Lost and Found

From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories
By Mark McKenna
Melbourne University Press, $35, 251 pages, ISBN 9780522862591

1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings
By Nick Brodie
Hardie Grant, $30, 294 pages, ISBN 9781743791608

From the Edge

The study of Australia’s early history can be a tricky field. There have been more than a few polemicists who have eschewed true research, instead searching for any bits and pieces that can be spun into a black-armband version of events. But thankfully there are still some historical writers who believe in the value of primary research. There is, indeed, much to say about Australia’s early (white) history, and many important things to understand about the interactions between the new arrivals and the indigenous peoples.

McKenna, with a number of well-regarded books under his belt, finds some remarkable stories. In one, he examines how a group of five British sailors and twelve Bengali seamen staggered ashore at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria in 1797, after a shipwreck in Bass Strait. Short on luck and options, they decided to walk the 700 kilometres along the coast to Sydney. On the way they encountered several Aboriginal tribes; they would have soon perished without their help. Astonishingly, three of them made it (although they were rescued by a fishing boat forty kilometres from Sydney). It is a remarkable story, and it is surprising that it is not better-known.

Other ventures into the unknown were more deliberate, such as the attempt to found a “new Singapore” at Port Essington in West Arnhem Land in the 1840s. It lasted for a decade but never really had much chance. There are still a few remnants of the site although the main legacy was introduced animals, such as buffaloes, pigs and wild dogs.

At least, there, the white would-be settlers tried to understand the indigenous people. But at the Burrup Peninsula the early relationship, based on the pearling industry, was exploitative to the point of slavery. McKenna acknowledges that gas companies now working in the area try to be sensitive but he wonders if industry and indigenous cultural heritage can be compatible. He points to some remarkable rock art, such as the millennia-old thylacine engraving on Angel Island, and notes that it is entirely unprotected, even while remains of a nearby European settlement barely a century old have been carefully preserved.

Perhaps the most significant chapter in the book deals with Cooktown, established at the place where the damaged Endeavour came ashore for repairs. The event was recorded in detail in Aboriginal lore, and comparing those records with the writings of the ship’s officers illustrates the size of the gulf of between the cultures.

In fact, north Queensland saw some of the most horrific violence of the settlement period. But when McKenna speaks with elders and other representatives of the indigenous people of the area around Cooktown, who are entirely aware of the consequences of the Cook landing, he finds little bitterness. Instead, there is an admirable desire to cast aside victimhood and look to the future.

This shows something significant about the methodology of the book: McKenna’s willingness to get down to the roots, to get his hands dirty and his skin sunburned. He certainly did a huge amount of academic research in libraries, working through old journals and musty records. But he also walked through the area along the south-east coast and hiked through difficult country to get the feel of the places he writes about. He is sympathetic to indigenous people and the bad historical hand they were dealt but he also recognises the values of Euro-Australian culture, and he appreciates that there has been a sustained push for better understanding in the past several decades.

How far that understanding can go is an open question: reading this book, there is a feeling that perhaps the chasm can never be truly bridged. But digging into stories beyond the official history is a way forward, and can provide an important extra layer to the national consciousness.1787

In 1787, Brodie challenges the notion that European history in Australia began with the British, although he is looking in a different direction, to pre-Cook discoveries and encounters. It is not new to say that Cook was not the first white person to see and land on the Australian shore but Brodie provides a far richer picture.

The Spanish were among the first to reach the area, with a small fleet sailing west from their colony in Peru in 1605. Their aim was to reach the Spanish colony in the Philippines but they were happy to explore, giving islands and other features names as they found them. In fact, one of the ship captains was Luis Vaes de Torres, after whom the Torres Strait was named.

This fleet found indications of a vast – and inhabited – southern continent but it was the next wave, sailing eastwards and southwards from Asia, that started to fill in the blanks on the map. There were Dutch entrepreneurs looking for trading opportunities, French explorers looking for adventure, and English seafarers looking for, well, whatever wasn’t nailed down. Ships from Asian countries also visited the islands around Australia and the mainland, pushing the known frontier forward. At the same time, other explorers were finding the southern and eastern edges of the continent. But it became clear, when indigenous peoples were encountered, that the new land did not offer much in the way of economic opportunities, at least not the type being sought. One cannot help but think that Australian history could have turned out very differently, if there had been a little nudge here or a small accident there.

