For anyone who follows Australian politics and / or social justice issues January 2017 has been a torrid month. This was the month that discontent and anger at the Centrelink ‘Robo-debt’ disaster, already widespread in the community and simmering during the closing months of 2016, came to a boil and erupted out of the social media forums where it had started festering and finally caught the attention of the broader community via mainstream media.
I've been involved with huge viral campaigns and projects previously, but I've never seen anything close to #NotMyDebt in Australia
The focus of the anger was a scandal surrounding the government’s use of data matching to identify and chase debts from welfare recipients who, according to the data matching exercise, had been overpaid. The problem was that the data matching was being driven by a very poorly designed algorithm and inadequate processes and communications protocols with the result that many of our society’s most vulnerable people were being pressured to pay money they didn’t actually owe. The distress this caused thousands of people was absolutely awful and, even worse, absolutely unnecessary. All kinds of experts and boffins decried the exercise: the economics editor of The Age, Peter Martin, was gloriously scathing in his columns labelling it a “shakedown” and “inhuman” (Comment, The Age, 4 Jan. 2017). The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights criticised the legal process behind the scheme, saying it was “wrong at so many legal levels that it’s hard to know where to begin”.
Welfare and community legal organisations, when they could drag themselves away from their phone lines crammed with calls from frightened Centrelink clients, roundly condemned it.
One expert opinion that surfaced during an interview in The Guardian was that of Paul Shetler, the former head of the government’s digital transformation office.
“The man handpicked by Malcolm Turnbull to head the government’s digital transformation has said the error rate in Centrelink’s data-matching process is so unfathomably high that it would send a commercial enterprise out of business.”
Shetler was highly critical of the IT aspects of the scheme, unsurprisingly, and if you would like to see what he has to say about that you can read them here.
It’s an interesting interview overall, but what really caught my eye was what Shetler had to say about culture:
“Paul Shetler, the former digital transformation office head, criticised the government’s response to its latest IT crisis, telling Guardian Australia it was symptomatic of a culture of blame aversion within the bureaucracy.”
Part of the speculation that arose on twitter (where I have been following #notmydebt) was how such a poorly conceived, designed and implemented project ever managed to get off the drawing board, squirm its way through the internal project management processes and foist itself onto benighted welfare recipients. Many people were wondering how this whole thing made it past testing and risk assessment processes.
“’It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,’ Shetler said. ‘They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.’
‘The justifications that have been given I think are just another example of the culture of ‘good news’, reporting only good news up through the bureaucracy.’”
For me that scans: if your workplace culture is not one where people feel entitled to ask questions, express doubt, highlight risk, take chances, and discuss the possibility of failure then your organisation is at grave risk of being forced to experience these lines of questioning and speculation in the public arena and after something has actually gone wrong. Perhaps gravely wrong. And perhaps with damage done to other people on your conscience.
Shooting the Messenger:
In the interview Shetler says:
“I’m sure that the bureaucracy was being told at every single level that everything was OK.
“That’s how it works in the bureaucracy. Bad news is not welcomed, and when bad news comes, they try to shift the blame.”
No one likes to be clobbered for sticking their necks out at work.
But do you want the project managers, product managers, and managers in your organisation to figure they have an ethical duty to highlight potential risk? Furthermore, good honest discussion of risks can be an opportunity to develop countering strategies that make processes more robust, perhaps even more innovative.
But to end up having those robust and innovative discussions you need the right culture.
This festival is aimed at exploring what happens in classrooms, seminar rooms… anywhere where teaching takes place.
In particular, this festival is looking at what happens when things go wrong in the classroom. It asks people to share the awkward moments that arise while training, and the resultant insights.
In my training and facilitating practice, my current areas of focus are creativity and workplace culture. The latter can be especially tricky to talk about; people tend to go on the defensive if they feel they and their behaviours are being called into question. An especial challenge I find as a trainer, facilitator, mentor and events curator is guiding discussions through (over? under? around?) those awkward moments when people are talking about things that feel a bit nebulous to them or, conversely and in very tangible ways, threatening.
