How to see an elephant in a dark room?

Three Key Takeaways

  • Understanding that the ‘wicked problem’ across infrastructure needs collaboration and leadership to overcome resistance to seeing the challenge. Some of this resistance is created by dealing with unique political, environmental, social, and governance situations are constraints.
  • The need to use leadership and risk management to broaden skills set in asset management, to improve critical thinking and to enhance outside of box thinking.
  • The importance of organisation culture and leaders’ roles in enabling their teams to focus on the challenge of finding the light switch and turning it on

Abstract

Asset managers share an unspoken knowledge that there is an elephant in the room. To avoid seeing the elephant and having to deal with the elephant, all the light switches are turned off.

There is a shared mutual understanding that globally, the infrastructure management challenge is huge. Over the last few years, we have seen exponential growth in Data, Modelling and Asset and technology bases worldwide. Population growth, technology growth and the use of infrastructure investment to fund economic recovery are major contributors to this growth.  

This growth, coupled with historical underinvestment and imbalance in asset and project lifecycles, creates current and future financial and performance vulnerability, which has a roll-on effect on us, and the next generation’s lives and well-being.  

Countries and organisations continue to spend more time discussing the challenge than working together and collaborating to find a solution. 

There are many conversations held and projects planned about collaborations, standardisation, data-sharing agreement, and modern technology to enhance investment decisions and provide better service to the public. However, organisations are fixed in a problem-solving mode without the momentum to move forward. The slow or delayed decision-making process compounds the challenge and creates a lack of trust in society’s capabilities to move forward (and of governments to act?). 

This paper explores the skills and mindsets needed to rise to the challenge, turn on the light and harness the elephant’s capabilities. Stakeholder engagement and leadership are critical in understanding context and background and the guiding principles in decision-making. Examples are given to illustrate the key learnings.

1. Introduction

Imagine entering a dark room, and no one has ever seen an elephant in a lifetime. You cannot identify what you have in there, but start touching the tusk, trunk, ear, leg, and feet. Depending on where you are touching and what your profession or experience is, you have different observations and understanding of what is in the room.  

If you come from an engineering background, you will use your measurement tool, techniques, and methods to draw on what you see. The architect tries to size up the object and build logic; the communication expert will show up and tell an exciting story about the tusk and explain how rare and valuable it is. The system engineer will start documenting the various parts of the element and try to make sense of the situation. The risk advisor will come and explain how dark the room is. Then they develop a presentation on methodologies and models and find what they have in a room. And they are telling each other what they touch, and some try to make sense of it; some do not believe what they hear, and some do. Then they build teams, and this is how organisational silos are created.  

The elephant in the dark room defines the infrastructure ecosystem and the significant challenges and opportunities ahead of the nation to understand how the elephant can set free to embark on a journey in nature. Perhaps the elephant has been tied to a chain with a tiny rope for many years in a dark room and believes that it cannot break the chain and let it self-free. There is a lot of talk about building a new room for the elephant on top of the existing room as the old room degraded and the elephant is growing yearly.  

2. The Infrastructure Elephant

A broad range of advanced tools is used by different groups to measure the different parts of the elephant that they have identified, and from the measurements and estimated condition, decisions are made for the next investment of building a new room. Even the digital twin of the elephant parts is under development by brilliant and capable people.  

It’s fair to recognise that infrastructure is a complex interdependencies domain. There is a lot of talk about the hard change and limited approach and view on what needs to be done. Or better to say what not to do, as there are many examples out there of infrastructure projects that failed to deliver an outcome.

Sometimes it’s like renovating a house while you are living in it. The broad range of stakeholders, competing priorities, and lack of historical investment in people and capabilities make it very challenging, and often, as in our case of the elephant in a dark room, no one is looking at the whole picture.

But what is the solution? How do we see the whole elephant and truly understand the dimensions of the problem in order to make appropriate decisions?  

We firmly believe that the mind that creates the problem cannot solve it.

We have two main approaches to the challenge in front of us. One is we all go in and try to figure out what we should do, or we need first think with new mindsets and decide what the approach is.