Taken together, these two books offer a more expansive version of Australia’s history, and both authors deserve credit. If there is an obligation to understand the past as a means of interpreting the present, this is good place to start.


Brewing beer, organising quality, and making teams

Appearing in In the Black magazine, June 2017


Business for Punks: Break All the Rules – the BrewDog Way

By James Watt

Penguin, $25, 256 pages, ISBN 9780241290118

The UK-based company founded by Watt, boutique beermaker BrewDog, started with thirty thousand pounds and now has a turnover of fifty million, so he must be doing something right. When he started, Watt says, he could not find any books useful to a gung-ho entrepreneur, so he threw away the concept of business plans and simply charged ahead. Belief in the product, his team, his “firecracker” marketing, and his capacity to innovate have been the ingredients for BrewDog to make a profit in every year of its life. Plus a huge amount of grinding work.

Watt presents himself as a no-nonsense hard man (he was formerly captain of a North Atlantic trawler), and he advises that keeping control of the firm has to be the first priority. The chapter on dealing with banks is illustrative: the trick is to find one person who is willing to link their own career to your company’s progress.

There is a good deal of anarchic hyperbole here but underneath there is another set of messages: know the finances to the last cent, deal with staff conflicts quickly and decisively, and carefully analyse new markets before expansion. So perhaps Watt is not so unconventional after all.

One way or another, it is a remarkable story, and proof that there can be many paths to business success.



The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough

By Subir Chowdhury

Crown Business, $40, 143 pages, ISBN 9780451496218

Chowdhury is a respected management consultant specialising in the area of quality, and in the course of his practice he realised that there was a marked difference in the improvement experienced by his clients. So he went back for a closer look. The answer, he concluded, was not process but culture. If people do not care about their work, the organisation, and their peers then, over the long term, no amount of process change or better customer relations really matters.

This is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you have heard it, but the issue is in the details. It is often a matter of small things, from keeping the workspace tidy to supporting employees who want to try something new. Chowdhury calls this a “caring mindset”, characterised by four conditions: truthfulness, including when the truth might be painful; empathy, which centres on active listening; accountability for one’s actions; and resolve, including passion and determination but also encompassing humility and a willingness to allow change.

It is for leaders, whether at the CEO level or the team level, to put these qualities into practice. Not always easy, but it eventually filters into all corners of the organisation.  Chowdhury provides illustrative cases, and one can see how the lessons can be applied. The Difference might not be revolutionary but it is a solid, insightful, and practical piece of work.



Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power

By Michael Mankins and Eric Garton

Harvard Business Review Press, $49, 256 pages, ISBN 9781633691766

Teams are crucial tools for many companies but there is often a nagging feeling that they do not work as effectively as they should. Mankins and Garton, partners at Bain & Company, marshal a great deal of research data to discuss the issue, and conclude that the main reason for team ineffectiveness is institutional factors that impede activity and drain energy. Too often, senior executives want updates and reports when they should let the team do its job. A related issue is the flood of emails, which is a constant distraction.

At another level, Mankins and Garton believe that not enough thought is put into the selection of team members (a part of a broader shortcoming of senior managers regarding HR in general).  Allocating human resources is as important as allocating financial resources, and should be recognised as such.

Mankins and Garton make some useful suggestions, including a clear policy on internal communications, training for meetings, and organisational re-design to clarify lines of responsibility. They also provide a diagnostic test to determine where a company most needs improvement.

A properly-managed team, especially where members’ skills complement each other, can be a real competitive advantage. A poorly-managed one is an expensive waste of everyone’s time.

Bionic Man

Appearing in Weekend Australian – Review, 27-28 May 2017


Bill Gibson: Pioneering Bionic Ear Surgeon

By Tina Allen

NewSouth Books, $35, 302 pages, ISBN 9781742235301


It says much that surgery to implant the bionic ear is no longer considered newsworthy. Thousands of people in Australia are walking around with one, and much of it is due to Bill Gibson, known widely as ‘the Prof’ by many of those he has helped to achieve a normal life.

