Good questions, boss management

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2019

 

Questions Are the Answer

By Hal Gregersen

Harper Business, $27, 336 pages

Questions are the AnswerAs Director of the MIT Leadership Center, Gregersen has a special interest in why some business leaders are exceptionally successful. After conducting over 200 interviews he reached the conclusion that they ask the right questions. They do not ask many but they are good ones, capable of dissolving barriers to creative thinking and guiding the pursuit of new solutions. Drawing on this research, he explains how questions  can be structured to get to the core of an issue while pointing the way to clear action. A good question is a paradox: completely surprising yet entirely obvious.

While the research dealt with senior people Gregersen emphasises that active questioning is effective at any level of leadership. He examines the idea of the “question burst”, a team meeting centred around asking questions about an emerging challenge. The process usually leads to some innovative thinking and at least a few ideas worth further development.

The best questioners make an effort to find information and views outside their comfort zone. Breaking out of the bubble requires an effort but is needed for a fresh perspective. Good questions also require humility. Finding the right question, after all, is about accepting that you don’t know what you don’t know.

 

Cybersecurity Program Development for Businesses

By Chris Moschovitis

Wiley, $71, 225 pages

This book is written for business owners and executives whose education did not include cybersecurity, and as a result they do not know how to communicate with the company specialists. Moschovitis clearly knows a great deal about the field but he also knows how to explain the issues without undue techno-babble. He emphasises that there is no silver-bullet cybersecurity defence; the point is how to make good business decisions about what can be done to minimise risks and mitigate damage. He guides the reader through basic concepts without talking down to them, steadily progressing to risk evaluation and asset protection. He also explains what should be in an incident response plan and offers advice on cybersecurity training for employees and managers. Cybersecurity Program Development

The later chapters deal with cyber threats affecting machine learning, cloud computing and blockchain. There is also an important section on trends in regulation, essential from both governance and decision-making perspectives.

If read from cover to cover the book provides a comprehensive overview. However, it is structured so that readers can choose what is most relevant to them (although the first third is for everyone). It allows executives to not only know what questions to ask but to understand the answers as well.

 

Manage Your Boss

By Jonathan Vehar

Centre For Creative Leadership, $31 (e-book), 55 pages

This e-book is a short read but a pithy one, explaining how to manage upwards to minimise misunderstandings and friction. Vehar specialises in the design of business education programs and he believes that it is up to the person in the subordinate position to actively manage the relationship. This means finding out the preferred communication methods of the boss, how closely they want to oversee their reports, their methods for resource allocation, and how much information they wish to share. In each case it is up to the subordinate to adjust their working methods accordingly, although Vehar suggests ways to communicate to the boss when more direction or assistance is needed. It is generally more effective to approach the boss with a clear list of suggestions rather than vague open-ended questions.

Manage Your BossThere are numerous checklists that can help define, guide and develop the relationship, as well as interesting anecdotes. Along the way Vehar notes that your boss is usually obliged to look upwards to their own boss. The concluding chapter provides a four-step framework for discussions: pluses, opportunities, issues and new thinking. It is a straightforward, practical system, and a good way to build the trust that the relationship requires.

 

 

 

Downloadable research

A guide from Deloitte, Forecasting in a Digital World, underlines the extent to which advanced maths and machine learning have changed forecasting. The guide explains the basics of algorithmic forecasting and examines cases where the new tools have provided predictions that have been more accurate and timelier than traditional methods of data compilation and spreadsheet analysis.

forecastingThe key figure is the CFO, who is responsible for assembling and leading a team of people who understand both the business environment and the technology. The CFO also has the task of integrating the forecasts with the company’s strategic processes, including at the board level.

Download from:

https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/finance-transformation/articles/crunch-time-6-forecasting-in-digital-world.html

 

 

In a TED Talk that mixes insight with humour, entrepreneur Chieh Huang explains how micromanagement leads to exhausted, dissatisfied employees and kills innovation. In fact, most senior managers are aware, when questioned, that micromanagement is counter-productive. Their attempts to do it usually stem from a desire to re-engage with ‘real’ work rather than managing managers.

