Whatever Works …

December 30, 2008

Sometimes while reading the newspapers online, I come across an article that makes me laugh!

THE Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached in his bag for a small gift. Four blue pills. Viagra.

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills.

That is a great case of customer satisfaction and effective stakeholder relationships!  Getting into the mind of the people you are trying to influence, seeing what you have that may be of value to them, and in turn getting what you want in return.  In this case, cash and physical goods would not have sufficed as the warlord may not have wanted it to be known in public that he was “in bed” with Uncle Sam.  Instead, he was more than happy to be not seen to be in bed with his wives!


Spiral Dynamics: Cult or Useful Theory?

December 30, 2008

Dave Snowden has been arguing for some time about the neo-cultist approach towards Spiral Dynamics. In other forums, I have put forward the view that SD has merit but that it has been bastardised by some people who have used the theory inappropriately, and extended it into areas beyond the reach of the original theory by Clare Graves (such as into spirituality).

I have not done SD-certification (through any of its various schools) but I have read a fair bit on the topic, including Graves original work, and had detailed conversations with people who know a fair bit about it. I find the Emergent-Cyclical Theory to be quite useful in explaining the various situations that people and societies are confronted by, and to explore the reasoning and intentions of their values and behaviours. My personal view is closer to that of Cowan rather than SD-integral. Rather than provide a synopsis of the theory here and the views of the various SD camps, if you want to know more about it – see here for an excellent overview.

I liken the divide between the various Spiral Dynamics communities with that of varrious management approaches over the years. Someone comes up with an approach that appears to have merit, and then as it is diffused, it gets simplified as people look to apply it to various circumstances. In particular, they lose the original context of the theory or why the application worked, and attempt to apply it in areas which are not suited or to extend the theory beyond its original scope.

Here are some selected quotes from a particular page on the Cowan/Todorovic site about their misgivings on others’ application of Spiral Dynamics.

It’s a mess because, like “integral,” Spiral Dynamics has come to mean so much it reliably means nothing.

Sadly, we find much of what we hear about how some others use it deeply troubling, even appalling. Whereas our efforts five years ago used to center on broadening recognition of this model, now too much of our energy goes to damage control as a result of charlatans and exploiters who lack rudimentary expertise.

Although much has been discovered since Dr. Graves’s day, very little contradicts most of his hypotheses, and much has been published which illuminates and expands this remarkably insightful theory.

What I find personally useful about SD is its attempt to articulate why people behave in particular ways and to offer a pathway forward for resolving existential problems (until other problems surface as they inevitably will). More quotes from the same page:

The practical side of the work focuses how to achieve systems which congruently match people with their worlds, their capacities with their situations; it actually offers very few prescriptions for what to change, though many descriptions and suggestions on how to approach it if and when it is appropriate. The SD model does not define optimum outcomes because they will differ among situations and contexts, though the viewpoint always looks to movement up the levels of existence overall, in the long run of time because the increasing complexity of existential problems and the expansion of human experience demand it.

The question so central to Gravesian studies – the how and why one values.

When people see a particular application of an approach and witness cultist qualities in its proponents or an inability of that application to adapt to a new context, often what happens is that the whole approach is decried and labelled as unfit for use into the future or as a pseudo-science or worse.  I’ve seen that happen in knowledge management too many times to list.  But if one looks at the original theory and approach and beyond the “cultists”, then one can see that there is merit in the approach, real evidence behind the theory, and an action theory that if crafted well, could be applied in context that will have considerable merit and benefit to people, organisations and societies. That is how I view SD.

Advertising Safety – A Message for All this Festive Season

December 27, 2008

At this time of the year, we hear lots of messages on the TV and the radio extolling people to be safe, drive carefully and drink responsibly.  I have particularly noticed two advertisements on the TV that have attempted to push this safety message; each attempting to push the emotional buttons to get people to heed this important message.

The first is an advertisement from the Victorian Transport Accident Commission with local Police officers stating that they will be out in force over the festive season to catch people if they drink too much.  The advertisement shows images of police officers going up to the front door of a house to tell the occupant the terrible news that their loved one has been killed in a car crash.  The emotional pull here is of the woman in the house wailing when she hears the news.  Other ads from this agency in the past have shown the result of car crashes, of victims with head injuries and other disabilities, of what happens when people fool around while driving.

