The progress principle: how climate resilience is shaping jobs of the future

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Climate resilience is an increasingly important issue for organisations around the world. How will climate change transform the skills you need to do your job?

About the episode

“In future, I expect that everybody will have climate resilience and climate mitigation as part of their roles” – Penny Joseph is the Head of Climate Resilience at major Australian electricity provider Ausgrid, but when she began her career, this type of role didn’t exist.

As the climate heats up and more industries are feeling the effects of changing weather, Penny explains to The Business Of host Dr Juliet Bourke that roles like hers will become the norm. 

So how are the leaders of tomorrow learning the necessary skills to thrive in a climate-changed world – like keeping a team motivated to achieve long-term goals as we transition to a more resilient future? Professor Frederik Anseel shares his insights on “the progress principle” with structure to keep your team focused on the goal. 

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Penny Joseph: I expect that everybody will have climate resilience, climate mitigation as part of their role. Some people need to be experts. But sometimes we need people that just go, Okay, no, the business case doesn’t have a climate resilience contribution, we need to have the step that just allows them to say no, go back and do a bit more work. I think in the future, everyone will be playing a part if they’re not already.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Penny Joseph is the Head of Climate Resilience at the major electricity distributor Ausgrid. Her current job title didn’t even exist when she entered the workforce. So how did Penny build the skill set to be a climate leader in an industry at the coalface of managing climate change? I’m Dr. Juliet Bourke, and this is The Business Of, a podcast from the University of New South Wales Business School. Adapting to climate change as a top priority for most industries today, and that means new roles are being introduced all the time. In practice, workers and leaders are combining their existing skills with a whole range of new ones, most of which they’ll have to learn on the fly. So what does work look like Penny? And what can she teach us about creating huge change and a long-standing industry like the energy sector? And what does true climate resilience look like in a business?

Penny Joseph: Resilience means to me that we’ve thought through the risks of the future and have strategies in place that allow us to be prepared for that. So there’s two aspects, one is dealing with the question of risk, which is thinking about, you know, what are the things that are likely to impact us and then what would be the consequence of those things. But I like to go further when I think about the question of resilience, because resilience is also being prepared for things you might not know about or might not expect to happen. And so one of the things that I like to do is to make sure that we’ve got lots of options available so that if things hit you in a way that you didn’t expect that you’ve got multiple pathways that you can decide to go down.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Someone once described options to me as having a full menu, as opposed to a sort of curated degustation menu, you know, where your options are already within a limited bound. How do you think about options? How do you imagine the future and so many options?

Penny Joseph: So, some decisions that you make open up more options, and some decisions that you make close down options, so like, you know, that way, you’re on this pathway forevermore. So if you can make decisions that open up options, then you know, in the future, when things change, or things didn’t work out exactly like you planned, then you know, you’ve got lots of options in terms of the way that you might progress. It’s not dissimilar to deciding on a career path, for example, you know, my daughter is going through choosing a career at the moment, and you think, you know, some choices will lock you into particular pathways and some choices will, you know, enable you to be sort of very open to a lot of opportunities. And so it’s similar to that, in doing that, you know, like a business sense.

Dr Juliet Bourke: So let’s just bring that down to what does that look like a day in the life of Penny Joseph, how do you bring that down to Tuesday?

Penny Joseph: Well, at the moment, we are working through a regulatory proposal. So the electricity industry is regulated by the Australian energy regulator. And so at the moment we’re planning, our five years, I’ll be shown that we’ll put as a proposal for the regulator. So this week, I’ve got three rounds of community engagements happening, to understand the goals of the community. But also, we’ll be working with climate risk experts. So today, I’ll be working with an organisation that’s helping us through the climate risks. And for us those risks I most particularly up in the Hunter Valley, which fire and particularly wind storms on the in the coastal areas, because they, you know, cause the infrastructure to be impacted. So we’ll be working, you know, this week with climate experts, and then obviously, engineering experts. So how do you take that risk view? And then sort of bring it back to what does that mean for the infrastructure? What does it mean for prudent investment? And then, of course, thinking about today, also working with economists. So you know, how do you build business cases for that in a way that you can demonstrate that the investment is prudent use of billpayers' money?

Dr Juliet Bourke: So you talked before Penny about stakeholder engagement and I’m wondering how do you bring people to the table, and then when they’re at the table, align them as obviously people have very different interests and very different perspectives. If, as you say, there are many different options to create resilience, how do you do that?

