even up to the day before the presentation, which is a position I don’t ever care to be in.
So, as I sometimes do, I took to my conference room white board. As I wrote down the partially completed outline the ideas came flooding in. I quickly completed the outline and enhanced the work I had already done. I completed the Prezi, finished up a script and began rehearsing. KVA in action and in order – kinesthetic, visual, auditory. I wish I had known two weeks earlier. I would have gone to the board much sooner.
Classification instruments are based on stereotypes, an over-simplified picture of who were are. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I share some very specific traits with millions of other people just like me, well, almost just like me. There can be benefit to stereotyping myself in this way and to also grouping others for certain purposes. If the intent is to just get started toward a place of awareness, perspective, communication, collaboration, and service more quickly, stereotype away. Just be willing to adjust when the inherent flaws in the report show up.
I had the honor of being invited to be a part of the Auburn University Environmental and Water Resources Engineering seminar series this week. I spoke to a crowd of civil, environmental, and chemical engineers and faculty. I spoke in a room that I last stepped in over 21 years ago. I enjoyed the experience and thought you might like to hear some of the highlights of my talk.
1. Green, gray, or purple – it’s all infrastructure. – Infrastructure includes both built and natural facilities and process needed to sustain a healthy society. Required natural elements of infrastructure also deserve our stewardship but are sometimes dismissed by the practicing civil engineer.
2. Civil Engineers own infrastructure. – Civil engineers are the most qualified professionals to design, build, and maintain infrastructure. It’s in our charter and we have thousands of years of history and experience to contribute.
3. “How we’ve always done it” isn’t working very well. - The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our overall infrastructure a fitness grade of D+. We have failed for over 30 years to meet our 43 year-old National water quality goals. Our infrastructure funding approach is flawed, our regulatory approach is flawed, our design and implementation approach is flawed. Civil engineers should reevaluate our approaches and set out to change all three.
4. You not only have the authority, but also an obligation to question “the way we’ve always done it.” – The good ole’ days weren’t always good and the way we’ve always done it has benefitted some elements of infrastructure at the expense of other elements. Respect the professionals and the knowledge from the past, but also honor the obligations of the profession for the benefit of the future.
5. To advance change, seek the trifecta. - Garnering support for change not directly related to your organization’s primary mission can be more challenging than necessary. Showing potential benefits in at least two other areas, one of which being directly related to that mission, can promote wider acceptance and support.
6. Environmental design goals deserve a factor of safety also. – Geotech, structures, and other areas of civil engineering require a design goal plus a factor of safety. For some reason, missing stormwater-related targets by seemingly “insignificant” amounts is the accepted standard of practice, to the detriment of our infrastructure.
7. We have an obligation to narrow the knowing versus doing gap. - Active learning is great but not sufficient. Knowledge must be acted upon in some way in order to be useful.
8. Sustainable stormwater management requires a flexible, comprehensive approach. – Flexible: See #3 and #4, then create the necessary change. Comprehensive: See a big enough picture to cause other’s jobs to be easier, not more difficult (thinking about the job of the city engineer and public works professionals…). Cumulative impacts must be considered along with potential project-specific impacts. Also, ownership requires leadership. Input from a multi-disciplined team of professionals is required for best infrastructure decisions.
9. We are called to the table. – With exception of corporate ASCE, civil engineers do not appear to be leading the discussion or actively promoting concepts of green infrastructure. Current conversations will likely determine how we do infrastructure in the future. We must get back to the table.
10. It’s not your fault, but it may be your responsibility. – Seth Godin offers this as one of the forks in the road to becoming a professional. We can push away from the discussion, or we can choose to engage and endure and accept the responsibilities we signed up for.
We have a local event here called the Coosa River Challenge. It is an endurance race that includes trail running, mountain biking, orienteering, rock climbing, rappelling, paddling, cross-fit, swimming, and several other crazy obstacles and challenges that the “Sadistic Race Planner” dreams up every year. The race happens in early October and I have competed it about a half dozen times over the last ten years. Two of those years I ran with my son. He was 14 the first time and 16 this year. We placed first in the Family Team category both times and also finished in the overall top ten. It is a blast but is certainly a challenge.
It takes us about four hours to complete the course – four hours of non-stop effort with heat, cramps, crashes, mud, and mental games working on us the whole time.
Conrad Stolz, XTERRA triathlete is credited with saying that training is like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired. You stop when the gorilla gets tired. Our Transportation Director frequently advises us to engage and endure. These quotes describe my approach to competing in the Coosa River Challenge. They are also applicable in our world of stormwater.
The reason we call it stormwater management and not stormwater fixing is because stormwater is not a problem to be solved, it is a tension that must be managed. Effectively managing stormwater is hard. And once we start, we have to keep pushing. Best practices can’t just be presented once to our inspectors and contractors. Priorities and expectations can’t just sit in a manual or handbook. We aren’t just designers, or installers, or maintainers – we must see the whole picture and understand that our involvement at every step is required for effectiveness. Tweaks and modifications and change are not optional.
During this year’s race, my son had to pull me along during the run. I encouraged him along during the bike leg. I volunteered for the rock climb and rappel and he carried the cross-fit challenge. We encouraged each other during the paddle and joked during the transition runs and special challenges. The race is fun as an individual. But running with a partner makes for a much shorter day, literally and mentally. I love that we can spend that kind of time together.
Stormwater sometimes also feels like a solo event - sometimes the bad guy, sometimes a lone voice, sometimes a lone nut. But in reality, thinking that we carry a project or program on our own is illusory – it can’t be done effectively. We need a good planner and designer, we need a good contractor, we need a good inspector, and regulator, and program manager, and willing employees. We need a team. We need a partner, or ten, to make our journey toward improvement shorter, physically and mentally.
Some cross-over lessons for endurance racing and stormwater management:
- Sometimes we must lead, sometimes we must accept being pulled along,
- relationships thrive on time,
- happiness is more real when shared*,
- creativity, and strength, and even peace can be found in some of the most trying and chaotic situations,
- loosing your cool is like throwing up – you may feel better, but everyone else feels worse, and my favorite,
- suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope**.
And whether we are competing in a race, protecting water quality, or simply doing life, hope is a powerful thing.
*a take on Christopher McCandless’ original quote
Barry on rappel (in yellow)
Parker exiting mud pit