FPM: How does Watershed Partners differ from other workplace consultants?
van Toorn: We help clients with large organizational change, dealing with complexity is where we came into the world, and we use collaborative design, a methodology that was largely founded out of Palo Alto in the 1980s and ’90s, but has its roots in systems theory. Collaborative design is making sure that ownership of the problem and ownership of the task at hand is defined across all agents in all the organizations involved, so that everybody understands that it’s not someone else’s problem, so that accountability exists across all parties. No one can go blame another for it not working out.
FPM: Why do companies need help solving problems?
van Toorn: People need to be out of an environment that connects them to past behaviours or past language. We want to change the problem, but we never change the environment we’re working on, so very rarely does the problem change. When you reset the environment, you reset the context, so the likelihood to commit to a different way of working is there. But they need to practise that when they go back to their environment. If it just stops at this sessional engagement, it’s a problem.
FPM: What happens during a session?
van Toorn: In many respects, we put you on a bit of a learning curve. You work in workshop environments for days, sometimes for weeks, and you will work with a very diverse group of people in your organization that you never thought you would actually feel you had to work with to solve the problem. A lot of people say, “We don’t want any more than seven people involved.” But what people are surprised about, and we have a track record of this, is that we can solve a problem with 100, 200, 500 people in the room. The type of solutions that come out of large group collaborations are the kind of solutions that don’t result in just a new product or a new plan, but a whole new way of working. People realize that everything they have been building is wrong, because they don’t make the kinds of decisions they should be making as an organization.
FPM: You put hundreds of people in a room to solve a problem. Who gets in?
van Toorn: It’s not the people going to cocktail parties and playing golf who have the best networks. We use social network analysis tools to identify the quieter, more subtle, more low-key people who are building really competent networks within the organization to share information effectively, to move ideas from one end of the ship to the other. Bringing those people in improves ownership, so the organization doesn’t just have a problem solved, the organization has built a problem-solving capability.
FPM: How did you get into surfing?
van Toorn: I had been a marathon runner and I was struggling physically with the work. As a teenager I was a watersports guy because I was brought up in Australia, but six years ago, as a result of a project I was doing in Hawaii, I met a couple of amazing people, including a Hawaiian elder who was a lifelong surfer, and I just said I cannot believe I’m not doing this on the West Coast. I turned around, got a paddle surfboard and became obsessed with it.
FPM: What do you get out of surfing?
van Toorn: The biggest thing I get out of it is that having a relationship with the ocean is a very humbling, but very meaningful life practice. There’s a strong sense of accountability and ownership in surfing that it is up to you and your own performance and mindset to get through what you’re about to go through.
FPM: What if the surf isn’t up?
van Toorn: The philosophy of a waterman is not to have mastery over one sport, it’s to have mastery over many. When I go surfing, I bring a flat water race board with me so if the surf’s not up, I go explore the coastline. When the surf’s up, I get on a short ripper board and I carve it. If it’s a bigger wave day, I’ll take out a bigger wave board. The relationship is not necessarily with a wave, the relationship is with the ocean and how dynamic the ocean is and how it is so completely unpredictable. It can take everything away immediately.
FPM: Any close calls?
van Toorn: I have been in that situation where I had to be rescued. I misunderstood my relationship with the ocean one day and I got caught out in a storm. I had a rip in my dry suit that I didn’t realize and I was letting water in without knowing it. I ended up losing motor function as a result of hypothermia kicking in. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be near someone who was able to make a call and get me out of the water as quickly as possible.
FPM: What wave would be the ultimate to surf?
van Toorn: There will be a time and there will be a place where I have hopefully earned the right to surf a wave in Tahiti called Teahupo’o. It is called the heaviest wave in the world, because it comes down on you with such force. I have yet to feel I have earned the right to be there, but there will be a day.