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Big Water Ideas from a Big Water Week

Imagine H2O’s SF Week is hard. Between Sunday and Thursday, in just four and a half days, we hosted 32 leaders representing our twelve 2018 accelerator companies, 16 judges, 96 one-on-one sessions, 3 dinners, one Gala for 400 guests, and 137 attendees at our second annual IH2O/WEF Innovation Forum. It’s hard but it’s worth it.

Over the preceding two months we sunk our teeth into our network recruiting the great and the good (invariably both) to help us deliver our core message at the Innovation Forum — that to get innovation working to solve water challenges, we need to better at developing and (crucially) deploying it. The Forum focused explicitly on 5 core themes that influence the deployment of innovation to solve water challenges — communications, culture, data, policy and finance.

The inimitable gentlewomen from Rogue Water have put together a phenomenal summary of the two days (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), and we captured our team’s key takeaways below.


Discussing innovation without talking about people is like analysing a car race without thinking about the driver — it makes no sense. Catherine Ricou was absolutely right in emphasizing that whether it’s risk management, change management, project management — doing this well takes the right people. Joone Lopez also pointed out that innovating well is a huge asset in hiring the right people. We worked with so many outstanding people in the creation of SF Week and the Innovation Forum, and nothing, nothing is more pivotal than people in bringing about needed change.


Bad communication ruins good ideas. No matter how strong the idea, it makes zero difference if we can’t bring people along in support of it. This is as true for a technical upgrade to an advanced filtration process as for raising rates. Everyone in the water sector needs to focus on how we tell our story. All organisations have different audiences, internally and externally, and we need to figure out how to communicate with all of them.

Listen. The key to great communication is not speaking. Yeah, that’s right. Listen. Great sales people always say the best sales meetings are the ones where they say the least. When people are talking, they’re telling you what they want, directly or by inference. Listening gives you direction to understand what it will take to persuade.

Body language matters. When was the last time you caught yourself with crossed arms and crossed legs because someone was saying something that made you uncomfortable? Being a good listener means active listening — eye contact, smiling, engaging. It takes effort to be good at this. It’s the same for speaking. When was the last time you gave a presentation and were met with your audience buried in their phones. Sure, they may have been poor listeners, but did you practice? Did you think about your body, your hands, the rhythm and pace and story, and about not having too many words on the slide? George Hawkins gave us a masterclass in presentation in the opening session — and he did all of these things. Crucially, he had no slides and was funny. Does everyone remember his message? Absolutely.

There’s nothing wrong with fun. You can be serious without a suit. You can be professional without being serious all the time. If it worked for Google, it can work for you. Give your customers, your staff, and your stakeholders a sense of your personality. Open up, be yourself. When they see you as human, they give you all kinds of credit at exactly the moment you need it.


Big change (hard) is built through lots of little changes (easier). We’ve all heard about the journey of a thousand miles and single steps and all that stuff. This message came through loud and clear: if you start small, and follow what works, great things happen. That’s as true for startups as it is for multimillion-dollar budget utilities. These changes can be simple. Open a twitter account. Ask everyone in your organization to give you 3 ideas to improve customer service. Give a box of cookies to the highest impact employee every quarter. Know your aim, sure, but don’t try to eat the elephant in one go — find a manageable nibble and go from there.

We’re slow for a reason. The refrain of “we’re too slow” was noticeably absent from the discussion. The water sector is slow for a very good reason. If we’re fast and something goes wrong, people get sick. People die. This is not the land of “move fast and break things”. There is room for improvement, sure, but service providers need to learn to play within the rules of the game, because the rules are there to keep people safe. These rules have the added bonus of acting as a competitive moat once you do learn to play the game. So stop moaning, start learning, and embrace the process.

Find people who want the same thing as you. Especially in the policy field, alone is tough, together is easier. You need allies to achieve real change. It speeds things up, with pooled talent, budgets, networks, and bandwidth. You need to establish early and clearly what it is you want. For a given policy goal, learn the issue and build the team to execute the job, including partners from the outside.