He explains how managers have to understand their role, and step away from their instinct to micromanage. This entails an acceptance that employees might occasionally fail. Any short-term costs, however, are certain to be outweighed by increases in productivity and innovation.

View at:

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

micromanaging

 

A new report by McKinsey, Megadeals: How Data and Analytics Can Dramatically Boost Success, discusses how business analytics can be used in large, complex deals. There is often a reluctance to apply data-based methods to big deals but the report authors believe that by drawing on multiple data sources – customer-relationship management, enterprise resource planning, sales reporting, and external data – it is possible to create rich datasets that can provide important insights.

Analytics can also provide early warning of possible problems and enhance risk management. Although the report focuses on large deals the authors believe that the processes can be used on deals of any type and scale.

Download from:

https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/megadeals-how-data-and-analytics-can-dramatically-boost-success

 

 

Hays Specialist Recruitment has released its Jobs Report for the period to June 2019, looking at the trends of skills in demand within the areas of commerce, professional practice and the public sector. While there is considerable diversity across the areas a common theme is an increasing demand for an understanding of analytics and cloud computing.

Graduate job applicants with these skills should provide details of their qualifications, and people who are seeking promotion or to change jobs should emphasise any upskilling they have done in these areas. This is to show that that they are both competent with the new fields and are willing to undertake continuous improvement.

Download from:

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—commerce-industry-695

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—professional-practice-931

https://www.hays.com.au/report/accountancy-finance—public-sector-375

 

 

The Australian Cyber Security Centre has released the Australian Government cybersecurityInformation Security Manual to help organisations protect their information, networks and systems from cyber threats. The guidelines within the ISM are based on the experiences of the Centre and the Australian Signals Directorate.

The ISM is aimed at Chief Information Security Officers, Chief Information Officers, cyber security professionals and IT managers. The guidelines discuss both governance and technical concepts, with chapters on equipment management, database management, system hardening, outsourcing and data transfers. The entire document can be downloaded or individual chapters can be selected. A useful Security Assessment Aid is also available.

Download from:

https://acsc.gov.au/infosec/ism/index.htm

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Transformation, cyber-threats, and better selling

Appearing in March 2019 issue of In The Black magazine

 

Leading Transformation
By Nathan Furr, Kyle Nel, and Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
Harvard Business Review Press, $50, 256 pages, ISBN 9781633696549

Leading TransformationHuman beings, say the authors of this book, are inherently resistant to change. Especially in a corporate setting, getting employees to understand the necessity of change, and then leading them through it, is a massive but essential undertaking. Furr, Nel, and Ramsøy – respectively: an executive who has guided numerous transformation programs, a neuroscientist interested in how thinking develops, and an academic specialising in change theory – have developed a program that has been successful in cases as diverse as Google and Pepsi, and they explain their points through these examples.

The program involves three steps: envisioning the possible, breaking down resistance, and prototyping the future. The same old same-old is not going to work but there has been success through bringing in science-fiction writers and rap artists to help conceptualise new thinking. The aim is to develop a forward-looking strategic narrative: not just thinking outside the box but building a different structure entirely.

Because the cases vary the process is not always easy to follow, but the authors provide many insights along the way. There are also three interesting appendices, about transformation in one’s own life, building an origin story, and – radical but surprisingly enlightening – the key messages of the book presented as a graphic novel.

 

Digital Resilience: Is Your Company Ready for the Next Cyber Threat?
By Ray Rothrock
HarperCollins, $18.50, 256 pages, ISBN 9780814439241

The bad news, according to cyber-security expert Rothrock, is that every company is going to be attacked through its computer systems at some time – if it hasn’t been hit already, whether it knows it or not. He believes that it is impossible to protect against every threat, although he offers good advice on ways to minimise the chances of a successful attack, with software packages and better employee training. The real key is to develop resilience, which means being able to effectively respond to attacks and quickly return to business.Digital Resilience

A digitally resilient company has prevention and detection systems in place, distributes information across networks, trains and tests employees, runs frequent system tests, and has a team dedicated to the task of building resilience. There might even be a ‘resilience scorcecard’ to provide guidance to managers. None of this is cheap but, given some of the scary cases that Rothrock looks at, worth the expenditure. He also includes a useful chapter on how senior executives can get up to speed on digital resilience, getting past the idea that security investment is a cost to be begrudged.