Penny Joseph: Great question. In terms of the ecosystem for resilience, it’s actually really quite well established. And so you have the traditional sort of emergency services that have their collaborations. And then you have a lot of emerging collaborations. So there’s a lot of people that play the curator of those. So, for example, the Committee for Sydney is bringing in a whole lot of collaborations to solve some problems. There’s an urban heat Taskforce, that’s, you know, bringing together people to look at the urban heat problem. And so, sometimes I think, actually, we’re not sure of collaborations, we sometimes may need a collaborator to collaborate the collaborators. But it’s very helpful. Because I think the thing is that people are wanting to solve problems, and the people that come into the resilience space, they tend to be very community-minded. Where it gets challenging is that people have, they’re coming to the table with a different set of expectations. They’re coming with different sets of resources. And sometimes regulations that impact the way or the role that they can contribute. We need to be able to work collectively, through those issues so that you can get solutions that work for everybody.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Well, that sounds like a challenge. Actually, to me, that doesn’t sound like all sort of roses and sunshine. So how do you approach something like that? It’s very ambiguous. And I know you’ve got a policy framework around it, but a pragmatic mindset, but what’s your step to sort of moving the beast along?

Penny Joseph: Yeah, the path, I think that’s really important point is that sometimes you’re not necessarily trying to solve the problem completely, but just to move it forward. And so one of the things that we are able to do is to really understand the data that can allow you to articulate the role that you can play or the impacts that you are going to have, for example, a topic like heat, it’s like, what is the impact that heat is going to have on us? What’s the impact that the heat is going to have on customers, what’s the role, but they’re expecting us to play or the regulatory frameworks expecting us to play in that type of scenario? And so if you can gather the data of, you know, understanding what are those impacts, then you can start to create a much better economic case for being able to kind of move the dial. And also, obviously, you can experiment and you know, you can find methods that work. But also, if you’ve got sort of the abundance case behind you, then you can, you know, sort of challenge manufacturers or you can challenge the supply chain to sort of come on board with what it is that you’re trying to do. But it’s hard, because often, you need to make decisions in a timeframe where you haven’t received all of that data. And so you really do need to be able to also assess, what’s the kind of best thing given the information that I have? And I think the best leaders making good decisions with incomplete information.

Dr Juliet Bourke: What are the big challenges that you’re facing?

Penny Joseph: One of the challenges is aligning timeframes. And so what I mean by that is a whole lot of evidence that you’re trying to produce, you have a whole lot of community sentiment that you’re trying to garner. But having to do that in the milestones of like the regulatory process. So what that means is for us is that when we go through the regulatory process, we were sort of putting a proposal for five years. And so you really need to be quite planned about the things that you’re trying to achieve in the five-year interval. So there’s really good reasons for that. And that’s worked really well in the past. But what I would like to be able to establishes conditions that enable us to be more adaptive. So you know, that as new information comes on board, that we’re able to sort of, you know, respond to those changing items and be able to change and adapt the strategies that we have, as you know, potential solutions become more informed with information. So that’s one of the things that I’m trying to produce is processes that allow us to be more adaptive in the approach that we take.

Dr Juliet Bourke: And I imagine adaptation is a key principle of resilience. Right? So you’re sort of building in resilience to your own processes.

Penny Joseph: Yes, that well, that’s right, because you should be able to think, Okay, well, this is a great solution. You know, I’m thinking that This is going to be really effective. But, you know, if you started down that pathway and you had a big event and it didn’t work, or the community didn’t like it anymore, then you should be able to sort of take that new information and respond to it. And, you know, keep going, you know, you might, you might strengthen the same solution, or you might decide to do something quite differently. Or you might decide to do more of it, perhaps it works really well. So you just need to build in the assurance processes that allow you to take stock and make good informed decisions.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Either way, you keep bringing me back to this, don’t you? I keep on catastrophising and, and you’re like, No, it’s just a simple step. You know, you’ve got your Gantt chart, you’re moving in that direction, your day, is that right?

Penny Joseph: Yeah. 100 per cent Yeah. And, you know, if people listeners taking on other projects, you know, I’m sure everyone’s got projects on, then the climate change, you know, Resilience Project is no different. Like, if they can just think about taking a step and putting a time bound on that step, then that’s fabulous. Everyone will be doing something.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Do you talk to or bring in from the outside to help you, you mentioned a number of experts. Before that you consult with? Do you have some go to people yourself? I know you said there are some well-trodden paths here.

