The world has changed. As an engineer, I remember when engineering was the hard stuff. Now, when I look at major projects, the engineering is rarely the greatest hurdle a project has to overcome. The hard stuff is getting rate payers to accept the rate increases needed to maintain and build new infrastructure. Getting the buy-in of neighbors affected by projects that may not benefit them. Addressing impacts to our natural resources in a way that maintains affordability. Balancing the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow.
The challenges of today are distinctly different from those of the past:
- Our challenges are multi-faceted – there is no one person with the expertise to address these challenges. The list of needed expertise is long: engineering (we are still on the list!), community engagement, public affairs, environmental science, asset management, risk analysis, sustainability, and on and on.
- The boundaries around our problems are getting fuzzy – The public wants public agencies to work together and develop projects that meet multiple needs. This is not just a matter of “What’s in it for me?” It’s a growing recognition that multi-benefit projects represent the greatest overall value to the community for their investment dollars. Especially as engineers, our nature is to put a hard boundary around a project, clearly delineating what is in and what is out. We need to see projects with new eyes, seeing how they interconnect with the community and the world.
- We cannot face our challenges in isolation – Total demands on our water resources and our funding are outstripping supply. This is driving the integrated, one water approach bringing together water, wastewater, and surface water. It is also driving our integration with agencies and interests we may not have interfaced with in the past. We are now living in a world of complex partnerships and decision making structures, and the path forward is much less linear.
All of these challenges demand more than just individual innovation. Meeting challenges now requires the synthesis of many ideas and perspectives into solutions that no single individual could have developed. The challenges of today demand diversity. Diversity of thinking, diversity of expertise, diversity of background, diversity of relationships. Organizations that are able to harness diversity, to synthesize rather than homogenize, will have a distinct competitive advantage in the future.
One misconception about diversity is that diversity is just about getting more women and people of color into leadership roles. The misconception is that we can achieve diversity without transforming our organizations, without transforming our thinking. This fallacy is one of the reasons why we haven’t seen more progress in diversity in the leadership of our organizations.
A diverse organization is one where many voices can be heard. Where people are open to new ideas, no matter where they come from in the hierarchy. Where people are willing to put in the effort to challenge their own thinking. Where leaders are harnessing the ideas and vision of the whole organization. Where everyone is accountable for fully taking their seat at the table. Where bringing the full breadth of one’s experience and thinking to work is not just tolerated, it’s a core part of the organization’s success.
The characteristics of a diverse organization are the same characteristics we need to face the challenges of today. We need to change our organizations and change our thinking. As stewards of our precious water resources, it is not only the right thing to do, it is the necessary thing to do.
Nicki Pozos, PE, PhD, CWRE