The book focuses on the US environment but that is not a problem. In the world of cyber-threats, there are no borders.

 

How Clients Buy:  A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services
By Tom McMakin and Doug Fletcher
Wiley, $42, 272 pages, ISBN 9781119434702

Many accountants, business advisers and financial planners are very good at helping others develop their companies but less effective when it comes to building their own. The problem, says McMakin and Fletcher, consultants who specialise in this field, is often that they are trained to do their job rather than sell it. They offer a wide range of advice, especially in the areas of effective self-promotion and relevant advertising. But they strongly counsel against the hard sell. Sustainable and profitable relationships are built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect.

McMakin and Fletcher see seven elements in a client’s decision to purchase professional services, and they unpack each element in detail. There are tools and tactics to help you through each step, and the book is organised with an admirable clarity.

How Clients BuyA critical issue is to understand exactly what a client is looking for and how it should be delivered. Do not over-promise, say McMakin and Fletcher; it is a sure way to lose a client’s trust. They also provide tips on how to retain existing clients and even expand the services provided to them, and examine the important question of costing. It adds up to a useful, very readable package.

 

An artificial but beating heart

Review of Alita: Battle Angel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz

One cannot but approach Alita: Battle Angel with a certain amount of apprehension. The original anime, made by Yukito Kishiro, was not short of cybernetic action but at its heart was a surprisingly tender love story. The new version is twice as long, incredibly expensive, and directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, El Mariachi), a fellow not known for subtlety. The movie’s trailers hint at a series of spectacularly pointless CGI fight scenes. Even more, Hollywood’s last attempt to make a blockbuster out of an anime, Ghost in the Shell, was an extended exercise in largely missing the point.

Alita #1But as it turns out Rodriguez (overseen by producer James Cameron) does a pretty good job of keeping the essence of the source material while adding the best that modern technology has to offer. Rosa Salazar, who has previously appeared mainly in supporting roles in so-so films, turns in a solid performance, although with CGI-enlarged eyes and a metallic body she does not always have much to work with.

The cyborg Alita, or at least a small part of her, is rescued from the scrap heap by compassionate Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz), and while her memory is gone she soon reveals the talents of a super soldier. This allows Rodriguez to stage a succession of truly remarkable fights and races, and there are plenty of villains – uber-sleeze Mahershala Ali, smooth-talking Ed Skrein, and snarling Jackie Earle Haley – to contend with. There is also Jennifer Connelly, who was grown out of her pretty-girl looks into an interesting character actress – although here she comes to a very unpleasant end. Salazar manages to balance Alita’s cybernetic strength and human frailty as she struggles to define herself. There is even some fun along the way, such as her first encounter with an orange, and later with chocolate.Alita #6

And the visual look of the movie is undeniably stunning, whether it is the background details of Iron City or the hi-tech savagery of the Motorball stadium. In a tiny but beautiful scene, Alita slices a tear in half as it falls. There is a note at the end of the credits that the movie required hundreds of thousands of hours of work, and that sounds credible.

The weakest point of the movie is Keean Johnson, as Alita’s crush interest Hugo. He is hunky but rather bland; the character in the anime version had more depth, and his obsession with reaching the sky city of Zalem made sense. With Johnson it feels more like a plot device, a sudden change of mind to provide a conclusion. In fact, the whole movie begins to struggle in its final stages, perhaps because of the need to provide a pathway to the inevitable sequel.

Alita might not be the triumph that its makers wanted but it is still a success, and it is good to see another movie (after, for example, Bumblebee) in which it is a complex young woman who does the rescuing and the sacrificing, the fighting and the thinking. Hollywood does not always get the emotional tone right but in Alita Rodriguez and Cameron did not get it wrong, either.