He is not widely known outside medical circles, and this book is meant to remedy that. Gibson readily co-operated with Allen, an experienced medical scientist and writer, but he sometimes seems a bit bemused about the project. He simply is not the celebrity type. He is the type who goes fishing with mates and dresses up as Santa Claus for kids’ parties.

Although he seems very Australian he was, in fact, born in Britain. He comes from a family of doctors and there was never much doubt that he would become one. He studied in Britain and gained his qualifications there, and was drawn to the audiologicial field because of the breakthroughs being made there. In particular, Graeme Clark and his team in Melbourne were examining ways to use new technology to help deaf people, focusing on the cochlear, the part of the ear that passes sounds to the brain.

There was already a primitive version of the bionic ear available but it provided only a dot-dash sort of sound. Developing this into a multi-channel device which could convert sounds into electronic impulses that the brain could ‘hear’ was a huge step forward. Gibson came to Australia in 1983 to follow it up, seeing the opportunity to knit his surgical expertise to the device.

Allen is adept at explaining the technology and how it evolved from its shaky beginnings, and how it grew from rough experiments to a commercial model. In 1984 Gibson implanted the device in two women who had lost their hearing, with good success. Further refinements of the device followed and the surgical procedure became more routinised. There were, inevitably, failures as the medical teams learned more about which patients were suitable for implants and which were not but there was a sense of solid progress. The device became compact and Gibson developed a way to implant it using a small incision rather than a large C-shaped one.

The first generation of recipients were people who had lost their hearing in adulthood. This meant that they understood the concept of speech and of spoken communication. Gibson formed the view that while restoring hearing to adults was important the focus should be on young people, even children, who had been deaf from birth and so had never learned to speak. By the age of seven or so the speech organs had effectively atrophied.

Gibson eventually chose a four-year old girl for an implant, which involved convincing medical regulators that the process was ethical and practical. It worked, and the little girl learned to both understand and use speech. Gibson was able to leverage the success to push the age threshold downwards, to children under the age of two.

Along the way he helped establish a group called CICADA, implant recipients who met regularly to provide support to each other as well as feedback to the doctors. (Significantly, the biography of Gibson was commissioned by CICADA.) As the success rate improved it became easier to obtain funding for specialist facilities and post-op therapy.

But there was one group that criticised and attacked Gibson, as well as others in the bionic ear circle. The Signing Deaf group took the view that congenital deafness should not be seen as a disease to be ‘cured’. Instead, they said that the focus should be on teaching deaf children about signing, which should itself be seen as a valid alternative language. Allen notes that this idea is difficult to understand but she acknowledges that it is deeply held by some. Gibson, for his part, listened to the view and was sympathetic to the idea of removing any trace of social stigma from deafness. But he looked more to the real-world picture, which was largely of people delighted to be able to participate fully in the world.

Eventually, Gibson notched up more than 2000 implant operations. As he nudged seventy he began to move out of the surgical side but he still, at 73, assists and consults. He thinks of retirement, apparently, as dropping down a gear rather than switching off the engine.

This is a fascinating story but it must be said that, as biographies go, there is not much in the way of narrative tension. Even Gibson’s brush with cancer receives only a few paragraphs. Basically, Gibson has lived a good life filled with good works. Nearly everyone who has had anything to do with him has only warm words to say. Judging from the photos included in the book, he and his wife of many years remain deeply bonded.

So if you want to read about personal sturm und drang or this month’s celebuwreck then this book is not for you. But if you want to find out about how the world was made a better place, then it is a good place to go.

Networking, Popularity, Content, and Working for Women

Appearing in In The Black magazine, May 2017-05-01


It’s Who You Know: How a Network of 12 Key People Can Fast-Track Your Success

By Janine Garner

Wiley, $28, 256 pages, ISBN 9780730336846

The idea of networking is hardly new but Garner believes it has to move beyond the exchange of business cards and phone numbers. She believes that having the right people is more important than having a long list of contacts, and she defines the four core categories of people as promoter (to inspire you and identify your potential), pit crew (to keep you focused), teacher (to help you develop knowledge and wisdom) and butt-kicker (to push you to do more).  Each of these categories has sub-divisions but the point is about knowing where each person fits into a broader system.