Penny Joseph: Yes. So, of course, this is a multidisciplinary domain. And so, you know, you’ve got the aspects of, you know, climate science, I’ve needed to develop, you know, good understanding of that, had a number of people helped me do that. The science team at University of New South Wales have been, you know, really helpful in, in helping me develop that expertise. But also, you know, a number of people across the industry, I’ve had mentors in the emergency management space. I’ve had a lot of people that have helped me understand community engagement. And, you know, how do you have good community programmes? I think the important thing is to have or to be getting views from quite a large number of places. I have people that influenced my thinking that, you know, might even be climate change deniers. Because you understand like, what why are you thinking that way? Like what, you know, what makes you think that way? And it helps you understand the problems from all different kinds of perspectives.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Yeah, I like your response there to sort of have everyone seated at the table. So you don’t have an echo chamber. So how will we know when we get there? Is there an endpoint to climate resilience is? Or is this an ongoing thing?

Penny Joseph: There’s no doubt that this is going to be an ongoing challenge. I mean, look, is if we were able to stabilise the climate. And that’s not just about resilience, but about the mitigation of resilience, then we would know we’d get there, we’ve been talking about like the resilience question today. But you know, the mitigation and the creating the more stable environmental and more stable climate for the future, is really important. And I think when we are creating solutions that are doing both of those things, then that’s really important. And that’s one of the things I really love about working at Ausgrid is that we have such a role to play in mitigating climate change, we have the opportunity to be helping the community electrify reduce their carbon emissions, but also thinking about the resilience question. So tackling the problem from both angles, so that you can cry and create stability in the system is, I suppose, when you know that you get there when those three things equal and balance out.

Dr Juliet Bourke: So this is a long-term transition for Ausgrid. How do you keep people focused on that task? How do you not just focus but motivated, energised?

Penny Joseph: So with my team, I have a multidisciplinary team. And so you know, have community engagement, people have technical people, but very importantly, I have a project manager. And I think that skill set is something that’s often overlooked in the climate space. But you know, having someone that’s, you know, here’s the milestone you know, where are we where do we need to be this week? Where do we need to be this hour? Where do we need to be by the end of today, or by the end of three months' time and, and sort of really calling out ‘Well, if we don’t get this thing done today, we’re not going to be there in you know, three months time’, I think, is a really helpful aspect. And I think it’s a really important skill to have, when you’re dealing with like a lot of scientists and engineers who he can get really caught up in the problem. And that’s a great thing, because, you know, we need people thinking fully about the problem, but also being practical about implementing and moving forward and knowing that and being very clear and explicit about that. So, for people out there, I’d really encourage you to make sure you have a project manager on your team.

Dr Juliet Bourke: How would you describe the call that you need to make these long-term transitions. Yes. And then how do you embed it so that when an individual leaves, the culture remains as it is?

Penny Joseph: We’re really fortunate that we have a very sort of level-headed culture. So it’s an organisation full of, you know, people that think quite, you know, quite systemically, they they’re very sensible thinkers. And so it’s quite an easy set of conditions to actually be very planned in the way you step through the different things that you need to do. So it’s a really helpful culture that we have. I think the second part of the question that you’ve asked is an important one. Because how do you build your own team resilience and one of the points that is something that I’m really focused on, because when you’re working in a climate change adaptation team, you can be a very small team. And so if you hold the information tightly within your team, then if somebody leaves, then you know, you’re at risk of losing that information. But what is a better thing to do is if you can work through others in the organisation to, you know, to really be able to bring them on board and make the climate resilience part of everybody’s job. So one of the challenges for me is working out, when you’re starting to progress, are you starting to implement something new, when’s the right time to actually put that into your business as usual process. Because if you can put it into a business-as-usual process, then it will just turn along by itself. Now, if you do that too early, then it’s probably going to fall over. Because it’s not quite ready to go into a business-as-usual process. But if you do it too late, then what you’re actually doing is taking up your time doing something that could be done by others. So you’re not allowing the team enough room to take on the next thing. So that’s, I think, really important thing is how do you actually make climate change resilience, like the whole organisation’s job and responsibility? And, you know, we’re really lucky, it was great in terms of the way that process is set up. And we’ll certainly as we go forward this year, be learning a lot from the way that they do innovation projects, because they’re quite good at actually moving them on to business-as-usual business processes.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Have you got any tips around that? Because I think that’s a general thing that lots of leaders face, right? When do I move into a BAU out of a sort of specialist niche?

