Interview with Pete Adler

In this interview Jane Gunn and Peter Adler – Mediator and President of the Keystone Centre, discuss Leadership in the Eye of the Storm

Click below to listen to the podcast, and scroll down to read the transcript of the podcast

Hello this is Jane Gunn the Corporate Peacemaker and author of ‘How to Beat Bedlam in the Boardroom and Boredom in the Bedroom’. This podcast is about how we can gain a better understanding of some of the aspects of conflict, to help us lead happier and more productive lives.

Well today I am so excited to be speaking to Peter Adler who is President and CEO of The Keystone Centre. This is a centre which applies consensus building and cutting edge scientific information to energy, environmental and health related policy problems. So, Peter welcome!

Peter – Thank you very much, I am delighted to be with you, I wish I could be there in person with you, but this is great. It’s from America where winter has just started.

Jane – yes you told me, what degrees did you say? Minus something already today?

Peter – I think it must be -15 Celsius and we just had a big snow fall. I’m up in the Rocky Mountains, the spine of America, on a continental divide, and that’s where we are headquartered.

Jane – it’s not quite that cold here yet! Now Peter you are also the author of a book called ‘Leadership in the Eye of the Storm’. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how you came to write it?

Peter – I’m delighted to do that. The projects and cases that I work on and my colleagues here at Keystone work on that are intensely political cases. And they do involve very tough issues around energy development, energy transmission, public health issues such as vaccination policies, whether they should be imposed, and lots of environmental issues over resilience in the landscape and sustainability. At one time we had a portfolio of over 40 projects in our pipeline and over the years I had become acutely aware that the resolution of these kind of conflicts if you will, takes joint leadership.

It takes a certain form of collaborative leadership and maybe that’s not different from any other dispute or conflict, but we had lots of stakeholders and parties that were considering new policies; new regulations; new laws and you had a group gathered around you. At the end of the day it is about better leadership and rising to the challenge of converting themselves from adversaries to joint partners.

That really led me to try and think through what does this look like to leaders in the civil sector, in government, in industry, and could I write something that might have utility for them? So I tried to write, and did write a book that is aimed at leaders at national levels, state levels, and regional levels. They could be leaders at any different level, and I wanted to make sure that this conflict resolution becomes a part of a leadership repertoire that our leaders have. So I wrote this book and I think I used the word mediation just once. I wanted to get away from the language that carries lots of different meanings. So that’s the origin of the book.

Jane – So what do you find Peter with these complex kind of disputes or conflicts in the public arena or in large companies that are the key kind of issues that you come across?

Peter – Like any other conflict it may be at various stages of escalation. Sometimes we really like to try to bring a group together to Keystones platform and engage them before something really turns terrible and becomes so entrenched that it’s much harder to deal with it.

So some of this is about gathering really good thought leaders together from diverse sectors, and anticipating a problem and trying to head-off a train wreck.

At other times it is a train wreck and we have to go in and be the repair men and work it through to the highest and best consensus possible. So we work at both ends the spectrum, the prevention of an impending piece of conflict, and at the other end, resolving a conflict that has actually arisen.

Jane – Peter are you finding that organisations are more receptive to the idea of preventing conflict these days?

Peter – Yes, we have a methodology where we do a lot of reconnaissance and assessment before we bring anybody to the table. So we spend a fair amount of time really examining an issue, and sometimes we find the timing is not right, the political timing is not right or the parties are not quite ready to come to the table. So we are guided in this by some really intelligent people on our board of trustees who come from industry, ex government people, they’re academics; and they understand what it is we are trying to do and they become the eyes and ears and ambassadors to help bring the people to the table at the right moment. We do a lot of up-front work before we ever get people to the table. And up-front work really informs what will happen in the process.

Jane – And Peter you’re now trying to apply what you’ve learned in these larger public bodies into smaller, private companies, is that right?

Peter – Yes, sometimes we’re called upon to work within just one organisation or unit. For example I’m working right now in a law firm that is going through some real serious internal questions about its future. And a lot of it has to do with the change in realtor markets. So I have been brought in to help develop a conversation and then a strategy that will leave their mark for the next five years as they navigate the tricky waters that they’re in. So sometimes it’s just like that, or we will work with a particular government agency, like the centre for disease control, but more often I would say that the peak work that we really do, is when you bring everybody together to work on a particular problem. I can give you some examples of that.

Some colleagues of mine here at The Keystone Centre right now are presiding over two years of discussions that will try to solve a lot of problems on the entire eastern half of the United States with transmission lines, and them Smart grids that don’t connect to as they are antiquated. We have many different public utilities and many different advocacy groups, we’ve got them all around the table, and have had for a year, and we will be continuing to work towards an integrated transmission grid.

Another example. We have been talking with facilitating a set of meetings on trying to develop a new chemicals management policy for the United States. The laws that govern that are very antiquated and increasingly in a global economy the American chemical companies have to deal with the European chemical companies, and with others in other parts of the world. So there’s a lot of issues. We have them around the table, we’re talking with them, and we’re making good headway in trying to reconcile differences that will ultimately lead to the re-writing of some very antiquated laws.

