Time flies. Yet some of life's experiences and lessons are timeless. While it's hard for me to believe, eighteen years ago I was completing my Master of Science (MS) in Environmental Management and Policy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The Master's program, a hybrid in graduate education, was progressive for its time, fusing traditional MBA-core curriculum with hefty coursework requirements in science, engineering, public policy, and humanities.
I sought out the unique MS program because it appealed to my desire to learn and understand the language of MBAs, lawyers, chief scientists, and principle engineers. But more than that, I wanted to be able to see all sides of an issue, and be trained to effectively communicate and work toward pragmatic and mutual solutions.
One of the most memorable courses I took in graduate school was an elective titled "One Mile of the Hudson River." The course was deliberately designed to be interdisciplinary and focused on "one mile" of the Hudson River basin as an illustrative microcosm of how human and natural ecologic systems converge.
The elective was taught by professors of biology, economics, engineering, and included aspects of law, policy, and stakeholder management. The course was oriented to junior, senior, and graduate students who had completed prior science coursework. The diversity of students combined with the interdisciplinary focus created an atmosphere of intellectual stimulation and curiosity that was unique.
Some students were data-driven and more analytical and mathematically minded. Others were more interested in ecology, biodiversity, and conservation. And some students took a more economic and business-minded viewpoint. While the course aligned to the strengths of students at different times, it also revealed their weaknesses. Professors made it a point for students to work both in teams and individually.
Students were required to construct and input and output models that analytically demonstrated what would happen to the ecologic health of river systems based upon nutrient loading of nitrogen and phosphorous, and other chemicals. For those that were less data-minded, such assignments were onerous. Students were also assigned to collaborate on design teams that would assess specific social-economic-environmental issues in the Hudson River watershed, and derive a solution that could balance the multi-faceted interests of the community.
The design project required teams to get out of the classroom and talk with real-life people. In response, our team sought out to identify and speak with as many critical stakeholders concerned with the environmental and economic prosperity of "one mile of the Hudson" as possible. I vividly recall pressing the flesh with local politicians, talking about the challenges of PCB-remediation with GE engineers, hearing about the concerns of community members that lived on the river, and having lively conversation with economic developers and environmental activists.
For those students that did not feel comfortable asking questions or talking with strangers, stakeholder engagement was an awkward and arduous activity. But the process precipitated tremendous learning and value for every team member. It forced us to assess our audience, define valuable content and questions, and draw on the strengths of every team member.
Ultimately we pulled together critical insights across a diversity of community members that we then integrated with our independent economic and science analysis to create a plan of action for the community. The team then presented its observations, analysis, and community plan to a multidisciplinary panel of representative constituents.
Time and again, throughout the past 18 years of my career, the experiential learning from "One Mile of the Hudson" has been called upon. My skills have been challenged, broken down, rebuilt, and sharpened, again and again. Whether I was working with research scientists, state governments, global corporations, or community activists, I've worked hard to provide level-headed advisement and perspective. This approach has made all the difference in personal fulfillment and professional success. Looking back, the following seven observations have been timeless lessons:
- Liberate data. Data requires a purpose. But be careful not to purpose data for driving personal agendas. Data can be used to skew results and result in unintended decisions and outcomes. In a data-driven world it's easy to get overwhelmed. Data is best served when it is informative and insightful. Data collection, analysis, and story-telling needs to happen with integrity. Keep data-driven decision making objective, focused, and collaborative.
- Triage talent. Create triage teams for creative problem-solving. There is no substitute for collaborative decision-making through the collective intelligence and enterprise of well-functioning teams.
- Build trust. Trust is essential for achieving mutual outcomes and solutions through stakeholder engagement processes. Establishing and upholding trust takes time and is supported when all parties can communicate clearly and effectively with integrity.
- Break barriers. Barriers are usually used to defend or protect against enemies. But barriers never solve differences, they only personify, perpetuate, and prolong distrust. Barriers can be emotional, psychological, and physical. No matter their form they represent unnecessary barricades to progress and prosperity. It's always easier to put up proverbial walls than it is to talk things out. But to solve problems, one has to get at the root-cause of why barriers were constructed in the first place. Work to establish partnerships and collaborations that have meaning, work hard at consensus-building, and effectively work to break barriers together.
- Practice 3-P's. Define and have a solid purpose, but be patient and persistent. Overcome indecision and uncertainty through inclusive innovation. Creating solutions to multifaceted sustainability challenges requires holistic, systems-level critical thinking, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to understand divergent opinions from stakeholders.
- Create and customize. Don't reinvent the wheel, customize its utility. There is not a one-sized fits all solution for any development challenge. However, solutions that are "right-sized," and bespoke to the defined need tend to be better received and have a greater likelihood of being pursued and reinforced.
- Be accountable. Learning is a life-long endeavor. Although the fundamentals of data analysis, teamwork, communication, and leadership can be taught in college, they need to be continuously exercised in real-world experiences for them to mature into personal skills. Your convictions, values, integrity, dignity, and accountability comprise your character as a person. This is the bedrock of who you are at heart, how you are perceived by others, and whether you are true trusted leader. Be accountable to who you are, and to all of your relationships.
It's been nearly two decades after completing my Master's degree at RPI. Since that time the complexity of issues intertwined between science, economics, public policy, and development have only intensified. As the world has become digitally connected, it's unveiled significant dissonance, breeding and feeding distrust between individuals and institutions.
The lessons from "One mile of the Hudson" are illustrative of what's lacking in many current affairs, locally and globally. Whether its social and environmental justice issues in Flint, Michigan, the concerning climate of a national Presidential election, or the unfolding debauchery of the Panama Papers, ego and self-interest are widening a deep gorge between a sustainable future, or one that is fraught with fear.
Society's "one mile" has a vast horizon, with one mile of Wall Street on one end and one mile of Main Street on the other. To reconcile our differences means that we need to develop the hard and soft skills to elevate our highest self - the inner leader that is forgiving, reasoned, and principled. Today, more than ever, we need constructive collaboration between stakeholders, and leaders who evoke inclusive decision-making, trust-building and mutual solutions.