The Solutionists, with Mark Scott

Episode 3 transcript and episode notes

Episode 3: This is the room where it happens – How leaders unlock the power of collaboration, from the Thai cave rescue to leading a minority government

In the dark of night, through the mud and the monsoon rain, Richard Harris and a group of cave divers band together for a risky mission to rescue a group of boys from a flooded cave in Thailand.

Her country split down the middle, Julia Gillard negotiates for 17 agonising days to win the support of crossbench politicians and become Australia’s first female prime minister.

To achieve big and lasting change, people need to find a way to speak across lines of difference and work together for a common goal.

But in a world of increasing polarisation, how you do bridge those divides?

Dr Kate Harrison Brennan is the director of the Sydney Policy Lab and a University of Sydney alumna. Her work brings people together to collaborate on solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time.

She shares practical ways to bring people together – be it at work, at home, or in the public policy sphere.

And Dr Richard Harris reflects on what the Thai cave rescue taught him about teamwork and trust.

To find out more about Dr Kate Harrison Brennan’s work visit the website of the Sydney Policy Lab.

Dr Richard Harris’s book is called The Art of Risk: What we can learn from the world’s leading risk-takers.

Mark Scott 00:01

This podcast is recorded at the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus, on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. They've been discovering and sharing knowledge here for tens of thousands of years. I pay my respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Richard Harris 00:28

When I arrived on the scene, I was met with this scene of what appeared to be complete chaos. Hundreds, if not thousands of people walking around in the mud and the rain. The monsoon rains had really kicked in, and it was just a quagmire. And there's this sea of people, different uniforms, different countries, different branches of different militaries, and it was pretty overwhelming. And I started to learn more and more information that these 13 young men were trapped inside a flooded cave.

They were actually 2.4 kilometres inside the cave, and about six or seven different ‘sumps’ or dives required to get through to them. So you’d dive through the water, you'd come up into a river passage underground, and then drag your equipment through that section, and then back underwater again. And repeat until we finally surfaced in this air bell where the boys were sitting up on this muddy hill. That moment that I first met those boys I think will always stay in my mind, partly because of how extraordinarily calm and courageous and composed I think that they seemed. I was blown away by the lads, to be honest. And I think it's at that moment, you know, when you actually meet these kids and realise that they are beautiful young human beings, that's the moment when I realised that I was going to have to do something, however outrageous. As a sweeping generalization, we do seem to be living in times that are so polarised and divisive. Everyone's opinions seem to be ‘you're either with me or against me’, and there's no room for common ground. And wasn't it amazing, in the midst of these evolving times, people from all around the globe could come together and unite for this common purpose.

Mark Scott 02:32

It's still chilling hearing Australian doctor and diver Richard Harris talk about the Thai cave rescue. What an extraordinary example of collaboration. Thousands of different people working together under immense pressure and pulling off a miracle. It's hard to imagine that happening in politics these days.

Around the globe, people and nations are increasingly polarised. So how do we find consensus? How do we create big lasting change? When we're starting from so far apart?

I'm Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sydney and this is The Solutionists.

Kate Harrison Brennan is the director of the Sydney Policy Lab. She also advised the former Australian Prime Minister Julie Gilad, and she knows a thing or two about bringing opponents together. Welcome Kate

Kate Harrison Brennan 03:20

Thanks so much, Mark.

Mark Scott 03:21

So Kate, how do you bridge divides between different people?

Kate Harrison Brennan 03:26

What I saw in early days for me in politics was this ability of someone like Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. Prime Minister after having worked across some 17 days to bring people together and form government and have a deep interest in what motivates people and a willingness to actually get in the room and negotiate. And I think that that's foundational to actually be able to bring people together: a sense of ‘what is it that defines them?’ What's distinctive? And how might you find common ground between them? That's the basis of it all.

News grab 03:55

The next Prime Minister, next Labor Prime Minister, and the first female Prime Minister of this country will be Julia Gillard.

News grab, Prime Minister Julia Gillard 04:01

I pledge today my best efforts as Prime Minister, to work constructively with you and your colleagues to find common ground where we can. Let's draw back the curtains and let the sunshine in.

Mark Scott 04:15

So that's the power of the person who's trying to facilitate and bring people together. What if the people in the room don't have that respect and curiosity about each other, if they're locked into their own position?

