One of the things I promised to cover in the Blog, was an example of Consent that is so typical, so representative, so demonstrative that it deserves to be called a case of “Classical Informed Consent” . . . as opposed to “Consensus.”
In thinking about an example, many came to mind. One that I’ve not talked about – or even thought — about for years, is an absolutely beautiful case of classical Consent-Building that was pulled off by Tim Carlson in the mid-1980s in Jackson, Wyoming.
What Classical Consent-Building Looks Like
Here are some of the project highlights, as I remember them:
The town of Jackson hired ARIX, Consulting Engineers from Colorado, to redesign the town’s waste water treatment system. One of its young engineers, Tim Carlson, served as the project manager.
Early on in the project, Tim showed the Town Manager what he had come up with, thus far, as possible alternative treatment schemes, asking for his “input.”
One thing that all of his alternative solutions had in common was the location of a holding pond. (The treatment process, evidently, required that the effluent — which we non-experts, incorrectly, call it “sewage” — be held during the water treatment process in a lagoon for some time.)
“Well,” the Town Manager said, “that’s fine, but you’ve absolutely GOT to find a different location for that holding pond.
“You’re from out-of-town, so you wouldn’t know, but where you’ve put it is LITERALLY in the backyard of the richest, most powerful person in the whole valley.
“He would stop this project – if you propose the holding pond where you are proposing it – either by end-running us politically, or by tying the project up in litigation till the cows come home!”
Tim explained that the location in question really WAS the best location, that all other locations would require that all of the town’s waste-water be pumped uphill as part of the treatment process.
With the location that he was proposing, gravity would take care of that chore. The Town Manager responded by saying: “Don’t even THINK of proposing it there; you have NO IDEA how powerful, difficult, and ruthless THIS particular person is!”
Getting an Opponent’s Informed Consent
What Makes an Implementation Genius
Being a good student of SDIC, Tim said “Thanks for your input” and then promptly went to see this particular stakeholder (whom I’ll call him “Mr. X” because I cannot remember his actual name.)
This Mr. X was feared by public officials across the board. The Town Manager wasn’t exaggerating in his description of him. Other students of mine have had interesting encounters with the very same Mr. X! And yet, Tim didn’t hesitate to go knocking on his door, asking if they could talk over a cup of coffee.
Tim introduced himself with saying something along the lines of:
“I’m the guy redesigning the town’s sewage-treatment system. I need to show you some of the preliminary ideas I’m considering because they involve you . . . Well, actually, your property.
“Because water likes to flow DOWN-hill, and because you are located right where it wants to flow, I’m thinking that that’s where the holding pond ought to go . . . As they say: right in your backyard.
“And, because I figured that while you might not be all that interested in sewage-treatment, you probably ARE interested in a waste-water holding pond in your backyard . . . That’s why I came to show you my idea.”
Mr. X’s response:
“Ha, ha, ha . . . son (Tim WAS young enough to be his son), you’re NOT – in fact NO ONE is – going to put ANYTHING into MY backyard! . . . No sir!!!
“But, you ARE welcome to a cup of coffee.”
Tim stayed for coffee and kept up his effort to get Mr. X’s Informed Consent:
“I knew you were going to say that. In fact, I don’t blame you. No one wants a waste-water holding pond in their backyard; especially in a beautiful place like this.
“But, you see, geography and geology are conspiring to put it there. There ARE alternative places where I could put it, but they all would fail to take advantage of gravity, and require that the waste-water be pumped uphill as part of the treatment process . . .
“So, this really IS the logical place for it.”
Mr. X wasn’t about to change his mind, and gave numerous LEGITIMATE and rational reasons as to why he couldn’t possibly be in favor of placing the waste-water in his backyard:
“Son, let me show you something out in this little stream. It’s not just that I don’t want the holding pond in my backyard. I’ve been raising phenomenally beautiful trout in this little stream that your pond would be impacting. Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists have been working with me in this very successful effort. I’m NOT about to let you interfere with that.
“Another thing: I notice on your drawing here that you would dig out a big – to me — ugly rectangular pond. When you DO build a pond SOMEWHERE, would you consider an irregular shape that is more natural-looking?
“One more thing: Wherever you are going to build that pond, you might also consider putting an island in it. There have been some water fowl around here that, I have noticed, have great difficulty keeping the coyotes out of their eggs. If they had an island, I think, they might do lot better.
