Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy

In my experience one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise, to make the most of what attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker. The one-page election brief drafted on behalf of the Marrickville Croquet Club Committee is an example of the craft.

Well, it is election time for NSW Local Councils, and at the Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) we decided that the Committee could usefully send an Election Brief to all candidates as part of our management of key stakeholder relationships.  We wanted to remind candidates of the existence and importance of the club locally and more broadly within the expanded municipality, and to seek their active support of the club in future if elected.

In my experience working as a consultant, consumer advocate and then a public servant one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise – it is often vital to capture your points as briefly and precisely as possible. You need to make the most of what limited attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker.  I think the following one-page brief I drafted on behalf of the Committee hits the mark as an example of the craft (note that the brief did not include the photos in this blog).

As an aside, to illustrate the effort in achieving concision, I was going to quote one of my favourite Mark Twain sayings:  If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.  However a little research, which led me to Quote Investigator, tells me that in fact “Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research”.

While many variations of the expression have been used by many famous figures, apparently the first English language example was a sentence in translation of work by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.  Indeed I actually like what we are told by wikiquote is the literal translation even more:

I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

A modern take on the need to be brief is the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’, which basically says you should be able to get your idea/proposal/request across to your intended audience in the time you might have them trapped in a lift … 30 seconds to a couple of minutes max.  In that pitch you need to get the listener engaged, interested and agreeing to your concluding ‘call to action’.

Not a bad thing to be able to do, although it perhaps has a bit of a Mad Men feel to it – I note Wikipedia characterises the series as an American period drama. My reflection is that you know you are getting old when period drama is set in times you can remember – I guess that’s why I get the leisure to write short blogs!

Enjoy, and remember, the opposite of a briefing is a longing 😉

Marrickville Croquet Club

Brief

Local Government Election September 2017

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The purpose of this brief is to acquaint Inner West Council candidates with the existence and importance of Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) as a community, recreational and sporting resource in the municipality.

MCC is a Marrickville community asset in a number of ways: it offers an inclusive, all-age, low intensity recreation activity in the municipality; it is financially self-sufficient and takes good day-to-day care of the facility maintained by council; it continues to build membership and community engagement, thus increasing utilisation of the facility and contributes to diversity of recreation options.

MCC was established in 1926 and is therefore a long-standing entity and reference for the landscape of Marrickville Park. The clubhouse and lawn were recognised in the recently completed Plan of Management as a significant heritage item in the park and MCC operates as an integral part of Marrickville Park with the continued support of council in the maintenance of the facility.

The arrangements for the retention and maintenance of the croquet club in the park have worked well to date and there seems to be genuine efficiency in combining croquet lawn maintenance with that of the park oval and cricket pitch.  With this support, MCC is delighted to curate and help preserve the croquet club as a living contribution to the heritage assets of Inner West Municipality.

MCC also contributes a particular recreational asset for the area: membership is diverse and players participate across age and gender.  Croquet offers an almost unique opportunity for people of all ages to interact in a recreationally competitive environment on an equal basis relatively independent of physical capability. MCC remains enthusiastic to engage with Council as it regains momentum post-amalgamation, and would like to participate in initiatives such as Sport-A-Month and similar programs to develop and encourage community participation in the sport.

MCC is the only croquet club in the municipality, drawing playing members from various corners of the area. With the relatively recent rebuilding of active membership and engagement, the Club now has scheduled play at the facility 5 days a week.  The club is well accepted and supported by the immediate local residents and continues to engage with the broader community such as in recent events with both Petersham after school care students and the Marrickville Heritage Society.

The club is diligent in seeking relevant publicity for the club and croquet in general and is taking advantage of contemporary communication tools to build an online community using Facebook, which now has 286 supporters (increased from 102 in 2013).

We ask you to note that the Marrickville Croquet Club relies on (and is of course grateful for) continued support from Council.   Without that support, MCC would likely cease to function, which would deprive the community of an excellent low-impact, age-inclusive recreational resource, while leaving open the question of preserving the heritage value of the croquet-specific physical infrastructure which has an important place in the park landscape.

We urge you, as a candidate for local election, to publicly commit to the principle that the Marrickville Park croquet facility should be supported and preserved as a functioning and intact entity.  Your confirmation of that commitment by email would be appreciated.

Management Committee of the Marrickville Croquet Club

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The Zone of Opportunity

Croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop. I never really ‘got’ (or liked) the sporting analogies many people use in their business vocabulary. But coaching has emerged as an important common ground, since hitting the relevant ‘zone’ helps participants identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes.

Playing croquet for the last six years or so has been an extremely interesting and instructive journey.    I slowly whittled down my handicap as the necessities and interruptions of full-time work allowed, and now a major re-invention project is to play more competition croquet.