Penny Joseph: It’s a challenge, right? Because you start something new becomes a little baby. And I like to think about it as being just like raising a child like it becomes your baby. But at some point, you’ve got to let it go to preschool at some point, you need to let it go to primary school. And sometimes it needs to actually move out of your house, you know, I think is if you’re thinking about that, at the beginning, is that your goal is to actually allow your baby to become an adult, then you set up the conditions for success. Whereas if you think about it, as this thing being, you know, something I you know, love and I enjoy, then you’re probably going to be doing it forever. And so I think just being really purposeful about that at the beginning, and helped by a project manager, that you know, will put those phases into the project plan, I think is important.

Dr Juliet Bourke: So everything you’ve said, so far, Penny has made me feel very comfortable. And I’m feeling very safe, that we’re in good hands. But I do know that most long-term projects seem to fail. So how are we going to make sure that this one succeeds?

Penny Joseph: Yeah, I don’t know whether failing is the enemy here. Or whether it’s doing nothing. Like if you do nothing, then, you know, that’s also a problem. So I think people can stop moving forward, because they don’t have all the information that, you know, they required to make a decision. And that’s not going to be good enough for the future. With failing, it’s more a matter of failing quickly. You know, if you put in a solution, you know, you test it, you prototype it, and it doesn’t work, that’s okay. Because you need to learn from it and continue to evolve. And so that’s why, you know, I was mentioning earlier about the process of like being adaptive, and putting in in place the checks that allow you to kind of evaluate whether solutions worked or didn’t work and being able to respond to that, because then you’ll be continuing to move forward.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Let’s just go to I want to round this out with just a little bit more about you and this role, head of climate resilience, I don’t know 10 years ago, if we would have had a role like that. Would you agree that without a starting assumption?

Penny Joseph: I think a majority of organisations would not like 10 years ago, maybe you know, five years ago, people were starting to put in place those types of roles. Yeah.

Dr Juliet Bourke: All right. So if we’re on the same page, this is an evolving area, and you’re at the cutting edge of it. What are your predictions for the future? What are the kinds of roles that we can expect to see in organisations?

Penny Joseph: Yeah, look, I expect that everybody will have climate resilience, climate mitigation as part of their roles, like we’ve already talked about the ways that that, you know, and the different contributors that we need to make your to have to solve the problem. So, you know, I think the job that I have is to be able to build the literacy of lots and lots of people. And I think that’s the opportunity for organisations like, you know, AGSM, and, you know, some people need to be experts in, you know, in climate science, and we need those people who, you know, really into the detail, but sometimes we need, you know, people that just go okay, no, the business case doesn’t have a climate resilience contribution. So you know, go back and work, that’s what I need to know, they need to have the step that just allows them to say, no, go back and do a bit more work. And so different people are playing different, you know, having different contributions. But I think in the future, a role like mine is about facilitating that. But everyone will be playing a part if they’re not already.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Imagining that some listeners are just sort of embarking on this journey, and there’s some stuff that just isn’t written down, but you know, it now, what are those tacit truths for you?

Penny Joseph: Yeah, when I first started working in the climate science space, I thought that I needed to you know, have a PhD in science to be able, you know, to do my type of role. And coming forward a few years, I absolutely have probably more respect than I ever had, at that time for the role that the scientists and or the PhDs and, you know, that community do because it’s really invaluable. But being forward a few years, I also understand that there is value in understanding the business problem. So if you only had the science, you wouldn’t understand the business problem. You know, how to manage IT infrastructure? Or how do you manage a network of infrastructure? And so, you know, it’s really like the competence of thinking that actually, there’s not an expert out there that actually understands this whole problem from the perspective that I have. So I can’t defer a decision, or I can’t defer for one set of guidance from one of these groups. And actually, it’s only the organisation that’s bringing all of those pieces together, all of the different people that can guide you or provide you advice. That would be the encouragement that I would give.

Dr Juliet Bourke: So your role is really like an integrator?

Penny Joseph: Yeah, to bring together all the different perspectives and in the community’s perspectives and values as well, right. Because different people and different places, they want different things for resilience. And so you got to bring all of those viewpoints, the risk tolerance of the board, and all of those in order to make your plan. It’s not just one entry point.

