Member Profile: Dan Adams

Dan AdamsExecutive Director, The Langdon Group

Recipient, 2019 IAP2 USA Greater Good Award

Dan Adams is with the The Langdon Group and was nominated for his many outstanding qualities as an innovator and collaborator. Dan focuses on engagement by encouraging his staff to visit and build relationships with stakeholders. He has brought IAP2 and its core values into his work ethic and team. His blends the disciplines of alternative dispute resolution and public participation to help people see other points of view. 

“I look at public involvement from a systemic approach. One thing I learned from working in ADR is that most of the problems I saw were organizational conflicts. The parties would come to mediation trying to solve situational issues, but not addressing the larger systemic issue.

To help me learn how to think systemically and work from that perspective, I earned a master’s degree in organizational behaviour from BYU.  I have learned through tough experience that you really have to tackle what I call the ‘5Ps’ when you are asked to do public involvement.”

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked? I have been in P2 since 1997.  I worked extensively in Oregon then went to graduate school at BYU in Utah.  I continued to do collaborative work on the side in graduate school and interned with Resolve Inc. in Washington DC.  I then worked for CDR in Boulder, Colorado, and then went on to run The Langdon Group in Boise in 2004. I moved to Utah with Langdon in 2007. In all, I have worked in 17 states.

What turned you on to P2 in the first place?  I came into P2 from the mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) space as well as the organizational behaviour space. There is a synergy between ADR, mediation and IAP2. In fact, many ADR firms were doing public engagement, although they didn’t call it that back in the late 1990’s.  

J-U-B Engineering is a civil engineering firm headquartered in Boise, Idaho which was getting hammered by the public over some water projects in 1996. The company’s executives discovered Larry Susskind at MIT, who had recently written a book called Dealing with an Angry Public*. They flew out to Cambridge to meet with him, and then brought him out to Boise for a series of workshops on public involvement. The firm decided to set up an organization that dealt in public involvement and created the Langdon Group the following year.

I met people from the Langdon Group at an IAP2 conference. We hit it off, and I left CDR in 2004 and went to Langdon.  There were only two of us and we learned a lot! We started hiring young people with passion in communications and opened an office in Salt Lake City a year later.  We now have 17 people in 5 offices in Idaho and Utah.

I look at public involvement from a systemic approach. One thing I learned from working in ADR is that most of the problems I saw were organizational conflicts. The parties would come to mediation trying to solve situational issues, but not addressing the larger systemic issue.

To help me learn how to think systemically and work from that perspective, I earned a master’s degree in organizational behaviour from BYU.  I have learned through tough experience that you really have to tackle what I call the “5Ps” when you are asked to do public involvement:

Adams powerpoint slide - Political, policy, program, project, publicPolitical is the politicians – the ones who were elected to by the public to solve problems.

Policy is the heads of agencies – often they are political appointees.

Program management – whatever the agency, these are the managers of the different programs (NEPA, public works, etc.) .  Basically, whoever is responsible for putting the policy into implementation.

Project is the people working as the day to day project representatives.

Public is the general populace, who are affected by policy and implementation.

If you do public involvement but you’re not engaging all the levels vertically (within the agency) or horizontally (between the partnering agencies), P2 won’t work nearly as well as it could.  Then you end up needing a facilitator or mediator!

Supposing you’re handling public involvement for a transportation agency. You have to make sure that you, as consultant, can engage on all 5 levels. There was one massive transportation project in Utah, where the project and program people were blocked: they were trying to work with the public, but needed to engage with the upper levels of multiple agencies in order to do so. It was necessary to work on the relationship between the project and program people with the political and policy folks, in order to engage the public effectively.

I was asked to help a transportation project where the P2 process was off the rails.  To help us get back on track, I asked 27 people from different agencies (local, state, and federal) to draw me a matrix if the 5P’s for each of the agencies working on the project.  I got 27 replies and 27 different matrices. There was no communication peer-to-peer at the different levels because it had never been articulated who the individuals were are each level for each agency.  You had competing interests and lack of clarity as to who the decision maker from each agency was. Once we cleared up the questions of who should be talking to whom, the P2 process fell into place.

When you get clarity on who the individuals are that make up the 5P’s, you can then establish the intent and expectations of the leaders. This comes from being deliberate at the start of a P2 project and doing an assessment up front of the who and the what, and what the expectations are.

P2 practitioners need to be facilitators of the 5Ps to do P2 well.

If I could have a do-over on P2 projects that went wrong, I would point to the failure of identifying and working with the 5Ps. In the past, I would have a framework for achieving the goals of the leadership, but if something upset that framework, my plan wasn’t agile enough to adapt. So I’ve learned that you need to build that ability into your P2 process.  Project level folks are afraid of “escalation” (engaging the Program, Policy, and Political) because escalation is often viewed as failure. By ensuring that you are doing vertical and horizontal communication, you reduce the escalation is failure phenomenon.

There’s a big trend that I think we’re going to see: people are getting better at talking with each other, but they are now in some cases talking an issue to death and never implementing.   

A good example in the U.S. is the situation with sage grouse. For years there has been conflict around the bird being listed under the Endangered Species Act. There was lots of public involvement around this issue for many years.  In 2014 the International Sage Grouse Forum was held in Salt Lake City.  Multiple agency leaders stood and said that if people collaborated with each other the problems would be solved.  Then, in early 2019, there was a second forum: the “All Lands-All Hands Summit.” This second gathering featured three days of panels talking about all the successful collaboration that had taken place since 2014.  But the panelists often lamented that yes, they were collaborating successfully, but they worried they were now talking the issues to death and that they were failing to implement solutions A risk we all have as P2 practitioners is making sure the great work we do leads not only to understanding and great communication, but that it also leads to implementation. I believe that making sure you are able to engage all 5P’s in your work is key to ensuring implementation happens!

Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”? I have had a series of golden learning moments.  My most recent has been around mindfulness, reconnecting with that excitement and lack of knowledge and experience I had as a rookie mediator.  I think because, as a rookie. I was out of my comfort zone and because things were so new and I knew so little, I was more aware of what was going on around me: I was more innovative, I was more creative, and I was more contemplative.  I am seeking that again.

What “big wins” have you had?  Biggest win is the people that I get to work with at The Langdon Group.  They are simply the best. They inspire me. After that, it would be some great projects such as the West Davis Corridor Environmental Impact Study, and some BLM and U.S. Forest Service Grazing Allotment conflicts.  If you peel off the layers of most of our projects in the West, it seems like so much boils down to rural conversion to urban related conflict. I think we will continue to see a lot of those types of conflicts and opportunities for “big wins”.

I feel like my wins have significantly increased by including after-action reviews at key milestones in my projects. Basically, we do an assessment at the beginning of the project and determine the expectations, then find out the risks. Then, at the milestones, we check to see if the expectations were met, what were the lessons-learned, and how we can adjust the process going forward. Adding that to my projects has been a radical game-changer. Shockingly, I didn’t do that for the majority of my career, but my success rate has improved ever since I did. 

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …  Build your network fearlessly.  Look for any opportunity (even volunteering) to build your experience and resume.  Remember that no one cares what you know, they only care what you have done. Be continually humble, curious, and fearless.

*Dealing with an Angry Public: the Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes, by Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field. New York: The Free Press, 1996

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