The aim is to move beyond a transactional model to a transformational vehicle. This requires going beyond the social events usually associated with networking, seeking out people of different backgrounds and personalities who can broaden your own views. At the same time, you have to be aware of what you bring to the relationship, which means understanding the role you can play for others. Networking is an investment, and you have to be ready to put in as well as take out.

Garner devotes several chapters to building relationships for the long term, underlining the importance of value exchange and strategic thinking. A network, she says, is about life management rather than business growth, although if you get the former right the latter is very likely to follow.


Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

By Derek Thompson

Penguin, $50, 352 pages, ISBN 9781101980323

There is a point where art intersects with commerce, where imagination can turn an astounding profit. Some massive cultural hits, whether a song or a phone, seem to come out of nowhere but Thompson sees the reality as much more complex. In fact, big-hit products nearly always combine the radically new with a streak of the comforting old. This concept was developed and refined by the remarkable designer Raymond Loewy, a man who was responsible for the look of much of the modern world. He called it MAYA, the idea that consumers want the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” version of any product or design. It is the sort of thing that is strikingly obvious, once someone has thought of it.

Good design, however, is not enough. There also has to be a solid method of distribution and a supporting infrastructure. In the past this meant not only physical transportation but the migration of people. These days it has more to do with the cultural mechanics of the Net. Thompson does not believe that the digital age has changed much of the underlying science of popularity although the attention span of some people has shortened. Managing that is a key issue for marketers.

Hit Makers does not provide an infallible formula for successful products but nevertheless offers a wealth of useful suggestions. It adds up to an insightful, entertaining package.


Stop Fixing Women: Why Building Fairer Workplaces is Everybody’s Business

By Catherine Fox

NewSouth, $30, 272 pages, ISBN 9781742235165

Despite forty years of good intentions and equity statements, gender imbalance remains a seemingly intractable problem in the world of work. In Stop Fixing Women, Fox examines the structural issues that underlie the problem, using a depth of journalistic experience. She is particularly scathing about the view that women should act more like men, with greater levels of assertiveness and risk-taking. This is missing the point, she says. Gender imbalance is something that happens to women, not because of them.

She accepts that there are many male leaders who are aware of the issue in their companies but the problem is that they have not thought enough about innovative solutions. A crucial way forward is to accept that this is a matter for the highest levels of executive thinking, and should inform decisions ranging from recruitment to flexibility of working hours.

She looks at several organisations that are moving in this direction and puts forward some important ideas, such as ensuring that promotion criteria are clearly defined to avoid subjective ideas about merit, trying gender-free recruiting methods, auditing pay systems to identify gender-based gaps, and analysing career paths to ensure that women have access to the same training and experience as men.

These are good ideas, but Fox makes clear that they will only work if backed up by cultural change in the organisation. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.


The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change

By Bharat Anand

Penguin, $45, 464 pages, ISBN 9780812995381

The two essential questions for companies these days are how to get attention, and then how to turn that attention into profit. Anand, Professor of Strategy at Harvard Business School, believes that many companies are looking in the wrong direction, focusing on creating the best content when they should be taking a wider view of the marketplace. Good products are important, says Anand, but competitive advantages now lie in recognising how content enables customers’ connectivity and knowing how to take advantage of opportunities related to the existing offerings.

He looks at a wide range of cases to illustrate his points, including Chinese Net giant Tencent and Scandinavian media conglomerate Schibsted. He also draws on the latest research in economics, innovation, and marketing, and along the way provides a good summary of how e-commerce evolved to its current state. Looking for economies of scale is not a great strategy these days, although there are still industries where it is essential. Differentiating digital products in a “network effects strategy” is more likely to lead to a dominant position in a market segment.

In the final chapter, Anand recounts his own experiences with the online education platform of Harvard Business School, known as HBX. This is interesting stuff, and it lends a real-world tone to a book which could easily have become over-academic.