The second safety-oriented advertisement is from the Victorian Worksafe organisation, stressing how important it is to be safe at work.  This advertisement shows a typical family scene – at home with the kids fighting over the remote control and  Mum having to referee.  The TV then shows a brief news clip of the aftermath of an explosion at a work site with the family then questioning whether that was where the father was working that day.  You see the tension with the Mum trying to shield the daughter from her own concern which is alleviated when Dad walks in the door saying did you hear about the explosion and the daughter coming up and giving him a big hug for being home safe.

Each of these advertisements is trying to get across the message of the importance of safety, not just for you, but for your family as well.  The second worksafe advertisement breaks me up whenever I see it while the first one fails to provide that emotional connection for me.  Each has 30 seconds get the message across, one worked, the other not as well.  The reasons why the worksafe one works for me is that I have a similarly aged daughter and I can connect with the scene of coming home, that it builds suspense throughout the ad, that it tells a story from the family’s point of view rather than that of others such as the police, even though you do not know if anyone has been hurt.  It clearly shows the importance of effective story telling, and how that can be done in a short 30 second commercial.

I wish you a very SAFE and wonderful festive season!

Economic Cycles – Understanding the Crash

December 22, 2008

Kim has a good acronym for the current financial meltdown; GFHF or Global Financial Hissy Fit.  I was out to dinner the other night with a renowned pessimist who was quite outspoken in relating the various tales of woe and impending doom (his name is not Hanrahan by the way).  And so to the Review of 19 December and the lead article sourced from Prospect on the popping of the bubble in the contemporary art market.  I know nought about this market but it appears to have links to other bubbles that are popping (and they are not from champagne bottles!).

In his book Manias, Panics and Crashes, Charles Kindleberger observed that manias typically start with a “displacement” that excites speculative interest.  It may come from a new object of investment or from the increased profitability of existing investment.  It is followed by positive feedback as rising prices encourage less experienced investors to enter the market.  Then, as the mania gets a grip, speculation becomes more diffuse and spreads to other types of asset.  Fresh assets are created at an ever faster rate to take advantage of the euphoria and investors try to increase their gains by borrowing to buy assets or using derivatives.  Credit ultimately becomes overextended, swindling and fraud proliferate, and the mania ends in panic as investors seek to liquidate their positions.

The authors comment that the art market has adhered spookily to this model.  It seems that the sub-prime fiasco in the US is the “super-prime” example of such mania.  The markets work when asset prices are increasing so long as you are not the one holding the lemon at the end of all the wheeling and dealing.

That paragraph reminded me of a great book that I read about 5 years ago by Carlota Perez called Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages.  She describes the process of going through the following stages of a cycle commencing with the discovery of a new technology:

  • Maturity: Financial Capital Planting the Seeds of Turbulence at the End of the Previous Surge
  • Irruption: The Love Affair of Financial Capital with the Technological Revolution
  • Frenzy: Self-Sufficient Financial Capital Governing the Casino
  • The Turning Point: Rethinking, Regulation and Changeover
  • Synergy: Supporting the Expansion of the Paradigm across the Productive Structure

The main described by Kindleberger contains the particular stages in the irruption and frenzy components of Perez’s cycle.  We were enamoured with the book as we were reading it after the dotcom and telco crashes of the 1999-2001 period while working in an information economy area of the Australian government.  Little did we know that the financial excesses and losses of that period are minor in comparison with what is happening now.  It is clear that while billions of dollars were lost at that time, there was no turning point in rethinking and regulation.  There was still too much loose money sloshing around in the finanical system seeking short-term returns.

What we did like about the book was the expression of hope in the synergy phase where after the losses of financial speculation, money continues to be invested in the productive use of the technology.  Unfortunately, we are yet to see this period as more regulation is still required and the bodies on the shore as the tide washes out still need to be exposed before credit becomes available once more.

