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Improving the Coordination of Action at Gold Coast Water
By Mark Raymond

This case study explores a valuable application of the ontological methodology in organisations - improving the way people coordinate action. This involves understanding how work gets coordinated between people and identifying how to redesign processes and improve the quality of conversations. It stems from the idea that organisations exist at a macro level to make and meet commitments to customers, and at a micro level, everyone in an organisation is making requests or offers or responding  to them in order to fulfil the commitments of the organisation as a whole. What we know from our work is that often these conversations and processes don't produce the results that people want, both professionally and personally.

In this case study, we take a look at the work of Phillip Crockford. Phillip is a Director of the Viability Group, a Brisbane based business transformation consultancy. Phillip has been deeply engaged in ontological applications for business improvement for over ten years, and brings a high degree of expertise in engaging senior executives in conversations about how to improve performance.  Phillip completed his studies for the Diploma of Ontological Coaching with Newfield Institute in 2004 and has also learnt from world leaders in the area of commitments-based management, including Fernando Flores and Robert Dunham.

A constant high workload environment 

Phillip's client, Gold Coast Water, is one of Australia’s largest water and wastewater service providers and is located on the Gold Coast Queensland. Gold Coast Water is working to create a sustainable water future for Gold Coast City, through planning processes, infrastructure projects, asset management services, and a range education programs.

Phillip was engaged by Gold Coast Water to work with the team responsible for assessing development applications. This group comprises professionals, mainly engineers, whose job it is to implement water supply and sewerage infrastructure planning and policy through the assessment and conditioning of more than 1,000 development applications the Gold Coast City Council receives annually. These range from simple dwellings and alterations, to complex multi-unit multi-million dollar commercial and residential developments.

The activities of this team help to achieve the objectives of Gold Coast Water's Strategic Plan by facilitating sustainable water use across the city and ensuring that the utilisation of the water supply and sewerage network is efficient. Many of the activities require the team to work closely with each other and regularly interact with other people, highlighting the need to form and maintain effective working relationships.

As well as being highly technical in nature, the issues often have considerable political, financial and legal ramifications, thus adding to the pressure environment.

In addition, the team leader had an enormous amount of tacit knowledge to share and was also accountable for the repercussions stemming from the team’s work. All of these dynamics made it very difficult for him to consciously and gradually let go of the decision making, despite his strong desire to do so.

The brief

Phillip's brief was to design and implement a coaching and business process design program to:

  1. Build professional capabilities of individuals in the team through effective cross-skilling.
  2. Improving productivity by strengthening the team's capability to handle fluctuations in the workload.
  3. Improving relationships and decision-making processes within the team and with external clients and stakeholders.

Phillip's approach was tap into the expertise and ambition of the team, and work with them in two parallel activities:

Rather than running set programs or training sessions, Phillip's approach was to become immersed in the world and concerns of the individual team members, by attending operational and strategic meetings, and through a number of one-on-one conversations.

Coaching the team

An important part of coaching with a team in this way is to distinguish the types of conversations that occur, and those that fail to occur, and then to reveal how they happen so that the participants then have new choices. A common example is that sometimes people don't say what's on their mind. In other words, they have an assessment about another person or an action that they are unable to share constructively and issues are left unresolved.

According to Phillip, "In this work we are not trying to change people. We are working to open up some freedom for them to make new choices about how they see their world, how they relate to themselves, their work, and each other. Everyone has habitual ways of communicating, and this process is about respectfully yet directly holding up a mirror for people to observe themselves. When people reflect on their actions with awareness of the ontological distinctions about language, mood and body, they have more choices."

In a project such as this, Phillip sees his role as: “understanding people's stories as being legitimate for them, and enabling them get clear on whether those stories are helping them to take care of what's important to them and their organisation, and then helping them to invent new, more effective stories about themselves, their team and their work.” Phillip and his colleague, Tony Carew, worked with the individuals in the team to understand what was important to them and then supported them to hold more fruitful conversations with one-another and with other stakeholders.

The other aspect of Phillip's work was supporting the team to coordinate action more effectively - to make more effective requests of each other and of external stakeholders, to make offers to support each other, to negotiate requests from others and to be impeccable in the way they fulfilled their commitments.  “At first the team members were stuck in habitual patterns of conversations about blame. It was a stormy journey on more than one occasion. But every single team member demonstrated real courage and commitment: once they started to understand one another’s concerns, new possibilities for working together successfully emerged. With practice and coaching, they were able to listen and speak more skilfully and move into conversations for accountability, genuine collaboration, and for solving problems together. We engaged in plenty of practice and coaching in the skills of making effective requests and reliable promises.”

Re-designing the Business Process 

The business process design work started a few weeks after the team coaching program commenced.

First, Phillip worked with the team to analyse all of the requests and commitments that the team participated in. “This was a very engaging process for everyone: even usually quiet team members stepped forward with their views on who were the customers, who were the performers, and what were the conditions of satisfaction for all the various interlocking pieces of the overall team promise.”

Using the graphical methods of Accountability-based Process Design the team realised the enormous complexity of their work in a way they had never seen before: no wonder their work was challenging at times. With further analysis, they saw that every development application contained potentially more than eighty separate commitment loops. Multiply that by a thousand applications, and the team began to see that they were collectively responsible for around 80,000 commitments a year. That equated to 10,000 each, or about 40 commitments per working day for each team member!

The team realised that their main driver was their internal customer’s latest deadline. They made a collective decision to “take control of time” by working to their own deadlines which allowed some slack for unforseen delays while meeting the needs of their customers.
The team went to work collaboratively and redesigned their approach. They learned that just 3% of applications were decidedly non-standard and took a lot longer, so they designed an initial filtering process that allowed them to resource and process the tough jobs in a different way. 

For the remaining applications, although they had lots of variations and negotiations within them, were able to be handled by a standard approach by a newly formed sub-team. This sub-team then held two 3-hour meetings each week to coordinate the handling of these jobs. These meetings were highly productive and satisfying for team members and were designed around fulfilling their commitments.  To quote the team leader: “at first I was concerned about the amount of time they were spending in these meetings, then I realised they were so productive as a result that they easily blitzed the work in the time they had left”.

Results that count

The business results speak for themselves:

According to Phillip, "these results would not have been possible without the courage and commitment shown by the leader and team members and are a great credit to them." Beyond that, the team has laid the foundations for new processes and improved relationships with key internal customers. Best of all the mood of the team is far more positive and resilient. There is an increased confidence in their ability to learn together and overcome obstacles. And the team leader can see a future where his tacit knowledge gets passed on far more rapidly and effectively.

© Newfield Institute

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