Alita

Alibaba Opens the Datafication Door

Appearing on site In the Black Digital, February 2019

 

In the Digital Age all successful companies use high-level technology but the Chinese giant Alibaba might be the one which has taken the underlying principles of e-commerce the furthest, with a model based on machine learning and the comprehensive datafication of customer interaction.

Ming ZengAlibaba, founded in 1999 by tech-entrepreneur Jack Ma, recorded a net income of 61.41 billion yuan, approximately US$9.6 billion, in the year ending 31 March 2018, and its market cap puts it firmly in the global top ten. A new book by its Chief Strategy Officer Dr Ming Zeng explains how Alibaba’s model was developed and how it keeps the company on a growth path.

In Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy*, Dr Zeng notes that Alibaba is sometimes compared to Amazon but he believes that the comparisons are incorrect. Whereas Amazon is a retailer, Alibaba is a portal to link customers to sellers (although it is now highly diversified, involved in everything from banking to film finance). Its strategy has been to apply technology to every part of the purchase chain, from advertising to delivery.

“Alibaba today is what you get if you take all functions associated with retail and coordinate them online into a sprawling, data-driven network of sellers, marketers, service providers, logistics companies, and manufacturers,” says Dr Zeng. “Alibaba does what Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Google, FedEx, wholesalers, and a good portion of manufacturers do in the United States, with a healthy helping of financial services for garnish.”

Ecosystem

Despite his key role Dr Zeng was not a part of the company at its inception. At that time he was working as an academic at Europe’s top business school, INSEAD, after completing his PhD in the US. He was teaching a course on Asian business when Alibaba caught his attention.

“It had no Western counterpart so it was a perfect case for MBAs,” he says. “I contacted the company and management agreed to let me study the firm and conduct some interviews. I met Jack Ma for the first time in 2000 and I later worked as a strategy adviser for Alibaba Group. In 2006 I was finishing my first book in English, Dragons at Your Door: How Chinese Cost Innovation Is Disrupting Global Competition**, about emerging multinationals from China. I got a phone call from Ma asking me to join the company, which I accepted.”

Dr Zeng and Jack Ma realised that they had to think of the company as an ecosystem if they were to realise its potential. The strategic imperative was to make sure that the platform provided all the resources, or access to the resources, that an online business would need. The emerging technology of algorithms and machine learning, together with the decreasing cost of computing power, made it possible.

Dr Zeng says: “The formula for smart businesses can be summarized in a simple equation:  Network Coordination + Data Intelligence = Smart Business. That equation represents what is behind Alibaba’s success and captures everything you need to know about business in the future.”

C2B model

The technology allows the company to put customers at the centre of business, constantly collecting data on them and their purchase choices in real time. Dr Zeng calls this the customer-to-business (C2B) model, using feedback loops to drive machine learning. Now, when customers log on they see a customised webpage with a selection of products curated from the billions offered by millions of sellers.

The model requires several connected elements: a network that can dynamically adjust the supply and quality of service offerings, an interface where customers can easily articulate their needs and responses, a modular structure that can grow from an initial beachhead, and purchasing platforms than can provide agility and innovation. Every customer exchange supplies more data, which goes into the feedback loops required for machine learning.

This system requires that a large number of actions and decisions are taken out of human hands. Algorithms automatically make incremental adjustments that increase systemwide efficiency. Alibaba even uses AI-based chat-bots to handle a wide range of customer inquiries and complaints without any human interaction at all.

Facilitating the loop

Dr Zeng puts forward four steps as the basis for creating a smart business: creating datafication processes to enrich the pool of data the business uses to become smarter; using software to put workflows and essential actors online; developing standards and APIs to enable real-time data flow and coordination; and applying machine-learning algorithms to generate business decisions.

In this new environment, leaders no longer manage. Instead, they enable workers to facilitate the feedback loop of user responses to help the company along its evolutionary path.

Dr Zeng is adamant that the C2B model represents the future for all business.