Kate Harrison Brennan 04:28

I think there are a couple of principles that we can think about in that. One is the ability to speak across lines of difference, you've got to have a way of getting people into the room in the first place and holding them there. I think often when we focus on how you build consensus in politics or in public life, we focus too much on the common ground, rather than really being attuned to what is different and then speaking across those lines. Second is that sense of being able to speak about something that’s true, that is kind of magnetic to get those people at the table.

Mark Scott

A truth they agree about?

Kate Harrison Brennan

I don't think it has to be something that they agree about, but that they can see is true for you or for the organisation, that saying something that's true. Getting people to the table, finding out ‘how do you pose a question that's intriguing?’ How do you form up an opportunity that they don't want to miss out on, and when at the table, being able to respect those differences, but then find ways of bringing them together in often unexpected ways.

Mark Scott 05:23

We're going to come across people who we really disagree with, where there are significant lines of difference. What do we need to know to be strong in that environment and to actively engage and listen, what do we need to do?

Kate Harrison Brennan 05:37

I think it's about the ability to ask really good questions, and then to listen deeply and make sense of the answers. So I always enjoy learning from colleagues who are anthropologists in this regard, and those who are psychologists, but what I've learned from them comes down to the ability to ask open questions where you don't have a predetermined answer. It might be things like asking someone at the table: Can you tell me how you see things? And what is it about your background that leads you to see that way? Can you tell me how you expect things would turn out if we're able to work well together? Or show me what that would look like if we are able to work together successfully?

Mark Scott 06:19

It strikes me hearing you say that, that it's got to be genuine. So, this isn't kind of a toolkit that I now know ‘I've got to ask the questions’. But you've really got to be open to where those answers take you and genuinely curious and sincere, real in that engagement.

Kate Harrison Brennan 06:37

It requires us to get out of a sense of tribalism that we might have, it might be implicit in the way that we do things. We may not think, well, I'm part of this tribe or that tribe, but it's, I guess, a genuine commitment to finding something that is in common, and putting aside your assumptions about what exactly that might be.

Mark Scott 06:59

So does that mean you have to suspend a view that says you already know the answer, even though you think you already know the answer?

Kate Harrison Brennan 07:06

I think that's true. Even in relationships where we've known the person for years, it's got to come down to that interest in, ‘well help me to understand your kind of internal terrain better, help me to understand what's important to you, what the markers are, the new things that are in your landscape of how you see the world’.

Mark Scott 07:24

And what do you find hardest about doing that?

Kate Harrison Brennan 07:27

I think it's the ability to stay with it when everything is telling you to get up and leave the table.

Mark Scott 07:31

Because you're angry or frustrated or annoyed or feel like...

Kate Harrison Brennan 07:35

All those things, or just plain tired.

Mark Scott 07:37

And you often find that it takes a while and then all of a sudden, when you're listening, then you see the sliver of light. There's something that surprises you in one of those answers that you're getting, that just gives you the opportunity to press on.

Kate Harrison Brennan 07:52

I think that's right. And it's that moment where you realise, okay, even when we use the same words, you mean something different by those words. We can use the same language, have the same creed, and mean incredibly different things by the same words.

Richard Harris 08:11

Genuinely, I did not believe that any of those children could survive being anaesthetised, rendered unconscious and taken through a very difficult flooded cave for a period of three hours or more. I think the way I, you know, resolved this final moral dilemma in my mind that I might actually be euthanising these boys was: well, they're going to die anyway. Trusting other people in critical situations is an important thing. But cave divers I would say are trained to be self-sufficient before they are trained to trust, and anesthesia is a bit the same, you know, we actually have a saying in anesthesia: ‘trust, nobody, give oxygen’, as the two things to remember. So, you know, if someone passes you a drug or a syringe full of something, don't trust that they've told you it's drug A, because it might be drug B, so you check it yourself before you inject it into the patient. It's just common sense. People who are so independent and so self-sufficient sometimes don't work well in teams. And yet, in this situation, we came together and worked very cohesively, even though there are some decent egos in the room. I mean, you know, explorers as a rule are very driven people and often do have decent size egos. We were for some reason able to put all that aside and work very well together. And I think that comes back to that shared mental model, that clear goal of the lives of these 13 boys. As I say, there's nothing quite so motivating as 13 young people whose lives are in great peril to bring people together to work as a great team.

