Edward de Bono at VPSCIN 12 September 2006

September 18, 2006

I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk by Edward de Bono last week in Melbourne organised by VPSCIN.  I have read a fair bit on him and it was great to be able to see the man present.  Shawn at Anecdote did an interesting post on the session.

What I found particularly interesting was his links between systems, creativity and humour.  Edward said that “Any system that has input over time will be sub-optimal” as the purpose of our minds is to make stable patterns to make sense of reality.  Reality builds up from the input we receive.  To gain optimum performance, one often needs to totally redesign the system.  I was talking at work recently about the need to redesign Justice systems to better cope with the future and so this resonated with me.

Edward further said that all self-organising systems are asymmetric in that going from A to B tends to be quite convoluted but in hindsight, looking back from B to A is direct.  It is not logical in foresight but absolutely logical in hindsight.  And then he commented that this is why humour and creativity work the same way.  The joke or the insight is clear in hindsight but at the start it is unclear. 

To gain these insights, he provided four approaches.  These were:

  1. Challenge – place a block on the path so that you have to explore possibilities – example of drilling horizontally for oil or having electric batteries on car trailers.
  2. Concept extraction – generate alternatives to gain direction/purpose and ideas = example of parking with the lights on
  3. Provocation (Po) – generate a provocative operation and see how you can move forward from it – examples of having square wheels on cars leading to the design of improved suspension or taxi drivers that don’t know the way.
  4. Chance – start thinking from a different point  – such as using a random word (needs to be a noun) or Newton getting hit by an apple.

 I compared this with some of the foresight techniques we use.  Po is one that is used quite a bit to come up with hare-brained alternatives.  But I was left with the impression that all of these are useful but only approach it from your own values-set and identity.  He didn’t mention how would someone totally different (from a different culture, set of beliefs, values, etc) would approach the issue.  This is something that is used in CLA or critical futures studies a lot more.

He finished by commenting that if God is perfect, then God cannot think, have humour or be creative as God already has the knowledge.  He also stated that 90% of errors of thinking are to do with our perception and that the biggest barrier to thinking and progress is in language.


Australia’s Identity and the Values Debate

September 15, 2006

It’s been another sad week in Australia for values-pumping with the Opposition Leader advocating a values respect clause for incoming migrants and tourists before a Government policy announcement this weekend for would-be migrants to have a knowledge of English, Australian history, values and customs.  A quote in today’s Age from the PM says “the test was a step away from zealous multiculturalism and a reassertion of an Australian identity… Cultural diversity should never come at the expense of a clear, strong, compelling national identity”

Which Australian identity is the PM advocating?  At the Future Summit in Brisbane this year, there was a great presentation on the different elements of Australian identity.  Just as each individual does not have one identity (for me I am father, husband, friend, futures consultant, blogger, worker, etc), so Australia does not have one identity.  It actually has six general identities and different people see Australia as closer to one of these identities than another.  These identities tend to be exclusionary – as by their definition, they unite within and exclude others who do not conform.  The six are:

  1. Renewed past – valuing tradition and what was great in the past.  Focus on assimilation to traditional values.
  2. Lucky Country – value our past success, our mateship, our country/place/resources
  3. Oz Park – We are who we are, Brand Australia, Multiple stories, Media and Tourism – think Steve Irwin (RIP)
  4. Innovative Australia – green, adaptive, cultural awareness and innovative under adversity
  5. Glocal – global values rather than national interest, spiritual, GPI rather than GDP
  6. No Australian Identity – global village, technology connected, world currency, online presence, I am my own brand. 

There are winners and losers in each identity.  What is your favoured identity?  I am more 4 and 5 but most Australians would be 2 or 3.  Tourism Australia favours Oz Park, mining lobby favours Lucky Country, PM has a lot of Renewed Past, and this is part of the reason why the Innovative Australia identity struggles.

The critical element here is that the notion of identity is actually less important than the notion of intentionality.  Defined identities tend towards stability and are past-oriented (we are who we are) whereas intentionality drives towards a vision (who do we want to be).  In the words of Richard Hames who closed the Future Summit 2006, how do we create value, difference and worth in the world? 

The media statements are all about who we are and how we want to portray that to the world, rather than who do we want to be and how will we make a difference and add value to the world.


AusForesight 2006 Free Public Forum, Melbourne, 22 October

September 14, 2006

On Sunday 22 October to coincide with the AusForesight 2006 Conference, there will be a free public forum on “futures-spotting” at Swinburne University.  It will run from 1pm to 4.30 pm.  More information at http://www.ausforesight.com/default.asp?p=14

The afternoon will fewture a keynote address from Richard Neville who is one of Australia’s most noted futurists.  There will then be four sessions led by various foresight practitioners before a closing by Professor Richard Slaughter and Peter Hayward. 

It promises to be a great afternoon for anyone wishing to know more about understanding the future.


