australia's creeping inertia

australia’s creeping inertia

There are many things that fill me with pride as an Australian. There are others about which I am increasingly embarrassed. We all have long lists on both sides of that ledger. The one which disturbs me most, and which can most impact our long term prosperity, is inertia.

I’ve been in the UAE, China and Singapore recently and returned wondering why we’re being beaten hands down in development of convention centres, bullet trains, sustainability programs, new hotels, freeways, and even knowledge economies. The world is moving at an incredible pace. In many areas, we seem to lag, even behind the developing world. Why?

Within the context of “free market” principles, national sovereignty is diminished as global markets, multinational corporations and global institutions play a major role in shaping our economy. While these forces also prevail in emerging markets like China, they are matched by a hunger to catch up and exceed, which is strongly nurtured by State. By contrast, inertia is rife in Australia, not so much in the private sector, but certainly in public policy.

 I’ve spoken with a few wise heads to get an angle on our malaise (in the spirit of “first seek to understand”) and have developed some thoughts. I wondered whether to tackle the ultimate sacred cow by asking “is democracy itself the problem – and do democracies inevitably tend to inertia?” On reflection, I think the issue is more the way our democracy is manifested. Australian democracy today is being impacted by four forces:

  1. The shape of politics today

- Reform is always slow and politics is about compromise  – a challenge enhanced by the current political mix. Without masterful negotiations or bipartisan support for reform, we have a melting pot for inertia.

- As membership of, and interest in, political parties diminishes, the influence of factions and divisions increases, resulting in a sub optimal mix of candidates. There are too many poor performers, insufficient diversity, too many lawyers and union officials, too few business people and visionaries. As a consequence, we have fewer issues focused debates and more fixed partisan positions, with vested interests buried in ideology and inaction.

      2.    Our relative comfort and apathy

Australians have not faced any prolonged shock or discomfort since the end of the WW2 more than 60 years ago. While there is poverty and disadvantage in our country, standards of living have continued to improve. As consumerism grows and people increasingly “have what they want when they want it”, they are becoming less happy, readier to find fault and carry a higher expectation for “the Government” to fix things. We’ve become more apathetic and short sighted and this flows on to major projects – where is the next Opera House, Harbour Bridge or renewed public transport system? Are they a priority today?

      3.   Media

Lack of media diversity and standards is a major concern. In many of Australia’s media markets, only one single company dominates.  John Faulkner captures the argument – “the media’s freedom to publish was once a safeguard for our democracy. Today, as trash tabloids and opinion-for-hire commentators destroy any semblance of a debate of ideas, the principle of informed decision-making at the heart of the ideal of democracy drowns beneath racy headlines and print-now, retract-later coverage. Radio shock-jocks and shallow television infotainment do the same”.

         4.    The digital revolution

Technology has shrunk and accelerated our world, generated more choice and shortened our attention spans. There are greater demands on our time and more attention to the short term than the longer term.  Faulkner again – “opinion pollsters report a lack of interest or understanding in politics from the very same people racking up massive mobile bills voting for an Australian Idol contestant. This disinterest breeds a vicious cycle, for those who don’t speak up will find nothing so certain as that they won’t be heard”

Solutions?

These four elements are causing indifference, distrust and disengagement about politics and democracy – and apathy about our future. What can we do? Here are four thought starters:

  • Achieve electoral reform at candidate selection level through absolute transparency
  • Win bipartisan support for application of the benefits of the resources boom into infrastructure and other long term benefits, such as creating a knowledge economy
  • Overhaul media laws to achieve diversity, debate and responsible reporting with a view to the future of the country and the globe – not just selling papers. As this is being posted, there are cries for a media review based on the events in News Corp.
  • As individuals, bother to be heard. The world is changing and solutions are not always driven in the traditional way. Look at what GetUp is achieving, for example.

We must achieve major reform and progress in these relatively strong economic times, rather than having to wait to react in the bad times. What about a sovereign fund? That aside, it’s up to us all to make a difference, in a democracy that’s tested but not broken.

climate change attitudes part two

climate change attitudes part two

Encouraged by responses to my blog post last week on the role of ideology in driving opinions on climate change, I feel the need to follow up with another post based on the release of Lowy polling over the weekend. Why does community concern about climate changed appeared to have softened in Australia?

