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How BHP uses Curly Thinking™ to collaboratively navigate complex conundrums

Kate Sommerville is the General Manager of Legacy Assets at BHP.

In this podcast, Kate shares how she and her team are using the Curly Thinking approach to reimagine the legacy of mining.

podcast edited transcript

Have some questions you want answered? Kate S. might have already answered in the podcast! Here's a quick list for you: 

Question: what is your role and what do you do?

Kate Sommerville:

I'm the General Manager for Legacy Assets in BHP, based in Tucson, Arizona. We have 24 locations across Canada and the USA, where we don't mine anymore. Quite a few of these, we didn’t even operate. Now we are at the stage where we're at the end we're trying to reclaim, understand them find a new life for them.


There's technical work and commercial work and we do different kinds of things to make these sites safe, stable and nonpolluting. And were from the Sonoran Desert to the frozen north’ in Canada. And we treat a lot of water and do a lot of monitoring.


We have half of the company's tailings dams, so we're also fixing them up to make sure that they're safe with new things that we've learnt. And so, we've got operators, we have a lot of professionals, hydro geologist, geotechnical engineering people. Commercial, legal and finance.


A whole world of people come to our sites thinking that were closed then get surprised when they see so many people walking around.

Question: We started with purpose. what role does purpose play in the work you do?

what role does purpose play in the work you do?

Kate Sommerville:
One of the things our team has in common is that they really want to do right by the industry. If we do a great job, and we show that sites don't get abandoned, that they get cared for, and that we look after them for a very long time. Sometimes we have things on our books for 100 years. So, we give mining a good name, we give its future license to operate.


That's why our purpose is to reimagine the legacy of mining because what we really want to do is do this so well, and so effectively, that we can showcase to the industry and society, that you can actually mine and do it in a really fantastic way. And that way, we get to do the right thing by the environment. But also, we get to mine for the future. I mean, all the renewables that people want to do, you can't recycle your way out of it, you need to keep mining, so you need to show that you can do it in a responsible way.


When my Vice President goes to sites he's saying Kate I'm so excited. Now, the people on site are telling me about the exciting things at this site could be in the future. And he said, that's something that is new. And that's something that makes us even more excited about the work that we've got to do in the future.

Question: What prompted you to consider using a different approach and applying the curly approach to some of the challenges that you have within legacy assets?

What prompted you to consider using a different approach and applying the curly approach

Kate Sommerville:

I do a lot of driving. It's one of our biggest risks getting around to all our various sites. So, I listen to podcasts. I was listening to Zoe Routh's podcast and I heard you on the on the podcast. And, I heard you talking about, complex problems and Curly Thinking and, I've been really really struggling with, my boss wanted me to solve closure. Can you please just fix closure?


You can ask people to do things. And, then when you're not getting the response that you want, either it's my fault, or so there's something else that's wrong.


People don't turn up to work to do the wrong thing. They turn up to work to do the right thing.


And they, as I've already said, like, everyone's super passionate about doing our work.


So, there was something that wasn't making sense. I probably should have done it six months earlier. But I thought, well, hey, how about we test this? How about we test this work out and see where we go on this particular problem.


Let's just start with a really, really big problem.


So, that's how I came to you. And I think we started talking about that. And we started talking about strategy. You kind of looked at our work, and that we needed to have a better strategy and a better purpose that can pull us all into a particular direction. So that needed to be in place.


But while we were doing that, we needed to learn some new tools and techniques.


As engineers, we always want to come up with the answer straightaway and make it clear cut and have it very binary. But not all problems are like that.


And closure is definitely not one of those areas where you can do that. Because you have community, you have environment, you have human rights, you have tailings safety, you have so many different elements that you have to work out. And, it's not always the same in every case. Once we got the strategy & purpose in place, the next thing was to get some tools to unpack this question.

Question: How did the curly way of doing things affect the team's approach?

How did the curly way of doing things affect the team's approach?

Kate Sommerville:

It’s about trying to understand. Trying to really make sure that there's a longer conversation about unpacking what this means in the future. And things like trying to understand where people are coming from. And I think we always get, we always know when we're talking to someone, and they don't agree with us.


One of the Curly concepts is the dark side of a mountain or the bright side of the mountain. And that has been a key thing for us to understand where people are coming from.


You can't just keep telling someone to fix it when they don't think that anything's wrong because they're living in a different world.


So, trying to understand where people were was important, but also just the art of the conversation. You can’t solve everything. But, the more you start having a conversation about different points or working out what bits you can solve, you can take a step forward. When you start doing that it starts greasing the wheels and makes other things happen.

Question: How has the Curly approach changed your team's ways of working?

How has the Curly approach changed your team's ways of working?

Kate Sommerville:

We're much more aware that when we want something to happen, everyone may not understand it as much as we do. So, then we use words like what side of the mountain are you? Are they on the dark side or the light side? How far up the mountain you now? How much do you need to move?


Also, we had a very senior team member leave and we were kind of feeling a little bit stressed about what we were going to do around that situation and all work that needed to happen.


