Future, AI and phones

Appearing in In The Black magazine, October 2020

What About the Future?: New Perspectives on Planning, Forecasting and Complexity
By Fred Phillips
Springer, 157 pages

Phillips is a respected academic and consultant, and editor of the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, so he has spent a great deal of time thinking about the future. But he makes clear that this book is not about making predictions. Instead, it is about ways to think about the future, from trend analysis to scenario planning to expert roundtables. All methods have their strengths and weaknesses – and in most cases, more of the latter than the former.

He examines the issues of risk, complexity and uncertainty, as well as the foreseeability of (apparently) unforeseeable events and the labyrinthine impact of disruptive innovations. All this could easily have become a jargon-heavy jumble but Philips writes with admirable clarity and self-deprecating humour. He also has a good time poking some fun at predictions that turned out to be hilariously wrong, mainly due to the pattern of applying straight-line thinking to radical disjunctions. He eventually concludes that the most reliable tools in forecasting are population demographics and long-cycle Kondratieff waves, although even these have problems. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating read, and makes one think of Churchill’s famous remark, that the future is really just one darned thing after another.

Artificial Intelligence in Practice: How 50 Successful Companies Used AI and Machine Learning to Solve Problems
By Bernard Marr with Matt Ward
Wiley, 352 pages

For a long time AI looked like a solution in search of a problem but this book shows how it is being used to drive efficiencies that flow through to the bottom line. The studies are grouped into the categories of tech trailblazers, retail/CPG, media, financial/healthcare, and manufacturing, and each follows the same format of problem-analysis-solution-results. Many of the companies are using AI to improve the customer interface but some focus on product innovation, and AI is also being used to fight counterfeiting and pollution.

A particularly interesting case is Starbucks, which uses AI to connect global inventory control with granular analysis of local consumer movements. Another multinational giant, Unilever, uses AI to streamline recruitment and onboarding. Viacom has developed ways to build customer loyalty through data analytics and real-time monitoring.

Some readers might find the bite-sized studies to be overly brief and lacking in detail. That is the trade-off that Barr, who has written extensively about emergent technologies, has made: breadth for depth. But he includes reference lists at the end of each section for those who want to know more. He also provides a significant concluding chapter which examines future challenges for AI, including privacy, disruption and data security.

Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting
By Trine Syvertsen
Emerald Publishing, 2020

As Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, Syvertsen noticed an interesting news snippet: that the current trendy gift in Scandinavia is a ‘mobile box’. It is, in fact, just a box: the idea is that you put your phone into it and walk away for a day or longer. It made her think about how our relationship with our phone is evolving: from seeing them as essential tools and must-have fashion items to annoying distractions that steal our privacy, time and attention.

The research she conducted reveals how people are increasingly looking for ways to disconnect – or, rather, to set their terms for being online. Many people want to feel more “present” in their non-digital lives; others realised that they had forgotten how to have face-to-face conversations. Syvertsen endorses regular disconnection periods, and suggests methods such as offline zones in the house or workplace, removing notification apps, banning phones from beds, and acknowledging that FOMO – fear of missing out – is, well, silly. According to data from Sweden and Norway, periods of digital detox help to increase work productivity and improve overall health.

And as for the ‘mobile box’? A great idea, says Syvertsen. You can order them online.

Downloadable Resources

Looking ahead

The blog section of the Deloitte Australia site has a wealth of useful information, with categories including agility, the economic outlook, COVID-19 responses, leadership and finance. The emphasis is on looking forward, using data from the global Deloitte network. Some of the particularly interesting pieces examine the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for general insurance (under the Financial Services tab), experience as a key aspect of learning (under Innovation), and the connection between skills and wage premiums (under Government). Most of the blog pieces are short but there is usually a link to a longer article or more data sources.

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Skills in demand

The latest Jobs Report from Hays Recruitment Australia shows that Management Accountants, Cloud Engineers, Credit Assessors and SEO Digital Marketing Specialists are the skilled people most in demand at present. But the report warns jobseekers that technical abilities are not all that employers want to see. The key factor is for skilled professionals who, regardless of their role or industry, can demonstrate strong interpersonal and creative skills. Employers also want people who can make data-based decisions, adapt well to change and are continuous learners. This is likely to continue, with ‘soft’ skills becoming prerequisites across all job functions and sectors.

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Guy Winch is a psychologist and author, and in this interesting TED Talk he examines how to overcome stress and the problems it leads to. He argues that the real issue is what he calls ‘ruminations’, or the tendency to think about work at home – or, indeed, anywhere and everywhere. He advises setting up clear ‘guardrails’, including specific hours and places for work. Another important step is turning off the computer and the phone. He also has suggestions for people who work from home on setting clear divisions. Breaking bad mental habits is not easy but it can be done.

Watch at:


The Insights section of the site of banking giant HSBC contains a wide range of useful articles and podcasts, and it can be searched by industry sector or subject theme. Recent posts in the Financial Institutions section, for example, look at trends in the securities market and how changes are being driven by regulatory issues. An important article by analyst Lucy Acton asks whether sustainability issues will still matter to consumers after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. She concludes that although the pandemic has presented setbacks in some areas it has accelerated other sustainability trends, such as online purchasing and automation.

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Change leaders

Innosight is a US consulting firm specialising in helping companies develop and implement innovative solutions. The site provides many interesting articles and reports, with one of the most significant being ‘The Transformation 20’, which ranks companies according to their record on innovation. The report also draws lessons for leaders, noting that the biggest problem for successful companies is often complacency and self-delusion.