US Defence Strategies

December 22, 2008

Good article by Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, in the Foreign Review on the balanced approach of the US National Defence Strategy.  This balance lies in three areas

  • prevailing in current conflicts while preparing for other contingencies
  • maintaining the existing conventional and strategic technological edge while institutionalising capabilities in counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance, and
  • retaining successful cultural traits while shedding those that hamper doing what needs to be done

Part of the biggest difficulty in defence is the long lead times in procurement, not just for large items like the next fighter aircraft but also for armaments (the things that go bang) so that they go bang when they are meant to go bang.  This requires testing under the various climatic conditions – what might work in an Iraqi summer may act very differently in an Afghani winter.

Gates states quite eloquently:

The Department of Defence’s conventional modernisation programs seek a 99% solution over a period of years.  Stability and counterinsurgency missions require 75% solutions over a period of months.  The challenge is whether these two different paradigms can be made to coexist in the US military’s mindset and bureaucracy…  The issue then becomes how to build … innovative thinking and flexibility into the rigid procurement processes at home.  The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around.

This challenge is not confined to the US military but applies across the public sector.  How do you balance long-term infrastructure development with the need for action and funding that will have impact in the short-term and on-the-ground.  The short-term actions are often cheaper, more sustainable and context-sensitive.  They provide options for undertaking safe-fail experiments to see what works.

Finally, some other quotes:

I have learned many things in my 42 years of service in the national security arena.  Two of the most important are an appreciation of limits and a sense of humility… But not every outrage, every act of aggression or every crisis can or should elicit a US military response.

As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

Baz Lurhmann’s Australia as Myth

December 14, 2008

Very good article in the Review section of the Fin Review last week, entitled What is Scotland. The article tracks the rise of nationalism in Scotland and how this is built upon notions of a unified identity. And so we get stories of nation-building that become the myths which people adopt as truths to fuel nationalist fervour and forge common bonds. The author relates how these myths are easily received, even if they were imaginatively fabricated in history, and how these myths are difficult to refute as people are not inclined to look critically at their own history.

My interest in this article was piqued from my recent viewing of the film Australia starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. A film with such a grandiose title, with considerable airplay, and marketing from the Australian Government creates its own hype. Is it then a big enough film to retell and reformulate some of the myths of Australia as films like Gallipoli or The Man from Snowy River have done in the past? Australia came up short for me and I left the cinema disappointed for a number of reasons:

  1. The timing of various scenes was out of synch – a car driving off had only travelled 100 metres even though, in that time, a lot has happened in the movie which would actually take 3 or 4 minutes. The kangaroo hopping beside the car was another.
  2. The movie was too long and seemed to be disjointed and have multiple endings throughout
  3. The love story between Nic and Hugh did not really do it for me: even though I do not mind a romantic flick every now and then. I am wondering why that is so, it’s not because of Nicole but frankly, the relationship lacked chemistry
  4. The history was out of whack with what actually occurred with the Japanese bombing of Darwin
  5. The links with the Wizard of Oz and the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow were too corny and “unAustralian” for me
  6. The cattle stampede was way over the top and reminded me of a spoof Western

Perhaps I expect a bit more from a movie of such a name set in the iconic Top End and Kimberley region. Perhaps the ending should have been a tragedy as it was originally intended. Perhaps there was not enough about the inventiveness of Australians in the outback.

I did like that it had a great cast of Australian actors – from Bruce Spence to Ben Mendelson. I loved the acting of the boy who played Nullah. I really enjoyed that the stolen generations were highlighted (although a bit too much so in this movie) and that Aboriginal culture was portrayed. Perhaps more could have been made of how Aboriginal stockmen earned less than their whitefella equivalents.

While many people loved the film, I think it will not be remembered as a myth-relating film for Australians. That it did not rely on a particular story, poem or historical hero makes this more difficult. Also, the setting of the bombing of Darwin during the Second World War is not part of the major folklore of Australia as something that gives us our identity. Around that time, other happenings that have greater claim to defining Australian identity include those of Changi, The Burma railway, the exploits of Weary Dunlop, snipers along the Kokoda Trail, and the fall of Singapore (although all of these are located offshore of course).

Perhaps the film may have been better handled around the poem (and our national song) of Waltzing Matilda and the shearer’s strikes of the 1890’s. There could still have been love interests, breathtaking scenery, law and justice, politics, Aborigines and so forth built around it. But then again, people would have known the ending – but of course, that is the art of myth – it is the telling of a story in an entertaining manner that people want to listen to, even though they know how it will end!