The annual Lowy Institute Polls on public opinion are useful background information. In the 2007 poll, Australians ranked tackling climate change as the equal most important foreign policy goal. In the same poll in 2009, it ranked seventh out of ten possible goals.  In the 2011 poll, released this week, 39% of Australians were not prepared to spend a cent on global warming, with the numbers prepared to take action even with “significant cost” falling from 60% (2008), to 41% (2011). What’s happened?

Remember the Howard Government’s plans to commence an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in 2007? Despite differences of opinion around the edges, there appeared to be general bipartisan recognition of the issues and the need to act through a market based mechanism. It was carried forward by Rudd and Turnbull in their respective leadership roles. What has changed? In my view, it’s mostly to do with politics and communication.

Although climate change remains a complex and challenging issue around the world, in Australia and to a certain extent in the USA, the debate has been politicised and people’s inner worldview, and the opinions of their peer groups has prevailed. Apart from some of independent thought, people have now tended to line up along traditional conservative and progressive lines. The other driver of confusion, indifference and resistance has been the inability of the Rudd and Gillard Governments to adequately articulate the issues and the case for action – a disappointing lost opportunity for the Government and Australia.

Why have things become more politicised in recent times? In my blog post last week, I discussed the reasons why many conservatives may push back from acceptance of, and the need to act on, Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).The theme I didn’t develop is the disproportionate influence of the religious right, many of whom adopt literal interpretations of the bible such as, “the world will end when God is ready”. It underpins the mindsets of many in the Tea Party in the USA and conservatives in Australia with strong influence. It is proving to be a significant contributor to the polarisation and politicisation of the issue.

Other contributors are some of the positions offered by the “dark greens”, who tend to crusade on issues rather than see them in the context of a dynamic and finely balanced economy. This causes reactions, push back and further polarisation. We need to understand the respective positions, debate the issues, play the ball not the man and work together with open minds. Failure to do so will cause more and more people to switch off altogether.

Of course it’s hard for people to give things up to fight a cause which is difficult to see and understand. AGW is a global issue and there are now more than 30 countries with an ETS or some form of carbon tax and many more without such measures. While there is a majority belief that action needs to be taken by Australia on climate change (latest CSIRO survey), this belief seems tempered by the respondents’ key concerns about the cost of living and financial hardship.

Perhaps the essential challenge for society is to clarify the relatively minor costs of acting now compared to those of acting later. We need to find a path forward that proactively addresses the needs of individuals while encouraging action on climate change.

In Australia, the polarisation and politicisation of AGW is disappointing and short sighted. Both sides of politics are guilty and should lead the chorus of apologies to our children for our collective inability to lead, build consensus and act. The apologies will be all too late when decision makers “get it” in 20 years; when people can actually see that the melting of the polar ice caps has caused devastation to hundreds of millions of human beings; when they can ultimately see before them the outcomes that the ostriches said wouldn’t happen in 2011.

Sadly, by then it may well be too late to save this planet from irreversible damage. Sometimes it is necessary to lead rather than look in the rear vision mirror and ask people what they think. To reinforce the point, watch James Hansen talking with David Letterman in an entertaining yet disturbing treatment of the subject.

Seduced by the prospect of power at the next election, both sides of Australian politics have dropped the ball. The Government has done a lousy job in building consensus and articulating why they feel the need to act. The Opposition has passed up a once in a generation chance to show bipartisan leadership on an issue which will affect the planet, and the lives of all future generations.

conservative ideology and climate change

conservative ideology and climate change

I see that lobbyists are paying to bring Christopher Monckton – the high-profile climate denier – on another speaking tour of Australia. Earlier this month, Monckton accused Australia’s climate advisor, Professor Ross Garnaut, of being a fascist. People’s behaviour in the climate change debate, or what passes for sensible debate in this country, has been interesting and frustrating. Denial and spoiling tactics have been adopted by people who seem to carry an agenda. It is an immutable fact that the vast majority of these people are conservatives and reactionaries, rather than progressives and true liberals. Apart from their characteristic resistance to change, I’ve struggled to understand this particular conservative rationale and driving purpose, until reading the insights presented by Tim Dean in the Drum in March 2011.