Mark Scott 09:48

We're hearing about the importance of trust during the Thai cave rescue. And on trust, an annual survey called the Edelman Trust Barometer this year found that three quarters of Australians would not help someone in need if they strongly disagreed on a societal issue. Does that surprise you?

Kate Harrison Brennan 10:07

Sadly, that result doesn't surprise me because I think that we can be incredibly reactive towards one another's differences, and as soon as we think that somebody holds a position that's different from ours, our sense of trust can go down. But in terms of building consensus, what can be most relevant actually is thinking about how do we, as leaders or actors in society, do things that are trustworthy? And in that sense, I'm really compelled by the research with someone like Rachel Botsman, who's talked about [the fact that] the focus should really be on acts of trustworthiness, and leaving the fact of whether trust is built to the other parties. And so I think that’s what we can focus on: how do we do things that tell others that we're trustworthy? And let them form a view of it?

Mark Scott 10:50

Yeah, I often think this about leadership. We focus a lot on leaders, but the power is actually with the followers. And the question is often well, why would anyone want to follow you? What is there about how you lead and how you operate that would generate that confidence in other people to follow you? What are some practical examples of demonstrating trustworthiness do you think?

Kate Harrison Brennan 11:11

Doing as you say you'll do is the most practical one, building little moments where someone can test out or use someone who will hold them in high regard, respect them, and then following through. So it's often the hypocrisy test that's kind of framed negatively as what people are putting on you. And so that can be a very practical way in which leaders can think about little things in the everyday that demonstrate respect and integrity. That will build trust.

Mark Scott 11:44

Kate, in your work now you bring people together to come up with creative policy solutions to the most complex issues that we face. Can you give me an example?

Kate Harrison Brennan 11:53

At the Sydney Policy Lab, a multidisciplinary institute at the university, we're committed to exploring what this looks like for the university to be a key forum in which these very difficult conversations can be had, where communities can lead conversations about things that really matter to them, where there are great elements of difference and where academic expertise can support communities to deliberate over those differences. I guess one of the ways in which we're seeing that currently is in our Australia Cares project, and that's really coming out of these years of the pandemic, where we've seen successive crises in care, layered upon enduring systemic failures in how we provide care to one another in society. And so working in specific communities where the university has a presence - like in Broken Hill, Far West New South Wales, Westmead, in Western Sydney - we’re supporting communities there to come together, hold people’s assemblies on care, set their own agenda for the issues that they want to talk about, and actually develop new policy ideas of how to address this crisis in care.

Mark Scott 12:53

What does that look like? How do you roll an event like that?

Kate Harrison Brennan 12:56

The whole community is how you roll an event together like that. At Broken Hill, we've brought together 20 people who are, broadly speaking, reflective of the community of some 17,000 people, seeking to kind of represent them as directly as possible in the room. And so it's been gathering them together first for an evening of consultation, working through a number of activities that should give them a really positive experience of coming together in this type of civic exercise. I think the great power of it is that people are one another's educators, that what almost brought us to tears, quite frankly, after some of these initial evenings was reflecting on what it was like to actually just watch people who had never met each other, who were one another's neighbors, come together and stand when there are differences. We had an activity called ‘intentions’. We created this activity with people who are leaders in design thinking, who often draw out tensions around which they would design an industrial product, but what we did was state propositions that would create a spectrum of where someone might stand. So to give a funny example: ‘the best Australian food is an Iced VoVo or a Lamington’. Now go and physically stand on that continuum in the room, you know, masking tape out on the floor. And then actually engaging people in conversation, you know, ‘Mark, tell me why you're standing halfway between the Iced VoVo and the Lamington’, etc. We did that.

Mark Scott 14:24

My answer, a dislike of shredded coconut, quite frankly. But is that a drill? Is that an exercise to teach people how to disagree well?

Kate Harrison Brennan 14:35

Yes, and to actually stand and physically embody the position that they take. You can't be at one end of the continuum saying ‘yes, I’m for Iced VoVos’, and the other end ‘yes I’m for Lamingtons’ at the same time, but then to engage with their fellow citizens conversationally about why it is that they've taken that position and to do so on issues about care that are quite personal, but also involve all of us as a society.

Mark Scott 15:02

So training people to have the confidence to think carefully through why they hold a view, but then be able to, in an environment of trust, share that point of view and help others learn and have insight as a result of that.

