How we embraced ambiguity to address the complexity of autonomous vehicle implementation in Australia

You may have seen Tesla’s automatic drive demo way back in 2016, heard news of Audi’s autonomous-drive A8, or seen the [somewhat more utilitarian] trial shuttle at Sydney’s Olympic Park or the dozens of other locations around the globe – but have you ever stopped to think about what would need to happen for driverless cars to operate on our roads?

I hadn’t. Until I was asked to design and facilitate a session aimed at identifying key projects that would accelerate implementation of autonomous vehicles on Australian roads.

“What we thought was decades away is actually here now..” – workshop participant

Early conversations with the sponsoring team quickly suggested this was no ordinary business or government challenge. Often collaborative partnerships can involve 2 to 5 organisations but our invite list quickly inflated to 100 people representing more than 50 organisations. Ultimately we did strip this back to 40 people representing 30 organisations..

Add to this the fact that there wasn’t one organisation in the mix that had a solid understanding of the existing development landscape or the solution to this challenge – this would be what we were here to solve.

When you start to unravel the enablers to autonomous vehicles you realise it immediately goes beyond the obvious – auto manufacturers, and there’s plenty of them moving in this direction – you need communications for the vehicles to access and share information (well beyond GPS), hardware and software for both on-vehicle and road technology, mapping and other data platforms, government (policy makers, transport agencies, councils, law enforcement..), insurers, industry bodies, road user groups and community organisations.. the list goes on.

As a collaboration designer, this was getting exciting – we would have to create the right conditions for 30 different organisations to spend only one day together, and to come out of the room with a handful of projects that would put us on the [accelerated] pathway to autonomous vehicles operating on our roads.

How do you drive outcomes quickly in an environment of so much uncertainty?

As our thinking developed we landed on two core components of the day:

Getting to know who was in the room including their contribution and interest in the autonomous vehicle landscape, and

Identifying challenges and opportunities that would need to be addressed to enable automation on Australian roads including who would need to be involved.

The first activity for the day was to build a timeline, we decided the most useful timespan would be 2 years back (to capture what has been achieved and our current position) and 5 years forward (to capture the known future).

Leading into the event participants were sent examples of what we were looking to capture on the timeline and invited to send material through to be pre-staged, otherwise, it would be built in real-time when they arrived – which was how it mostly played out. On the day everyone had 30 minutes to capture their knowledge on our wall before each person spoke through their contributions. Once we had heard from everyone we opened a group conversation on key insights, concerns, and questions.

After a total of 90 minutes, we had 40 people in the room with a solid shared understanding of the autonomous vehicle landscape.

Next on the agenda was Open Space, a brilliant method to apply when you have a diverse group of people who need to deal with complex, potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways – no one has the answer.

Open Space allows a facilitator to create a structure in which the participants in the room utilise to drive the agenda. We allocated 3 hours of the day for Open Space and the group used every minute of it to have relevant and impactful conversations.

Topics that landed on the agenda included ‘digital connectivity and infrastructure’, ‘relationships with autonomous vehicle vendors’, ‘consumer acceptance’, ‘data sharing’, ‘trials’, ‘legislation’ and ‘regulation’, among others.

Once all of the ‘topics’ were on the Market Place the group entered negotiations over sequence and duration, then went to work.

After 3 hours of Open Space the entire group came back together to share key points before entering a facilitated conversation that would identify the key initiatives that this collective would need to work together on moving forward.

Once initiatives were identified, teams formed and their final assignment was to develop a high-level scope of the initiative including who would need to be involved and key next steps.

Each team shared what they had come up with and that concluded the session.

Our sponsoring team walked out of the room with some well-developed initiatives and a significant volume of other ideas they could bring together and pursue. Participants left the room energised by the whole experience, a broader understanding of the stakeholders involved and a deeper appreciation for the path ahead including their contribution.

Both the Timeline and Open Space were powerful and effective tools that aided this group to achieve a great deal in a matter of hours. While we had primed every one of the intentions of these activities leading into the event what makes these activities a success is not necessarily preparation but rather having the right people in the room, and having a clear objective for their time together. These two components provide the intellectual horsepower and clarity of focus.

