Brian Bacon presentation

July 28, 2007

This week I attended a highly entertaining and informative workshop by Brian Bacon, a leading strategy and management consultant from the Oxford Leadership Academy.  There were some great one-liners that I thought that I’d share.  Many were attributed to others and have been quoted many times before (and I won’t attribute them here for brevity).

  • “A leader never reacts” – but observes, understands then acts decisively. 
  • The conversation is the relationship.
  • Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character but if you have to be without one, be without a strategy.
  • Strategy rarely survives contact with the enemy but character persists.
  • Vision without execution is hallucination.
  • Plans are just frisbees.
  • Successful organisations have a combination of focus, will and capability.  Missing one means that you might, could or would do it but in all likelihood, won’t do it.
  • Execution is about alignment and engagement.
  • The shadow of a leader is very wide.

Lots of food for thought.  There was a reflective self-management leadership exercise at the end which was quite like Theory U and Presence in its style. 


Evidence-Based Policy – Relying on Experts

July 22, 2007

On of the things that I hear almost every day is the question “where is the evidence for that?”  There are frequent calls in public administration for building the evidence base to both inform policy making and also to justify policy direction.

A recent report by Demos, a UK management think tank,  examines the reliance on experts and their datasets in much of public administration. From case studies including the BSE and mad cow problems a few years back in the UK, they find that experts are no longer deferred to and that their knowledge is often not trusted.  Yet we still need experts to understand the specifics of detailed interactions that impact upon real people.

They point out that the problem with evidence-based policy is that evidence is about the past but policy is about the future.  And the future may be quite different to the past.  Of more concern is that developing evidence is often used to support or justify existing policy.  There are countless examples of people “bending” statistics to suit their argument.  It’s better for the evidence to inform policy debates in a contextual and considered manner.  

The report further points out the perils with relying on experts.  Experts are often unaware of their own blind spots.  They often see the world through their own prism, discounting others’ views.    More critically, their view is one that sees cause and effect when it perhaps is not as clear – or vice versa that cause and effect is not seen.  The report points out that evidence based policy overlooks the uncertainties that define our problems.  The absence of evidence of danger does not meant that there is evidence of
absence of danger.  The BSE case and that of thalidomide are classic examples where false certainty is expressed.

I’ve had many concerns with a reliance on evidence based policy – particularly where that evidence is currently lacking.  Evidence-informed policy sounds much better – it focuses on the use of evidence to inform decisions while still providing scope for judgement and wisdom.  Evidence based policy sounds more prescriptive with less scope for context and qualification.   

As with many Demos reports, their answer is to have has less closed groups of government appointed experts providing rational basis for policy and instead include the community more in a transparent and collaborative approach.  Relying on experts without external scrutiny runs counter to the knowledge-based economy arguments and in effect, excludes them from the debate which reduces the opportunity to build social legitimacy.  

Flogging the Corporate Blogs

July 17, 2007

Great video produced once again by Dr David Vaine at Apparently KM, hosted over at Green Chameleon. It points out an approach to introduce blogging to within the enterprise so that it does not disrupt employee productivity.  Matt Moore has also made some insightful comments on Vaine’s approach.

The approach of forced blogging (or flogging) is excellent and sure to boost productivity; just as previous flogging measures throughout history have been shown to boost the performance of individual workers while retaining management control. 

I think that the forced nature that Dr Vaine points out is important.  Unrestricted corporate blogging (or clogging) reduces productivity through the posting of information that is not specifically aligned to staff’s tasks or skills sets.  The nature of Vaine’s forced blogging (or flogging) ensures that blog posts are only made where necessary – freeing up staff’s time for the tasks that they have been tasked to complete in the great Taylorist tradition.  In other words, flogging unclogs the work flow of the organisation rather than clogging it up with needless and distracting corporate blogs. 

Of course, flogging is only an interim step on the path to efficient and limited internal collaboration.  The next step is subject blogging which is tailored to predetermined issues to ensure that any comments stay on topic.  Subject blogging, or slogging, is sure to be a “big hit” for many organisations. 

So stop clogging the organisation’s information streams, and get into flogging and slogging.

In the words of Sam Kekovich, “You know it makes sense!”