So we have lots of interesting projects, some on greening of supply chains and the acceleration of bringing green products into the market place. Another one dealing with sustainable agriculture and with landscape assessment projects in the forests. We have quite a variety of projects but what characterises all is that they are intensely political, they have a public affairs issue at stake, and the goal is to try and bring the highest and best, actionable consensus as possible together.

Jane – They sound fascinating projects Peter, and yet I guess underneath are the same principles of conflict resolution that we all as mediators work with, whether it’s between two people, two companies, or several communities – as you’re working with.

Peter – I think that’s exactly right. I think the values and the assumptions, and many of the tools, and techniques and skills that we apply, in our disputes that are within the boardroom, or within family settings or in organisational settings or in communities, the same basic principles apply. But I think they play out a little differently and they roll out a little differently. One of the things I’ve learned and I don’t know if this is the same as it might be in the UK, but I’ve learned to use a different language as we talk to people about coming to the table. I tend not to talk about the words mediation and facilitation too much, I’m actually much more interested in trying to invent forums that are comfortable for people. So if I say ‘Would you like to come to a mediation?’ most people say ‘No thanks we’re not interested in that’ and they have a lot of images about mediators that they’re are going to turn them upside down and shake all the money out of their pockets or drown them in wallpaper ……. So I don’t use those words very much, I’m trying to re-describe what it is we do and make it much more accessible and user friendly for other people. So I might say let’s have a round table discussion, let’s have a workshop, let’s have a study group, let’s have a dialogue. And those words resonate much more with people

Jane – That’s fascinating, I’ve always found that the words ‘conflict’ and ‘mediation’ seem to be such a turn-off to companies, that it’s good to find an alternative, because really we’re just facilitating a conversation aren’t we?

Peter – Well that’s right and we’re doing it in these public issues with a lot of attention to our joint fact finding where they really have contentious science where they see things really differently, like climate debates, climate change. And so we have to work through some of the factual issues and we have to do that in any mediator process but I think in these public affairs matters it becomes actually paramount. I would also say one of the things I am very interested in is different sorts of diagnostics for different sorts of problems. There’s a category of problems that I would call routine problems and routine problem solving, and then there is another category which I think these public issues and many others fall into which is non-routine problems. I know that when I talk with prospective participants and stakeholders, they’re much more interested in talking about problems and problem solving than they are about conflict.

Jane – Really, so how would you define a non-routine problem?

Peter – I think non-routine problems don’t lend themselves to a kind of algorithm if you will. A simple problem, you know, is first you do this, then you do that, then third you do this and fourth you do this, and if you haven’t done it right you have to go back to three and do it over again. And that’s a simplistic problem solving model. When you start asking questions like ‘What should be our national transportation policy?’ that routine problem solving doesn’t work. So the non-routine problems really require different sorts of diagnostics, a much broader span of information that needs to come in. There’s a need to discover some of the patterns and values systems that are at play, and the very different value systems, and begin to find those sweet spots where some of those can be reconciled. Even the language, very often we don’t really solve these big problems, we tame the problems. We knock off the rough edges on some of them and tame it so it becomes more attractable.

So I think the non-routine problems are the ones that are most interesting and we, who have the skills that you have Jane and I have and colleagues and friends have, that’s the place where we can do a lot of good work.

Jane – I think it’s just fascinating what you’re saying Peter because I think that there are so many, you only have to open the newspaper these days or any time really to see that much of what the world is grappling with is really in essence conflict, and yet we don’t routinely apply the principles that you and I do in a mediation, some of the things that are going on around us, and yet the opportunity to do that is there all the time if only we had, as you’re creating, the structure to bring people together and create simply a conversation or a communication about what they value most and what they want to do about it.

Peter – I think that’s right and I think that even though the mediation field if you will has been around for the last thirty years, I think it is entering into some new frontiers as we try to take on problems that have bigger scale, have more intense politics, that touch more of the very tough political fighting that goes on in our parliaments and congress. I think as we do this we are going to have to get much better and sharper and more diagnostic in the way in which we approach them. I think we can do it, I am very optimistic.

Jane – So Peter if people listening want to find out more about your work, how would they contact you or read more about you.

Peter – Well I’m very easily reachable by email at and there’s a lot of information on Keystone’s website. There’s also lots of articles I’m delighted to share with other people who might be interested and be in touch with them. I’m happy to reach out.

Jane – That’s fantastic. Peter it’s been fascinating talking to you as ever, I’ve really enjoyed it as always it is all too short, but do you have one last piece of advice for listeners or a thought that you might like to leave them with.

Peter – Yes I do. If some of you listeners are already trained mediators and facilitators I really urge them to scale up their repertoire of techniques and skills and become what one friend of mine called me in an introduction. He said ‘Peter you are a heat seeking missile’. We tend to wait for the conflicts to come to us, and I think we should go to them. We are finding really smart strategies to bring people to the table and making some headway.

Jane – I love that, let’s end on that. Let’s all become heat seeking missiles. Peter thank you so much for your time.

Peter – All the best Jane, I hope to see you again, I hope to be in the UK soon and look forward to getting together.

Jane – Great, thank you Peter

Peter – So long.

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