Affluence and Wellbeing

September 10, 2006

Going back over some old Review articles and came across a quote I had circled. It’s from Avner Offer’s book The Challenge of Affluence which has as its first sentence:

Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines wellbeing.

His premise is that increasing affluence has resulted in increased short-term pleasure seeking behaviours – a form of myopia that priviliges the present over the future.  Advertising further pushes us down the path of the hedonistic treadmill, reducing sincerity and trust. 

His advice is to have more prudence, to balance immediate pleasures with sacrifices that benefit long-term wellbeing (such as study, relationship-building, saving) and build self-control.  There are strong links here to obesity, divorce rates and lack of savings. Moderation needs to be given greater weight than increasing choice.

The public sector has a strong role to play here – to help build the policy and institutional structures that support self-control, such as forced savings, financial education, banning certain types of advertising (such as junk food for kids) and actions for community development. This role is becoming more critical as innovation continues apace leading to greater novelty, increased impatience and the merrygoround of reduced wellbeing continues.


Autonomy: Health Benefits of Having Control at Work

September 10, 2006

I’m very interested in statistics that demonstrate differences in longevity between people.  Just as there is an increasing move towards personal KM, I feel that there should be a similar move towards personal foresight so that individuals can maximise their chances of living healthy and fulfilling lives.  There has been recent press that we might be one of the first generations to not live as long as their parents due to obesity related disorders (diabetes, cancer, etc), a terrible indictment on us.

Some of the claims for longevity includes social standing and income.  The Whitehall studies of UK civil servants by Michael Marmot showed a dramatic difference in disease between those at the top of hierarchy and those at the bottom. When adjustments were made for lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking, physical activity, obesity and social support, a strong relationship still existed which was attributed to control of destiny; hence the lower down you are in social class standing, the less opportunity and training you have to influence the events that impinge on your life, leading to stress and sickness.

In some respects, this is similar to Martin Seligman’s notion of “learned helplessness” when people become passive when they feel there is little they can do to influence their environment.  There is a public service term for this – “POPO” – passed over and pissed off – referring to staff who hang around pass their use by date, not doing much work and affecting the morale of others. 

Providing autonomy at work will lead to less stress and less sickness than rampant managerialism with bosses bossing people around.  This will have greater benefit that just providing more money as wages which counteracts the push for wage bargaining when many people would prefer a positive work environment with greater autonomy than perhaps a job with more money but not much autonomy. 

It’s more than just managers empowering staff, it is providing them with the capabilities and freedom to decide on their own work priorities.  Autonomy provides the opportunity for control over your own life, including your own health and wellbeing – and there are not many things more important than that! As with many things that improve wellbeing, the benefits plateau after a certain amount has been granted and more may not realise additional benefit.


Reputation and Demography of the Public Service

September 10, 2006

Couple of presentations this week by Lynelle Briggs, the Australian Public Service Commissioner.

First one is on responding to demographic change in the Australian Public Service.  It provides a decent overview of the operating environment facing the APS with changing demands being placed on service delivery and the challenge to recruit, retain and develop the people we need.  She also talks about the requirement for more flexibility in workplace practices – but different for younger and older cohorts. 

We covered some of these topics in an APSC Better Practice Forum on Workforce Planning Futures seminar that I conducted with Bronwynne Jones and Tess Walton in June this year.  What the Commissioner did not go into detail though was on the serious longer-term implications for the APS and that there is quite a deal of uncertainty on these topics.  In particular, will there be a continued demand for human contact in service delivery or will there be a furher trend towards seld-service on the Internet?  In addition, in a shrinking market of workers, to what extent will the power balance shift from employer to employee?  How will this affect the APS?

The second, ‘Building the reputation of the Australian Public Service’ was mentioned by Verona Burgess in the Financial Review on Friday.  There was an excellent description of the eight high-risk behaviours that can impact on the reputation of the public service.  These were change initiated by crisis management rather than regular and systematic analysis, poor allocation of resources to business needs, financial over and underspending, inadequate corporate planning and business plans, bad reports from Auditor-General or Ombudsman, ineffective information management, signs of unresponsiveness and a lack of staff and stakeholder surveys.  Many public sector agencies that I have worked with can tick off a number on this list!


Designing Complex Systems

September 6, 2006

One of the things I do in my work in the Department of Justice is look at the various systems that we oversight (for example, criminal justice system, emergency management system, etc) from a strategic perspective to see how they can work better.  Each of these systems is complex; they involve multiple stakeholders with different interests, human agents (they are always messy), and various intersecting system dynamics. 

I found this quote sometime back and rediscovered it recently.  It neatly describes the strategic policy world that I live in and the need to consider emergence in system design rather than attempt to strictly control the re-design of the overall system.  The quote comes from John Gall from his book “Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail.”

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked … A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

One of the delightful phrases from strategic foresight is to “trust emergence”.  It still allows tweaking as the system takes shape to accentuate the positive and disrupt the negative.