 My blog post is stimulated by his piece, but largely expresses my own frustration with the situation we find ourselves in today. Of course, these views don’t apply to all climate change deniers or all conservatives. I am trying to understand the motives of deniers rather than to bash them. It is not about conservatives being bad and progressives being good. Clearly all conservatives and progressives don’t think and behave in the same way and not everyone will agree with this generalisation of the conservative view, however analysis of specific demographics, ideologies and patterns of behaviour can be instructive.

Why is it that so many conservatives appear immune to the overwhelming scientific evidence and rational argument that suggests Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is real? The answer may lie in the fact that to conservatives, climate change is not about science or economics – it is about an ideology and politics, as Clive Hamilton points out in his book “Requiem for a Species”. Most of us decide at some time or other where our political beliefs sit and rarely stray from this belief. When a concept like AGW comes along, we tend to reference our political belief system before assessing the evidence. When facts don’t support the pre-existing belief system, then the facts must be wrong! Often rational thought processes are subsumed in the emotional responses to challenges to a political belief system or to our implicit worldview. AGW represents a fundamental threat to the conservative ideology or worldview. Denying it doesn’t make climate change go away, it only makes dealing with it even harder, for us and future generations. There is also an argument that the more climate change is associated with the Greens, the left and environmentalists, the less comfortable conservatives are about embracing it.

 Various Newspoll and other polls have consistently shown that a big proportion of the conservative demographic behaving as climate change deniers, are over 50 year old males. Why? Maybe they want to eliminate challenges to their comfortable existence, despite the consequences for future generations, at any cost. Dealing with climate change is uncomfortable for many of them as it requires, at least to some degree, embracing social consciousness and stepping away from selfishness and mass consumerism. Unfortunately the vested interest of many conservatives is so strong that only climate related disasters of increasingly devastating magnitude, which personally affect them, will have any chance of changing their world view.

 The one thing that intrigues me is the veracity of their sense of purpose on this issue and their relative indifference to other issues. Maybe it relates to control – one thing this demographic holds disproportionately strongly. The thought of losing control of control, control of wealth, and control of assets certainly sharpens their minds, as do potential changes in power relationships in society. But have they really thought things through? Ironically, conservatives have the most to lose from the impact of AGW, as they control most of the money! Why can’t conservatives see nature as an asset that supports humanity? Failure to do so is to support an unsustainable world. Perhaps, as Lewansoky points out, conservatives with a free market ideology will be more able to accept AGW science when it is framed in a favourable context (lots of technology, opportunities to make money etc.)

 In even further irony, the tactics many deniers adopt, either deliberately or unknowingly, generally become supporting proof for the issue they are trying to discredit. Spoiling tactics take on many forms including exaggeration of potential harm, use of irrelevant issues, appeals to personal freedom and magnifying disagreement among scientists. Suddenly, non-scientists claim that science is about opinion rather than fact. Or they talk of the need for more peer review. Clutching at straws, they selectively search the haystack to find the needle represented by a dissenting scientist. Whether by ignorance or spoiling, they confuse weather patterns with climatic change. They confuse El Nino and La Nina cycles, and Ice Age effects, with AGW. They reserve the right to “make up their own minds” on this issue, while accepting what science says as the truth on other issues.

When their arguments start to flounder, they resort to saying that Australia (as the biggest per capita polluter in the world) shouldn’t act because the rest of the world isn’t acting! You should see the massive greenhouse gas reduction programs in the latest 5 year plan for China!! When all else fails, they play the man rather than the ball, attacking the motives and integrity of the scientists.  Assisted by News Limited media and “shockjocks”, who have irresponsibly confounded the debate on this subject in Australia, they throw mud so that some sticks, causing doubt where there should be acceptance and a desire to understand more and seek the best solutions. Please forgive me for drawing the analogy with conservative Anglicans who thought that Darwin was a left wing activist as he used massive amounts of scientific evidence to overthrow dogma and ignorance.

