Glory days

Appearing in the Australian – Review, 1 July 2017

What Happens on Tour, Stays on Tour

Pitched Battle: In the frontline of the 1971 Springbok tour of Australia

By Larry Writer

Scribe, $35, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925321616


1971 is not quite long enough ago to have assumed the neutrality of history but is beyond the clear memory of most people. Presumably, Writer’s intention in Pitched Battle is to reiterate a political conflict of the time before it slips into the mist.

For those not familiar with the period, in the early 1970s South Africa represented the apex – nadir might be the better term – of discrimination, with the system of apartheid dividing the country along racial lines, including in sport. Writer emphasises that rugby union was tied firmly into the Afrikaner political culture, with its emphasis on toughness, grit, and bloody-minded muscle. And the South African team, the Springboks, was very good at it.

Pitched BattleFor the left-leaning group of Australian protesters at the centre of Pitched Battle, operating under the rubric AAM, for Anti-Apartheid Movement, the issue was that a racially-chosen team, representing a racially-based government, should not be welcome in Australia. A central figure was Meredith Burgmann, who provides a good deal of first-hand comment throughout the book (she later became a senior Labor politician). On the other side of the debate were conservative forces arguing that sport and politics should be kept separate, and that singling out South Africa made little sense when teams from communist regimes, for example, were welcomed.

It is hard to not admire the principle and tenacity of the AAM, especially since opinion polls at the time did not show much support for them (although the numbers were often confusing). Drawing on the lessons of the American civil rights movement, they sought to be disruptive but non-violent. Some of their ideas to interfere with Springbok games even had a streak of humour – the plan to use a remote-controlled model airplane to drop smoke bombs on the field would have been something to see, but unfortunately it did not get off the ground.

As the tour got under way the protests gained momentum and numbers, spreading from the sports grounds into the streets and even to the hotels where the South African players stayed. Some of the members of the AAM were not unsympathetic to the players, who had been invited to play football and now could not leave their rooms without being spat on.


One problem facing the AAM organisers was that there was no way to monitor everyone who demonstrated in the name of opposing apartheid. Throughout the Springbok tour, police would confiscate tennis balls stuffed with tacks and broken glass; screwdrivers; knives, and lead pipes filled with gravel. Considering the arsenals of the combatants in the demonstrations and riots that would ensue all over Australia, the injury tolls should have been no surprise.


Writer should, one feels, have given this issue more attention. Who were these people, and what were they trying to do? While his focus on the liberal activists of the AAM gives the book a narrative coherence it means that many players in the story remains offstage. Writer is clearly a highly capable researcher, so why did he not seek to contact some of the radicals?

Unsurprisingly, the violence begat violence, with militants from the far-right as well as thuggish football fans wading in. As the tour ground on – the Boks had a consistent winning record, by the way – the atmosphere grew increasingly poisonous. And then the new-ish Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, upped the ante by declaring a state of emergency, which gave the police almost untrammelled powers. Law and order, and no matter the number of broken bones.

The last leg of the tour was relatively quiet, as if everyone was worn out. The Boks left quietly but it was clear they would not be returning. The story, however, was not quite over. The South African cricket team had been invited to tour Australia. Which brings Sir Donald Bradman – yes, the Donald Bradman – into the book. As the chair of the Australian Cricket Board, he was initially inclined to continue with the invitation but was keenly aware of the devastating consequences of the rugby tour. He contacted Burgmann to seek her views, and there was a significant correspondence between them.

Eventually, Bradman travelled to South Africa, and met with the country’s Prime Minister John Vorster. Vorster intimated that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and therefore incapable of appreciating cricket, which prompted an angry Bradman to ask Vorster if he had ever heard of Garfield Sobers.

One way or another, the invitation was withdrawn, and South Africa found itself effectively locked out of international sport.

Did this constitute a win? The AAM activists seemed very willing to pat themselves on the back but it should be remembered that the apartheid system rolled on for another twenty years. It eventually collapsed due its own internal contradictions and mounting demographic strains, not because its sports teams could not come to Australia. This is a basic point, and it needs examination. The story that Writer tells is interesting enough but there is a yawning hole where the book’s conclusion should be.

Maybe Writer would say it was another brick in the wall, a symbolic victory. Ah, symbolism: is it what politics is really about or the last refuge of the unconvincing? Bit of both, perhaps. In the end, Pitched Battle is not a bad book, but a willingness to cast a broader net, and provide a wider historical view, would have made it a much better one.