Jumping in and trying to figure out what exists is our easy and typical approach. You are active and in a doing mode; everyone moves in and around the dark room and tries to do something. Stepping back and thinking about the challenge and designing a pathway moving forward is complex and challenging. It’s like day-to-day decision-making or making a decision-making framework.

Instead of jumping in and touching different parts of the elephant and guessing what you have, is it better to use a different mindset to turn the light switch on (define the objective) and then we all see what we have and ultimately understand the full dimensions and complexities of the elephant and can move it from a dark room to where it is needed and can be harnessed? Infrastructure Australia called this the number 1 recommendation on their recent Reforms to meet Australia’s future infrastructure needs in 2021 and requested to rethink our fast-growing cities/infrastructures.

3. Everyone ignores the elephant in the room.

The intent is to define and agree on the objective of what we are trying to achieve collectively. The objectives act as a candle in a dark room, light up the pathway for everyone, and bring clarity to outcomes. There are many different scenarios to get the elephant out of the room. Each comes with a broad range of public and social implications.

Every organisation has elephants — a known problem or situation viewed as undiscussable. The elephant’s colour or size may differ, but at the end of the day, there is an elephant in a dark room.

Leaders with the right vision and skills are fundamental to enabling the people to turn on the lights and set the elephant free from the dark room. The elephant in the room is difficult to address for various reasons, and it’s like a wicked problem. The effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

4. Aligning objectives with value delivery

The alignment of objectives with goals will result in value delivery in the infrastructure ecosystem. Either driving economic, social, or environmental goals (Australia, 2018), recognising and aligning the objectives with goals will maximise the achievement of better value from our infrastructure investment.

Identifying the interlinked objectives will enable the organisation’s functions to come together instead of working in parallel, especially when there is a lack of certainty and understanding about the problem and pathway.

Infrastructure Western Australia has recognised that better coordinated and aligned infrastructure planning is a crucial value-add opportunity for the nation. (Australia, 2020). Value creation, coordination, capture, calculation, communication and sustaining plays a significant role alignment of infrastructure delivery. (PARLIAMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA, 2016).

5. Turning the light on

We share a common problem across many industries and regions, each with unique parameters. There will be many paths to see the whole elephant for each of these. Here we have used the idea of bringing in light as a metaphor for a new or different mindset.

In reflecting on new mindsets, how do we develop that in people and organisations?

As Jim Collins says in his book “Good to Great”, good to great leaders first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats… The right people are your most important asset”. New mindsets need the right people. With the right people, individuals and teams will be encouraged to develop and to think differently. (Collins, 2023)

What do we need to do as individuals? It requires self-reflection, developing personal leadership and emotional intelligence.

It is worth reflecting on the situation and asking questions, to examine the approaches and understand what skill set required.

  • Why is the elephant in the room in the first place, and how did it get there?

Understand the context and background.

  • Why is the room dark, and is there a light switch?

What are the guiding principles in decision-making?

  • How can we collaborate better in our mission to see the entire elephant?

Speaking of the common language to understand and act better and develop better standards around data, information, and analysis.

In order to change our mindset, we need to be able to develop personal leadership and emotional intelligence coupled with technical capabilities. This will enable us to see the blind spots and gradually shift our focus from reactive to proactive approaches.

References
  • Australia, I., 2018. Infrastructure Australia Assessment Framework. [Online]
  • Available at: https://www.infrastructureaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-06/infrastructure_australia_assessment_framework_2018.pdf[Accessed 21 02 2023].
  • Australia, I. W., 2020. Analysis & Policy Observatory. [Online] Available at: https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2020-06/apo-nid306533.pdf[Haettu 21 02 2023].
  • Collins, J., 2023. jimcollins. [Online] Available at: https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/first-who-then-what.html [Haettu 03 March 2023].
  • PARLIAMENT OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA, 2016. Analysis & Policy Observetory. [Online] Available at: https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2016-12/apo-nid73412.pdf [Haettu 21 02 2023].

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