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019: Part 2- A Case Study in Revolutionizing Community Engagement in Utility Master Planning

Bio: Tom Hickmann is a civil engineer with over 25 years’ experience in wastewater, stormwater, water supply, water rights, system design, hydraulic modeling, utility management, and utility master planning. Mr. Hickmann is the City of Bend Engineering & Infrastructure Planning Department Director focusing on oversight and implementation of all master plans and capital improvement projects.

He has been credited with bringing innovative ideas to the City, solving challenging issues and overseeing record infrastructure growth in one of the country’s fastest growing cities. He is noted for championing a unique approach to big-ticket infrastructure decision making and bringing these concepts to engineering audiences nationwide. He introduced hydraulic modeling techniques and implemented an enhanced modeling analysis which has been used as an example for assessing future infrastructure needs of growing communities.

We met Tom at the Utilities Management Conference in February 2018 and his presentation rocked us to our core. We had an incredible chat with him that we decided to break into two episodes. This is the second half of our conversation where we talk building a team that can implement community engagement, affordability, justifying technology, and the power of coffee (or beer) diplomacy. If you didn’t catch EP018 you’ll want to check that one out first.

Top Takeaways:

  1. [6:00] How they use Strength Finders and the DISC assessment to ensure they have the right people on their team and on each project.
  2. [7:50] “You have the best engineers in the world. Great—I’m glad you do. But I also need the best communicators in the world to get a project done and if I don’t have them I’m going to fail.”
  3. [8:34] Transparency begins by admitting the bias you’re bringing to the table.
  4. [13:40] New technology tools that can help with transparency.
  5. [18:33] Overcoming the fear related to dealing with the negative criticism. It’s ok. Just be like an elephant. Don’t take these things personally. Don’t let them get to your core. Learn to realize that maybe they’re saying that, not to get to you personally. Learn to step back and understand the issue you’re bringing forward is contentious. Not you, personally.
  6. [22:40] So you’ve embraced the need to communicate and engage—now what? How do you move you, your team, and your department forward? Tom explains “creative firing.” “Sometimes you have to help people move along. Sometimes that’s hard to do. Sometimes that takes a while but if you’re going to bring about change, you have to do it.”
  7. [25:22] “Look, you’re driving to a cliff and you don’t even know it. I’m trying to tell you to push on the brakes. You’re not going to do that. I know that. So I’m going to step off the bus.”
  8. [29:21] “Your job as directors is to raise leaders and you can’t raise a leader who isn’t operating in their strength.”
  9. [31:38] The issue of affordability and how they realigned their utility master plan to align with their financial master plan to lessen the impact on rates.
  10. [43:21] Justifying innovation in the water sector.
  11. [50:55] Combining technology, with face to face, and a little coffee (or beer) diplomacy. The incredible story of how Tom turned his biggest opponent into his biggest advocate by investing in some old-fashioned face time.


Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration— Ed Catmull

Plain, Honest Men — Richard Beeman

On Thinking Institutionally — Hugh Heclo

Public Process in Utility Master Planning — Thesis by Tom Hickmann, P.E.


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