 Perhaps we should cut some slack to those people not trained as scientists, because they don’t know what they don’t know. Doing post graduate science, I can remember my professor saying, “a science graduate is a person who is introduced to bodies of knowledge in such a way that he or she can continue to relate to them”. The undergraduate degree taught us to gather evidence, test, analyseand think in a logical way and establish hypotheses that can be subsequently confirmed. I’ve heard deniers and sceptics who claim to have better knowledge and the right to be heard as they have “read many books on the subject”, yet understand neither the concepts of theory, probability and proof in a scientific context. It’s amazing how many of them believe they have the technical and intellectual capacity to look at the data themselves and arrive at the correct conclusion, and how their conclusions are radically different to those with the relevant training and expertise. Then there are others – people with a genuine desire to learn, who are vulnerable to manipulation by legitimate sounding conservatives without adequate science, and to the propaganda of some hard line Christians and the resources sector lobby.

 Climate change deniers don’t have a mortgage on being selective in the information they seek and use to support their ideologies. While progressives are more accepting of the science, they can also be selective in mounting their arguments, and can also be driven by their own worldview. So how do we break the deadlock of our implicit, and often irrational, worldviews or our political attitudes? The circuit breaker is awareness. When considering an issue such as AGW, we should pause and reflect on whether our feelings are inspired by evidence and reason, or by a strong emotional inclination. Think about how we’re approaching the issue, and how we’re injecting it with value, and the benefits of keeping an open mind.

 Science has established beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of the greenhouse effect (without which our planet would be a frozen wasteland), increases in CO2 levels produced by humans and increases in global average temperatures. The science has also established, on the balance of probabilities to at least a 90% level, that humans are the primary cause of that change. We should be at consensus on this point and now be sensibly considering what action to take. That’s the subject of another blog post.

cultivating an open mind

cultivating an open mind

Most of us claim to have an open mind, but we often stop walking the talk when it comes to certain beliefs and opinions, some which can be held dogmatically. Dogma can lead to intolerance (does anyone spring to mind?)  No matter how open minded we think we are, we still shut off new things or alternative perspectives, just not realising the rut we’re in.

An open mind doesn’t mean that we fail to develop convictions, rather it means being able to question things – even our central beliefs. It gives us the capacity to think on both sides of an argument, and the chance to grow, and to change. I was surprised, early in my career, to see the reluctance of people to embrace change, and so developed an appetite for helping people and organisations accept and grow with change.

There are two paradoxes associated with change. Firstly, to achieve continuity, we have to be willing to change. Change is in fact the only way to protect what exists, for without continuous readjustment the present can’t continue. A marriage, a career, a dream for the future are all destroyed if they don’t change over time. The second paradox is that the very things we wish to hold on to and keep safe from change, were originally produced by changes.

Having an open mind takes courage, because it challenges our minds. After all, we can decide whether we want to be disturbed or remain in the comfort zone, both personally and professionally.  I think that the keys to an open mind are curiosity, and affirmative listening. When we listen affirmatively we listen for the possibilities for ourselves and others, we hear more than the words, and we hear the person behind the words. 

Being open minded keeps alive the childlike appetite for what’s next, and enriches our lives. This often occurs through working together with like-minded people to express our own values, but can also occur through partnerships that are not as obvious.

There are many examples of people with different mindsets and beliefs coming together to achieve amazing things. In these cases, on open mind or a willingness to overcome barriers to partnerships that don’t come naturally, is important.

 I continue to be excited about the possibilities around partnerships across generations. Business and life experiences with my children and their mates have been inspiring. They bring fresh ideas, hunger and new skill sets to the table of experience and wisdom. There are so many opportunities for young people and older people to work effectively together. Bring it on! Combine the dreamers and the pragmatists, the wired and the wise to capture the benefits of mutual learning, and the different perspectives that resonate with different audiences….and do it with an open mind.