The site includes an In Memorium post for Clayton Christensen, a founder of the company who passed away in early 2020. He was one of the key figures of modern management thinking, and the author of numerous books on innovation, disruption, and transformation.

For a summary of the report ‘The Transformation 20’, and a link to the full report, go to:

Confidence, C-suite, and sustainability

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2020

Perfectly Confident: How To Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely
By Don Moore
HarperCollins Publishers, 272 pages, $65

When does an excess of confidence lead to bad decisions and likely failure? Equally, when does a lack of confidence lead to missed opportunities and personal stagnation? Moore, an academic who has studied both confidence and managerial decision-making, is interested in processes to find the optimal path. In this book he brings together studies from psychology and behavioural economics to define an appropriate level of confidence and how it can be utilised.

He mixes anecdotes and scientific evidence to develop a series of tests that can define choices and focus decisions. He shows how to avoid wishful thinking and to reconsider underlying assumptions. Do not be fooled by the apparent confidence of others, he advises, and look around to see what other informed, rational people are doing. At the same time, understand your goal and map the likely means to achieve it.

Generally, he sees over-confidence as more likely than under-confidence to lead to poor outcomes, and believes that most people over-rate their decision-making wisdom. But he makes clear that risks should not be avoided on principle. The point is to be able to assess risk in an objective, clear-minded way: what Moore calls “probabilistic thinking”. It adds up to a useful, entertaining package.

Crack the C-Suite Code: How Successful Leaders Make It To The Top 
Cassndra Frangos
Wharton School Press, $29, 116 pages

Frangos has extensive experience as a high-level business coach and she draws on it to examine how people reach the senior positions, especially the CEO role, in large corporates. She sees four typical paths, with each having advantages and problems. The most common, The Tenured Executive, is the path of working relentlessly up through the ranks. It means a deep understanding of the corporate culture but the downside can mean a lack of awareness of the external environment.

The Free Agent, on the other hand, is brought in from outside, usually to implement a reform agenda. The Leapfrog Leader, the newest route to the top, is a younger person who is selected from several levels down and catapulted into the big chair, also as a change agent.

The final route is the Founder. The idea is essentially about creating an organisation to lead. The rewards can be great but the risks are high.

Despite the different paths Frangos sees a core repertoire of skills and competencies, albeit in different measures. There must be an ability to manage uncertainty, a depth of resilience, deep sector expertise, networking skills and personal brand-building. Frangos adds another: self-awareness. Without that, she says, nothing else really matters.

Integrated Sustainability Reporting: Linking Environmental and Social Information to Value Creation Processes
By Laura Bini and Marco Bellucci
Springer, $128, 150 pages

Sustainability issues have moved into a central position in financial reporting but so far the approach has been largely additive and piecemeal. This book proposes an alternative, where the reporting of environmental, social and economic issues is sequential, but separate, to financial disclosures. Bini and Belluci argue that a company should explicitly report on how environmental and social issues impact its way of doing business, especially its business model. The reporting framework they present is meant to show the link between sustainability and value creation in a way that is accessible to stakeholders.

Along the way, Bini and Belluci provide a broad analysis of corporate sustainability reporting, including a discussion of the theoretical background and an explanation of why companies undertake sustainability reporting.

They also provide several case studies. The examination of H&M shows both the need for sustainability reporting and the difficulty in connecting it to a business model. The company admits there is a large gap between goals and execution, and acknowledges the need to constantly revise and improve disclosure methods as well as on-the-ground actions.

A bonus of this book is the extensive bibliography, which would be a valuable reference for researchers, students, and others interested in the sustainability field.

Turning point

The Battle of Midway
By Craig Symonds
Oxford University Press

The 1942 Battle of Midway was undeniably a pivotal event in WW2, and it is no surprise that it has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The surprise is that Symonds, currently a professor at the US Naval War College, finds plenty that is new to say by delving into the underpinning cultural and strategic issues.

He points out that the battle took place only six months after the strike on Pearl Harbour. Since that time, the central element of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, the Kido Butai (“Mobile Force”) had swept all before it, venturing as far as Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It was the Kido Butai – a group of carriers and support ships grouped together into a single task force – that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbour. In fact, says Symonds, things had gone so well that the Japanese could not conceive of failure.

Battle of MidwayAnd therein lies the rub. The strategic purpose of invading and occupying the island of Midway was always dubious – it only made sense as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii, although it would have been difficult to hold and supply – but there was also the goal of luring what was left of the US fleet into a decisive battle. Carrier battles were a fairly new concept – the recent Battle of the Coral Sea was the first actual case – but everyone agreed that locating the enemy was of crucial importance.  But the Japanese had no doubts that the Americans would do exactly what they expected them to do. Symonds recounts the story of a large table-top exercise aimed at predicting the course of the battle. These things can offer very useful lessons, except that the senior officer who was the arbiter kept changing the rules to ensure victory.

So the Japanese went into the battle with a swaggering confidence, with numbers, experience, and better planes on their side. But the American had some advantages: they had broken much of the Japanese radio code, and their ships had radar.

And there were important cultural elements that found practical expression. Something simple, which turned out be crucial: on the American carriers, when an attack was imminent, the fuel lines that ran around the ship were purged with carbon dioxide. (Give the man who thought of that a medal, someone.) Damage control was practised and there were redundant systems to keep things going.

