BOM map of Australia

Addressing Australia’s Complex Environmental Challenge

By Jane Martin – Adaptive Leadership Australia

Adaptive Leadership Australia (ALA) equips leaders in the government, corporate and for-purpose sectors to undertake systemic change. Our environmental imperatives necessitate leaders to find new ways of thinking about, diagnosing and responding to the seemingly insurmountable systemic problems of sustainable energy supplies and the debilitating effects of climate change. Traditional leadership interventions are no match for the complex environmental problems impacting the planet. One such problem that urgently needs a systemic leadership approach is the effect of climate change on the Australian environment, weather patterns and our food and water supply.

This problem involves a volatile convergence of forces that are immune to one remedy, one method, one charismatic leader, or efforts to ‘command and control’. The outcome of the interaction of multiple forces is unpredictable and complex. In the context of what can feel like overwhelming complexity we default to old patterns and responses, but they’re not working.

ALA recommends an adaptive framework, developed by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, to provide a different lens through which we can understand the system and the competing commitments, values, beliefs and interests held by individuals and groups within the system. This framework provides new ways of exercising leadership through harnessing divergent values and interests for a shared purpose. It values the diagnostic phase of leading through complexity and promotes the testing of multiple interpretations and points of view.

Do we have to talk to big coal? Yes we definitely do. And to do so we need advanced skills, behaviours and an open mindset required to make progress through engaging with their competing beliefs, loyalties and interests. Tackling climate change complexity challenges us to go beyond usual ways of working and usual ways of leading. It challenges us to reach beyond the usual people who think like us and to engage with unusual voices. To make progress on climate change we need to engage with the full range of stakeholders. To address climate change we need to craft common ground across factional values and cultures.

It will take time, but we urgently need to address Australia’s environmental challenges as we plummet deeper and deeper into a climate change crisis.

We have pillaged and neglected to protect our best source of agricultural and environmental sustenance, the Murray Darling River. Historically the East coast of Australia has consistently received the highest rainfall in the country. That is changing. The east coast is drying out. So too are all the lands west of it. At the same time, more and more people crowd into the highly valued green spaces up and down the east coast. The areas that are the most fit for food production have become conglomerates of urban sprawl. Neighbourhoods compete with farmlands and they are winning. We are increasingly urbanised. The planet, the global community and the nation are facing a complex systemic threat. We need a different way of thinking that is as emergent as the complex set of interactions that are driving this crisis. We need to resource a diagnostic phase in which we test multiple interpretations and points of view, rather than implementing piecemeal interventions. Too many leaders are privileging economics and denying that we are in crisis.

Mackie’s Succeeding and Failing in Australian Environment Policy (2018) values the diagnostic phase of leading through complexity. Mackie interviewed fifty federal environment policy officials, actively involved in environmental policy since the inception of the Federal Government Department of the Environment. Mackie’s brief was to ascertain how we can better predict and design successful environmental policy. Her research shows that policy makers could often predict what would and wouldn’t work in developing successful environmental policy. Regularly flying in the face of economic imperatives, successful policies required strategic adaptive massaging, sometimes over long distance and long time frames with multiple stakeholders.

The juxtaposition of case studies of more and less successful policy applications show how to tackle adaptive Australian environmental challenges. A case in point is Indigenous land management initiatives. Mackie designed and constructed one of the most successful Indigenous land management employment programs in Australian colonial history. Working with others, she implemented the first Working on Country Indigenous Ranger Program. Success came through listening to the unusual voices and brokering a way forward with stakeholders across factions.

Mackie clearly understands that working with complex adaptive challenges requires leadership to engage the people most directly affected by the challenge. In 2017 she took up the role of CEO of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, a Martu organisation set up to support the cultural and land aspirations of the the WA Pilbarra Martu Peoples. In the Pilbara, and nationally, the ranger program works because the Indigenous landowners are employed in the role of expert land managers and paid accordingly. Her research supports the Adaptive leadership wisdom that the development of any systemic change initiative, including the development of successful environmental policy initiatives, requires transparency of policy purpose, aims and objectives and role clarity linked to these aims and objectives.

Succeeding and Failing in Australian Environment Policy highlights that getting good environmental policies across the line requires a skilful agency (team) approach. A key theme in making progress on complex environmental challenges is to engage stakeholders especially the unusual voices amidst those stakeholders. Neglecting to identify, acknowledge, process and broker across competitive values and interests of individual stakeholders and factions can be disastrous. Failure to do this in the Home Insulation debacle rendered that environmental policy initiative both successful in some domains and fatally catastrophic in others. As Mackie outlines “the next generation of environment, urban and energy policy makers need to marshal the full complement of their skill, judgement and courage to counter the policy vacuity of those politicians pursuing growth at all costs.”

The effects of climate change are diminishing the quality of life for our selves our children, our grandchildren and great grandchildren at an alarming rate. Here’s hoping that the environment, urban and energy policy makers can learn from the mistakes that Mackie has made so clear.