Some of my most hard won but treasured development as a facilitator and trainer came from a time in my life when I was training in the community adult learning sector and working with a diverse range of people, some of whom were grappling with challenging circumstances or histories. Occasionally our interactions would career way off the beaten conversational track and I would find myself trying to find the right words for a situation for which I had never seen a script.
Even though I am now working with very different people and in different contexts these past experiences are still proving to be invaluable. In asking people to delve deep into their imaginations and feelings alongside their intellects I sometimes challenge them (I’m not called Dangerous Meredith for nothing!) and as a trainer I have to be very careful of the parameters I set and atmosphere I allow to develop.
For more information on this festival, please go here.
“Innovate or die” is an exhortation that has become familiar to many organisations. Underpinning innovation is creativity; creative ideas provide the concepts that inspire innovation. Much advice that is written around creativity is focused very narrowly on ideation or being more imaginative without addressing how these ‘flights of fancy’ can be applied to real life situations.
On 9 August 2016 I will be offering a day long workshop ‘Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning’. This workshop provides project managers and their teams with concrete and workable approaches that they can apply to preexisting and embedded operational systems or project planning templates. This workshop helps participants understand more about creativity and how it works, and how creative thinking can be used to enhance planning and delivery of projects. During this interactive workshop participants will learn how to make space for creative thinking within a project plan without allowing the free-ranging nature of imaginative thought derail project plans and measures.
General public $400
Members of Association for Tertiary Education Management $300; Affiliates $340
Venue: Deakin University, Melbourne City Centre
Bookings close 3 August. Places are limited so BOOK NOW.
To register or find out more information please go here.
A blog about introversion, extroversion, and performance.
As a mentor, consultant and trainer I am constantly challenged with finding ways in which to make participants in my sessions feel comfortable. Different personality types respond to different approaches; matching appropriate approaches to the right personality type requires a sensitive approach.
I am also interested in how different personality types contribute to or experience workplace culture. Issues such as employee engagement, maintaining a healthy workplace culture and contributing to innovation are a fascination (and even challenge) to many organisations right now. Any workplace will be comprised of a community made up of a diverse array of personality types. Finding the right balance of management approaches is complex.
I first started learning about managing teams, and eliciting ideas and applied efforts from those teams, when I started working as a performer, choreographer and dance teacher in my early twenties (a very long time ago now!). These early experiences were important: lessons learnt in handling people who were involving themselves in creative activity, something that requires experimentation and its attendant vulnerability, have turned out to be transferrable into situations which are not about making theatre.
Some observations about introverts and extroverts.
Speaking (perhaps very) generally and crudely, I think that people assume that extroverts have it all over introverts when it comes to performative activities such as acting in a play, taking part in a role play, MCing an event, giving a speech or even just getting involved in a group activity or game. And, indeed, where the activity in question is slanted towards a group activity that calls for spontaneous action within that group, perhaps they do. It is well documented that extroverts enjoy and feel stimulated by group activity, that such things can give them energy, stimulation, and a sense of meaningful connection, whereas the poor old introverts feel drained, burdened or constrained by it. And I guess that, leading on from this, people might assume that introverts have a natural handicap when it comes to any kind of public display or performance.
But here they would be wrong.
A trip down memory lane (bear with me here…)
I am an introvert myself, but was involved in the performing arts professionally for about 20 years. I started off as a dancer and choreographer, with a little dance teaching on the side, and then moved into working in arts management while still doing a little acting and choreography to ‘keep my hand in’. During this time I had plenty of opportunity to track my own evolution as a performer as well as teaching, directing, creating on and producing for other performers. I believe that no personality type is, by default, advantaged when it comes to performative activities. I have seen, in turn, brilliant, good, average, and plain bloody awful performers belonging to both introvert and extrovert personality types.
Where the differences really kick in is in the way different personality types approach developing their capacity for, or participating in, performance or display. And again I will have to generalise here as the creative process of developing performative material varies so much and is such a personal individual thing. Extroverts may favour workshopping in groups, or participating in group exercises to experiment with different dynamics or techniques within the rehearsal room. I get the sense that the frequent interaction with fellow performers helps them get the right level of energy or ‘pitch’ for their performance; lots of dialogue with others helps them to arrive at insights and refine their approach.