If you gained something from this article please comment and share, below I’ve included more detail about the process behind these methods for those who are interested.

And if you haven’t yet seen the video about this event – check it out: https://vimeo.com/246908593/cf02df7b7b

Let’s accelerate your success,

Nicolas

Timeline Process

The process for Timeline is quite simple, but the outcomes you can achieve through it can be remarkable.

All you need to a visual representation of a timeline using a butchers paper or a simply a wall marked out by A4 paper for the years, and sticky notes and pens to capture content on the timeline.

Then start by setting the focus and intention for the timeline with your group of contributors, spend time individually capturing your perspectives and then talk through as a group. After sharing begin to test the timeline for relationships between content and capture additional items along with emerging insights as you discuss the timeline more.

Sometimes the timeline will be useful in isolation, i.e. the point of the exercise is to develop shared understanding and collective insights, and other times you can leverage it as a continually evolving visual representation, identifying focus areas for work and layering outcomes from the work back onto the wall.

As another example of timeline use Martina and I had experienced a powerful exercise with a small group of people early last year. The intent was to explore the future of civilisation in 100 years time – 2117.

We started the exercise by identifying what we thought were the significant elements of society today, allowing the group to go wherever they felt.. dimensions included political, spiritual, social, environmental, technological, commercial.. to name a few.

The group was then asked to identify the historical events that made these elements possible today, going back in time as far as they could whether it was hundreds of

years, to the origins of our species, perhaps to the Big Bang!

The exercise to this point has allowed the group to identify patterns in time. This typically allows people to see how superficially isolated events can have implications on a far broader scale, for example how a deep human need to belong paves the way for spiritual leaders that connect humanity well beyond the hunter-gatherer tribe.

From this springboard of ‘patterns in time’ we then asked the group to “leap into the future – 100 years” and to describe what civilisation looks like in that time. Once they had captured the identifying elements of 2117 they then moved to capture and discuss the events that would happen throughout the next 100 years which lead to that possible future.

While this was a time period well beyond the necessity of most applications, the same process can be applied to timeline anywhere from 2 years to 2,000 years or beyond. Choosing your relevant year should be based on how much of a mental leap you need to take and how much you need to remove your participants from constrained thinking.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences of using timelines.

Open Space Process

There are some basic but very useful principles to follow in Open Space, they are:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people (remember the self-assigning process.. you have to recognise that others either may not be interested in the topic you want to discuss or may not prioritise it),
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have,
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time, and
  4. When it’s over it’s over.

AND an all-important ‘Law of Two Feet’ which states that “if at any point you find yourself in a situation which you I are neither learning nor contributing, then use your two feet to take you somewhere you can be more productive”. Isn’t this a brilliant rule.. perhaps we should apply it more in our everyday.

Additionally, Open Space acknowledges 2 types of people, butterflies and bees. Butterflies are those who don’t actually want to engage in anything, they’re more likely to be found sitting by the pool. Butterflies contribute in their own way; often people will find them and draw on their insight. Bees are those who don’t want to commit to any one thing, they’d rather go from group to group, listening and adding their own contribution or sharing the discussions of other groups, they are useful pollinators. Do you identify with either of these? No doubt you know some who do.

The 2 structural mechanisms for Open Space are:

  1. The Market Place – a visual agenda where individuals post ‘topics’, these could include presentations, conversations or particular work; anyone who is interested can ‘sign up’ to join in on the topic.
  2. The Bulletin Board – a space for communication of key points or outcomes from each of the ‘topics’.

After introducing the Market Place and providing templates the facilitator hands over to the group to capture their topics and negotiate duration and sequence. Following negotiation the groups head out to into the space to explore their topics and as each topic is closed they post their summary on the Bulletin Board.

The role of the facilitator throughout the period of Open Space is not to drive the work but to be present and available to support the group in whatever way they require. Typically the facilitator will provide time checks through the use of a bell or other sound that subtly signals to the collective how they are progressing against the agreed agenda.

In our example we used Open Space for 3 hours of the day however this can be used as the primary format for a workshop lasting one or multiple days. At the conclusion of each day of Open Space the group should come together and share key insights and outcomes.

I would love to hear how you’ve used Open Space or other similar methods of facilitation.