US doctrine was to keep carrier groups separate. Pearl Harbour had revealed the danger of having too many eggs in a single basket. This meant that it was difficult to co-ordinate large attacks but it also meant that the key assets were unlikely to be taken out in one strike.

Symonds notes that the first US strikes on various parts of the Japanese invasion force were hopelessly inept. The Japanese air cover was powerful. The Americans suffered from repeated failures of technology, with torpedoes failing to explode and bombs dropping before they were supposed to.

The key US ship was the Yorktown. The Japanese were sure they had sunk it at the Battle of the Coral Sea but it had limped home and had been repaired in record time.

Aside from that, according to Symonds, the Japanese suffered from competing priorities: on the one hand trying to level Midway and on the other trying to engage the US fleet. This led to the famous ‘Nagumo’s dilemma’ where he had to choose between arming his planes for a second strike at Midway or load them for an attack on the US carriers. His decision was considered, logical … and wrong. Planes were still being re-armed when groups of American dive bombers arrived. Even worse, the air cover fighters were miles away, chasing a flight of hapless torpedo bombers.

Symonds notes that the US attack on the three Japanese carriers, the Kaga, the Akagi, and the Soryu, is sometimes described as a co-ordinated effort but in reality it was something of a scramble. It took only five minutes for all three carriers to be damaged beyond repair. The American scored only a few hits, but once the interior was alight the fire spread along the fuel lines and ordinance began to cook off. There was no hope.

Even with three carriers gone the Japanese still thought they could win. It as if they could not understand the concept of defeat. If they had withdrawn at this point they would have had enough assets to fight another day. But they pressed on, launching effective attacks on the Yorktown, and they believed they had sunk it.

But the Yorktown proved to be a tough ship. The damage control crews managed to keep it operating, even fighting. The Japanese launched another attack, thinking it was a different carrier. They inflicted massive damage but in doing so revealed the position of the final Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. The American counterstrike was brutally effective, and the Hiryu was out of the fight.

The Yorktown was abandoned but refused to sink. A recovery crew went back on and it was thought that it might be saved – but then a roving Japanese submarine found it. That was it for the Yorktown.

Finally, with four carriers gone, the Japanese commanders admitted that the day was lost and turned for home. Everything had changed on 4 June 1942.

There were some other important consequences as well. The Japanese had lost many of their best pilots while the Americans were able to rescue many of their downed airmen. The Yorktown could be replaced by the growing American industrial machine (the name was transferred to another carrier a bit later). The Japanese did not have the capacity to rebuild. After Midway, it was just a long series of holding actions and grind-down defeats.

For the Japanese, there was only one strategy left: defend a contracting perimeter and hope that the Americans would not be able to bear the costs. It did not work out that way.

What happened? Symonds has a series of answers. For years (even before Pearl Harbour) the Japanese had gone from one victory to another. In hindsight, it is clear that those victories were against weak opponents, or ones taken by surprise. A positive outlook is important, yes, but so is resilience and the capacity to deal with setbacks. A victory mentality only works when there are continued victories.

Yes, the Americans had a good dose of luck, but it was the sort of luck that is underpinned by the right strategic thinking and practical actions. Yes, it could have all worked out very differently. The point, however, is that it did not.




Funny stuff

Apropos of Nothing

By Woody Allen

Arcade, 400 pages, hardcover $50, e-book $25


There is a scene in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories where a movie director, played by Allen, encounters a group of aliens. He asks: how can I make the world a better place? They answer: “tell funnier jokes”.

It’s witty, clever, and little bit tragic, and it is the sort of sensibility that informs much of Apropos of Nothing. There is plenty of humour here, mostly in the shape of quips, comebacks, and double-edge observations. This might be a bit surprising, as Allen could justify feeling an abiding sense of bitterness. As a high-profile cancellee of the Hollywood-based Me-Too cultural elite, he has often found himself locked out of artistic circles, disavowed by stars and spurned by the people who hand out various awards. The book was dropped by its initial publisher, Hachette, and was picked up by the small press Arcade.

Apropos of Nothing coverThe cancel-frenzy dates back to 1992, when Allen was accused by girlfriend Mia Farrow of molesting Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter Dylan. In the book Allen notes that these charges have been debunked by several investigations and his own polygraph test (Farrow would not take one). Nevertheless, the charges of paedophilia have been repeated ad nauseum, underlining the point – if it needed underlining – that the cancelers are more interested in accusations than evidence. Allen devotes a good part of the book to this, over seventy pages. Perhaps it is justified, given the seriousness of the accusations, but eventually you want him to get back to the humour.

Yes, it is certainly true that Allen became involved with another of Farrow’s daughters, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was 21 and he was 55, and still seeing Farrow. But he points out that they have been married for twenty years. He clearly adores her, and the book is dedicated to her, which hardly sounds like the attitude of a paedophile. He believes that the abuse charges were manufactured by Farrow, who comes across as something of a dangerous fruitcake, not least to her tribe of adopted children, as a twisted means of revenge.

And yes, Allen has always had an eye for women, and there has been a long series of relationships and flings. His tendency to describe actresses in facile terms becomes grating, even when he is couching it in terms of a compliment. Scarlett Johansson “is not only gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive”. Léa Seydoux “was a 10 plus.” Christina Ricci “was plenty desirable.” This is not only dated but rather silly. One does  not have to accept the silliness of the Me-Too-ers to see that these sort of comments are no longer appropriate.

In fact, Allen seems a bit stuck in a past era. It is somehow not surprising that he still writes on an old-fashioned typewriter because he does not know how to use a computer. A telling detail: he does not even know how to change the typewriter ribbon, and depends on Soon-Yi to do it. In fact, he depends on her to keep him organised on a daily basis, and it sounds as if she has found her own vocation in doing it (Allen jokes that she could convince the Gestapo to bring her breakfast in bed).

Along the way, since the book is after all a biography, Allen recalls his childhood in Brooklyn and recounts some tales about his family. It was not always an easy environment but he never felt unloved. While he later cultivated the image of the bespectacled outsider at school he says that he was, in fact, fairly popular and pretty good at baseball. His parents were ambivalent about his becoming a writer until they found he could make money providing jokes for established funnymen, and later from stand-up comedy and from making movies. He says that he was never interested in high culture or ‘great’ literature, but – with the help of the glasses – managed to fake it. This theme would recur in a number of his movies, especially the dark comedy Zelig (in which Farrow appears). And far from putting his success down to luck and timing, he has a wealth of talents, including a passion for playing jazz and blues. He sometimes seems to be faking the faking.

He claims to understand little about the technical aspects of making movies, aside from knowing that you should take the lens cap off the camera. This sounds a bit like an exaggeration; many of his movies, such as the melodramatic Interiors, reveal a remarkable eye for image. He admits that some of his movies have hit the public like a lead balloon. He saves some good barbs for the interesting but unloved Shadows and Fog, noting that “marketing tests showed it did not appeal to homo sapiens”. He remains somewhat perplexed about the success of Midnight in Paris, which he sees as good but not that good. In some cases, like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the underlying idea was much better than what appeared on the screen.

Is his willingness to laugh at himself a backhanded, ironic way of boasting? If so, the movie business could use a bit more of it. He also likes to ladle credit onto other people, and a large chunk of the final third of the book reads a bit like a roll-call of contributors, actors and backers. There is no reason to think that he is not genuine in his feelings; it is just that after a while it sounds self-indulgent. The book needed a tough-minded editor, but it is unlikely that Allen would ever agree to such a thing.

All this raises the question of where Allen will go from here. He has plans for more movies and shows no sign of putting his feet up. He says: “I’m 84; my life is almost half over.” Another way of putting it is that at his age you stop caring about what the professionally pretentious think about you. Perhaps that is what the Allen really has to say: that the best way to cancel the cancellers is to ignore them, that living on your own terms is the best revenge, and that the key to happiness is, in the end, to find funnier jokes to tell.

Unplugging, wellbeing, and good work

Appearing in In the Black magazine, August 2020


24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week

By Tiffany Shlain

Simon & Schuster, $30, 256 pages

There is no doubt that cell phones have improved our lives in many ways but Shlain makes the point, in this fascinating book, that they have also generated anxiety, social dislocation, and exhaustion. She argues that regular unplugging from IT, which means not only phones but computers, social media and screens in general can have a profoundly positive effect on one’s life. She has built a successful career from Net 24-6 booktechnology so her willingness to deliberately turn it off for one day out of seven (and extending it to her entire family) might seem surprising. However, after doing it for a decade and she can provide many lessons, including on how it improves mental and physical health, rebuilds relationships and, ultimately, increases overall work productivity.

Shlain examines the Jewish idea of shabbat (a day of rest) and also delves into the underpinning neuroscience and psychology. She emphasises that just turning the phone or computer off is not enough: they need to be put completely out of sight, reach and mind. Breaking the habit of 24/7 connection can be difficult but it is worth the effort, and soon becomes second nature. So try it. You have nothing to lose but the stress.


Work Wellbeing

By Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell

Rockpool Publishing, $30, 224 pages

Here are some remarkable statistics: in a survey of over a thousand Australian employees undertaken for this book, 72 per cent regarded wellbeing as the most important aspect of their workplace, and 83 per cent believe it is up to the employer to facilitate wellbeing. Surveys also indicated that a very large number of employees are somewhat or very unhappy in their workplace, and consequently give only minimum commitment to the organisation.

It does not have to be this way, say workplace researchers McCrindle and Fell, and it should not be. They argue that satisfied, motivated employees should be the first priority of a leader – even more so than customers, as happy employees will lead to happy customers. They draw on their consulting experience to establish the characteristics of a wellbeing workplace, finding that a positive and supporting culture, a sense of purpose, and a realisation of impact are the keys. Leaders have to be collaborative rather than commanding, and be able to communicate long-term goals. Interestingly, this is true even with employees who work remotely. McCrindle and Fell note the need to understand different generations, but a common factor is that all employees want due recognition, meaning, and a sense of community.


Advancing the Common Good: Strategies for Businesses, Governments, and Nonprofits

By Philip Kotler

Praeger, $55, 196 pages

Advancing the Common GoodKotler is one of the heavy hitters of business theory, having published dozens of books on branding and marketing. But he has also written extensively about the social responsibility of the private sector, and this book consolidates his views and thinking on the broad subject. Making profits is not the essential point of business, he says, but merely a means: the real objective is to make the world a better place. In fact, in the era of Net-driven transparency and social media a company cannot afford to have its reputation tarnished by irresponsible actions.

Kotler provides many examples of firms that have used their expertise and capital to assist the disadvantaged sectors of the community and reduce overall inequality without compromising the financial bottom line. But merely acting at the margins is not enough, he says. Existing companies have to re-think their entire purpose, and newcomers should incorporate social objectives from the start-up phase. When considering new initiatives leaders should factor in the impacts on the physical and social environment. Kotler admits that defining “the common good” is not easy but he offers some useful metrics and organisational models. His main focus is on US society but most of what he says has universal application.


Downloadable Resources


Navigating recovery

Consulting firm Accenture has published a number of useful articles about charting a course for recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and has now consolidated the material to provide advice and insights. The collection looks at the long-term implications of the crisis for business leaders; creating a resilient workforce through training and redeployment; assessing fundamental changes in consumer behaviour and routes to market; rebalancing for risk and liquidity, while assessing opportunities for growth; and re-designing IT systems to allow for business continuity and system durability. The overall theme is how to turn adversity into opportunity through strategic leadership and effective planning.

Download, with links, from:



IT protection

Foreign intelligence services and cyber-criminals have begun to target contractors as a way of by-passing the protective measures of government agencies, according to the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Its publication Cyber Security for Contractors examines common intrusion strategies, ranging from socially engineered emails to unpatched applications. The publication sets out defensive tools, including applications control, regular reviews and patching, whitelists, and ongoing vetting of employees. The value of unclassified information contained on a contractor’s systems is not always evident but it can still be sensitive, particularly when aggregated. While the publication is aimed at government contractors there are broad lessons for corporations as well.

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Salary trends

Data from recruitment firm SEEK shows that the finance sector is one of the areas continuing to show solid rates of year-on-year salary growth. Compliance-related roles were especially strong due to a heightened regulatory environment. Within the finance area, risk consulting in insurance and superannuation showed strong demand, and company secretary roles also attracted high salaries.  Starting salaries continue to be strong but there is some evidence that growth is slowing (a trend evident even before the COVID-19 crisis). On the other end of the scale, the real estate and property sector recorded a year-on-year decline, with valuers’ salaries falling most sharply.

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Chart data

Anyone who needs to see at a glance how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the Australian economy, and how the recovery is likely to develop, will find authoritative information in The Chart Pack published by the Reserve Bank of Australia. It summarises macroeconomic and financial market trends, with data on credit and money, banking indicators, inflation, commodity prices, the stock market, trade and GDP growth. There is also useful information about regional and global developments. The graphs are updated monthly and can be downloaded individually or as a package. There are also links to more detailed data available through the RBA website.

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Team players

Patrick Lencioni is the author of a series of books imparting business lessons through fables, and in this TED talk he uses stories and anecdotes to define the qualities of an ideal team player. The essential attributes, he says, are humility, which means focusing on the greater good; being hungry, entailing self-motivation and a willingness to take the initiative; and being people-smart, which requires being perceptive about others, asking good questions, listening carefully and knowing how to respond effectively. Lencioni emphasises that it is up to the leader to nurture and develop these qualities through example, mentoring and good recruitment choices.

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Bad Tech, gender issues, and future work

Appearing in In the Black magazine, July 2020


Don’t Be Evil

By Rana Foroohar

Penguin, 256 pages, $35

Don't Be EvilOnce upon a time, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google were like cute little puppies, full of fun and with the charm of innocence. But at some point they grew into oversized attack dogs, devouring everything in sight and snarling whenever confronted. How, asks financial journalist Foroohar, did this happen? How did Google, whose original motto provides the book’s title, and Apple, whose founder Steve Jobs once described personal computers as “bicycles for the mind”, become Big Tech behemoths?

The key is that each company was able to develop systems to collect, refine and manipulate customer data, feeding it back to generate further revenue. With assured cash flow and massive reserves they were able to invest in R&D, corner the talent market, dominate competitors and ensure political protection. Foroohar focuses on Google but the method was similar for all the companies (and Netflix, which Foroohar sees as using comparable tactics). It was not pretty but it was ruthlessly effective.

Foroohar does a good job at keeping this sprawling canvas organised, often injecting a dry sense of humour. She suggests that it might not be too late to control the giants, by reinvigorating anti-monopoly laws and imposing a data-based tax. One way or another, she tells a fascinating story.


Beat Gender Bias

By Karen Morley

Major Street Publishing, 208 pages, $30

Morley has worked with a wide range of companies to help them improve gender diversity at senior management levels so she speaks with great personal authority. There might be more women in corporate life than ever before but the overall numbers remain distressingly low, even in companies that talk the talk. The essential problem, she says, is unconscious bias on the part of leaders, even those with good intentions. She offers advice on how to identify and address unconscious bias by reframing issues and asking the right questions. At the same time, leaders have to ensure that women have network opportunities and suitable mentorship. Too often, the number of women in senior positions stops at one or two, and even those usually fail to reach the highest levels.

Morley emphasises that if providing opportunities for women and working towards gender balance is perceived as a zero-sum game, where women are seen as having been given special advantages to take them past men, the program is likely to fail. Instead, it has to be shown to be a win-win situation, with the whole organisation gaining benefits. She readily acknowledges that beating gender bias is difficult but it has to be confronted if leaders want to walk the walk.


The Realities and Futures of Work

By David Peetz

ANU Press, 406 pages, $55

It was Churchill who said that the future will be one darn thing after another. This is especially true in relation to work and workplaces, which have seen waves of change in the past few decades. Peetz, an academic who specialises in this area, brings together a huge amount of research, aiming to get past the emphasis on technology that is the focus of many analysts. He accepts the importance of technological change but sees other ‘mega-drivers’, such as demographics, globalisation, and regulation as equally important.

He argues that casualisation and freelancing constitute only a small part of the total economy, and that a fairly traditional employment relationship is likely to remain the mainstay. He detects broad push-back against technology-related downsizing and globalised outsourcing, and believes that unions are due for a resurgence. At the same time, many companies have realised that they need to provide a sense of satisfaction to their employees if they are to survive. The future of work, says Peetz, will not be a single model but a mix of layers, relationships and systems.

This book covers a great deal of ground. It does not provide definitive answers but it offers useful food for thought on where the road is leading.

Realities and Futures of Work


Downloadable Resources


Managing remote employees

Hays Specialist Recruitment has consolidated a series of articles and resources dealing with managing employees and teams working remotely. The collection covers how to set priorities and timeframes for remote employees, how to maintain the corporate culture, recruiting and onboarding new employees, and ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of remote employees. A particularly interesting article deals with making a team adaptable to change through encouraging innovation and experimentation within a framework of strategic objectives. The keys to successful management of remote employees are constant communication, clear rules, robust technology tools, and a willingness of executives to trust their people.

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Looking to recovery phase

A report from McKinsey, From Surviving to Thriving, examines how companies can take advantage of the post-pandemic recovery. Many companies will have to re-think their business model and those who successfully do so will be well-placed for long-term success. Areas for focus are rebuilding revenue, reconstructing operations, rethinking the organisation, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions. The report unpacks these, while underlining the importance of recognising how much has changed. So far, those companies that have done best in navigating the crisis are those which consciously developed a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture, and this is likely to continue as we move forward.

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CEO concerns

PwC Australia’s 23rd CEO Survey shows a great deal of concern about the medium-term outlook from corporate leaders. Even leaving aside the problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80 per cent of CEOs are concerned about economic growth. Seventy-eight per cent identify skills shortages as an obstacle to growth, and 73 per cent predict that technology blind spots will hamper growth opportunities. However, the survey also suggests that there are important opportunities from companies willing to move out of their comfort zone with pro-active strategies, especially when willing to invest in upskilling and technology utilisation, and to collaborate with start-ups and smaller companies.

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Stress test

Beyond Blue is an organisation dedicated to improving the Australia’s mental health, and unfortunately it has had a busy 2020. It has put together a package of information about anxiety and stress, including information on symptoms and possible treatments. Everyone experiences anxiety occasionally; problems arise when it persists even when the causes are removed. Beyond Blue provides a number of anecdotal cases to show how anxiety can become embedded in thinking and can have major impacts on physical health. There is also an “anxiety checklist”, information on finding professional help, and a link to Beyond Blue’s e-publication A Guide to What Works for Anxiety.

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Trade impact

There is now enough data to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy, and the picture is certainly grim. A package of information from the World Trade Organization shows that global merchandise trade is set to plummet by up to 32 per cent in 2020, with the largest falls in sectors with complex value chains, particularly electronics and automotive products. Nearly all regions will suffer double-digit declines in volumes, with exports from North America and Asia hit hardest. The WTO expects a recovery in trade in 2021 but its strength is dependent on the effectiveness of current policy responses.

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CFOs, CyberSec, and Experiments

Appearing in In The Black, May 2020


Finance Unleashed: Leveraging the CFO for Innovation

By Magnus Lind and Kelly Barner

Palgrave Macmillan, $80Finance Unleashed

In this era of rapidly changing financial technology and constant disruption, CFOs can often find themselves struggling to define their role. Lind and Barner, who between them have a wide range of C-level experience, provide a path forward, focusing on improved supply chain management as a means of adding value and strategic input.

They break the CFO role into the components of Customer-centricity, Process and Innovation, and unpack each to show what can be done. The middle section of the book features contributions by CFOs who have successfully re-defined their role, with an emphasis on innovative supply-chain solutions.

Moving beyond the traditional functions means a shake-up of both the finance department and the larger organisation. The CFO has to be willing to devolve some longstanding responsibilities, such as procurement, to operational branches. This is not easy but it frees the CFO team to look at the company’s value proposition more broadly, working with suppliers, other businesses, and customers. Lind and Barner provide checklists and templates to guide the way, as well as case studies to show the real-world effects. There is also an interesting survey of CFOs that shows where they are and where they think they need to go.


Cyber Security: Threats and Responses for Government and Business

By Jack Caravelli and Nigel Jones

Praeger Security, $102

This book provides a comprehensive overview of the state of play regarding cyber-threats. Caravelli and Jones note that while there are many cyber-criminals who seek to steal money the larger threat comes from agencies covertly supported by governments, with the aim of accessing national security secrets, crucial technology, and high-level data. Another goal for ‘grey’ agencies is the insertion of malware: an insidious form of plausible-deniability warfare. Caravelli and Jones look at some outstanding cases, as well as solutions and preventative measures.

Cyber SecurityAwareness of cyber-threats has grown but cyber-security has yet to be fully integrated into corporate and government operations. Caravelli and Jones identify crucial weaknesses: for example, they see the open architecture of the Internet of Things as a disaster waiting to happen.

Some of the best answers have come about through co-operative efforts by governments, businesses, and academic specialists. Designing systems for layered resilience makes sense, as does the idea of breaking crucial information into pieces and storing it behind firewalls in different locations. Caravelli and Jones review the strategies of several countries, with suggestions for the future. The concluding chapter, examining how the UK has developed a solid defence against cyber-threats, ties much of the story together.


The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators

By Melanie Parish

Page Two, $30

As an experienced management coach, Parish has heard many recently-promoted leaders speak of “imposter syndrome”, which is their fear that they do not really know how to do the job, and that the nasty secret will eventually be discovered. In this book, she offers a way forward, for both leaders at the team level and in the corner office.

The place to start is asking questions of yourself – Parish provides a list of suggestions – leading to a set of experiments. These experiments will help to define what sort of leader is required in the circumstances, how your own style can be developed, and how others can be brought along with you. Parish borrows scientific methodologies for testing hypotheses, analysing results, and determining metrics. She also looks at Japanese kata methods of questioning for continuous improvement. Experimentation leads the way to innovation and productivity gains, and if an experiment fails then it can be examined for lessons.

Parish also believes that ‘management by walking around’ is a good way to open channels for communication and feedback. Her model might not be suitable for all cases but it offers interesting food for thought and a useful avenue for more effective leadership.

Experimental Leader


Thriving, looking ahead, better ideas

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2020

Made to Thrive
By Brad Giles
Evolution, $30

Made to ThriveSo you have finally made it to the big chair and you think you can pat yourself on the back and enjoy the status. Think again, says leadership specialist Giles. Your work is just starting, and the areas you have to focus on are the ones that you probably don’t like.

Drawing on academic research and his own experience, he defines five key roles played by highly effective CEOs. Accountability means that everyone in the organisation knows what is expected of them, with systematic lines of authority. The CEO also has to be an ambassador, representing the company values. They must set a positive culture within the company, and tie it to their strategic direction. The final role is about minimising risks through considered succession planning, not just with their own job but in every leadership position.

Giles provides assessment tests for each, noting that few people score well on all. The key is to be willing to admit and address weaknesses, which means getting out of your comfort zone. He offers good advice for this as well as checklists and guides. It is not easy to confront one’s shortcomings but the readiness to do so is the difference between good and great.


The Organisation of Tomorrow: How AI, Blockchain and Analytics Turn Your Business Into a Data Organisation
By Mark van Rijmenam
Taylor & Francis, $63

Business-related technology sometimes seems like a highway plunging into the unknown at high speed. Van Rijmenam, an academic who works at the intersection of management and technology, knows how frightening it can be, and in this book he seeks to integrate analytics, blockchain and AI into a digestible, cohesive package. He looks at cases such as Alibaba, Walmart and Microsoft, using their experience to develop a model he calls D2 + A2: datafy, distribute, analyse, automate. Understanding your market, building relationships with suppliers and stakeholders, using data to adapt rapidly to changes and look ahead: it requires good people to understand the platforms involved but, even more, a leadership team that can manage and direct the digital infrastructure.Organisation of Tomorrow cover

He makes the point that the size of an entity will become less important (if it isn’t already) than its technological grasp. In fact, larger entities are more likely to operate like groups of small ones. Supply chains are more likely to be global and collaborative than local and hierarchical.

Van Rijmenam covers a great deal of ground but does so in an ordered and systematic way. So if you are looking for a map of the road ahead, this is a good place to start.



Building Better Ideas: How Constructive Debate Inspires Courage, Collaboration, and Breakthrough Solutions
By B. Kim Barnes
Random, $50

A good team is an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts but too often, says consultant Barnes, team discussions end in defensiveness and acrimony. She offers a range of useful solutions, starting with ways for the team leader to ensure that the project objective is clear and then assigning roles and timelines, with a transparent structure and obvious metrics. She drills down to a substantial depth, even suggesting phrases and speaking modes to encourage team members in questioning assumptions. Members should feel free to critique the contributions of others, but by using data and logical pathways to do so in a positive way. A good idea becomes a great one through development, evolution, and multiple inputs.

Barnes identifies groupthink as a key danger, and looks at cases where a false consensus has led to disaster. This is especially common when the team leader is seen as an authority figure. She emphasises that the leader has to be sometimes willing to step back, acting as a guide rather than an expert. A particularly useful aspect of the book is the appendices, which include worksheets, resources, and templates for planning constructive debates in a team context.



Digital, growth and mindset

Appearing in In The Black magazine, March 2020.


Digital is Everyone’s Business: a Guide to Transition
By David Banger
BookPod, $39

Digital is Everyones BusinessMany senior executives understand the necessity of going digital but making the transition from a hierarchy to an organisation where information flows around easily seems like a very daunting challenge. Banger, a CIO turned academic, offers practical advice, starting with the development of a learning-based mindset. For leaders, this can mean admitting their weaknesses in certain areas, which can be a painful step. Finding the most suitable digital platform is important but having the right people in place to make it work is essential.

In many companies there will be long-serving employees who are wary of digitisation, so the leadership group has to be able to present the advantages of the new way of working. The transition also provides the opportunity to reveal activities which are not adding value, a crucial issue in large organisations. There has to be a clear message that innovation and experimentation are critical components of the digitisation journey. Keep the information pathways simple, walk through the changes in plain language, and get up to speed on the technology side, advises Banger.

He explains this concisely and systematically, with helpful tools and relevant analogies. The move to digitisation is not easy but this book offers a useful roadmap.


