What is on the threat board?

Even as WACD staff work on area association and annual conference plans for October and November, our minds are also beginning to think ahead to the next legislative session.

Let’s play Risk

Sometimes it seems like working with a state legislature is similar to playing the game of Risk.

“Risk is a strategy board game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest,” says Wikipedia.

Playing Risk: By © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50453387
Playing Risk

It can feel like playing a strategy game like Risk when we deal with legislators and congressional folks, their staff, and other elected and appointed officials. We are constantly trying to assess threats and opportunities as we work toward our goals.

But recognizing threats isn’t something that always comes naturally to us. Sometimes our perception changes with time and wisdom.

The way I ride my motorcycle now (as compared to when I was much younger) is perhaps illustrative. When I was a young man, I rode my motorcycle fast and hard. When one is young and not very aware of one’s own mortality, it’s easy to push the limits, and sometimes we accidentally go beyond them. I totaled three motorcycles before I wised up.

Not recognizing threats, or wishing that they weren’t there, doesn’t eliminate the risk those threats may present.

Now when I ride, I always have a mantra in my mind: escape, evade, defend, attack. This is very similar to an active shooter drill: run, hide, fight. I learned my motorcycling mantra long before the run-hide-fight phrase so that’s what sticks in my mind, but it’s much the same thing.

It’s an aggressively defensive riding mantra. Rather than being a passive reactor to what someone else chooses to do, I prefer to try to predict what may happen and thereby avoid catastrophe. And I always obey the Lug Nut Rule: whoever has the most lug nuts wins. I stay away from anything with lug nuts, and stay even farther away if a vehicle has more lug nuts than others!

I certainly did not think this way in my younger years when I was busy wrecking motorcycles!

How does this relate to conservation district work?

To have long-term success means you are building on past strengths and successes. A conservation district needs to have a strong foundation in order to continue to grow and thrive over many years. No matter how well we prepare, though, unexpected threats can appear. Having a capable board and proficient staff, building sound policies, following good governance principles, understanding roles and responsibilities, and much more go into building that strong foundation. That is a proactive way to prepare your defenses against unknown threats.

We don’t usually talk about training and policy development as defensive strategies, but in a landscape riddled with potential threats, such actions are first and foremost defensive in character. We are being proactive when we build these defenses against known threats. That’s a strong, protective move. It resembles the way I ride my motorcycle now: try to understand and predict the threats I may face so that I can make the best decisions to prevent bad outcomes. Now when I drive, I try to predict the future, or at least several seconds into the future. It’s defensive driving with a crystal ball.

Known knowns and unknown unknowns

If we are honest with ourselves, we can assess what we know. That helps us recognize what we don’t know. But sometimes there is a deeper level of unknowns: those things that we can’t even imagine..the unknown unknowns. This is such an interesting idea because those unknown unknowns can be threats that come at us completely out of the blue. This concept has been linked to Donald Rumsfield:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.” There are known knowns

The point of unknown unknowns is simply that we can’t know everything, so believing that we do understand all risks makes us vulnerable to those things we don’t know or haven’t predicted.

The terms “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” are often used in project management and strategic planning circles. Known unknowns refers to “risks you are aware of, such as canceled flights….”  Unknown unknowns are risks that come from situations that are so unexpected that they would not be considered.

Just because we haven’t perceived of a threat doesn’t mean that it does not exist or that it won’t affect us. Sound paranoid? Well, as Joseph Heller said in Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

How do you defend against unknown unknowns? Build strength and build depth. Create relationships. Ours is a business based on mutual trust and support. When those occasional unknown unknowns suddenly surface, it can take all of us to overcome the threat.

What is your risk appetite?

I’ve already identified that at different life stages, my risk appetite has changed. It went from not understanding the risks before me to being much more aware, resulting in changes in my behavior to better address the threats I may face.

“Risk appetite is the level of risk that an organization is prepared to accept in pursuit of its objectives, before action is deemed necessary to reduce the risk,” according to Wikipedia.

We have 45 conservation districts and each is a unique amalgam of people, natural resource conditions and concerns, and a multitude of other factors. It should go without saying that the risks your district are comfortable with won’t be identical to anyone else. But the process of figuring out what risks you face is often similar, perhaps something like a SWOT analysis.

SWOT analysis

I confess that I have always disliked SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. I have disliked it because people tend to focus more on threats so they may bypass opportunities. Perhaps it’s human nature to more easily perceive threats than opportunities.

“SWOT analysis is a business analysis process that ensures that objectives for a project are clearly defined and that all factors related to the project are properly identified. The SWOT analysis process involves four areas: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Both internal and external components are considered when doing SWOT Analysis, as they both have the potential to impact the success of a project or venture.” What is SWOT Analysis?

Even though I’m focusing on the threat-scape your conservation district faces, please don’t forget that some of those threats also represent opportunities. As Albert Einstein once said: “in the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”

Defending against threats (known and unknown) is important because if your organization is damaged by a threat, it reduces opportunities to grow and succeed. Reacting to damage diverts you from your path toward your district’s goals. For our own mental health, it may be beneficial to also keep in mind that threats and opportunities go hand-in-hand, so be sure to invest as much energy on opportunities as you do on threats.

I appreciate the clarity of this diagram from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business:

SWOT Analysis
SWOT Analysis (source: University of Notre Dame)

That diagram presents the SWOT process cleanly. I like that it divides the four elements into internal and external aspects. As we look inward at our own organization, we can ask:

  • What are our strengths and how can we make them stronger?
  • What are our weaknesses and how can we strengthen those areas?