“We live in a time of exponential change,” he says. “Everything I have described in Smart Business will soon be conventional knowledge. Change will be disruptive. But it will also bring massive opportunity.”

 

* Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy by Ming Zeng, Harvard Business School Press.

** Dragons at Your Door: How Chinese Cost Innovation Is Disrupting Global Competition by Ming Zeng, Harvard Business School Press.

Christmas Quiz: Accountants in the movies

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2018

 

  1. Which Australian-born actress explains financial terms while in a bath, drinking champagne? What is the movie?

2.  In what movie does Cher play an accountant? What is the opera that she and Nicholas Cage see?Cher and NC

 

  1. In the movie Midnight Run, why is Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, an accountant played by Charles Grodin, on the run?

 

  1. The movie Other People’s Money features Danny de Vito as corporate raider Lawrence Garfield. What is his nickname? To what does he compare the products of the company he is trying to take over?

 

  1. In the television series Ozark, how much money does the crooked financial planner have to launder in order to avoid a grim fate?

 

  1. In a galaxy far, far away, why has turmoil engulfed the Republic? To what movie is this the background?

 

  1. In which movie does an accountant say: “The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” What is the name of the accountant?

 

  1. In the 1967 movie The Producers, accountant Leopold Bloom comes up with a scheme to make money by producing a stage show that will fail and then become a tax dodge. Who plays the accountant? What is the name of the stage show?

 

  1. breaking bad   In the television series Breaking Bad, what business do the perpetrators buy to launder drug money?

 

  1. What is the English title of the 1987 Japanese movie in which a tax auditor investigates a chain of love hotels?

 

11. In the movie The Untouchables, for what crime is gangster Al Capone sent to jail?Untouchables

  1. In what movie does a forensic auditor, played by Will Ferrell, hear a voice narrating his life and approaching death?

 

  1. In the movie The Accountant, what is the affliction of the character Christian Wolff CPA, played by Ben Affleck?

 

  1. What is the name of the central character in the 2008 movie – described as a story about “love, lust, blackmail and revenge” – The Dueling Accountant?

 

  1. In the Monty Python sketch ‘Chartered Accountant’, to what profession does the accountant hope to transition to?MP accountant

 

 

 

 

ANSWERS

 

  1. Margot Robbie. The Big Short.
  2. Moonstruck. La bohème.
  3. He embezzled $15 million from his gangster bosses.
  4. Larry the Liquidator. Buggy whips.
  5. $500 million
  6. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
    Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  7. The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne.
  8. Gene Wilder. Springtime for Hitler.
  9. A car wash.
  10. A Taxing Woman. The Japanese title is Marusa no onna.
  11. Tax evasion.
  12. Stranger Than Fiction.
  13. He suffers from high-functioning autism.
  14. Mungo MacDiamond.
  15. Lion tamer.

Margot Robbie

 

Alibaba, NFPs and Better Performance

Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2019

 

Smart Business: What Alibaba’s Success Says About the Future of Strategy
By Ming Zeng
Harvard Business School Press, $55, 272 pages, ISBN 9781633693296 

Smart BusinessZeng is the Chief Strategy Officer of Alibaba Group, a company that has leveraged technology into an incredibly successful position. That success, says Zeng, is based on understanding how technology can put direct interaction with customers at the centre of the enterprise. He calls this the customer-to-business (C2B) model, using feedback loops to drive machine learning, with customer demands and responses incorporated into the system in real time.

Making a C2B model work requires four elements: a smart network that can dynamically adjust the supply and quality of service offerings, an Internet interface where customers can easily articulate their needs and responses, a modular business structure that can grow from an initial beachhead, and three platforms – social media marketing, e-commerce portals, and a network of flexible manufacturers – than can provide agility and innovation.

Zeng acknowledges that re-tooling an existing large company to a C2B model is difficult (it is actually easier if you build it from scratch). Nevertheless, the technology is available and many companies are already moving in this direction. And, once established, the model can provide competitive advantages and growth at low cost. Overall, the book offers a new way of looking at strategy, and a different perspective on business.