Can I challenge you this week to take on one thing that you’ve made your mind up about….and open it?

we took them for granted

Flathead fillets at $45 a kg! Rabbit at $32 a kg! Individually wrapped quinces in tissue paper @ $4 each in Fourth Village Providore. Figs 2 for $5. Excuse me! Quinces and figs were left to rot on the ground 30 years ago.

Growing up in Gippsland, flathead and rabbits were accessible to any old hunter-gatherer with a fishing rod, ferret and some local knowledge. My father in law, Frank Ferrari, bought rabbits at one and six (15 cents) a pair. No-one wanted rabbit – chicken was a treat. We used to joke about Kentucky Fried Rabbit, thinking that some cheating Yank was denying consumers their advertised chicken. Now the boot’s on the other foot with the bunnies bringing three times the price of low flying pigeon.

Unwanted cuts like ox tails and lamb shanks are now making the butcher a healthy margin as Master Chef fuelled enthusiasts serve trendy comfort food. We knew they were good, but assumed they would continue to be cheap and undiscovered. Don’t tell anyone about the lamb back-straps at $5 a kg or what a Moore Park apricot straight off the tree tastes like!

What else today is relatively less affordable and less accessible than it was 30 years ago? Consider water and petrol, energy and houses, mushrooms and passionfruit.

What do we value now that we took for granted then? Consider space and silence, family time and customer service, less choice and clean air. It’s interesting to see how making a virtue of the fact there’s no mobile phone reception at Corinna (an eco-tourism destination on Tasmania’s west coast), resonates with guests. A temporary escape from a wired and complex world!

We’ve seen a revival of home gardens and of course the farmer’s market phenomenon has caught on like wildfire (sadly to the point of opportunistic commercialisation in some cases). I reflect on the paradox of cocooning on the one hand and connectedness on the other, as we react and learn to cope with a constantly changing world, and as we search for authenticity over superficiality.

Many goods and services are becoming more affordable and accessible, but the interesting question is, “What are we taking for granted today that will be more valued in 30 years from now?” What do you think?

diversity, inclusiveness and aussie rules

diversity, inclusiveness and aussie rules

April 26, 2011  |  aborigines, knowledge, life, main blog, motivation  |  3 Comments

Australian Football has always brought people together from different walks of life. If you’ve supported, or played for an Aussie Rules team, you’ll understand. I once played in a team with truckies, scientists, farmers, wine makers and policemen. There was a salesman, a preacher and a horse trainer as well. We were the Rutherglen Redlegs, where backgrounds and occupation counted for nothing, where there was a strong sense of belonging, acceptance and inclusiveness. In our team however, there was little cultural or ethnic diversity. Thirty five years later, Australian football is now a game open to any person, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexuality. The evolution is not accidental.

For indigenous people, AFL has been a conduit to better life opportunities for the gifted, a source of fun for others and a vehicle for greater understanding and tolerance by Australians generally. Understanding the passion that indigenous kids have for footy, some schools demand attendance into senior years as a pre-requisite for their participation. While there is strong evidence that aboriginal people were the pioneers of Aussie Rules, for many years it was a white man’s game. Through the leadership of people like Kevin Sheedy, Maurice Rioli, Michael Long, and more recently Andrew McLeod, Michael O’Loughlin and Adam Goodes, that has changed. We now have 10% of senior AFL lists made up of indigenous people, although they make up less than 2% of the total population.

What about ethnic diversity? While AFL hasn’t been the game of choice for many immigrants brought up on soccer, for example, there have been many men from 47 different countries (going back no more than one generation) who have played Aussie Rules at the highest level. Andrew Embley from Burma, Peter Daicos from Macedonia, David Wojinski from Poland and Alex Jesaulenko from Austria, are just some examples.

In what can sometimes be a thankless role, Andrew Demetriou is the CEO of the AFL. He is a former North Melbourne player with Cyprian roots and takes a progressive stance on diversity. His address at a forum organised by the Diversity Council of Australia last year is excellent, including this extract…

“…and, most importantly, we want to be respectful….to embrace diversity and inclusion….to understand and value the differences in every person. I like to think of Australian football as a game for anyone and everyone….a game which is inclusive, accessible and affordable…a game that does not discriminate.  That’s why we must continue to engage with indigenous and multicultural communities to provide pathways for them to participate in our game. Australian football has extraordinary power. Its greatest power is to bring people – regardless of their background or belief – together”

Good on you Andrew! The AFL is walking the talk with its multicultural program and indigenous programs (including ambassadors for life, indigenous academies and employment strategy and AFL kick start programs).