Be proud of what we do. Water is a magnificent place to work. There are barely any egos, everyone is keen to help each other, and we’re so used to the status quo it’s easy to be exciting (and excited). We do this to make a difference in the world, to deliver the life blood of health, happiness, and prosperity. We look after the fundamental molecule that enables civilisation to exist. We should take pride in that.


Fail fast, fail cheaply but test, test, test. This is huge. Everybody fails. It’s the nature of growth. The key is not to let the inevitability of failure get in the way of the imperative for improvement. Good leadership means giving people the room to fail, but not to allow that failure is to suffocate them, you, or your business. Bad leadership means putting so high a price on failure that nobody tries anything. You have to let people learn. Teams need the responsibility and autonomy to solve real problems. The mentality of “I need to check this with my boss” who then needs to check this with his boss and so on destroys the impetus to problem-solve. That is curtains for any organizations with any ambitions to be, well, good at what they’re trying to do.

You take a risk, and people respond. This is one that our team learned doing the Forum. We were essentially trying to talk about non-technical, people-heavy ideas at an innovation conference on water. For an entire day. The response, from selling out all the tickets a week in advance, to a 98% attendance rate, and practically 100% staying until the end, was amazing. The same goes for organizations. Trust your audience. Try it. It’s worth it.


Write your “not do” list before you write your “to do” list. This is a favorite of Dave Neitz of CDM Smith. If you want to change behaviour, don’t ask people to make “to do” lists that you think will bring them towards a defined goal. Ask them to first write a “not do” list identifying the things that most obviously detract from the goal: for thinking time, no unscheduled time on email; for culture, no more snarky chats in the breakroom; for innovation, stop rewarding the repetition of the same tired process by your team. Enormous good can be done by avoiding obvious bad.

Don’t crush “bad” ideas. A simple lesson from IDEO. Responding with “yes, and” rather than “yes, but” goes a long way. It opens the door to building something together, creating an opportunity, whatever it may be. The dumbest idea possible may be the seed that is cultivated and grows into the best idea. Mindset shift from open to closed is a non-negotiable if we want to get better at all of this stuff.

Money is there if we prioritize and focus on one, maybe two, issues at a time. Funding is a tough one. Utility budgets are tight. The same is true in startups. This is why prioritization is key. Having a process that makes you actively decide what you will and won’t aim to solve in a given time frame (and communicating these decisions effectively) gets everyone pulling in the same direction. Prioritization allows you to dedicate the funding and bandwidth to explore, test, and verify real solutions to you most pressing challenges


Let’s steal as much as we can from outside the sector. The water sector talks to itself a lot. That’s great. There are tons of very smart professionals doing an extraordinary job that we can all learn from. Great ideas also lie outside the water sector, from industries that have analogous constraints to ours. Pharma, medicine, food & beverage — all of these operate in a regulatory straightjacket. We can learn from what they’ve done, like Clifford Chan from EBMUD. This Forum had references to “Start with Why”, Berkshire Hathaway, “The Lean Startup”, Einstein “Crossing the Chasm”, “The Prince”, Pixar, “Made to Stick”… I’ve never seen so much non-water in a water conference in my life.

A lot to digest, and what a great feeling that is. It was such a wonderful experience for the IH2O team, and we are so grateful for the amazing response from all those who attended. Let us know if you have any thoughts on this or the day itself. Thanks for joining us, and stay tuned for more IH2O action in the near future.

Our huge thanks to all our sponsors and speakers: CDM Smith, Watersmart Software (Sponsors), George Hawkins (Moonshot), Cathering Ricou (Suez), Joone Lopez (MNWD), Dave Neitz (CDM Smith), Clifford Chan (EBMUD), Rick Warner (Washoe County/WEF), Harlan Kelly (SFPUC), Lynn Broaddus (Broadview Collaborative), Christine Boyle (Valor Water Analytics), Mary Ann Dickinson (A4WE), Kate Gasner (WSO), Newsha Ajami (Stanford), Greg Gearheart (SWRCB), Jason Rissman (OpenIDEO), Ali Barsamian (Watersmart Software), Vince De Lange (Delta Diablo) and all our 2018 Accelerator Companies as well as the Google Community Space for hosting us.