New tech, Red Teams, High-flier Women

Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2017


Megatech: Technology in 2050 

By Daniel Franklin

Profile Books, $33, 242 pages, ISBN 9781781254622

MegatechIt was Winston Churchill who said that the future will be just one damned thing after another. True, but this has not stopped people from trying to foretell what is coming down the road. Franklin is the executive editor of the Economist magazine, a position which allowed him to corral thinkers as varied as Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek, philanthropist Melinda Gates and sci-fi writer Nancy Kress. Each of the 20 essays in this book seeks to extrapolate existing trends, looking not just at technology itself but also its broader implications.

A number of writers point out that past predictions have often turned out to be hilariously wrong, but they nevertheless chance their arm to examine the future of biotechnology and bottom-up patterns of innovation. Others delve into the way technology is likely to affect agriculture (big but risky advances) and energy (renewables look good but there are still bugs in the system). Several contributors focus on the impact of megatech on humanity, including the ethics of artificial intelligence. The tone is generally optimistic but everyone acknowledges that there will be losers from all this fast-wave change.

This is interesting stuff, and enjoyable to read. Perhaps we will reach 2050 and look back at this book and laugh, but in the meantime it offers good food for thought.



Red Teaming: Transform Your Business by Thinking Like the Enemy

By Bryce Hoffman

Piatkus, $33, 279 pages, ISBN 9780349410418

If only we had thought about what might go wrong. It’s a common refrain in everything from failed military campaigns to disastrous product launches. In this fascinating book, Hoffman argues that a ‘Red Team’, with the mandate of questioning assumptions, gaming alternatives, and asking what competitors might do, can do much to reveal crucial flaws.Red Teaming

The idea comes from military and security agencies, although there are a few businesses that have started to apply the lessons, so there are enough cases from which Hoffman can draw lessons. Good Red Teamers are usually people with quick intellects and sceptical perspectives, although they need a firm leader and a clear brief to keep them on track. Hoffman examines cases where Red Teams have helped companies avoid major blunders, as well as cases where, had they been used, disasters might have been averted.

Most of all, there has to be buy-in and support from the top, both for the concept and the team. Senior executives must also understand that Red Teaming is not a way to avoid taking any action but a means to make plans better.


Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World

By Joann Lublin

Harper Business, $50, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062407474

As the business news editor of the Wall Street Journal, Lublin is in a good position to see how much progress women have made in the corporate world in the past thirty years – and how much remains to be done. In Earning It she interviews 52 women who have risen to the top, including Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; and Brenda Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee. All of the cases are American but there is a sense that the experiences of these women are universal.

Earning ItMost of these stories are about success against the odds, and there are recurring themes of sexism and discrimination. The response of these women was to work hard (harder than the men, several say), know the business to the last detail, and make tough life choices. Lublin often discusses her own experiences as well, giving the book a personal dimension.

These women are admirable but younger women might have trouble with the idea that the answer to sexism is to out-play the sexists. Lublin’s advice regarding harassment – avoid the men doing the harassing – might also rankle. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring stories here, and without these pioneers there would not be a path for others to follow.



The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Piatkus, $33, 283 pages, ISBN 9780349412481

In the war for talent many people are fighting unarmed, says Chamorro-Premuzic, a HR consultant who specialises in scientific analysis of recruitment, promotion, and retention issues. There are plenty of tools available but many senior executives ignore them, trusting their gut even after it has been repeatedly wrong.

Chamorro-Premuzic notes that psychometric testing has developed to a very sophisticated level in the past decade, and he provides a good round-up of the academic research. He also cites analyses of corporate performance which shows that a relatively small number of outstanding people are responsible for the organisation’s success. The key is to locate them early and nurture them to bring out their best. Unfortunately, many companies fail at measuring job performance and so have little idea of who has solid potential.

Chamorro-Premuzic supplies some important metrics, noting that the common attributes of good performers are likeability, ability and drive. Psychometrics are useful at the recruitment stage but for promotions better tools are formal interviews, performance assessments, and personality tests. In particular, strong performers respond well to structured coaching, with measurable improvements in results.

Some organisations might find Chamorro-Premuzic’s ideas hard to apply but his basic thrust is sound. After all, good management requires good measurement.

The Talent Delusion



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.