Kate Harrison Brennan 15:18

Yes, absolutely, and show respect to others as well, as they're trying to explain the view that they hold, and hold that tension in place. What we saw even in the first session, and moving through those different activities, was a growing confidence in engaging with one another. And we expect when we do get together, that background, that trust that's already being built, will be a foundation on which we can build further and ultimately develop solutions together that are new ways of addressing care crises and care issues in these societies.

Mark Scott 15:47

In Australia this year, there's a big conversation around First Nations people and whether in fact First Nations people should have a Voice to Parliament and be represented in the Constitution. But all around the world, race is a dividing issue of the social discourse. Do you think from what you've seen in Australia this year, but also globally, the kind of collective deliberation that you're discussing here is powerful around issues of race, and particularly coming to terms with history and current great areas of disadvantage for First Nations people?

Kate Harrison Brennan 16:21

Absolutely, and if we think about what's at the heart of the proposal of the Voice, it's this idea that there should be another pole of government, effectively, in our Constitution. And this proposal came through what was one of the most deliberative processes in Australian history, you know, with The Uluru Statement from the Heart coming from the many dialogues that were held all over Australia, and one convention that put forward the statement. So, in and of itself, it's a beautiful example of people working within their own communities on the issues specific to them, and then coming up with a very concrete proposal, generously put. When it then had to be introduced into a national conversation, we saw the way that it happened. But there are also great examples of the way it brought people together in often unexpected ways.

Richard Harris 17:14

I've never felt part of a stronger team than I did in that cave in Thailand, you know, this group of cave divers, they were an extraordinary group of people. I guess that's why I enjoy hanging out with adventurers, because they're very pragmatic. They're very independent thinkers, they're very good at thinking outside the box to solve problems. When teams start to perform at a very high level, there's usually a few factors involved in that. And the first one is mutual respect for everyone in the room, everyone has to understand that all those people are there because of their expertise. You have to try and eliminate jargon and have a common language, which in an event like this one was somewhat difficult because there were multiple nationalities, and the language wasn't universal. The American military were very good at bringing everyone to the table and making a simple agenda to go through. And ultimately, the Thais, they were left with the final decision. You know, the weight of responsibility really sat with them for the outcomes, and I have great admiration for their leadership, the courage to actually make a decision. But the ultimate success came from this shared goal, and at the end of the day, there were 13 young people's lives at stake in a very time-critical way. And there's nothing more motivating to people to put their egos aside and get on with the job and work together.

Audio from cave rescue:

How many of you?

They’re all alive!

Thirteen, brilliant!

Mark Scott 18:49

We're hearing how people came together during the Thai cave rescue. Kate, you mentioned earlier Julia Gillard’s skill in bringing people together. At that time, a minority government was rare in a country like Australia, but the Gillard government got a lot done. What reform stands out to you?

Kate Harrison Brennan 19:05

Yeah, I think it was some 17 or so anxious days in which we had to work through those negotiations, and finally to get that point abound to say that she had formed government, but it was those skills that then carried through in the government itself. For me, I was a very young staffer, I turned 30 when I was in the office, but it was really that kind of opportunity to just see things in the corridors of the Prime Minister's office. And they gave me an impression of just what it was like to work with people who were in the front lines of these negotiations, to advise at various points. But what will stand out are major reforms like the NDIS, and that was often difficult in its execution and delivery, of course, but it was a demonstration of long run collaboration with many different parties and endless negotiations that finally got over the lines in the 2013 May budget, commitment of $14 billion over the coming seven years. And suddenly, seemingly overnight, we had the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but [it was] actually an incredibly long running piece of collaborative policymaking.

Mark Scott 20:10

How do you rationalise getting deep, thoughtful, nuanced policy response in an era where the public discourse is more and more through the echo chamber of social media, and the reinforcing of simplistic analysis on complex issues?

Kate Harrison Brennan 20:26

I think it's something that social scientists and political theorists can really add new ways of thinking about, you know, when you talk about social media amplifying the polarised, fragmented nature of our society, that's true. You know, a wonderful sociologist at MIT, Sherry Turkle, talks about how social media has made us feel more alone, together. But she's also spoken about the way that we need conversations more than ever. And so, one of the ways we can address this is actually to create quality conversations about the things that really matter.

Mark Scott 21:01

Do you think there's a space for universities in innovation around things as ancient and respected as democracy and how democracy works? How do we change our thinking to say, ‘no, no, we’ve got a role to play and pioneering work to be done in policymaking and strengthening democracy?’