We basically said, well, let's just use the Curly Framework and let's just start having a conversation.


And pretty much in 30 minutes, we were able to take a step back and not be in that stress zone, but be in the calm zone and work out which initial steps can we take to move all this forward and how we're going to organise ourselves. And really, were able to come up with a plan real quickly in 30 minutes.


It just helped us work more effectively through problems, because you work towards what we can actually do and move that forward?


And coming back to our big multi-layer problem, it ended up being a cultural issue. We realised that it wasn't just us that wasn't getting something and we weren't fixing something, it was a whole company that needed to change its culture and change its view on how we approach things.


We had people in corporate who were also on our side. They did the training with us and we got them on our inside. So that they learnt some tools as well. And then they were talking to their boss and saying, hey, you know, the language is coming out of your mouth, you're talking about curly problems, you're talking about Curly conundrums.


It is starting to permeate as a language throughout the areas of the organisation that we're trying to influence.


We take the time to do to keep it live by having Curly conversation every month, where we pick whatever topic we want to do, and we just try to work through some conversations keeps. You’ve got to practice the tool to keep it to keep it alive.


So many times in organisations, we sign up for meetings, we go to do work, but we don’t keep it up.  We do one hour, once a month.


No one goes away from the hour, not feeling enriched by having the time to sit back, take a breath, think about a conversation, talk about it as a team and come up with a different view.


My boss wasn’t sure at first. But this time he's come back and is saying that he can see the collaboration. He can see the people are working together more. He sees people are taking more time to understand where somebody else is in an in an issue so that we can try and solve it and come up with the best outcome for us.

Question: How has the Curly approach changed performance?

How has the Curly Approach changed peformance?

Kate Sommerville:

We weren't as integrated as we are now.


Before, everyone wanted to come up with their answer, or they wanted to do what they thought was the best. And really, I think how it's changed is that people have that awareness.


So, that somebody might not be on the same page. Or asking yourself what areas do I need to make sure that person is comfortable? Or how do we influence? Or how do we work to get the same outcomes?


It's more customer focused and collaborative.

Question: what has this meant for you as a leader?

What has this meant for you sa leader?

Kate Sommerville:

Less frustrating is probably the best way to answer.


Any sort of future issue where I'm not getting progress on something, I would act more quickly.  You try to be patient, and you try to ‘will people to your way’, and it doesn't always work.


And I think you've got to really come back to the point where you've got to be asking, “Well, what else is what else is wrong here?”


We're not just stuck trying to do the same thing and expect a different answer. You've got to really unpack this and have those conversations and take time for those conversations and do a lot more talking. And stop just setting metrics, and then asking it for them to be delivered.


It means that you need to take more time to have those conversations and have a different sort of conversations. Not just be linear about it. Go around the edges to talk about lots of different things to flip it around.


And it's fun. It's really, really fun to do that. For me, it's more energising and less frustrating. I'm understanding where people are coming from now. So that then, if there's issues, we can remove those blocks.


I think that you've got to have a reasonable amount of people who've done it. You've got to have enough people to understand the tools to get the common language.


And it's not an exclusive language. It's just like a, you're trying to, you're trying to just get to a point really quickly, where you, you know that you're trying to solve an issue.


And I think instead of getting frustrated by something that's not working or a difficult problem, we're kind of excited to say “Oh, this is a curly, you know, like, this is a challenge now”. You don't know where the journey is going to take you.


Sometimes you've got to let go of worrying about what the solution is and just completely throw it all out on the table. And then, just get excited about the process and then see where that takes you. So in a way, it's a little bit energising. So rather than it being depressing, and hopeless, you're actually energised and hopeful.

Question: what would you say to another leader considering using the curly approach?

Wha would you say to another leader considerig the Curly Approach?

Kate Sommerville:

If you've got a lot of technical people in your organisation or engineers or people who like to come up with answers and solutions, it’s fine to go through a lot of investigative processes, use verbal decision trees or things that are kind of a bit more straightforward and linear. 


But, if you are just getting super frustrated by something that you can't seem to solve, then it is worth investing some time in going through a process where you teach everybody to have good conversations.


It's fun, it's hopeful and energising. It puts technical and engineering people outside their comfort zones, for sure. I think everyone does appreciate the time, like it's just a new energising tool.


It's worth having a go, because you can only bash your head up against the wall, so much before you're not getting anywhere. And then, your boss is not happy with you.


This has really helped me convince only my boss, but also the organisation and other people, that we're on the right pathway to try and unpack something which is, which is very complex. It’s cultural, it's technical, it's lots of different things.


And, you know, we don't have the 100% answer now. But I can see that we're on the right path.


A lot of organisations will say, go faster, fix this, fix this, fix this! But at the end of the day, you're left saying “Well, I've got this thing. And, I can't bash it with a hammer anymore, I have to find a different approach”


So, if you're staring at that, then it's worth just having a go.


It requires a lot more words than us engineers and technical people are used to, but it's also energising and I'm sure people can use it in their home life as well.

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