 

Financial Management for Non-profit Organizations: Policies and Practices (3rd edition)
By John Zietlow, Jo Ann Hankin, Alan G. Seidner, and Tim O’Brien
Wiley, $144, 768 pages, ISBN  9781119382560

Managing non-profit organisations presents different challenges to a profit-making company, with one of the most difficult being that the leaders often have limited expertise in financial issues. The authors have a wealth of practical and research experience, and in this comprehensive book they offer practical guidance on financial management for these officers. They systematically work through the basics of proper recording, reporting, and cash flow, and then move on to investment, planning and risk management. There are important sections on fundraising, internal controls and policy-making, where non-profits have particular characteristics. Non-profits

There is also valuable guidance for financial professionals working in non-profits. They have to bear in mind that many of the people in the organisation are likely to see financial management as something of a necessary evil compared to the core mission of the agency. In fact, the authors emphasise that financial metrics are only one part of the picture for non-profits, supporting and not supplanting non-financial goals. In connection with this, the final chapter includes a series of diagnostic tests and evaluation tools, and there are links to a website for further information.

 

The Execution Factor: The One Skill That Drives Success
By Kim Perell
McGraw-Hill, $40, 288 pages, ISBN 9781260128529

Perell is a serial entrepreneur whose first few ventures failed before she got it right. She draws on this experience to argue that it is not having ideas or making plans but executing them that makes the difference. The initial step is to set down a clear goal and establish the priorities needed to achieve it. With this done, the next (brave) step of execution has to be taken, whether it is approaching the first customer or creating the prototype product.

Execution FactorA danger is paralysis through analysis. The critical third step is to be willing to move ahead even if you do not have all the information. Collect and digest about 70 per cent of the data, suggests Perell, and then go with your gut.

Linked to the idea of constantly moving forward is realising when we are avoiding a difficult task. In fact, the tough questions are often the most necessary ones, and they have to be asked and answered. Her final piece of advice is to create a ‘to-do’ list, to support the prioritisation process and keep implementation at the forefront of thinking.

None of this is revolutionary but Perell sets out her points in a clear and energetic way. For entrepreneurs wondering how to start, this book will be useful.

  

Performance-Based Strategy: Tools and Techniques for Successful Decisions
By Steve Fairbanks and Aaron Buchko
Emerald Publishing, $137, 328 pages, ISBN 9781787437968

Many corporate leaders find their time so taken up by the tactical demands of running an organisation that they cannot undertake strategic planning, even while they acknowledge the importance of it. Simply finding the right model for the company is a daunting task. Fairbanks and Buchko have provided strategic advice to companies large and small, and their aim here is to make the process of strategic planning manageable. They examine 22 frameworks, ranging from basic models of market segmentation and product volume margin charts through to project management, brand perception and communication matrices. Each chapter contains an explanation of how it might be used, an estimate of the time taken to develop it, where relevant information can be found, and – a critical point – how the framework can be implemented in practical, measurable terms. There are useful checklists and graphics to further explain the development process.

Fairbanks and Buchko note that strategy-making often helps leaders see their business and the wider environment in new ways. They emphasise that strategy cannot be done in a rush or on the cheap: it requires a dedicated effort. Not easy, but it must be done if a company is to thrive in the long term.

Performance based strategy

 

Hits and misses in books of 2018

Appearing in Australian Spectator, December 2018 (Christmas issue)

 