The stimulus for this blog was listening to the old master himself giving an address to the Royal Sydney Show Community lunch last week. Kevin Sheedy, apart from stressing that Greater Western Sydney will be successful on the field, said “it’s not all about footy…. it’s about the game of life”. He went on to tell the story of a Muslim boy who was given a trial game recently and had 150 mates turn up to watch him. He also shared the fact that there are people from 170 countries in his catchment area (33% of people in western Sydney were not born in Australia) and explained how he intends to embrace as many of them as he can. Kevin is a true pioneer in this area, just as he’s been in fostering indigenous inclusion at all levels of our game.

David Wright-Neville, a consultant to ASIO on terrorism, recently spoke at a lunch In Melbourne about managing a junior team. His team comprised Vietnamese Australians, Lebanese Australians and boys from many other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including recently arrived Sudanese refugees. One of the boy’s grandfathers, the Imam of a large mosque in Melbourne, said that Australia’s capacity to embrace immigrants went a long way to diminishing feelings of ostracism and disenfranchisement – conditions we understand can be precursors to cells of rebellion. He emphasised the vital role that Australian Rules plays in supporting true multiculturalism and a sense of belonging.

These stories highlight some great Australian values – inclusiveness, mateship, originality, groundedness and optimism. Interestingly, these were the some of the values that we defined at the Australian Tourist Commission for Brand Australia in 2004 – values which still underpin the brand story and promotion of our country overseas. It’s what I would like to see Australia really become. It seems that Andrew Demetriou and the AFL do as well…perhaps more readily than some other Australian communities and individuals. AFL is, and will continue to be, a circuit breaker in fighting prejudice – by including all people in the love of our national game.

spirituality and religion

spirituality and religion

April 7, 2011  |  knowledge, life, main blog, motivation, philosophy  |  1 Comment

Brian Woodcock writes in one of his essays that “being spiritual is not the same as being religious.

Religion is about what you believe and do.

Spirituality is to do with quality; it is a thing of the heart.

Religion draws lines.

Spirituality reads between them. It tends to avoid definitions, boundaries and battles. It is inclusive and holistic. It crosses frontiers and makes connections. It is characterised by sensitivity, gentleness, depth, openness, flow, feeling, quietness, wonder, paradox, being, waiting, acceptance, awareness, healing and inner journey”.

Spirituality is a consciousness which exist beyond the usual human realm of existence and awareness. In these dimensions, expanded states of being can be experienced – and even induced through meditation and breathing techniques. States of bliss and love are often associated with this higher dimension, together with an absence of judgment – nothing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it just ‘is’.

Religion can embrace spirituality, but is usually more about a belief system based on man’s interpretation, and is often long on judgment. Such judgment, often accompanied by fundamentalism, has been the major source of conflict in our world over the last few centuries. Even today, Christian and Muslim belief systems can, under the leadership of individuals, be manifested in promotion of fear and guilt. In other situations, such as the church from which my mum picked up the Brian Woodcock material, the primary focus is on love, hope and true spirituality.

Mark Johnson has recently written that Western religion is undergoing transformation as some adherents become more politically engaged. As active participation in religion declines, there is an element of hard core believers remaining, many of whom are deeply conservative and hostile to the secular world around them.

As Christianity declines, those many people of real compassion, integrity and thought, who leave such institutions to seek alternatives outside regimented boundaries, leave behind those who then transform the largely vacant structure into one of their own shrunken image and agenda. Johnson contends that, not content with transforming the ecclesial structure, the secular terrain also needs their attention.

