This is the fourth “writing out loud” excerpt from the working draft of Adam Kahane’s new book, “Collaborating with the Enemy: An Open Way to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust,” to be published by Berrett-Koehler in 2017. Adam is keen to engage with interested readers around this material as he develops it.
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When I joined Shell in 1988, at 27 years old, the thing I enjoyed most was the debating. The company’s renowned scenario planning department was staffed with smart people recruited from across the company and from external think tanks. Our job was to challenge Shell executives to pay attention to changes in the world that could present new business risks and opportunities. We did this by constructing scenarios of possible futures, through reading and talking with actors and observers from around the world and then arguing amongst ourselves—for months and months—about what we were seeing and what it meant. From the window of my office I could look down on the British Houses of Parliament, and I fancied that we, like the parliamentarians, were employing robust and reasoned debate to find the best answers. I loved arguing and especially winning and being right.
My pre-Shell education and training had prepared me well for this activity. I grew up in Montreal, bookish and comfortable, and did well in school. In 1979 I went to McGill to study theoretical physics. I liked being in such an elite discipline and was happy to spend my evenings writing out mathematical formulas that proved, for every problem, the one correct solution.
During one of my summer breaks I attended a meeting of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a global organization of scientists initiated by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell to contribute to averting nuclear war. At this meeting I heard a presentation on the problem of environmentally-sustainable energy and was attracted to the idea of working on such an important public issue. So in 1982 I started a graduate degree in energy and environmental economics at Berkeley that ended up including research postings in Vancouver, Vienna, Paris, and Tokyo. In each of these places I was given the same kind of assignment: to figure out, for a complex public challenge, the optimum policy response.
The confident certainty I had in my own thinking when I joined Shell was not so unusual for a young man from my privileged background. Gradually over the years that followed I saw, in myself and others, that such certainty had its limitations, including that it didn’t leave much room for the thinking of others. It also presented a major impediment to tough collaboration.