There is the feeling that after ten years of political failures and assorted cultural nonsense the community is yearning for simpler times with answerable questions. This might explain why a number of books – many of them pretty good – on historical themes
appeared in 2018.
One of the most interesting was Australia’s First Spies by John Fahey (published by Allen & Unwin). He burrowed through the archives to find intriguing tales of agents and Australia's First Spiesoperatives, going back to the Federation era. Fahey takes the view that covert activities demonstrate the real thinking of political leaders, and if that is true then the early leaders of Australia were an independently-minded lot. In fact, the first real intelligence operation was against the British, trying to manipulate them into opposing French expansion in the South Pacific. There was a series of other operations, often run on an informal but nevertheless effective basis, over the next few decades, and all of it makes remarkable reading.
Another book to re-invigorate a near-forgotten chapter of history is Claire Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World (Text Publishing). The story is loosely wrapped around a famous banner painted by Dora Meeson Coates, carried in some of the major suffragette marches (it is now on display in Parliament House after being lost for many years). By the time the Parliament voted in 1902 to extend the franchise to women the campaigners had won broad support You Daughters of Freedomfor the idea (especially because the New Zealanders had already done it, and the vote had been given to women in South Australia without the sky falling in). The road was much harder in Britain, where many of the Australian women became involved with the bruising battle. Wright believes that the Australian experience was a crucial element in winning the right to vote in Britain and elsewhere, and it is hard to disagree.
A different take on social history is A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton (La Trobe University Press). The first piano arrived in 1788 and for a century after that having one in the house indicated class and respectability. Pianos were also the focus of family gatherings and community sing-alongs, providing a sense of social cohesion. The arrival of recorded music saw the beginning of the piano’s decline but Atherton concludes this fascinating book with a look at the new generation of piano-makers, perhaps heralding a renaissance.
A much less happy story is One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies by Drew Rooke (Scribe). Rooke traces how we arrived at the point of having nearly 200,000 poker machines in pubs, clubs and casinos, buttressing his research with interviews with opponents, advocates, addicts, manufacturers and politicians. He concludes that, as gambling goes, pokies are a mug’s game, and they are expressly designed to extract money from the people least able to afford it. Scary stuff, but no solution is in sight.
Shadows on the Pitch (Wilkinson Publishing) is a compilation of the columns of cricket journalist Gideon Haigh, who is now attaining the status of national institution. Covering the last season, he looks at the critical games in Australia and overseas, bringing his vast experience and trademark wit to bear, whether he is talking about the play or the Shadows on the Pitchplayers. The nadir of the season was the ball-tampering scandal, and Haigh devotes several columns to analysing it. He concludes that it was due, at least in part, to the win-at-all-costs culture of the Australian team (and the administrators and money-men behind the players) and the intense competition between the different forms of the game. He believes that Australian cricket will recover from the disaster but it will take a while and will require some deep reflection.
The winner of the 2018 Stella Prize was Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Giramondo), about Aboriginal leader, activist and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Wright collected a huge number of anecdotes and opinions on the man, fitting the oral tradition of indigenous story-telling. Sometimes this works well but in other places in becomes a muddle of conflicting opinions, and one wishes there was an authorial voice to provide clarity. Nevertheless, the no-nonsense views of Tilmouth come through, especially his views on taking personal responsibility and his rejection of the museum mentality. At 640 pages the book is not an easy read but Wright deserves commendation for the bravery of her mosaic approach and her willingness to tackle the story of a complex, controversial individual.
The winner of Australia’s other major literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, was Michelle de Kretser for her novel The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin). It is a complex Life to Comenarrative skipping across a number of locations, held together by wannabe novelist Pippa (her name used to be Narelle but she changed it for marketing reasons). Most of the characters have more pretensions than talents, as well as a pettiness that straddles cultural differences and generations. They see fame as an entitlement, not realising that success requires work. De Kretser walks a fine line between satirising them and indulging them, leavening the intensity of her writing with an undercurrent of humour and, in the end, affection. This reviewer does not always agree with the people who give out awards for writing but here it is deserved.
The good progress of the Australian novel is matched by the quality of the short stories being produced, judging from the pieces in Best Summer Stories (Black Inc), edited by the authoritative Aviva Tuffield. They span the spectrum from the disturbing to the laugh-out-loud, from the personal to the painful. Of particular note is Elizabeth Tan’s Shirt Dresses That Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts, a droll examination of life in the modern corporate office. Marlee Jane Ward’s The Walking Thing is haunting but the darkness is held at bay by the vigour of the young narrator. In One Hundred and Fifty Seconds, Katy Warner shows how Best Summer Storiesmuch can be crammed into the short-story space. Corrango, by Jennifer Mills, stays with the reader precisely because so little is explained.
In politics, the past year has been one in which no-one seemed to really know what they were doing. Laura Tingle, in her Quarterly Essay Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Black Inc), tries to make sense of events in Australia and the wider world. But La Tingle sometimes seems confused about what she wants, on the one hand calling for strong leaders who will stride forward to unify their polity and at other times applauding leaders who seek to build a broad consensus before moving on anything controversial. The mention of  Donald Trump makes her splutter, presumably because he refuses to fit any traditional paradigm of leadership (and could not care less). Equally, there is something hypocritical about a senior Press Gallery journalist complaining that there is too much focus on the leader. Pot, meet kettle.
The increasing strangeness of politics in underlined by Derryn Hinch’s memoir, Hinch vs Canberra: Behind the Human Headline (Melbourne University Press). He is not the oddest person to win a spot on the red benches due to the peculiarities of the electoral system but he is probably in the top ten. His personal trajectory has been wild: he ran Hinch vs Canberracompletely out of money at one point, has struggled with booze, and was jailed for contempt after naming accused paedophiles. His war on paedophiles is a constant theme running through his career although on other subjects he is all over the place. But he works hard to understand the issues and he takes the responsibility of the job seriously. So the taxpayer is probably getting their money’s worth, which is more than can be said for many other senators. Hinch pens interesting portraits of those he has encountered although his nasty streak occasionally grates. His disdain for Pauline Hanson is exceeded only by his dislike for Gillian Triggs, with whom he traded barbs in committee hearings.
Triggs undoubtedly has similar feelings for Hinch, as well as many other people. Her own book, Speaking Up (Melbourne University Press), has a rather haughty tone, as she recounts her early years and her time as head of the Human Rights Commission. She thinks of herself as the defender of Australia’s marginalised people but it is not clear that she has ever met any of them. She seems mystified that anyone would question her authority, an opinion that extends to parliamentary committees. One might expect that her life would make for interesting reading but in fact the book is strangely dour. Triggs is not one for self-reflection or even acknowledging that people on the other side might have legitimate views and grievances. She has no doubts, no questions, only the certainty of her own righteousness. There is a sense of living in a bubble of people who are, well, very much like her: Guardian-world. The only interesting thing about Triggs, as a person, is that she once hoped to be a ballet dancer. Go figure.
If Triggs’ book is somewhat plodding Kevin Donnelly’s How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia: Enemies Within and Without (Wilkinson Publishing) suffers from hyper-activity. He is well-known as a newspaper columnist, and many of the short pieces in this book would be more at home in that format. His anger and conviction over the rise of the cultural Left, with its broad streak of authoritarianism and its facetious Untitled-2arrogance, cannot be doubted, but often Donnelly’s temper is greater than his temperance. He raises many important points, especially about the influence of the Left in the education system, only to bury them as he jumps into another attack. What was needed here was a strong editorial hand to keep him focused. This is not a bad book but a cooler head would have made it a much better one.
As always, competition for this reviewer’s not-so-coveted prize, the Trees Are Dying For This award for the most unnecessary book of the year, was strong. A contender for the TADFT was Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Hardie Grant), an exercise in paranoid quasi-nationalism. Hamilton’s thesis is that the clever manipulators in Beijing are slowly taking over Australian politics, media and education institutions, perhaps as a prelude to a claim that the Australian continent actually belongs to China. Presumably, Hamilton is meaning to scare us but it all comes across as rather silly.
Good effort, but the TADFT has to go to The Knowledge Solution: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It (Melbourne University Press). True, there is an interesting introductory essay by Michelle Grattan on the impact of social media and the 24/7 news cycle on politics. But the rest of the book is taken up by re-hashes of old MUP books, many of the pieces reiterating how wonderful the Hawke-Keating era was. Really? For $30? To whoever at MUP came up with this idea, a cheap TADFT certificate awaits your collection. And if this reviewer gave a prize for the year’s most misleading title, you would have won that too.

The Knowledge Solution