The main point of this piece is to emphasise that religion does not have a mortgage on spirituality, and that there are many ways for us all to explore and develop a state of greater consciousness or connectedness, which can add a rich dimension to our lives. We may increasingly need them as participation in religion declines – and with it the loss of fellowship, community and support systems.

provenance in the tamar valley

provenance in the tamar valley

March 18, 2011  |  environment, knowledge, main blog, motivation  |  4 Comments

Imagine receiving a box of fruit and vegies once a week, packed full of fresh seasonal produce with a story about where they were grown. Carrots and spuds with soil on them, new seasons apples, tomatoes that taste like the ones you grow in the back yard, rhubarb and fresh lettuce, as well as mushrooms and onions (and whatever else is in season at a point in time) – all for $25, on your doorstep!

Across Australia, there is a groundswell of sourcing fresh locally grown produce from farmers markets. My friends Hilary and Barney near Lilydale in the Tamar Valley of Tasmania, have taken this one step further. They have developed a network of local providers who provide fruit and vegetables in season for Hilbarn. The producer is packed with a team of local people every Sunday night ready for despatch the next morning. An emerging distribution network has the Hilbarn box delivered to more than 100 loyal customers in Launceston, Scottsdale and even Hobart, every Monday.

We were lucky to see this in action recently and even helped with the packing. The idea is brilliant! It embraces the concept of provenance, or understanding origin. The regional and local sourcing has obvious carbon, energy and employment benefits, but also engenders a sense of community and belonging that adds another dimension and level of appreciation and understanding.

The contents of the Hilbarn box are a talking point. There is an element of surprise and even education. Hilary related the story of children realising for the first time that peas come in pods rather than packets. The sense of discovery and infectious involvement is exciting. People have even described themselves as “Hilbarners” (a marketer’s dream).

Hi and Barney do this because they love it. Although they are establishing a potentially powerful brand and concept, they would never sell out to the big retailers whose philosophies just don’t align. This is grass roots, local and powerful. It was a privilege to see it in action and I salute these two visionary people who are bringing growers and consumers together in a very satisfying and meaningful way.

…in all humility

My daughters are great levellers! At the very hint of immodesty or pretension, they nip me in the bud, offering an ironic preface for my comments, “in all humility….” We smile, but the point is powerfully made, and I feel fortunate to have their love and support.

While being humble doesn’t come naturally, I admire and respect people who have managed to use humility to achieve that delightful balance in their lives between ego and lack of confidence. Humility requires not that we think less of ourselves but that we think of ourselves less often. If the report in The Age is right, we are seeing an epidemic of obsession with self, where narcissism measured among university students has risen from 15% to 30% in the last 30 years.

Recently I shared a flight to Melbourne with the gorgeous Jennifer Hawkins and was able to share with her a story about her own humility, passed on by a 30 year old friend of my daughters. He’d been overseas for a few years, returned to Australia and met Jennifer on a boat where she was filming for Getaway. Not knowing who she was, he asked how she had got this great job. She said, “I was lucky”, but my friend kept persisting, “This is a great gig – tell me how – it must have been more than luck!” Finally she succumbed, “I won a competition”. “What competition was that?” he pressed. “Miss Universe”, came the response – at which point our friend hot- footed it to the back of the boat in tongue tied panic! As I retold the story to Jennifer, I again saw living proof of the authenticity and lack of pretension from someone who has the world at her feet, yet who is delightfully grounded by her modesty and humility.

Bruno Martinuzzi believes that humility is liberating and enabling. Being in a state of non- pretence improves relationships, reduces anxiety, encourages openness and paradoxically, enhances self -confidence. His tips for practising humility are worth a look. They include using phrases like, “You are right”, “How am I doing?” and in the daily contests of life, stopping talking and allowing the other person to be in the limelight.

He also cautions against confusing humility with timidity. It’s not about self-denigration. It’s about maintaining pride in who we are and what we’ve achieved without arrogance or hubris. It’s about being content to let others discover our talents without having to boast about them.

There are plenty of great quotes about humility. I like these ones.

 William Safire says “Nobody stands taller than those willing to be corrected”.

Fulton Sheen, “A proud man counts his newspaper clippings, the humble one his blessings”.

James Barrie, “Life is a long lesson in humility”.