As it happened, shortly after taking up croquet, I did an intensive leadership development course, which included a number of residential sessions at the Mt Eliza campus of University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School. That was a pretty special place – it was apparently sold in 2016 to a retirement village operator, which feels a bit like the end of an era. It boasted a vineyard, private beach access, 95-bedroom accommodation, conference and training facilities and four dining facilities.  The course was a memorable experience, engaged in intensive cohort learning with a number of my colleagues.

The thing is, croquet is the first and only competitive game or sport I have ever played, and taking up such a pursuit later in life has presented a fascinating opportunity to observe myself learn and develop.  The Mt Eliza experience and focus on complex adaptive systems thinking provided many tools and insights to inform and energise that observation.  Croquet provided a valuable additional case study over the nine month duration of the course, and in subsequent reflection and use of that training.

One such tool was the notion of ‘double loop learning’.  Essentially the concept is that as well as learning the simple linear skill, you also observe and think about how the learning itself is happening, and make adaptive changes to that process as is useful.  The idea is well explained in the classic article by Chris Argyris, ‘Teaching Smart People How to Learn’. I have found this useful and important both in management and in my chosen game; because as a manager often the challenge is guiding your best people to be even better, and because croquet tends to be a game that attracts smart people.

Until I actually played a competitive sport I never really ‘got’ the sporting analogies many people are fond of employing in their business vocabulary.  I observed that these analogies often created in- and out-groups, appeared to discouraged diversity and often favoured male values. One of the attractive things for me about croquet is that by and large it is gender-neutral, with men and women playing on equal terms.  It is also very age-inclusive.

Without abandoning those observations, I have found a greater ability to relate to appropriate sporting insights, properly delivered.  In particular coaching emerges as an important common ground.

A couple of months ago I completed a Croquet Australia coaching course and as a result was endorsed as a Foundation Coach (level 1) for the three codes of Association, Ricochet and Golf croquet – I even got a badge!

20170725_084101-01I found many points of resonance between the material we covered and my management practice and learning over many years, some of which may unpack into future blogs … I don’t pretend to be anything but a fledgling sporting coach, but I am an expert generalist manager.

One notion I picked up on in particular was the ‘Zone of Opportunity’, which forms the title for this blog.  In croquet it has a highly technical application, but it resonates much more widely for me. It fits snugly into the complex adaptive thinking body of thought, exemplified in the sapling that clings to its opportunistic niche in the feature image.

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To the technicality – if your croquet ball is much more than 30 degrees off the centre-line of the hoop you are attempting to run, it is simply not possible for it to be hit through.  Skill and practice can shade the edge of the zone, but clearly it materially improves your chances if your approach shot lands you comfortably within the zone.

Single-loop learning might focus on practicing how to run difficult angles, while double-loop thinking might suggest practicing approaches that consistently land well within the zone as more fruitful.

20170725_085117So the more general use of the term is the coaching necessity to help anybody you are helping to develop, in whatever field of endeavour, to best apply their abilities to solve the skill-related problem, as it is relevant to them.  Finding and exploiting their zone will help them identify and realise opportunity, be it scoring croquet hoops or delivering career outcomes. Obviously this should not simply be a matter finding a ‘comfort zone’ and sensible coaching sets a path of achievable development to levels of greater performance.

This references another use of the word ‘zone’, where players often referred to ‘being in the zone’.  A psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the word Flow to describe this feeling.  In essence, flow is characterized by achieving complete absorption in what you are doing and thereby of losing all track of time and sense of your surroundings.  Flow is broadly defined by a balance between ability and challenge, when your abilities match the specific challenge you can enter the flow state: croquet players as they build their break, craftsmen when they employ their skills, artists when they paint, writers when they craft their words.

In fact, in a double-loop style observation, this is essentially why I write this blog – as I write, time flies, my skills develop and I have fun: what more reward can anyone sensibly seek in life?

 

In praise of slow cooking

Often times I have encountered what seems like a ‘cult of busyness’, whereby the only acceptable work position is to be frantically busy – or appear to be so. One slightly un-busy thing I have enjoyed in reinventing my days has been the gentle art of slow cooking.

One thing I have noticed to date on the Charles Six dot Zero voyage of discovery is that people keep asking if I am keeping busy. Now let me hasten to say this doesn’t annoy me – au contraire, it is nice that folks take an interest. However, I always feel a little wrong-footed in my response.  I am happily occupied, yes, but should I be busier, perhaps there is more I could try to cram in?

One slightly un-busy thing I have been enjoying in reinventing my days has been the gentle art of slow cooking.  Assembling a meal over the course of several days has a satisfying rhythm, doing a little of what is necessary for each stage, and letting time take care of the rest.