“Here’s yet another reason why you can’t put your pond here. The way you have it laid out, it would interfere with one of the elk herds that come right through the area that you would be blocking. As a minimum, you’d have to split the pond into two, or make some other provision for the elk.
Responding to Mr.X’s rationale for being opposed to the proposal, Tim replied:
“Wow! . . . I didn’t know all that! . . . You make some good points! . . . Let’s bring that fish biologist from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department you’ve been working with into the discussion.
“Let’s bring in their most appropriate person to help explore whether an island WOULD work, and would be helpful.
“Let’s talk to their elk expert to make sure I don’t do any inadvertent harm to that part of the ecology . . .
“Let’s see what a holding pond might look like that takes all of these issues into account, and yet prevents us from pumping effluent uphill when we could have gravity work for us.”
Why Would Mr. X Ever Give His Consent?
To make a long story short . . . In Mr. X’s backyard is precisely where the holding pond wound up!
Make NO mistake, the Town Manager knew what he was talking about when he said: “Don’t even THINK of putting it there.” He was correct in assessing that for Mr. X to torpedo the whole project – if that’s what he chose to do — would be like taking candy from a baby.
Furthermore, Mr. X really, really, really did NOT like the idea of a waste-water holding pond in his backyard. There was no question, he was OPPOSED to it.
But, because of:
- Tim’s brutal honesty,
- Tim’s willingness, and courage, to argue for the most unpopular — but most responsible — alternative,
- And because of how Tim went about it all, including . . . his willingness – his eagerness – to incorporate any and all ideas that would enhance the project’s environmental consequences . . .
Because of these critical, but perfectly attainable factors, Mr. X decided to “grudgingly go along” with Tim’s unpleasant proposal. Essentially, Mr. X Consented to its implementation.
As I remember, when it was all over, the US EPA recognized Tim’s outstanding work with an award for being one of the most sensitively designed environmental projects.
THAT, folks, is whatInformed Consent looks like in real life. This isn’t the exception, this is a CLASSICAL case.
Today, Tim Carlson lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he has created and worked with a number of environmental organizations, including the Tamarisk Coalition.
In winding up the August 14th Brownbag session, Hans promised to post an additional illustrative example on this blog.
The points this example is illustrates:
- Consent-Building has you focus your outreach efforts, your communications efforts, on your fiercest opponents.
- Focusing on your fiercest opponents is counter-intuitive . . . which means that your brain will come up with a dozen excuses why – this time – it’s not necessary, . . . or not useful, . . . surely a waste of time.
- Being committed to Consent-Building means you focus on your fiercest opponents in spite of all that.
We can illustrate these points without using the names of the parties involved (even though in the Brownbag session, Hans did mention the agency).
Journalist and Ever-the-Critic Mr. Z
The Director of Sport Fisheries in one a mid-west state Wildlife Department was routinely criticized by the columnist – the Fishing-Issues Columnist – of the state’s largest newspaper. Let’s call him “Mr. Z.”
No matter what the agency did in managing sport fishing, Mr. Z always knew better. In Mr. Z’s eyes, the agency – which really meant the director of Sport Fisheries – could do nothing right.
Because Mr. Z’s column ran not only in the state’s biggest newspaper, but was also picked up by newspapers throughout the state. This self-appointed critic had – in sense – a giant bullhorn, which he used to make his living criticizing the state’s professional fish biologists and their work.
The Director of Sport Fisheries had long ago learned that it was futile to try to reason with Mr.Z. He wasn’t interested in the biological realities; he preferred to sling mud, make accusations, and deal in innuendos.
When Disaster Struck
A time came when all it did was rain. It rained, and rained, and the rain just kept raining.
Rivers and streams flooded. One of the brown, swollen streams flooded the department’s fish hatchery where millions of tiny trout were being raised in preparation for release into all of the state’s trout streams a few months later.
This was a disaster; the hatchery was the only trout hatchery. If these fingerlings did not survive, there would be no trout season that year.
Could the fingerlings – even with the addition of the medication the agency added to the water — survive in the brown floodwater that had overwhelmed the hatchery? The headwaters of the streams where they were to be released later were less polluted, but the fingerlings were not ready to fend for themselves yet; they were still too dependent on the hatchery feeding.
The Director of Sport Fisheries – and his staff – needed to make some decisions.