 Ralph Stockman, “True humility is intelligent self-respect which keeps us from thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves. It makes us modest by reminding us how far we come short of what we can be”

I’ve long been interested in the role of humility in leadership. Jim Collins identifies great (level 5) leaders who have the unique blend of humility and will, the antithesis of the heroic, charismatic leader. Will often has elements of courage and passion. We need humility to stop the courage being foolhardy and the passion being overbearing. Humility is inward looking in a way that other virtues are not. It’s the stance we take towards ourselves before it’s a stance we take towards others. It’s the glue with which we form effective partnerships and relationships.

Can ego and humility co-exist? David Marcum and Stephen Smith  in the must-read book “Egonomics”, suggest that humility has a reputation of being the polar opposite of excessive ego. In fact, the exact opposite of excessive ego is no confidence at all. Humility provides the crucial balance between the two extremes. Humility is a means to an end that leads to openness and progress.

Finally, Kathryn Britton gives an interesting overview of humility and how it is learned.

Well, I feel quite pleased with this blog…..in all humility!

when cost cutting doesn't pay

when cost cutting doesn’t pay

February 25, 2011  |  knowledge, leadership, main blog, management  |  5 Comments

We’re finding it harder to compete in Australia! Higher costs (particularly for labour) and a strong currency are providing serious challenges in manufacturing, primary industries, tourism, and retail. A typical response to the problem is to start cost cutting, rather than seeking higher prices – because a strong and well marketed value proposition with a point of difference generally takes longer, and is harder, to achieve.

The entry of James Hardie into the US market is a great example where cost reduction made the difference between market skimming and market penetration. Working with Australian researchers, the US operators and engineers halved the cost of production of “Hardiplank” (fibre cement siding that looks like wood) to levels that had previously been seen to be impossible. Not only did they achieve a penetration strategy, but they “saw off” four new entrants – all with deep pockets who lusted after the market that had been created.

The pursuit of lean manufacturing and smarter ways of doing things in business, like the Hardie example, is widely accepted. However, cost cutting across the board can be a problem. Some CEO’s (often with accounting backgrounds), adopt unfocussed slashing across the board. Handled inappropriately and insensitively, cost cutting can trash morale and stifle creativity, as well as negate the strategies that drive top line revenue. The key to sensible cost cutting is to make decisions based on contributions to profitability, rather than total cost as such. It’s a bit like sorting out the good cholesterol and the bad cholesterol.

Under short term pressure, I’ve seen how some managers and owners have shot themselves in the foot with ill-advised cost cutting:

  • A tourism business where cost cutting in food and beverage diminished the overall customer value proposition. Total savings were relatively small in the context of the resulting loss of word of mouth and customer satisfaction – both critical mid to long term business drivers.
  • A public sector organisation where all the perceived “nice to haves” were cut – things like green plants, art work, fruit and Christmas parties. Losses in productivity from low morale outweighed any cost savings. I also found out the other day that studies have shown a 17% productivity improvement from greening an office!
  • A manufacturing business which had reduced operating costs as well as sales and marketing capacity. While the new business model was sustainable operationally, the sales pipeline dried up due to insufficient customer interface and new business development.

Some of these comments may appear obvious, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. However, too often, management teams and boards get so caught up in the short term pressures for outcomes and quick fixes, that they take actions like the three examples above. It happens!

It’s not too long ago that the four big Australian banks, in a cost cutting frenzy, lost touch with the human element, closing branches and increasing call centres. These same banks are now falling over each other to restore relationships with customers.

My advice then is to chase lower operating costs, but not at the expense of our most valuable asset – people (actually good cost reduction programs make positive motivation an integral part of the process). Nurture, develop and reward talent, and if there are pay cuts, make sure the executives take the medicine as well. Ensure that the drivers of profit and revenue (like relevant R&D and marketing) are not impacted to the extent that they will damage sustainability.

 The objective should to achieve what Catherine de Vrye advocates in her excellent book “Paperclips don’t grow on trees” and add value, not cost, to the bottom line. In tandem with this, ensure that you read how the customer is reacting at every point along the journey.