While I have been involved in water utilities most of my career, taking the helm of the largest special water district utility in Oregon is new for me. I was previously the Director of Engineering and Infrastructure Planning for the City of Bend Oregon, where I dealt with rapid growth and a long history of under investment in its infrastructure. Over the nearly fifteen years that I worked there; I was fortunate to have worked with a team of incredibly talented people. Together we were able to change the investment in infrastructure to record high levels that had community support and fundamentally changed the ability for the City to grow. The challenges we overcame took years and as I transition into my new roleas the CEO at Tualatin Valley Water District, I find myself asking the question what exactly did it take for me to create the team, the culture, and the desire to address the challenges I faced with my old team.
"With the challenges we face in the utility industry we need new ways to address the challenges we face. We need to turn our industry into machines of innovation. It starts with us willing to consider what is possible"
To be clear, my new team is not in some desperate state of needing repair. To the contrary, my new team is a highly functioning team of talented and dedicated people. They in fact were part of the reason I even took the job in the first place. Having said that, I also saw opportunity to take this team even further than where they are.
In my career I have learned there are phrases and key words that raise red flags. I have never worked any job where the phrase “we are super busy”, followed by “we don’t have time”, both of which were often the basis for responding with the answer “no, we can’t take that on”. The fact was, and is, we are busy, we would not likely be employed if we weren’t. And in many cases in my career opportunities were missed because we were so nose down to the grindstone, we didn’t take the time to develop a clear game plan, and we feared that if we stopped to consider anything we would fall further behind. This was true even when I was in the private sector as a consultant. It seems to be a universal truth that we never stop and ask, what if?
One of the many things I learned in my previous job was to stop the default answer of “no, we can’t because we are too……”. In fact, one of the biggest culture shifts that a few of us embraced in my previous role was to say the answer is yes, its our job to figure out how. This may seem insane to answer every question with yes, we can, let me figure out what it takes to do it, but that little change literally changes how we think.
Answering with yes forces us to stop and think about what it would take to make the yes possible. It broke the cycle of continuous “no” answers and forced us to get out of ruts and really stop and think about what it would take to make an answer a feasible yes. What we don’t think about when our default answer is no is all the missed opportunities and the deeper impacts a no answer has on staff. A no response is often a killer. It stifles innovation, it crushes aspirational thinking, and it’s a morale killer. Think about in your own career how you may have been excited to bring a new idea, a new way to do things forward only to get the quick response of “no, we need to stay focused and stay the course”. How willing where you to bring another idea forward? Now think about how you may have responded if your CEO had answered with “yes, but can you tell me what it would actually take for us to do that”.
If you were the person being encouraged to consider the “yes” possibility think of what you would have learned in the process of having to look at what it would take to make something possible. It would have taught you to think about the challenges and hurdles that it would take. A yes response forces a deeper thinking about issues. By answering yes, you are asking your staff to correctly identify the risks, the issues of resources, and the cost benefits of yes.In short you are mentoring in the most hands-on way possible and developing problem solvers. You turn an engine on for innovation and creative problem solving.
With the challenges we face in the utility industry we need new ways to address them. We need to turn our industry into machines of innovation. It starts with us willing to consider what is possible. What we really don’t have time for is not seeing what is possible.
Rebecca Delaney, P.E., Associate Director and Operations Leader for Sustainable Engineering Studio, and Luke Leung P.E., ASHRAE Fellow, LEED Fellow, BEMP, P Eng, Director of Sustainable Engineering Studio, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill