What Happened

The Surprise Party: How the Coalition Went from Chaos to Comeback
By Aaron Patrick
Black Inc, $30, 256 pages, ISBN 9781760642174

There’s always the unexpected, isn’t there? The chattering classes, the media commentariat, the denizens of the Canberra bubble: all of them thought that the 2019 election was over before it started. The Coalition would be swept from office, the Labor Party would be returned to its place as the natural party of government, all would be right with the world. Didn’t work out that way. Sorry.

The Surprise PartyIt’s a strange story, the tale of the election campaign, and Patrick is a good person to tell it. His previous books, Downfall: How the Labor Party Ripped Itself Apart and Credlin & Co: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself, established him as a fair-minded writer and a careful researcher. As a senior writer for the Financial Review he had a ringside seat for the twists and turns of the campaign as well as access to key people, and he is experienced enough to not take too much at face value.

A central element in the view that the Coalition was doomed were the opinion polls, which had shown Labor ahead for years. It seemed that the public, after the government churning through leadership dramas and policy failures, were waiting with baseball bats. The Labor policymakers agreed, signing off on a suite of big, complex policies. It was mainly the old-time religion, with more taxes and more money for anyone who put their hand out, but a new wrinkle was a belief that the public was hungry for radical solutions on the climate change issue.

The one area of weakness for Labor in the polls was Shorten, who was consistently behind Morrison. No matter, said the old hands: every PM usually polls better than the Opposition Leader.

To many on the Labor side, Morrison ScoMo was a figure of ridicule. Beefy and suburban, he even went to a Pentecostal church, where he sang and clapped and prayed. You could almost hear the Labor elite saying: really!? Church!? In 2019!? He’s dead.

Patrick provides an interesting discussion on this point. He speculates that faith might be more important to Australians than previously realised, but the point of Morrison going to church (and being filmed) was that it indicated his authenticity. What you see is what you get.

Middle Australia, on the other hand, never really trusted Shorten. No-one knew what he believed in, except his own ambition. The story he told of his working-class background did not fit the facts, and his attacks on ‘the big end of town’ sounded like a sound-bite package. Patrick reiterates a comment that how could a man who had changed his faith, his wife, and his football team be trusted.

Personal shortcomings might not have mattered if Shorten had been able to sell the policy package. But he kept getting crucial details wrong, then backtracking. He seemed surprised that journalists would actually ask him difficult questions and check the answers. He was not helped by colleagues like Chris Bowen, who said that if voters did not like the policy on franking credits they should not vote Labor. In fact, this policy – framed by the Coalition as a “retirees’ tax” – was one of the key game changers.

Another was the Labor attitude on climate change policy. It came across as an attack on the fossil fuels sector, which was a killer in Queensland especially. Even worse, Shorten could not explain how it would work, how much it would cost, and who would pay for it. The Greens, always willing to open their mouths and put their foot in it, created a huge problem for Labor with a caravan of protesters to the communities near the Adani coal mine, where they happily told people how awful they were.

Yes, there was plenty of dishonesty on both sides, and Patrick analyses the major examples. The Liberals had been taken unaware by the ‘Mediscare’ campaign in 2013 and were determined they would go on the attack, and did so with gusto. Labor’s assertions that there had been huge cuts to social spending did not fare well, with the Coalition ready with reams of refuting statistics. Even the ABC was sceptical of the Labor claims, which should have sounded a very loud warning bell.

Patrick notes that while the public polls through the campaign showed Labor ahead the parties’ internal polls revealed a different story. Broken down into regions and seats it was even worse. Maybe this is why Morrison seemed to increase his energy over the campaign, while Shorten started fraying.

Nevertheless, on election eve Labor was still sure of triumph. The actual results were a devastating shock, with some journalists refusing to accept the trends until the numbers could no longer be ignored. In the end, only a small number of seats changed hands, although it was enough to give the Coalition a working majority.

But this was not just a personal vindication for Morrison, says Patrick. He looks at data showing that many of the people who switched to Labor were in the upper brackets for income and education. Conversely, many of those who switched to the Coalition were what Labor considered to be its blue-collar base. This is something the new Labor leaders will have to look at closely.

The reasons are not clear. Was it just dislike of Shorten and Labor’s policies or are larger factors at work? Has the social conservatism of the non-elites overtaken historic economic allegiances? It is too early to tell, but we might look back on this election as a pivot point. If so, this book will be a good one to go to.

Culture, Prosperity and Transformation

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2019

 

Culture Fix: How To Create a Great Place to Work
By Collin Ellis
Wiley, $30

Culture FixA positive and productive culture is essential for business health but Ellis, drawing on extensive consultancy experience, sees very few leaders who are happy with their company’s cultural framework. He sets out to turn theory into practical steps, and by and large he provides a good roadmap of how to get from here to there.

He unpacks the six ‘pillars’ of culture – personality and communication, vision, values, behaviour, collaboration and innovation – and finishes each section with a list of actions. Complexity is the enemy of a healthy culture, so avoid lengthy mission statements and heavy-going training courses. The cultural parameters should be written down for everyone to see; Ellis cites the ‘culture deck’ of Netflix as a good example. Transparency is also critical: a leader, whether a CEO or team supervisor, must be able to explain the reasons for decisions. Solid achievement should be recognised but there should also be room for innovative experiments.

Ellis deftly examines how leaders can guide and develop the cultural process. He provides case studies of companies who have done it well, with Atlassian being a recurring example. There are no one-size solutions but this book offers plenty of useful tips in a critical field.

 

The Prosperity Paradox
By Clayton Christensen, Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon
HarperBusiness, $57

Christensen is a heavy hitter in business thinking, and his books on innovation and disruption are required reading. However, his original interest was in development economics, stemming from his time in South Korea when the country was impoverished. The process of how South Korea became an economic powerhouse has long fascinated him, especially when many countries around the world have remained poor despite trillions of dollars in aid and a wealth of good intentions.

Prosperity ParadoxIn The Prosperity Paradox Christensen and his co-authors apply the theory of innovation to the issue, and conclude that the identification of unmet consumer needs, involving products that do not even exist in that market yet, is the key. They look at dozens of examples: mobile phones in Africa, microwave ovens in China, even noodles in Nigeria. The social impacts are enormous.

Aid donors and domestic policymakers should focus on this area. Stable institutions corruption and reduced corruption are important but it is innovation that drives prosperity. Knowing how to use technology to lower costs is necessary but a culture of innovation can become self-sustaining.

This is a fascinating book, with lessons for business readers on how wealth is created through imaginative thinking and consistent vision.

 

Data Driven Business Transformation: How Business Can Disrupt, Innovate and Stay Ahead of the Competition
By Caroline Carruthers and Peter Jackson
Wiley, $51

Discussions on integrating data into business operations often bog down in technical jargon or somehow fail to reach the point of saying how you actually do it. Carruthers and Jackson, specialists in this field, avoid the techno-babble to provide a step-by-step guide, with flow diagrams and diagnostic tests to illustrate their points.Data Driven Business Transformation

Their starting point is to assess what information is already held and determine what more is needed. The next step is to bring it into a common digital architecture. They are wary about handing too much of authority over to the IT specialists, who might not always understand the business impact. In fact, transformation has to be led from the top, and everyone in the organisation has to be able to understand the benefits. This will take a major investment of time and resources but it is essential for both getting transformation going and then embedding it as a process. The authors also offer good advice on how to develop relevant metrics and then fold the results into policy, strategy and governance.

It adds up to a useful package for any organisation which sees digitisation as the next step in development and needs to know how to proceed.

 

Downloadable research

 

Interview FAQs

An interview for a new job can be a traumatic experience but it does not have to be, according to specialists from recruitment firm Michael Page. In a useful post they look at the most common interview questions, explaining why they are asked and what sort of response is best. Answers should be supported with examples but they must be succinct and relevant. Interviewers are often looking for self-awareness as well as ‘cultural fit’, which might be demonstrated by citing non-work interests. The overall message of the article is that some preparation, research and proof can go a long way.

Download from:
https://www.michaelpage.com.au/advice/career-advice/interview/common-interview-questions

 

Looking ahead

Future of Digital Banking coverKPMG’s The Future of Digital Banking report, developed in collaboration with the Commonwealth Bank, looks at how the banking sector will operate in 2030, drawing on a survey of over 1,000 customers. The report notes that customers will demand technology-enabled ‘autonomous experiences’, with personalised options, a trusted interface, and a financial ‘super-app’. They will be increasingly savvy about what is possible and will be willing to switch finance providers if they see a better offer. This will lead to intense battles between incumbents and challengers, with established firms emphasising their legacy and experience while new players offer dynamism and choice.

Download the report from:
https://home.kpmg/au/en/home/insights/2019/07/future-of-digital-banking-in-2030.html

 

Mental health support

Beyond Blue, the respected organisation which aims to improve Australians’ pyschological wellbeing, has released an online publication, Supporting Small Business Owners, to provide advisers and accountants with guidance on how to assist their clients. The free publication includes advice on recognising the symptoms of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing, how to speak with someone you are concerned about, and how to contact professional help.
The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Kate Carnell, has applauded the release of the guide, noting that it provides advisers with the tools they need to support their clients, without formal training in counselling.

Download from:
bb.org.au/supportingsmallbusiness

 

Resilience needed

Margaret Heffernan TED TalkAs the former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan is very familiar with the thought patterns that lead organisations and managers astray, and she examines them in an enlightening TED Talk. She believes that an unconsidered drive for efficiency can create systems which are unable to deal with unforeseen events, and that sacrificing some efficiency for greater robustness can make sense. She also notes that there has been a decline in social relationships in the workplace in the past decade due to ‘busy-ness’, depriving organisations and the people within them of essential support mechanisms and resilience in times of crisis.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_the_human_skills_we_need_in_an_unpredictable_world

 

Blockchain going global? Blockchain trade

Blockchain technology is slowly making its way into an array of business niches, and the World Trade Organization believes that it might eventually find a place in global trade. A WTO study, Can Blockchain Revolutionize International Trade?, looks at some of the possibilities. It opens opportunities for small-scale producers and companies, and offers the potential for better protection of intellectual property rights. Blockchain could also reduce trade costs and enhance transparency. The report recognises that there are many challenges that must be addressed before the technology can have a significant impact but it aims to encourage thinking in the area.

Download from:
https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/blockchainrev18_e.htm

Generalists, careers, and creative solutions

Appearing in In The Black magazine, November 2019

 

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein
Riverhead, A$53

Tiger Woods’ story is well-known: living and breathing golf since he could walk, putting in untold hours of practice, laser-like focus on building the skills. But this model is deceptive, according to Epstein, a sports writer who has crossed into business analysis. He provides plenty of examples of very successful people – Roger Federer is one, but there also mathematicians, musicians and inventors – who started fairly late, after a lengthy period of sampling other things. A better method for doing well, rather than the practice-practice-practice pattern, is having a generalist base with a specialisation on top. Range high resEpstein calls this “interleaving”, an approach that develops inductive reasoning and abstract thinking, and which applies to both physical and mental skills.
Along the way, Epstein draws on studies by cognitive psychologists and brain researchers. He has an eye for a telling example, such as the point that most successful start-ups are established not by twenty-somethings but by people in their fifties. Highly-developed skills can easily be degraded by a shift in technology or social patterns but an innovative mind never goes out of fashion.
This is a fascinating, briskly-written book. Epstein does not dismiss the achievements of hyper-specialists but there are, he says, other paths to success.

 

Career Conversations: How to Get the Best from Your Talent Pool
By Greg Smith
Wiley, A$22

When it comes to career development, getting the best from employees – and giving the best to them – is no longer a matter of promotion interviews and performance reviews, according to HR specialist Smith. Rather, it is about coaching them towards the career path they really want, and aligning their personal goals with the goals of the organisation.Career Conversations
Many people will move through several careers in their working life. The stages are exploration, engagement, advancement, growth, maintenance and disengagement. Smith provides good advice on the conversations to have with employees at each stage, looking at the structure of coaching interactions. He believes a narrative approach of helping employees recognise key transition points is usually the best path. He readily acknowledges that this sort of coaching is not easy, and he provides a useful chapter to help leaders evaluate their own competencies in the area, emphasising the role of active listening.
A crucial aspect of the book is the tests and checklists provided. There is a particularly useful template to help the employee and the coach write down the career development plan. A written plan helps to crystallise ideas and options and, says Smith, turns vague notions into a long-term, actionable strategy.

 

Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets
By Michael Roberto
Wiley, A$28

For a long time, the prevailing wisdom was that only certain people had a talent of creativity. Not so, says academic Roberto. He cites a number of highly successful companies that operate on the assumption that most people have a creative streak, and that a central activity for a leader is to bring it out.
Many large companies, especially those with a long history, have inadvertently constructed barriers against novel approaches. This explains why employees often say that their ideas go nowhere even while the CEO is talking about the need for innovation. Some of the barriers are structural, with managerial layers stopping ideas flowing upwards. But most of them are cultural. Benchmarking can Unlocking Creativity coverprevent people looking broadly, and there can be too much focus on the next quarter’s results. A common problem is that people are simply not given the time to ponder, consider, and try new things.
Roberto is better at identifying problems than presenting solutions but his view that leaders should see themselves more as teachers than executives, including providing positive feedback, is moving in the right direction. The book does not answer all the questions it raises but it offers a wealth of interesting things to think about.

 

The Journey Within

Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019

 

The White Book

By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067

 

If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.

White book coverIt is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.

Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”

But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.

For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”

There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.

The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.

Han Kang

Quo vadis?

Appearing in Australian Spectator, 5 October 2019

 

Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court

By Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

Regnery Publishing, A$57, 376 pages

 

How did it come to this? When did the constitutional right of the US Senate to “advise and consent” on Supreme Court nominees become a mission to ‘search and destroy’ individuals by any means? Hemingway and Severino, both connected to conservative legal groups, provide a carefully researched and highly detailed account of the battle over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. After reading it one cannot help but be amazed at how the liberal left, which once held itself out as the exemplar of due process and reasoned argument, has become mired in its own self-righteousness and venom.

The Kavanaugh nomination was particularly important to the left because it might lead to the reversal of the Roe vs Wade decision, as it involved the replacement of a liberal judge with a conservative one. To the activist warriors the protection of Roe vs Wade is an end that justifies any means. When added to their hatred of Donald Trump, the result is a lack of any moral compass and the loss of any sense of legal procedure.

Justice on Trial coverSenior Democrats like Dianne Feinstein announced minutes after his nomination was made public that she would vote against anyone put forward by Trump regardless of their qualifications. Most of the other Senate Democrats said the same, making one wonder about the point of the whole business. But this left them a few votes short. The strategy was to attack Kavanaugh’s personality and background to swing some moderate Republicans over.

Kavanaugh had been warned by the White House that it was going to be tough, and it says much about the man’s character that he never considered not accepting the nomination. Right from the start, there were claims that he had assaulted or raped women, usually pushed along by the Democrats on Judiciary Committee. The claims quickly collapsed when the FBI investigated; the claimants often seemed astonished that there was any investigation at all. Activist lawyer Michael Avennatti brought forward a woman called Julie Swetnick who claimed that Kavanaugh, when at university, had been part of a plot to drug and gang-rape women. It fell apart when she admitted that she had no solid evidence for any such thing, and had a long history of making spurious charges.

The White House was thinking that the confirmation was going to proceed according to plan when Feinstein introduced another claimant. It was all secretive; Feinstein willingly broke the committee rules by withholding details until the last moment. When the claimant, Christine Blasey Ford, eventually appeared before the committee she said that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a party when they were in high school, leaving her permanently traumatised. Hemingway and Severino note that her social media presence had been scrubbed to remove any evidence of her militant anti-Trump views.

Her account was impressive, as a media performance, but cracks soon began to appear. She was fuzzy on when it occurred: she first said the late 1980s, but that did not work because by then Kavanaugh had moved away. She eventually settled on 1982, which would have made her 15. She could not say where the party was, how she got there, or how she got home. The real killer to her story, however, was that the friends she said with her at the time had no recollection of either the party or the assault.

Neither did her account of trauma ring true. She said she was afraid to fly, but in fact she often flew to other countries to surf.

None of this mattered to the anti-Kavanaugh forces, who said quite blatantly that Kavanaugh was guilty until he could prove himself innocent (although it is unlikely that any amount of proof would have been enough). Kavanaugh, for his part, could not remember ever meeting Ford, although he admitted that, yes, in high school and university he sometimes attended parties and he sometimes drank beer.

Depositions from women in Kavanaugh’s life saying that he had always treated them with respect were ignored. A common pattern was that activist women would say that they had been assaulted, and therefore Kavanaugh should be held responsible for all assaults. A confirmation vote for Kavanaugh, they shrieked, was a vote in support of rape and misogyny. Even the fact that Kavanaugh coached a junior basketball team was raised as evidence of likely paedophilia.

When Kavanaugh spoke before the committee, he avoided attacking Ford personally. He said that she had probably been assaulted and had mistakenly conflated the experience with him. It was a generous view, given what he was being accused of. Nevertheless, he carefully debunked her allegations as well as all the others against him, and emphasised that his judicial philosophy sat squarely within the mainstream.

It ended where it began, with a confirmation vote largely along party lines (one senator of each side switched). The left claimed victory, saying that any vote Kavanaugh made was now fatally tainted. Their media allies agreed, but when he was sworn in several Supreme Court judges, including liberals Ginsburg and Kagan, made a point of attending.

The left also said that any other potential conservative nominees would now be afraid to accept a nomination but Hemingway and Severino are sceptical. Judges tend to be tough characters, they say, and a Supreme Court position is the professional pinnacle. Nevertheless, the viciousness of the attacks on Kavanaugh indicate the depth of the divides in US society, as well as the issue of who can be trusted to communicate the truth. Certainly, the mainstream media came out of the whole affair with their collective reputation badly diminished.

Justice on Trial is not a light read, with a large cast and overlapping timelines. But it should be read by anyone with an interest in US politics. It is not a happy story but it is an important one.

Communication, detecting fraud, and how the big boys play

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2019

 

Lead the Room
B
y Shane Michael Hatton
Major Street Publishing, $29.95

Lead the RoomGood leadership is built on effective communication, says consultant and presentation specialist Hatton. This does not simply mean standing up in a forum, although public speaking is an essential skill that can be used as a framework for communication at all levels, including with peers, superiors and teams. At the heart of communication is the confidence and credibility that comes with knowing yourself and your narrative: Hatton calls this ‘positioning’, or how other people place you in their mind.

Connected to this is the value you can offer to others. This is the section of the book where the public speaking framework is developed, and Hatton examines a range of techniques to communicate with a clear message and a memorable edge.

Outstanding communication involves a constant process of self-improvement, review and feedback. It should be an holistic endeavour, says Hatton. Don’t think of a speech or a conversation as an end but as a platform for further thinking.

Hatton unpacks his points with straightforward practicality. He also offers personal anecdotes which are illustrative rather than indulgent. The book might not be (and does not pretend to be) the final word on leadership and communication but it is a good place to start.

 

Detecting Accounting Fraud Before It’s Too Late
By Oriol Amat
Wiley, $79

It is unfortunate that a book like this is needed but the reality is that accounting fraud happens far too often. Amat, a Spanish academic specialising in the field, has pulled together a huge number of cases where large-scale fraud has occurred and uses the evidence to provide warning signs for auditors, investors and managers.

The most common frauds relate to the mis-pricing of assets and debts, incorrect estimation of income, and deficiencies of risk information. Often, they are hidden by unexplained complexity, changes in accounting criteria, or odd transactions within a corporate group. Figures that are radically different to industry norms signal problems. Amat suggests several ratios that are good indicators that something is amiss.Accounting Fraud

The people associated with fraud usually lead lifestyles out of proportion to their legal income although, interestingly, they are often reluctant to go on holiday. Senior officers who are engaged in fraud will aggressively reject any scrutiny because, they say, they are making money for the company and its shareholders.

In fact, many company leaders who are secretly cooking the books are hailed as corporate heroes – right up to the moment when it all comes crashing down. So if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 

Goliath’s Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors
By Todd Hewlin and Scott Snyder
Wiley, $46 

Old dogs can, it seems, not only learn new tricks but can learn them very well. Hewlin and Snyder, who between them have worked in start-ups, established companies, consulting and research, look at the experience of giants like Cisco, General Motors, and Mastercard to discover how they beat off challenges from tech-based disruptors. Not only did they survive, they emerged stronger than ever and reclaimed market share lost to smaller competitors.

Big companies have crucial assets, such as deep pools of talent and access to innovation networks. Capital reserves and solid customer relationships mean they can leverage new technology, so long as the leaders are willing to re-think the business model. Technologies like AI, robotics, and blockchain can often be incorporated by large corporates but they must be willing to move fast and accept the reality of disruption. Beating disruptors can also entail watching them carefully and adopting some of their techniques.

Hewlin and Snyder distil this into a set of rules for cultural and operational changes, and they include templates and checklists to identify problems and monitor progress. They underline the importance of getting the right people on board, finding suitable metrics, and pursuing new growth options. Not easy, but it can be done.
Goliaths Revenge

 

Good enough, good thinking and good design

Appearing in In The Black magazine, August 2019

 

Ish: The Problem with Our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough
By Lynne Cazaly
Woodslane, $25, 252 pages

ishAt first glance this book appears to be merely enjoyably eccentric but a deeper look shows that it has some interesting, important points to make. Cazaly, a business adviser and facilitator, believes that a key problem with the modern world is the search for perfection, and it is making us both stressed and unproductive. In most cases that we encounter, she says, it is fine to be good enough – good-ish, in a word.

She is not saying that we should do everything (or anything) in a slapdash, half-hearted way. Instead, we should invest some time working out what our real priorities are, and which things need to be done perfectly. In fact, if we constantly search for perfection, whether in choosing what shoes to buy or writing a memo, we will probably accomplish very little. In business, it can make more sense to put the Minimum Viable Product version into the marketplace and improve it in later iterations than wait until every bug is fixed. Learn, evolve, and accept that every creative process has its shortcomings.

So do less but choose the right things to do, and how to do them. It might not be a perfect message but it is, well, quite good enough.

 

How Could This Happen? Managing Errors in Organizations
Edited by Jan Hagen
Palgrave Macmillan, $95, 292 pages

Hagen, a Berlin-based academic who specialises in error analysis, has brought together a wide-ranging collection of essays looking at how mistakes occur in organisations and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done to prevent a recurrence. The first part provides a series of theoretical examinations, looking at how rigid business culture can prevent the proper reporting of problems – the Fukushima reactor disaster is an example. Some analysts look at the requirements of effective reporting systems, including people at the operational level knowing they can report concerns without fear of retribution. Strict hierarchy systems, with the person at the top assumed to be infallible, also need to be broken down.How Could This Happen

Several essays look at the Crew Resource Management system now used in the aviation industry, which has dramatically reduced the incidence of errors. Other essays examine changes in medical diagnoses, where a team-based approach has proven effective. The best place to start developing an error reporting system is with early training, as an interesting piece on the Israeli Air Force shows. There also needs to be a mechanism for clear-minded analysis of the causes of the error in the first place.

We all make mistakes, says Hagen. The real issue is what we learn from them.

 

Exceptional Leadership by Design: How Design in Great Organizations Produces Great Leadership
By Rob Elkington, Madeleine van der Steege, Judith Glick-Smith and Jennifer Moss Breen
Emerald Publishing, $57, 311 pages

This collection of essays covers a great deal of ground but the common theme is that outstanding leadership is the result of a deliberate process of thinking about how to do the job. The place to start is defining the problem to be solved, and then marshalling the necessary personal and organisation resources. A leader has to be willing to honestly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and must be humble enough to ask for help when it is needed. Several essays make the point, drawing on examples and anecdotes, that great leadership is not about individual charisma but about collaboration, the building of relationships, and ongoing learning. This last point is critical: an exceptional leader has to design their job to include self-reflection and feedback.

An important contribution argues that a good way to find solutions is through prototyping. Small-scale test runs, gaming, and extended thought exercises can be useful tools, as long as there is honest follow-up and analysis. Prototyping can even show that you are asking the wrong question, and re-framing is called for. Again, the leader has to accept that they might not have all the answers. And acceptance of that might, in the end, be the most crucial lesson of all.

Exceptional Leadership by Design

Brains and boards

Appearing in In The Black magazine, June 2019

 

Master Your Mind: Counterintuitive Strategies to Refocus and Re-energize Your Runaway Brain

By Roger Seip and Robb Zbierski

Wiley, $39, 256 pages

Master Your MindA recurring image in this book is that little wheel that pet hamsters run on: faster and faster but never going anywhere. Too often, say workplace trainers Seip and Zbierski, people confuse busyness with productivity, and long hours with focus. Master Your Mind underlines the value of slowing down, taking time to reflect, and saying no when it is appropriate to do so.

It sounds easy but for many people working fast and hard has become a habit. Even when they see themselves getting stressed and making mistakes they continue, often in the belief that it is the way to compete with everyone else. Seip and Zbierski cite a solid body of research showing that stress leads to poor decisions, although they are careful to not get carried away with neuroscientific jargon. They provide some tests to establish whether there is a need to slow down and they offer advice on how to do it. Regular conversations with oneself to develop mindfulness and set priorities are also useful.

If the idea of doing less in order to do more seems counter-intuitive it makes sense when it comes to quality and sustainability. Going nowhere fast is not a good career path. Ask the hamster.

 

Best of Boards: Sound Governance and Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations (2nd edition)

By Marci Thomas and Kim Strom-Gottfried

Wiley, $50, 256 pages

Being a board member of a not-for-profit organisation is a difficult proposition: tough decisions, considerable legal responsibilities and (usually) no remuneration beyond the feeling of doing something important and worthwhile. This book aims to help people new to NFP boards, whether they have experience with for-profit companies or are coming fresh to the field.

Thomas and Strom-Gottfried cover a great deal of ground, from understanding NFP financial statements to pushing through a change program. There is a framework for effective oversight, with one of the most useful tools being a template for resolving disagreements between the board and senior management.Best of Boards v2

The authors illustrate their points with interesting anecdotes and examine the legal and ethical questions that arise in connection with NFPs. They also emphasise that for a board the great enemy is complacency. The time when you are congratulating yourself for having solved all the problems is the point where you should start to look at the next wave of issues.

A problem with the book is that it is designed for NFPs operating within the US system of regulation, reporting and compliance. But this is a small point, and there are many valuable lessons here on effective governance and sound strategic thinking.

 

Thriving in the Gig Economy: How to Capitalize and Compete in the New World of Work

By Marion McGovern

Career Press, $30, 224 pages

McGovern was working to bring freelancers and employers together before the term ‘gig’ was coined to describe a new way of working, so she is well-placed to talk about the advantages and pitfalls. She looks at the equation from both sides, and some of the most important chapters deal with how companies can effectively utilise specialised, short-term contractors.

As for freelancers, she notes that the most successful ones see themselves as a brand to be framed, strengthened, and leveraged. They must be willing to market themselves, constantly upgrade their skills, and stay abreast of technological developments. Having a system for handling the practical business of getting paid is also essential.

McGovern identifies people who are returning to the workforce after an extended break or after retirement as a growth trend for the gig economy. It might be as an Uber driver or as an interim CEO but it is important to have the right mindset and to know where you can add value.

This is a useful, interesting book. It is hard to argue with McGovern when she says that the development of the gig economy is going to continue. She offers good advice on how to ride the wave.

Gig economy

 

Downloadable research

 

Resilience

Professor Jill Klein, who directs the Resilient Leadership program at Melbourne Business School, believes that setbacks can provide crucial lessons if approached with the right mindset. Whether the setback relates to failing to receive a promotion or dealing with an organisational restructure, she advises a focus on three questions: why did it happen, what does it mean, and what can I do?

This approach helps to clarify what is in your control and what is not, as well as identifying weaknesses that might be remedied. It also puts you in a positive frame of mind, so you can focus on the future rather than the past.

To read the essay and related material go to:

https://1.mbs.edu/news/A-resilience-expert-explains-how-to-pick-yourself-up-after-a-setback-at-work

 

Trends

AccentureA major study from Accenture, Are Your Ready For What’s Next?, aims to identify the critical technology-related issues that will drive the next three years. The key trends are:

–         DARQ – distributed ledger technology, artificial intelligence, extended reality, and quantum computing – as the next source of differentiation and competitiveness

–         a new level of interactiveness that will create a “tech identity” for every consumer

–         technology-driven work capabilities alongside employees’ existing skills, requiring new methods of work

–         enhanced avenues of “ecosystem collaboration” that open new opportunities but also raise security threats

–         empowered consumers that expect customised and on-demand experiences.

Download the full study or a ‘short read’ version from:

https://www.accenture.com/gb-en/insights/technology/technology-trends-2019

 

CFOs

Chief Financial Officers who speak in the same style as a company CEO and seldom offer differing viewpoints are likely to earn more and move up faster, according to a study by the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University and the University of Miami Business School. The research examined CFOs in 2,384 US companies, looking at “language style matching”, an unconscious form of imitation based on the use of terms like “I”, “we” and “us”.

But the study authors noted that even though imitative CFOs did personally better than others, in the M&A area their companies did less well than the average.

For the complete study go to:

https://phys.org/news/2019-02-ceo-cfos-higher.html

 

Hiring

In a useful TED Talk, Priyanka Jain examines the new hiring landscape. As the head of a consulting firm that uses neuroscience, algorithms and AI tools to make hiring decisions more effective, she draws on her experience to provide advice on how job seekers should structure applications. She suggests a move away from the traditional dot-point resume in favour of a focus on distinctive abilities and personal qualities.

Jain also explains how a new generation of psychometric testing tools are being used to measure creativity and suitability, resulting in better fit and a win-win situation for the company and its employees.

To watch, go to:

https://www.ted.com/talks/priyanka_jain_how_to_make_applying_for_jobs_less_painful

 

Keeping it real

Even the best-laid plans often fail to survive their first encounter with reality, and Charles Vandepeer, a former intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, is interested in why. In an insightful essay, Self-Deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’, he looks at military operations that have failed due to over-assessment of one’s own abilities and under-estimation of the opposition.

Business disasters often stem from the same pattern of group-think. A leader who wants to combat this has to actively encourage dissenting views, even if it means going outside the usual circle of advisers. Confidence is necessary but arrogance is a sure path to failure.

To read the essay Self-Deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’ go to:

https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/self-deception-and-the-conspiracy-of-optimism/

 

Victim/Victor

The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

Palgrave, $65, 278 pages, ISBN 9783319703282

How did it come to this? When did it become, on the campuses of many upscale US universities, almost impossible to say anything without someone taking offence and initiating legal action through an office set up for the purpose? How is it that professors can be applauded for saying that they want to see a “white genocide”? When did hate-crime hoaxes become acceptable, even desirable?

Campbell (Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University) and Manning (Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University) have collected a vast body of research on the subject – at considerable professional cost, it should be said – and have come up with some answers. They track the spread of the new culture of victimhood through universities and into broader society, and believe it began about ten years ago, when a new generation entered university life.

These teenagers had been continually told by their affluent, left-wing parents that they were “special snowflakes”: unique, beautiful and fragile. Years of helicopter-style parenting had given them the impression that they had the right to never be offended or challenged, and that their country was characterised by an evil history and a fearful present. To be subjected to an idea that you didn’t like was an insult, and that made you a victim. If you were, or saw yourself, as a member of a minority, then your victim status automatically became much higher.

And thus the idea of the micro-aggression was born. The key to it was that the content of any comment from someone outside one’s own circle was less important than the interpretation placed on it, and the interpretation was usually that the comment was racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive. Campbell and Manning note that even the phrase “on the other hand” was condemned (‘ableist’, apparently).

University administrations responded by setting up administrative bodies to hear complaints and pronounce sentences. These tribunals quickly extended their reach, equating what might have been a minor slight or a simple misunderstanding with actual violence. Hard evidence was not required: Campbell and Manning cite several cases where tribunals found a student ‘guilty’ of rape on campus even though police had established the accusations to be untrue.

From a sociological perspective, the culture of victimhood might be compared with the earlier culture of dignity, which was marked by self-restraint, forbearance, and quiet courage – and, when it came to issues such as racial equality, a sense of reciprocity and fairness. But all that was seen as hopelessly, dangerously outdated. The new mentality was about a war between the enlightened few – the ‘woke’ – and the rest. No quarter, no respite. Haters got to hate.

The key enemy of the victimhood movement was, inevitably, the older white male, always depicted as privileged, racist, misogynist and stupid. An army of media commentators agreed. But Campbell and Manning provide a poignant, anonymous quote from one of the snowflakes’ targets:
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and I do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.

And this is why over 62 million people voted for Donald Trump. Cause, meet effect.

One of the most telling chapters of the book deals with the rise of hate crime hoaxes. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election there was a dramatic rise in the number of people saying they had been attacked by Trump supporters. However, many of the claims turned out to be simply fabricated. Campbell and Manning examine about a dozen cases, and a journalist called Andy Ngo has compiled a list running into the hundreds.

Presumably, being the target of an attack gives a person in the victimhood culture more status, and fits into a larger anti-Trump narrative. The problem with this is that there simply aren’t enough white racists to go around – if there were, there would be no need to invent them. (In fact, the statistics suggest that the number of real hate crimes is falling. The only growth area is attacks on Jews by members of the ultra-militant Nation Of Islam – something which is largely ignored, as it does not fit into the paradigm of black people as helpless victims of white racism.)

It says much that the celebrity of Jussie Smollett, the mid-level actor who recently staged an attack on himself by Trump supporters, has grown since his claims were revealed to be falsehoods. In victimhood culture, a hate-crime hoax is not a dishonest trick but a sign of true commitment to the cause. Well, fakers got to fake.

Campbell and Manning are not optimistic about the situation getting any better, although they discuss the possibility of victimhood culture burning out – there are already signs of it consuming itself in a “purity spiral”. On the other hand, they see the more likely outcome being that it will continue to grow and mutate, causing an even greater backlash. The result will be a more polarised, antagonistic society.

It takes no great effort to see the patterns described in this book in Australian society, as victimhood culture spreads from universities into the media. At present, Australia seems to be running a few years behind the US trend, but this book is a signpost of what might be coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Rise of Victimhood Culture

Fast growth, CFOs, and a graceful exit

Appearing in In The Black, May 2019

 

Blitzscaling: the Lightning-fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies

By Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh

HarperCollins, $35, 288 pages

BlitzscalingHoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn as well as the former COO of PayPal, and Yeh has written extensively about start-ups, so between them they bring a great deal of experience to bear on the issue of rapid growth. They see four essential components for exponential transformation: building networks that allow for easy entry of new customers; finding a niche which will allow for an eventual transition into the  mainstream marketplace; picking distribution channels which have an in-built capacity for scaling; and looking for high gross margins to provide funds for re-investment.

Hoffman and Yeh do not pretend that speedy growth is easy, and they provide plenty of examples of failure. They also note that many of the companies that achieved massive size changed their strategy several times, as the marketplace and the company evolved. At the same time, speed is crucial, even if it means sacrificing efficiency. Be willing to experiment, they say, and be equally willing to admit it when you make a mistake and a new course if needed.

All this is presented in a clear, balanced way, thankfully free of tech-hype. Whether you have big plans or are interested in how giants grew, there is fascinating material here.

 

The Traits of Today’s CFO: a Handbook for Excelling in an Evolving Role (2nd edition)

By AICPA and Ron Rael

Wiley, $79, 160 pages

The CFO job has always been a challenging one, straddling strategic management and financial functions. Rael, a leadership consultant who has studied the role from many different angles, believes that in the future it is only going to get harder, with the CFO needing to add technological expertise and coaching acumen to the toolkit. This book lays out how the various new skills can be integrated with the traditional demands, explaining how the role is changing. Rael covers a great deal of ground, punctuating the book with self-diagnostic tests as well as good illustrative examples. He believes there are ten critical skills for the CFO and the book systematically unpacks each one. Most chapters include a ‘best practice’ section which links theory with everyday problem-solving.9781119548232 cover.pdf

If anything, the CFO role is becoming less about finance (although a high level of number-crunching ability is still mandatory) and more about collaboration, communication and soft-skills leadership. One telling suggestion: the CFO should spend at least a quarter of their time out of the office, talking with investors, suppliers, peers and people in non-financial roles.

It adds up to a useful package, as well as an insightful commentary on the evolution of financial management.

 

Business Exit Strategies: Family-owned and Other Businesses

By Frederick Lipman

World Scientific, $90, 164 pages

Knowing how to make a graceful departure is difficult in any circumstances, and particularly tough when a business is involved. Lipman, an adviser and author, has provided an interesting guide to make the process easier, covering circumstances ranging from a small enterprise to a large corporation.

There are many pitfalls – in fact, Lipman devotes the first two chapters to common mistakes – but most can be overcome with careful planning and an eye to market conditions. If the business is being sold then there must be comprehensive, audited financial accounts available, and any outstanding legal disputes should be settled. If the business is to be passed on to family members then the procedures should be clear, and the role of the founder, if any, codified and agreed.

Lipman devotes a long section to the tricky issue of valuation, noting that the right time to sell a business is when it is on a growth path, not when decline has set in. Another exit option is to take the business public, which can work well but is a much larger project than a direct sale.

The book also looks at letters of sale and non-disclosure agreements. Useful advice, when it comes time to leave the stage.

Business Exit Strategies

 

Downloadable research

 

Value add

Even those companies that have already embraced business analytics often have difficulty understanding how they are adding value to the company’s activities. In a collaborative project, the Melbourne Business School and A.T.Kearney have published the ‘Analytics Impact Index: Understanding the value of analytics and how you can improve performance’ to provide benchmarking and guidance. Building on comprehensive survey data, it includes the Value Index, a tool for assessing the contribution of analytics to total profit; and the Maturity Index, which offers a framework for the comprehensive assessment of a company’s analytics practices and processes to help achieve value.

Download from:

https://analyticsimpactindex.mbs.edu/

 

Disruption

‘Navigating a World of Disruption’ is a briefing note prepared by McKinsey for the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, focusing on both the value-creating opportunities and the intense competitive challenges of the digital era. It provides data showing that those organisations that have been quick to utilise AI and analytics technology are doing well, while the performance gap between these organisations and others is growing quickly.

At the global level, China and India continue to dominate growth figures but a number of new players, mainly in the Central Asian and South-east Asian regions, are poised for breakthrough levels of growth.

Download from:

https://www.mckinsey.com/Featured-Insights/Innovation-and-Growth/Navigating-a-world-of-disruption

 

Banking on it

Singapore-based research firm J.D. Power has released a summary of its Australia Retail Banking Satisfaction Study, providing a ranking of financial institutions and pointing towards areas which need to improve. It revealed that 42 per cent of Australian customers of major banks, and 24 per cent of customers with other financial institutions, do not trust their bank.

The study was based on responses from 4,730 customers. Westpac ranked highest among the major banks, performing well in the account information and account activities factors. In the non-major banks category, ING performed best.

The study also identified strong growth in mobile app usage for personal banking.

Download the summary at:

https://www.jdpower.com/business/press-releases/2018-australia-retail-banking-satisfaction-study

 

Visual aids

The Reserve Bank provides a wealth of information, and material from its monthly pack of charts is particularly useful for inclusion in reports and presentations, as well as for general at-a-glance background. The charts include information on the global economy, growth in Australia, housing credit growth and credit growth by sector, interest rates, trends in the business sector, consumer sentiment, the outlook for inflation, and key banking indicators.

The pack is updated monthly and is released on the first business day of each month. Supplementary information can be obtained from other parts of the RBA site.

Download from:

https://www.rba.gov.au/chart-pack/

 

Looking ahead

In a thought-provoking TED Talk Gunjan Bhardwaj, described here as a “complexity specialist”, examines how artificial intelligence and blockchain have been used in the German health system to gather and analyse unprecedented amounts of data. The information ranges from drug test results to patent applications to patient treatment records, with AI being used to integrate disparate information into useful material. Blockchain technology has been utilised to capture the results of lab tests and in-progress research while allowing for the protection of intellectual property. Even for those not in the health sector, the address underlines the variety of applications that these technologies are finding.
Watch at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/gunjan_bhardwaj_how_blockchain_and_ai_can_help_us_decipher_medicine_s_big_data/