Satire meter now switching off …

Update (with satire switch on):  Just wanted to clarify a couple of points.  Corporate blogging or clogging, if left unchecked, creates confusion in the minds of workers with too much information distracting them from their real work – it could even lead to infoluenza. Forced corporate blogging or flogging reduces this confusion.  Subject corporate blogging or slogging is a similar approach to flogging that can be used to ensure that organisational engagement with Web 2.0 social computing tools is conducted in a manner that is controlled and managed to ensure that workers remain on track and on task.

Cultures with a future orientation

July 15, 2007

As a student of futures studies and foresight, I’ve always been interested in Australia’s relatively hedonistic outlook which seems to decrease its ability to set a longer-term vision as compared with enjoying life now.  Over at the Institute for the Future, they recently had an interesting post looking at a Harvard Business Review article by Mansour Javidan.

Javidan mapped the results of an international survey of middle manager’s future orientation against the level of competitiveness within a country.  It shows that the leading countries with a high future orientation are Singapore, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  There is a correlation between future orientation and competitiveness but it is not really all that strong.  Australia is positioned behind the UK, Japan and Sweden for future orientation.

The IFTF post makes the point that the chart might not be a bad proxy for the amount of interest in foresight work in these societies.  While this seems to make sense, I found the position of New Zealand somewhat of an anomaly which was quite low in its future orientation whereas my understanding is that their interest in foresight is quite high compared with that of Australia.  But perhaps this has more to do with current politics rather than societal attitudes.

Prediction Markets and the Australian election

July 9, 2007

Andrew Leigh has done a post on the bookmaker’s odds (Portlandbet) of all lower house seats at the upcoming Federal Election. 

Analysis of the Portlandbet odds shows that if the current betting market holds, then the coalition would hold a 4 seat majority.  9 seats are very close (within 3% either way) but 6 of these are current Labor seats so there is not much room there for Labor to gain.  This is at odds with the recent telephone polls that all have Labor well ahead of the coalition. 

I’ve had a passing interest in prediction markets for some time, particularly based on the views of The Wisdom of Crowds.  Issues around access to information, manipulation and general problems that markets tend towards over-reaction and speculation all question the legitimacy of this approach.  Yet there are obvious merits if these pitfalls can be overcome.

For the Australian election example above, it raises the question of the discrepancy between the opinion polls and the prediction market.  There could be a number of reasons.  It could be that the specifics of individual seats may count against the national trend towards a Rudd victory.  Also, it could be that people may not personally want to vote for the Howard Government but perceive that the proverbial rabbit will be pulled out of the hat (again) and that he is more likely to win in the end. 

At this stage, there appears to be a clear difference between who people wish to vote for and who they think will win the election. It will be interesting to see how the betting markets change over time and if the current perception of a close election is more accurate than the landslide intimated by recent opinion polls.

Delaminate to create a stupid and neutral network

July 7, 2007

It was a pleasure to read the recent post by David Weinberger on “Delaminate the Bastards“.  It took me back to when I started in the National Office for the Information Economy (R.I.P.) back in 1999 working on the Convergence Review.  One of the articles that I distinctly remember is that of the Stupid Network by David Isenberg who has recently written another great piece on making network neutrality sustainable to celebrate the 10th anniversay of his seminal paper.  

Weinberger makes the point that the telecommunications companies (the bastards!) that supply us with access to the Internet should not also be selling us services over the Internet (this is the whole notion of structural separation).  In the old days, we used to have ISP’s that provided the connectivity between the telco access and the content but they have by and large disappeared.  Structural separation means that you have a one company providing access to the Internet and a different one the content and services over the Internet.  This is important for network neutrality so that all services on the network are treated equally.  Vertically integrated companies providing both Internet and content could provide preferential treatment of their content over other company’s content – which would stifle innovation in service offerings. 

Isenberg’s stupid network idea is quite simple.  It is that the traditional telecommunications service is smart in the middle (the switch) with the ends (the telephone) being dumb.  The Internet on the other hand has the smarts in the terminating equipment (your computer) with the network itself being dumb – all the network does is transfer packets of data.  Its beauty is that this encourages innovation in the services at the periphery and away from the centralised service provider.  Clayton Christiansen’s Innovator’s Dilemma demonstrated how dominant incumbents tend to stifle innovation to preserve their own profitable business model. 

This is why the way that the structure of the information economy develops is so important.  Interoperability, net neutrality and service innovation are what will drive the democratic and free (as in free to access, not free as in free beer!) evolution of the Internet.  The current debate about broadband somewhat misses the point as while fibre-to-the-node or the home is important, what matters more is who owns it and whether access will be restricted or made preferential in any way.