Truth be told I have never particularly worshipped at the busyness shrine, and I certainly don’t intend to start now in my exploration of the ‘third age’ of retirement.

The example I have photo-documented for this blog was a beef and vegetable stew, which started with preparation of vegetable stock, simmering vegetable scraps collected over the previous week in a large pan for several hours and then soaking soup-mix of grains and pulses in the resultant liquid overnight…

20170628_09190320170630_125429Often times during my working career I encountered what I felt was a ‘cult of busyness’, whereby the only acceptable work position was to be frantically busy – or appear to be so.  Sometimes it seemed to me that people shelter from uncertainty and ambiguity in their busyness and need a crammed schedule and impossible work program to validate them and their contribution.

The gravy beef was braised in a heavy-bottomed chasseur for several hours with vinegar and herbs before it was also refrigerated overnight, to then be combined with the vegetable stock and soup-mix.  Sliced and diced winter root vegetables acquired on a quick e-bike trip to the greengrocer provided the final ingredients to complete the process, and generated vegetable scraps for further iterations of vegetable stock making …

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I have usually tried to subscribe to the cult of ‘getting stuff done’; to tolerate uncertainty, discern what is material and relevant in the noise, select what is important and then commit to delivering this in an achievable time-frame.  At the same time, it is important to retain time and space for quiet reflection, essential relaxation and personal recreation.  Personal experience and most work psychology literature indicate that these are the true engines of sustained personal productivity.

The ‘busy work’ stance can be used to justify all manner of slightly bizarre (at least to me) behaviours: over-scheduling, unnecessary rework and revision, inability to prioritise, a diminished sense of proportion.  Rarely did such an approach appear to correlate particularly highly with effectiveness and genuine productivity. Deadlines can tend to get pushed (because there is so much ‘on’), tunnel vision is a constant hazard (because there is so much to do no one has any time to think or to plan), over-promising is rife and too often work is second-rate because people are over-committed and too tired to do their best on work that actually matters.

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The beef and vegetable stew was finally served with a little pasta stirred in and crusty bread on the side, for the full hearty winter eating experience.

I certainly felt validated (in an un-busy kind of way) as I served my partner Roberta the slow-cooked product of several days’ moderate work. It had required periodic attention, but surprisingly little effort – as the old cliché says, it’s better to work smart than hard – the trick seems to be actually doing it!

 

The emergence of emergence

Emergence needs a ‘ground’ state from which to appear, and an important part of my current task is to establish a fresh ground state, conducive to creative emergence.

I have continued to think about the nature of emergence as I have sorted through the things I need to do and the list of things I might want to do – a sense of everything to be done, but nothing pressing to be done!

One observation is that emergence needs a ‘ground’ state from which to appear, and that an important part of my current task is to establish a fresh ground state, conducive to creative emergence.

Like all beginnings, as well as fresh ideas and new perspectives, there can be uncertainty and ambiguity, hesitation and fear of false starts. A phrase I recall from the time I spent out of the workforce caring for my young kids was that that a key behaviour is to keep “filling in the form” each day – in other words, take useful actionable steps, even if the grand plan remains unclear. So I equipped myself with a fresh palette of paints and an upgraded hi-tech German-engineering security lock for the e-bike, now that it will be out and about more.

Hi-tech bike lock
Hi-tech bike lock

Another important ‘form’ to complete is getting the thickets of devices/software/services working with minimum friction. Calendaring and reminders as well as sharing notes, images and messages as seamlessly as possible in my personal eco-system – work in progress, but Microsoft OneNote and Google Inbox shaping as key resources.

A reference to ‘emergence’ caught my eye in an Economist review of a recent book “The End of Theory” by Richard Bookstaber (http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21722150-new-book-argues-economists-have-misunderstood-financial-system-predicting-our).

The suggestion is that current economic models are challenged in the face of four things – I would argue these factors are in play much more broadly than economics – I think we see them at work in politics globally as well as in the dynamics of media and communications:

(1) “emergent phenomena” – human interactions in the broad can produce unexpected results that are not related to the intentions of the individuals involved – think crowd behavior or traffic on a motorway.

(2) “non-ergodicity” – in the world of human interactions, probabilities constantly change, while an ergodic process follows the same rule every time.

(3) “radical uncertainty” – people do not [cannot] know the range or probability of future outcomes.

(4) “computational irreducibility”; these factors are so complex that we cannot possibly hope to create models to anticipate the future.

The point that resonates strongly with me is the call to embrace the complexity and to try to understand how the system operates.

I think network theory and analysis are invaluable in this task, and that working in terms of scenarios and their probability is far more productive than attempting to plan for pre- determined outcomes.

So it goes for Charles Six Dot Zero!