Let It Go

Appearing on Culture Concept Circle site, March 2017



The Art of Discarding: How to Get Rid of Clutter and Find Joy

By Nagisa Tatsumi

Hachette, $33, 208 pages, ISBN 9781473648210


Somewhere along the line, wealth turned into the pointless accumulation of stuff. Shelves, cupboards and even refrigerators are now groaning under the weight of things whose purpose is at best vague and, more usually, simply forgotten.

Into this morass steps Japanese author Nagisa Tatsumi, who has written a number of books about life and living. The Art of Discarding has gone through a few versions in Japan but this is the first time it has been widely available in Australia. An earlier incarnation was, apparently, the inspiration for Marie Kondo’s popular The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up.

Tatsumi is rather less doctrinaire than Kondo but she is firm on the point that more possessions are unlikely to provide greater happiness. She does not advocate living like a minimalist monk but says that you should have a good reason for keeping something. A wishy-washy notion that it ‘might be useful someday’ is not sufficient. If you are undecided about whether something should be kept or discarded, it is a sure sign that it can be discarded.

She identifies books, magazines and clothes as the things most likely to accumulate. Basically, if it’s got dust on it, cull it. That book you read five years ago, and thought that it wasn’t too bad, is unlikely to be one you will ever open again. A celebrity magazine that is twelve months old no longer has a useful role in the world. That piece of clothing that is three seasons old and two sizes too small is now doing nothing but taking up space.

She also examines the ways that papers accumulate, gradually taking over drawers and cabinets. Do you really need bills from 2009? Why are you keeping Christmas cards from four years back? Is your appointments diary of 2014 still useful?

She accepts that some items have an emotional attachment to them, and evoke feelings that are a key part of your inner life. Good, keep them, she says. But sort out what is important, and discard stuff that is hanging around from sheer inertia. Important things will actually become more valuable because they have been chosen and kept.

Perhaps for this reason, Tatsumi is wary of systems designed for improved organisation of stuff. Yes, better filing can often reduce the amount of space taken up, although it can mean missing the point. An organised, stuffed house is still a stuffed house. The crucial concept is not the storage of stuff but determining what you really need in your life. In this sense, discarding means re-thinking our relationship to physical things, which readily extends to whether we actually want to acquire them in the first place. Buying something for the sugar hit of acquisition is not, really, a very good reason.

Whether de-cluttering constitutes a Zen-like means to “find joy”, as Tatsumi suggests, depends on the individual. But if The Art of Discarding makes you think again about what your life needs, and about what makes you truly happy, it will have achieved a good deal.


Troubled birth of demographic disaster

Appearing in the Australian – Review 25-26 March 2017


One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

By Mei Fong

Bloomsbury, $30, 250 pages, ISBN 9781780748450


Ren tai duo. “China has too many people.” Mei Fong, an American journalist who spent many years living in and reporting on China (and won a Pulitzer Prize for it) says that you hear the phrase all the time in the country, and when you are crushed into an overloaded train or standing in an endless queue it is hard to not believe it. But the truth, she says in this detailed, comprehensive – and often painful – book is more complicated. The one-child policy introduced by the government in the post-Mao era has created a society which is unbalanced, unhappy, and possibly unsustainable. At some point, everyone neglected to think things through.

The principle seems obvious enough. If the population is increasing faster than economic growth, slow the former and pump up the latter. Fong notes that the people who designed the policy were not social scientists – they had all been purged in the Cultural Revolution – but military officers. They believed that social engineering was no different to ballistics or bridge-building: you simply crunched the numbers. They also had the advantage of working in a political system where theory could be put into practice without much in the way of dissent. If the human cost was awful, well, there are omelettes and there are eggs.

Fong, born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, explains that prior to the one-child policy – actually called jihua shengyu, or ‘planned birth program’ – there had been a fairly successful voluntary program encouraging couples to have only two children. The new policy added a significant element of coercion, ranging from compulsory sterilisation to forced abortions. Fong encounters plenty of stories of abortions at the seventh-month mark or later, and of cases where a baby was killed by injection as it was being born. Even people who support abortion (as it is understood in the West) might find these passages grim reading, to say the least.