Dr Juliet Bourke: Businesses need to make big, long-lasting adjustments to adapt to climate change. For Penny, it’s about undertaking a huge project, one step at a time. But how do you keep a big team focused on the same goal for such a long time, Professor Frederik Anseel believes the psychology of motivation will help leaders succeed. Professor Anseel is the UNSW Business School’s Senior Deputy Dean. And he’s here to give you an insight into how the research going on at UNSW is influencing business practice in real-time. But he’s also a specialist in organisational psychology himself. And he studies how people in business adapt to change.

Professor Frederik Anseel: If you want to tackle these big hairy problems, that is not something that you will be able to solve in a couple of months or even a couple of years. So here’s the challenge for any business leader. So you want to go for the big idea you want to go for the big problem. But that is probably a decade or more that it will take to get there. And so you want to have your whole company all these teams focused on this big problem. But a lot happens along the way. Right? And so how do you keep people motivated working towards that long goal? And so there is some research on how you keep people focused. Let’s try to unpack that a bit. What would play a role? Let’s first talk about purposeful leadership. And so that is almost the easy one. because if you’re tackling this big ID, that is extremely motivating purpose and people who have a higher purpose. That is their why question, why am I doing this? Why am I getting up every day in the morning, even when I don’t feel like it? Even when I had a rough night? Why am I getting up, because there’s this big purpose, right, I’m basically I’m gonna save the world, it is climate change, it could be solving inequality. Now, the problem here is with purpose is that a lot of companies have discovered the motivating power of purpose. And now every single company is adopting a big purpose, a higher purpose as the motivational strategy. And that undermines it, because it’s no longer credible. If everyone is doing it, it is no longer motivating. And so what I would say is, if you’re trying to adopt this strategy, you better make sure that there’s not lip service, that you’re really working towards this bigger goal. And that is very clear to any employee, any team member in the company, how they are contributing to that bigger goal. And so what we see is basically, purposeful leadership only works if there is absolute clarity at all levels, how everyone is contributing to that goal. And so you need to make it concrete, right, you need to have break it down in small steps. And it needs to be very visible.

Another attribute characteristic of those leaders is that they understand what deep down sort of makes people tick. And it’s something that is not well understood. And I’m always surprised by that. But it is called what one of my Harvard colleagues are called the progress principle. So especially if you’re on a long-term trajectory, what motivates people is the feeling of making progress towards that ultimate goal. And a lot of leaders forget about that. So they focus on the day-to-day things, and they can get stuck into detail. And what happens is that people no longer feel that they’re making progress. And so the progress principle basically states that if you can make sure that people every day, or every week or every month, feel that they have made clear, tangible progress towards a goal, that will be extremely motivating.

A third strategy is thinking about, if you’re working towards this big hairy problem, solutions will be messy. Often the problem is messy, ill-defined. And so here’s a tricky one. We often say that we like innovation, and we’re out there to find solutions, and that we want to experiment. And while we all say that, actually all the research shows that people have an implicit and unconscious bias against novelty, against creativity, we like solutions or ideas that are sort of middle of the road. But if you kill ideas before you’ve even tested them, or explored them, or examined them, there might be risk that you’re missing out on that one solution that is able to solve a problem. And so you need to create a culture that is open to novelty, that is open to risk-taking. The challenge here for leaders is to create a culture where people are willing to postpone judgement, right. And that is something that often is called psychological safety. That means that people feel free to speak up to come up with ideas, crazy ideas, because they know that there will be no interpersonal consequences, they will not be made fun of they will not be fired, they will not lose out on a great career if they come up with this crazy idea. And so from a psychological perspective, that is probably one of the most challenging things for leaders to do is create that environment, that climate of psychological safety, where people feel free to speak up and come up with crazy ideas.

Dr Juliet Bourke: If you’re working on a big audacious goal, like Penny at Ausgrid, keep that purpose front of mind. And if you’re leading a team, make sure your purpose is clear and authentic so that other people share your vision and are compelled to stick to it for the long haul. As a business leader, this starts with fostering that psychologically safe environment, where a diverse group of thinkers can share their most creative and innovative ideas without fear. And even if the ideas fail, remember Penny's words of wisdom. It all comes down to basic project management.

The Business Of podcast is brought to you by the University of New South Wales Business School, produced with Deadset Studios. To stay up-to-date with our latest podcasts, as well as the latest insights and thought leadership from the Business School, subscribe to BusinessThink.


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