As we look at outside forces and conditions, we can consider how to take advantage of opportunities and how to avoid threats. Bear in mind, though, that if the flip side of a threat may be an opportunity, perhaps we should welcome the idea of threats. While most people will focus on the threats, you can look beyond them at the hidden opportunities behind them that others don’t see.

Is the next legislative session a threat or opportunity?

Legislative activities are coming up faster for your legislators than you might imagine. Committee Assembly Days for the Senate are November 15-16, 2021 and for the House are November 18-19, 2021. ​I guarantee that your legislators are already thinking about the 2022 session.

Is the Legislature a threat? Some of our people seem to think so. They worry about someone opening up RCW 89.08, given the short title of Conservation Districts Law. I happen to live on the other side of that perspective, believing that the Legislature represents an opportunity to gain the support our members need to fully address the needs of their communities.

So from that perspective of viewing legislators as opportunities for conservation districts, one threat I see is conservation districts not having established relationships with their legislators before the Legislature convenes. That presents the opportunity for districts to reach out now to make sure their legislators know the good work that you do and what your needs are.

Ask for what your district really needs

And on the subject of needs, I want to be clear about how I feel about conservation districts asking their legislators for a lot of money. Our conservation delivery system is built upon the work done by each and every conservation district. WACD looks to our member districts for guidance about the resources districts need to get the job done. The success of our conservation delivery system is founded on the grassroots nature of our structure. Without strong, capable, effective conservation districts, our system breaks. Conservation districts make the difference.

My strong preference is that you don’t sugarcoat your conversations with legislators. Ask for what you truly need. I do believe you should follow three general rules, though, when working with legislators:

  • tell them what you really need
  • always tell them the truth
  • be prepared to back up your statements with data and examples

It’s great when conservation district folks echo the needs expressed by WACD and the Washington State Conservation Commission. Unity in messaging is important, but don’t let that overshadow your local district needs. I would much prefer to respond to legislators who wonder why your district is asking for so much than for your legislator to be unaware of your needs.

WACD and the Conservation Commission are always going to have to do some repackaging and negotiating to reach workable outcomes. Rarely are we able to procure support that leads to everything that conservation districts need. That’s the nature of our roles. The role of conservation districts is different: you need to reflect to your legislators what your community really needs to address priority natural resource concerns.

If you’ve ever traded in a car, you know how this process works. You have an idea of the value of the car, and the dealer knows he can’t make money if he gives you that amount. So the dealer’s representative half-smiles with raised eyebrows and exclaims “Oh!” when you tell them what you want for your car. “Well, let’s go take a look at the car, shall we?” And out to the parking lot you go, where the dealer rep slowly walks around the car, tut-tutting occasionally, staring hard at some things, and maybe shaking his or her head from time to time. The rep will probably physically touch every obvious flaw. The purpose of this entire act is to change your view of your car so that your valuation starts to deflate. You are starting high and he/she is working you down by devaluing your car before your eyes.

For the seller, it is always better to start high and work down to a price point that is mutually agreeable. It doesn’t work nearly as well to start at a low figure and try to work the buyer up. For example, you’re not going to sell a car at a maximum price car if you start low and then say you need more than that. In your work with legislators, you are the seller and the legislator is your buyer. Don’t undersell the needs of your district! It is generally not a winning strategy to later increase your ask. Give yourself every advantage by starting at a realistic level, even if that is more than what you’ve asked for in the past.

The necessity of building relationships

There is always a temptation to ask for the moon. I do hear this expressed in some of our conversations. Some folks say that others ask for large pots of money and they get those funds, so we should do the same. I can say that what we see from the outside looking in is not always what it seems. Often, those asks are built up over years of work in building relationships, developing the supporting data, and honing the messaging until it becomes almost inconceivable that someone could say no to the ask. If you haven’t built relationships with your legislators, you are already behind the curve.

“If business comes from your relationships, relationships should be your business.” Doug Ales

Success starts with relationships. Start there and work forward. If you ask for what you truly need but have not built a good relationship or don’t have strong supporting information, you are unlikely to get what you want. If, however, you build a trust-based relationship with your legislators over time, they will become much more confident in the veracity of what you are asking for. This reminds me of a book I read many years ago: You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard:

…the key to success lies in our ability to communicate. No matter how uncomfortable or ill-equipped we feel as communicators, we dare not back away from the challenge of becoming effective speakers. Short on skills? We can learn them. Short on confidence? We can gain it. Short on experience? We can make our own opportunities.

Stand in their shoes for a moment, if you can, and imagine their legislative life: everybody wants something. Every phone call, every email, every person who approaches them has an ask. All of those contacts consume their time so they rarely have time to research every request for help they receive. If you have established trust and confidence with them, then you become a trusted source of information, someone they can depend on to steer them true. That has immense value to them which they will come to appreciate.

Some of our conservation district folks have great stories of legislators calling them to seek out more information. That is the kind of relationship I wish every conservation district had with their electeds. Does it feel scary to talk to a legislator? Remember that the flip side of fear/threat/risk is opportunity. Legislators are people, just like you and me. They deserve our honor and respect because of their office, but they also deserve to hear truth from us.

Build relationships. Ask for what you need. Be truthful. Support your ask. Be the seller that starts high. Don’t undercut yourself by starting low.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director