Fines for disobeying the policy became an important source of revenue for local government authorities. Officials had a great deal of discretion in deciding punishments, and fines were often multiples of annual income. This problem was greatest in the countryside. In the cities, affluent couples were often willing to pay the fine to have a second or third child, creating a new level of discrimination. Important party figures, of course, could often organise an exemption for themselves.

Was the policy successful? The Beijing technocrats believed that it reduced the number of births by over 400 million but Fong discusses it with Western demographers who calculate a figure of 200 million at the maximum. But the real problem was the interaction of the policy with the cultural preference for sons. Abortion was often used for gender selection, and girl babies were abandoned, or sometimes simply killed. Sons were seen as the means by which the parents would be supported in old age – necessary, when the government pension system was rickety at best.

The outcome should have been obvious: as the one-child babies grew up, there would be a stark gender imbalance. Fong finds many sad men who will never have a partner.

But the imbalance has done little to improve the social position of women, especially outside the major cities. It is unusual for a wife to have any ownership of marital property, and domestic violence is common. Fong asks one man what he seeks in a woman. His answer: “obedience”. Little wonder that many rural towns are almost devoid of young women, who move to the cities looking for a better life.

There is another huge problem coming down the demographic road, as the one-child parents begin to move into retirement. It means that each couple from the one-child generation will have to support four aging parents as well as a child of their own. It is hard to see how the numbers can work.

As for the children of the one-child policy, Fong wades through survey data which finds them to be a rather unpleasant, unimaginative bunch. Spoiled children growing up into self-centred adults. How this – plus a huge number of discontented men rolling around looking for something to do – will affect China as a geopolitical player is unknown, but it is unlikely to be good.

Threaded through this analysis is Fong’s own story. She suffered from a hormonal condition that made it difficult to conceive naturally – ironic, for someone writing about childbearing. As it turns out, after moving to the US she was able to conceive using IVF, and eventually bore twins. She speculates that the high levels of pollution in China may have a crucial impact on fertility.

The one-child policy was eventually lifted in 2015, allowing couples to have two children. But so far there appears to have been little impact on the birth rate. Many people see a second child as too expensive, given the skyrocketing prices of everything from houses to education. Maybe it will adjust over time. Then again, maybe not. We might hope, however, that the days of forced late-term abortions and female infanticide are past.

Fong leaves many questions unanswered, simply because there are no answers. But she has shed light on how ill-conceived policy can reverberate through the lives of people. One Child is never a happy story, but it is an important one.

Diverse messages

Appearing in Australian Institute of Management magazine, February 2017


Difference Makers: A Leader’s Guide to Championing Diversity in Boards

By Nicky Howe and Alicia Curtis

Major Street Publishing, $30, 272 pages, ISBN 9780994542403


Boards stand at the strategic pinnacle of a company but too often they can grow clubby and insular. This is a serious mistake, according to Howe (an academic specialising in leadership) and Curtis (a social entrepreneur with a string of awards under her belt). They provide data showing that boards that make an effort to embrace diversity have better outcomes than ones that do not, with a greater capacity to embrace new opportunities as well as anticipate emerging threats. Group-think is always a problem in a high-level team and a crucial role for the chair of the board is to take steps to pre-empt it.

Howe and Curtis acknowledge that it is not easy to build a board where there is a balance of diversity and experience. Even if a board decides that it needs to broaden its membership finding the right people can be tough. Diversity is often considered in terms of gender and ethnicity, and while these are important going for an injection of youth can pay dividends. The recruitment committee should be willing to reach down into the company to look at people who have shown a capacity for innovation, but difference-makerswhen it comes to looking outside a good idea is to keep an eye on lists of award-winners and young people who can stand up before an audience to make their point. The key is to be willing to consciously look for people who will bring different views to the table.

Of course, recruiting a new person onto a board is only part of the battle. If they are not experienced they will probably need mentoring in their legal responsibilities as well as board procedures. The chair is usually the best person to help them get up to speed but all members have a role to play.

Difference Makers provides practical advice on all this, with useful summaries and examples. For a board that wants to ensure it is ready for the future, this is a solid place to start.