The options, as they saw them, were:
- Keep adding medication to the polluted fish tanks holding the fingerlings; hoping they’ll recover from the shock and survive until their optimum release time later in the spring. (There was, of course, the distinct possibility that they’d all die before they were old enough to be released.)
- Take the fingerlings out of the polluted hatchery now and, — in spite of their immaturity – distribute them all over the state to the many headwaters. (With this option too, there was the distinct possibility that they’d all die after being released.)
Even Experts Disagree
As is often the case, not even the experts – i.e. the fisheries biologists within the department – agreed on which of the two options was the better.
And, the external stakeholders – including the trout fishermen, the sporting goods stores and other businesses who depended on a good trout season, etc. were bound to be of many different opinions.
Of course, all the opinionated pundits in the various sport fishing media – including the perennial Mr. Z with the biggest of all bullhorns in the state – were going to second-guess the agency no matter what it did. They all were bound to have known better than the head bureaucrat.
What an Implementation Genius Would Do?
OK . . . Remember the Agreement / Disagreement Scale we discussed in the Brownbag session (the diagram on slide #11)? Well, the Director of Sports Fisheries clearly saw Mr. Z as being pretty much on the bottom of that Agreement / Disagreement scale.
If the state was going to wind up without a trout season – Mr. Z was going to have a hay-day trumpeting how this was just another example of the agency staff’s incompetence.
The Director of Sport Fisheries had our SDIC training. He understood the need for focusing on the bottom of the Agreement / Disagreement scale.
On the other hand, he also knew – from experience – that Mr. Z was pretty much a lost cause. So, should he make an effort to reach out to Mr. Z? What was his communications strategy going to be – no matter which of the two options he chose for dealing with the flooded fingerlings?
Well, he put his Consent-Building training to work and reached out to Mr. Z.
He called Mr. Z on the phone. It was pretty much a one-way conversation in which he told Mr. Z something along the following lines:
“Here’s what’s happening: the hatchery has been flooded, and the fingerlings are in serious trouble.
I see two options for dealing with this disaster, but the fingerlings are in trouble no matter what I do. There’s a good chance there will be no trout season this year.”
He went on to explain “There are two options that I think we as an agency have, both of which are risky…
- We can try to medicate the fingerlings and get them to survive until their optimum release time.
- Or, we can release them now, and hope they’ll make it even though they have had a shock and are way too young to be released under normal circumstances.”
The Director of Sport Fisheries went on to explain his decision and the rationale…
“I’m going to implement Option #2 even though – if there is not trout season – it will clearly have been my fault for rushing them out into the field prematurely.
- I’m telling you all this because I know from experience that you’re going to criticize my decision in all of the state’s newspapers.
- I don’t expect you to support my decision. I fully expect that you’ll do your level best to make me and colleagues look like a bunch of idiots – as you always do.
- But, I’m calling you to tell you my reasoning so at least you’ll have the facts right and will have had a chance to understand my reasoning even though you’re bound to find your usual ways of distorting it. But, having at least the basic facts, maybe you’ll do less of a distortion job on us than you usually do.”
How Opponents Respond
As you can surmise, this wasn’t the most friendly conversation. The Director meant what he said; he was convinced Mr. Z would do one of his usual distortion jobs on him. Nonetheless, if Mr. Z had at least the basic facts right, he might do a little less distorting of the the truth.
This was a pretty humble objective: of trying to make a critic do a little less of a hatchet job with the truth!
Well, that’s not what happened. Instead of a milder hatchet job on the facts, Mr. Z wrote a very good — and more importantly FAIR — column! He wrote about the director’s agony of trying which of the two terribly options was better – actually – “less bad.”
In fact, Mr. Z did a very good job of explaining the pros and cons of both options, the courage and dedication to mission that was required to make the decision that he did in the face of critics in the media like himself.
Overcoming the Reflex to Avoid Opponents and Conflict
Not only did that rather desperate (and most likely futile) phone call to Mr. Z move him way up on the Agreement / Disagreement Scale, the Director of Sport Fisheries felt that it caused a significant change in his relationship with that particular stakeholder.
Even when an opponent seems unlikely to change their unfair and biased view of your work, don’t give in to the temptation to avoid that person.
Instead, follow in the footsteps of Implementation Geniuses and see what happens. You too might be pleasantly surprised!