Kate Harrison Brennan 21:18

Absolutely. I mean, I think it starts with asking that question, ‘what do universities owe communities, what do universities owe democracies, what is foundational or essential to universities?’. It’s the pursuit of knowledge, and application of that to civic ends. The two things don't have to be opposed to one another. Universities have had often ambivalent if not oppositional relationships with the communities in which they're located. We need to move beyond that now to a positive vision of universities, and actually re-inhabit what it means to be at the centre of R&D. We are the research and development. We are the public institution for that, and actually showing that, ‘yes, we're the best colleagues in stem’, that can be applied also to civic democratic ends. Students are the citizens of this country, we can form citizens to be able to engage across lines of difference, we can apply the latest insights for new discoveries and make them of public benefit.

Mark Scott 22:16

And as we say here all the time, it's all about creating leadership for good. If you're successful on this bold ambition, think ahead 20 years, how would you like to see policy developed?

Kate Harrison Brennan 22:30

Think 20 years from now, I'd love to see students who have studied politics or government being at the forefront of engaging across lines of difference. I would love to see them doing so because they had an experience of incredible diversity on campus and in tutorial rooms of what it was like to speak with students who came from incredibly different backgrounds from their own, and therefore being able to engage with communities that have really thick forms of association, you know, that actually have been able to work with universities in their local communities to apply new knowledge to some of their emerging incredibly complex problems. And to see actually a network of universities in Australia embrace their local place, be the key to what is currently being described as need for place-based solutions but be able to draw on their differences and to grow to be increasingly different institutions, able to create a network for new policy ideas.

Mark Scott 23:28

Strikes me hearing you say that, that in order to do that you need a combination of humility to recognise you don't have all the answers and to respectfully listen, but also a confidence to be able to step into that conflicted environment, and to be able to listen and learn and engage. Going beyond politics, you know, what should leaders or, you know, even parents, what do we all have to learn about how we best resolve conflict and find a pathway to solutions and happier, more successful places?

Kate Harrison Brennan 24:01

I think it does come to that sense of comfort in your own skin, or confidence in what makes us distinctive, the ability to have an understanding of what is it that makes us distinctive in our expertise or in our contribution, and an appreciation and curiosity for what is it that makes those around us different, and a curiosity about how might we best work with them together? I think for those who are trying to do in-business thinking, it's a deep curiosity about what our competitors bring to the table. For those of us who are parenting to think about what is it that our partner brings to the family and a sense that we don't need to meld into a kind of wishy-washy sameness. But the strength is there because we're different, but together.

Mark Scott 24:48

More power to you, Kate Harrison Brennan and the team at the Sydney Policy Lab. Thanks for talking with us today.

Kate Harrison Brennan 24:54

Thanks so much, Mark.

Mark Scott 24:57

I'm Mark Scott, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney. And a big thanks to Dr. Kate Harrison Brennan for her ideas and her energy. Kate is the director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney.

Thanks also to Dr. Richard Harris for sharing his insights with us. His book is called The Art of Risk: What we can learn from the world's leading risk takers.

Richard Harris 25:19

Well, I think I'd say to everyone listening to this that I am an ordinary person, I just found myself in an extraordinary situation. And you'll be amazed at what you're capable of when you need to step up.

Mark Scott 25:33

Make sure you're following The Solutionists in your favourite podcast app, so you never miss a chance to meet the brightest minds working to solve the most complex issues, the people who are making change happen. The Solutionists is a podcast from the University of Sydney, produced by Deadset Studios.

Next time, what would you do with an extra 100,000 hours? That's how much extra time we'd all have if we lived to 100, which is an increasingly realistic prospect. So how do we ensure we not only live longer, but also live well?

Professor Andrew John Scott 26:11

We worry about getting old, we worry about outliving our health, outliving our finances, outliving our skills, our purpose, our relationships. What do you do now to make sure that you don't out-live those things?

The Solutionists is a podcast from The University of Sydney, produced by Deadset Studios.

Keep up to date with The Solutionists by following @sydney_uni on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

This episode was produced by Monique Ross. Sound design by Jeremy Wilmot. Studio recording by Jacob Craig. The executive producer is Rachel Fountain. Executive editors are Jen Peterson-Ward, Kellie Riordan and Mark Scott.

This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. For thousands of years, across innumerable generations, knowledge has been taught, shared and exchanged here. We pay respect to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.