As an introverted performer I simply loathed those noisy games and exercises; when I had to do them I would feel my brain shut down, my feelings shrivel up and my imagination be swamped by feelings of anxiety and tiredness. I loved a damned good natter about my process but only after I had had time to sit with my feelings and reflect about what I was doing. A quieter, more reflective rehearsal or workshop process worked for me and other introverts, one which gave time for being alone to absorb thoughts and reactions and to let creative insight well up from inside.
Tellingly, to prepare for curtain up, I would see extroverted performers use various activities or interaction to get their energy ‘up’ while I and other introverts would use any excuse to sneak off to a quiet place to gather energy in. In front of an audience I have seen extroverted performers push their energy out over the footlights, chasing down the audience reactions they wanted like hunting dogs going after prey. Introverted performers, when anchored by carefully nurtured inner energy, could quietly but powerfully hold the stage and allow the audience’s attention and reactions to come to them. Both these different performative energies can be equally charismatic, engaging, and brilliant in the hands of good performers. And they can fail miserably when manifested by untalented or unskilled performers: extroverts can be noisy and bombastic (sound and fury signifying nothing); introverts can be tepid and dull.
Again, I will confess to generalising horribly. I have seen performers who I knew were introverts gleefully perform extroverted characters or material with razzle dazzle and high energy. I have seen raving extroverts turn in performances that were understated, unembroidered by any kind of showing off. But the paths and the processes those performers took to interpret their roles often drew on rehearsal and creative techniques that favoured their personality types. As an example, I have lost count of the number of introverted performers who used to agree with me that it was not necessarily a problem performing crazy onstage roles because the roles were not us, they were the character that we could put up between us and our audience.
So… why have I been rabbiting on about this in a business blog?
It’s because I want to ponder, for a moment, the activities and exercises we use when we ask people to attend workshops or other types of training. In the past, when I have myself participated in workshops (ranging from dance and theatre workshops through to workshops developing professional skills) I feel that I have seen a pattern whereby any kind of audience engagement or group activity seems to pander to the extroverted side of the spectrum.
Every time some presenter or trainer instructs us in the audience to “stand up and…” I mentally groan and shudder. I know that the intent is to loosen us up, make things fun, or take us out of ourselves but it doesn’t work this way for us introverts. It makes us tense, uncomfortable and inhibited. Breaking up the tedium of a workshop is fine, flipping the training experience and challenging workshop attendees to actively participate is something I love to do. But please don’t conflate audience participation with loud or crazy; mix up the chatter with moments of quietness or self-reflection.
And just because someone in your meeting or workshop is quiet, please don’t assume that they lack creativity, or that they are unconfident, or that they need taking out of themselves, or loosening up, or ‘corrected’ in attitude or behaviour in any way shape or form. Any attempts to do so will come across as patronising, overbearing, or even just well-intentioned but misguided.
If you want to make any human being feel inhibited and uncomfortable in a group, make a special effort to influence their behaviour and / or draw attention to what you consider to be their deficits.
Somewhere along the line extroversion has come to equal craziness has come to equal enhanced or elevated creativity. But this is just not true. Everyone has some innate creativity; as a species human beings are actually extremely creative. But different individuals access their creativity in different ways and feel comfortable sharing their insights under different conditions. For me, the challenge of being a trainer is to develop sessions that have a good balance of types of activity that allow different personality types to come to themselves, feel comfortable, and to be able to focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by feeling uncomfortable or confronted.
My blog next week will be about one of my favourite ways of drawing both introverted and extroverted people into participating comfortably in a workshop: storytelling.
“Musician, actor, icon and entrepreneur. David Bowie was an innovator in every way. He stepped into the vacuum left by the Beatles’ break-up in 1970 and developed an array of strategies that have gone on to become the common sense of popular culture and of business itself.”