My personal preference (as I have declared to friends previously) is for a structural separation solution – particularly for the dominant incumbent – for the provision of Internet infrastructure.  I like the ideas of former colleague Ross Kelso in a paper he completed with John Murphy and John Burke in their submission to a senate inquiry.  This would require a radical rethink of current government policy and would impact on lots of mums and dads shareholders.  But this would be a great first step to get the structure of the information economy right so that we can then move on to developing Australia’s knowledge economy.

Scenario Planning and the Cynefin framework

July 3, 2007

I have recently been at a workshop conducted by David Snowden and Viv Read for accreditation into the Cognitive Edge world.  More on this another time but it was a most interesting few days learning about the theory and application of a range of techniques that are quite powerful in a range of contexts.

Dave has recently made a couple of posts about the limitations of scenario planning which I have heard him mention on a number of previous occasions.  In particular, that the use of scenario planning is more applicable for the ordered domains in the Cynefin framework.  In his words:

[scenario planning] lies in the space of the “knowable” future, complicated, susceptible to analysis yes, but inherently a near equilibrium state. In a complex system boundary conditions and attractor mechanisms (the knowable aspects of a complex system) may benefit from such application.

Dave further mentions other techniques such as Future Backwards that can used to manage uncertain complex environments.  In one of his blog posts, Dave says that “Future Backwards is not an alternative to Scenario Planning” yet in describing the approach on the Cynefin website and in the other blog post, it says “This technique was developed as an alternative to scenario planning and is designed to increase the number of perspectives that a group can take both on an understanding of their past, and of the range of possible futures. ”  Somewhat confusing. 

After seeing future backwards work a couple of times, I do see it somewhat as an alternative to scenario planning as both map out future worlds.  They are also quite different.  Future Backwards identifies impossibly good (heaven) and bad (Hell) future states and the possible journeys from each of those positions with a kick-off point from an timeline.  Scenario planning on the other hand tends to offer more scenarios than just those two that are often not simply heaven and hell, and tend to be more plausible rather than extreme.  Scenarios tend to have a common past (which is the present) whereas the views of the future developed through Future Backwards may have an alternative timeline of significant events than that of the present.  Future Backwards aims to construct a consensus view of the history while scenario planning aims to identify consensus views of the future and tends not to examine the past at all.  Dave states that scenario planning tends to create their stories going forwards in time whereas future backwards constructs history in reverse which is much harder to game.  Many scenarios that I have seen developed work best when the future timeline is created backwards using the backcasting technique rather than forwards in a story-telling manner (although this might then be used to construct the narrative of the scenario for communication purposes). 

I am particularly interested in Dave’s positioning of scenario planning in the ordered domain.  The key to scenarios is to map uncertainties with the standard approach identifying what issues are most uncertain and most important and to use these as the main scenario logics.  Dave’s view appears to be that scenarios are attempts to project the future and that by doing this, it constrains the organisation to only consider these futures.  In a sense this is true with the art of scenario planning trying to identify those issues that are deemed to be the most plausible and critical for considering the organisation’s future.

Much of the modern essence of scenario planning is that the scenarios themselves don’t necessarily matter.  They are useful constructs of possible future worlds to frame and inform current and future strategies for an organisations.  The classical Shell approach of identifying future scenarios and monitoring to see if they come true and adjusting organisational strategies to fit is quite simplistic and is not the purpose of scenario planning that I have witnessed for many organisations. 

The complex unordered domain in the Cynefin framework is one of probe, sense and respond rather than the complicated ordered domain of sense, analyse and respond.  Is the creation of scenarios a probe into the future to make sense of an uncertain world (my view of scenario formation in a complex ontological frame) or is it to sense different future worlds and then analyse them using expert opinion.  Much modern scenario planning is an emergent process – the future scenarios and their strategic insights cannot be determined beforehand – there is retrospective coherence.  In this respect, they seem to more closely suit the complex domain.

Another interesting futures approach that Cognitive Edge is exploring is using fitness landscapes to identify weak signals that could not be determined beforehand – that have no predetermined scenarios around them.  Weak signal detection is one of the bugbears of any environmental scanning system and the new stuff that Dave is working on certainly seems to be a winner here compared with other methods of trawling through reams of information trying to paste together a possible impact.