Growth IQ: Get Smarter About the Choices That Will Make or Break Your Business
By Tiffani Bova
Portfolio, $53

Working out how to grow the business is the fundamental, and most difficult, task for leaders. Bova is a specialist in the area and draws upon her consulting experience to set out ten paths, ranging from product diversification to partnerships to extended customer base penetration. She carefully unpacks each of these but she emphasises that in nearly all cases sustained growth requires a combination of ideas. The search for a single magic bullet, in fact, usually ends in failure. Understanding each path means that a leader can develop a coherent suite of strategies to provide synergy and flexibility. There is, however, a common thread: a continued focus on the customer, which is the origin of the “growth IQ” concept.Growth IQ Aust cover

Along the way she looks at companies that have implemented multi-faceted growth strategies, such as Netflix, McDonalds and Apple. She also examines some failures, such as Blockbuster, which provide useful lessons as well.

Don’t think it will be easy, says Bova, and neither will it be quick. She believes that sustainable growth builds up slowly. This willingness to eschew the quick fix is a refreshing aspect of the book, and Bova also has a good eye for practical solutions and solid metrics.


The Outward Mindset: How to Change Lives and Transform Organizations (2nd ed.)
By The Arbinger Institute
Penguin, $30

This volume updates a 2016 edition, with an expanded set of case studies and new research material. The Arbinger Institute is a training and coaching group, and many of the stories discussed in the book come from its programs. The authors believe that many companies have become inward-looking, having drawn the wrong lessons from management theories that emphasise internal operations. This isolates a company from its clients and the broader environment. Addressing this problem begins with people changing their personal outlook into one based on collaborative listening and positive interactions.

Employee training is useful but the key is the organisation’s leaders demonstrating the value of an outward-looking mindset, and an important chapter provides a game plan for communicating it. Getting there may take several years but the rewards are significant, with the benefits eventually flowing through the company. In particular, teams become more productive and connected to the firm’s objectives.

Some readers might find a few of the numerous stories difficult to follow but there is always follow-up analysis. The website of the Arbinger Institute has many of the stories available as videos, and there is also an online audit tool to assess progress towards an outward-focused mode of thinking.

Outward Mindset


Netflix, transformation and quality

Appearing in In The Black, February 2020


That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea
By Marc Randolph
Hachette, $33

That Will Never Work coverNetflix has become a fixture of the cultural landscape but it was a long haul to get there, according to Randolph, and founder and first CEO of the company. In this rollicking account he describes the many false starts and reversals, as the home entertainment business went digital and the technology that made streaming possible developed. There were plenty of sceptics (including Randolph’s wife, from whom the book’s title comes) but Randolph and some key investors persisted, constantly revising the business model and the product mix. At one point they pitched Blockbuster to acquire them; Blockbuster’s refusal stands as one of the worst business decisions ever made.
Randolph was wise enough to know that his strength was entrepreneurial energy and eccentric visions rather than the steady management that was needed as the company grew. He was willing to step back from an executive role but he saw the successful IPO, and the figure of 150 million subscribers, as vindication. The concluding section of the book sets out the lessons he distilled from the experience, and its makes for inspiring reading. The story of Netflix is also one of new technology driving industry disruption, which makes it useful as an extended case study of how modern business works.


The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation
By Gerald Kane, Anh Phillips, Jonathan Copulsky and Garth Andrus
MIT Press, $67

For those CEOs who think that digital transformation can be achieved simply by writing out a big cheque to the IT division, this book makes clear that it does not work that way. Slogans like ‘our people are our most important asset’ won’t take you very far either, unless matched by solid attempts to upskill the workforce, remake the culture, and recruit the right people for the right jobs.
After four years of research, with a survey of 16,000 people overseen by Deloittes, the authors find that very few companies have got it right. Significantly, 68 per cent of respondents said that transformation would require new leadership, both to guide the process itself and then to lead the company along the digitisation road.Technology Fallacy
In this connection, the book introduces a concept called digital maturity, meaning the ability to take advantage of opportunities offered by the new technology. It is about cultivating a digital environment, enabling collaboration, and encouraging an experimental mindset. Kane, Phillips, Copulsky and Andrus provide a useful road-map, with a list of essential leadership capabilities.
It adds up to a useful package for senior leaders, mid-level executives, and HR managers. Some people might not like being told how far they have to go, but it is the sort of thing you have to know.


Quality Management: Tools, Methods, and Standards
Edited by Marco Sartor and Guido Orzes
Emerald Publishing, $85

In the globalised, Net-driven, hyper-competitive marketplace of 2020, the factor that differentiates winning companies from also-rans is quality. This book is written by a group of European academics specialising in the field, although they have a wealth of business experience as well. They recognise how the quality debate has changed in the past decade, and they devote important chapters to ensuring quality for stakeholders both inside and outside the company. Moving from theory to practice, they examine and update critical concepts such as the balanced scorecard and the Kano model, as well as new developments in Six Sigma and lean manufacturing.
Quality ManagementManagement accountants and finance professionals are likely to find the most valuable chapters to be those focusing on statistical tools for quality oversight and process mapping. The section on methods of customer satisfaction analysis is also useful.
The second half of the book is devoted mainly to ISO standards such as ISO 9000, ISO 14001, and ISO 45001. The concluding chapter looks at SA 8000, the international standard linked to corporate social responsibility. Along the way, the book provides tools to ensure standards compliance and certification, making it a valuable addition to a critical field.