“Through his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie united the visual and narrative conceits of science fiction with those of pop in a way that allowed him to at once be and yet not be that invented character. Having gained an audience, it was then a business masterstroke to kill off this successful creation and to trust that his audience was now primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations and their associated musical genres.
This allowed Bowie to always be “himself” (whoever and whatever that was), while enjoying the licence to pioneer different genres of music – whether electronica, funk or emergent dance music. He combined print, stage and video design to create symbolically rich and dramatic settings for his different alter egos, using them to carry and complete his latest incarnation.”
I liked Jones’ choice of Bowie as a case study of an innovator in both the business and creative fields; Bowie’s output clearly does demonstrates how canny and imaginative uses of “visual and narrative conceits” underpin strong branding that positions you as an innovator in the eyes of your stakeholders.
Jones’ highlighting of the way Bowie’s performative personae and musical styles kept evolving is also insightful; during Bowie’s life innovation begat more innovation and his “audience was… primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations.”
I love a good writing exercise of any kind; I am especially fascinated by the challenge that comes from enshrining an organisation’s vision, mission, goals and operations within a business plan.
If you think about it this is often a process of translation: a business plan writer has to take ideas and frame them as tangible processes and measurable outcomes. Here are some things to bear in mind while you are undertaking that translation exercise:
Write using plain English: No weasel words please and leave out the jargon. Ask yourself if an industry outsider could comprehend the plan as easily as an insider.
Use templates but don’t be ruled by them: A huge array of resources are parked on the internet and available to us via a Google search. Some of this knowledge exists in the form of templates. I dearly love a good template, they provide an excellent springboard and framework on which to stick your ideas or even to guide your thinking.
But don’t be afraid to play with templates. Consider writing the way they suggest – as a challenge to your own thought processes – but then change to suit you. Change the vocabulary, the structure (and thereby the flow of ideas), leave irrelevant headings out and substitute your own. Do what is necessary so that your plan truly reflects your organisation and its culture.
Cross reference: The different components of a business plan should ‘speak’ to each other so that the plan is a coherent thing driving towards an end goal and reflecting a unifying vision. As you write different parts of the plan – financial, marketing, operational, legal, management – take the chance to review other sections of the plan and ask yourself if what you have just written will support or negate them. If you are overseeing a team of people who are developing the plan then this is an excellent chance to get them to consider, and understand, each other’s contribution.
Review and update: Good plans have a tendency to gradually start rendering themselves obsolete from the moment they start being implemented. This is because good plans set things in motion and affect the conditions they define and respond to; they create change.
When you write your plan build in a schedule to review your plan and design processes whereby you can harvest feedback and update your plan so that it can continue its work in creating, exploiting and directing change.
This article was written as an adjunct to my presentation on How to Make Your Business Plan into a Living Document at the 2016 Collins & Co. NFP Conference.
This article by Art Markman (@abmarkman) resonated with me a lot. I am a long time fan of asking ‘why’ – never as a way of undermining others or disagreeing by stealth (something that Markman discusses in his article) – but always as a way of trying to get to the bottom of things, to learn and understand. But – Yikes! – it used to get me in trouble when I ‘worked for the man’. I learnt that not everyone is as comfortable with ‘why’ questions as I am.
One of the reasons why I became Dangerous Meredith when I decided to hang up my shingle as a self employed consultant was to provide potential customers with a business name that was a conversation opener that allowed people to ask ‘why?’: “Why did you call yourself Dangerous Meredith”? This would allow me to let them know that I tend to ask the ‘why’ question myself a heck of a lot. Whether or not they found this to be ‘dangerous’ was up to them…
Anyhow, enough about me. Read this article; it’s beaut.
“We need to reclaim ‘Why?’ as a positive force in the workplace. That requires that we start to tell our colleagues about the importance of maximizing the quality of the causal and explanatory knowledge around us. It also means finding another method for disagreeing with coworkers while still being collegial. Finally, it is crucial that when people start to use the question ‘Why?’ at work when they really mean ‘I disagree’ that we highlight that and work to state disagreements more explicitly.” – Art Markman