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?

 

The narrative necessity

We are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  

One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event.  There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership.  We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.

In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever.  We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them.  And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.

This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting  “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”

NoDummy

Being smart is no get of jail free card!

If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data.  This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’.  In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.

That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …

 

 

 

 

However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.

He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.  On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.

20170709_084329Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”  That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”

Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.

Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence.  I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe.  However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?

Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!

The strategic power of your brand

This blog tells the Charles Six Dot Zero ‘brand story’, and suggests that an emotional ‘brand’ connection can be a key device to achieve strategic alignment, focus strategic energy and direct strategic attention within a group or organisation.

First a story: Once as a young man living in Christchurch (NZ) I was visiting my parents in Auckland.  I was unhappy, directionless and quite possibly depressed for a variety of reasons, including a wallowing Master’s thesis and my father’s poor health – he had recently lost a leg to smokers’ artery disease.  I headed out for a walk one bleak afternoon.

Drifting through the suburban landscape I wandered into a derelict house which lay wide-open close to the footpath.  A ruinous scene seemed to echo my juvenile angst – nothing of interest.  However, as I turned to leave, my attention was caught by a flash of white on a shelf high in the desolate kitchen.

It was the edge of a dirty old tile which, when pulled down and brushed off, revealed a wonderful ceramic depiction of a lotus flower.  It was as if the universe had reached out to offer exactly the reassurance that was sorely needed at that time.  My mood lifted, I walked back to a freshly purposeful engagement with my thesis and a more supportive attitude to my Dad.  And re-invention started to produce the person who would move to Australia in a year or two. I have treasured that tile for over 40 years and the design made an interesting study as I learnt to paint some 20 of those years ago.

Casting around for an image to populate the icon space on the WordPress template for my Charles Six Dot Zero blog, that painting was an immediate candidate. A little bit of graphic design magic and the focussed image featured for this post emerged.

For me it captures the deep emotional resonance of personal reinvention.  It reinforces the power of narrative in defining purpose and it encapsulates and expresses my key values – to be calm, centred, creative and connected.  In short it sums up the ‘brand’ charles6dot0, what I want to be and do in this sixth iteration, and provides an ideal visual representation for it.

In my previous blog What does ‘strategy’ mean today? I noted that achieving intellectual agreement with strategic intent is easier said than done, and that forging the necessary emotional engagement often neglected.

The whole point of developing and articulating a strategy is to create a common direction for a group of people – something that might be termed ‘strategic alignment’, and it is essential if the strategy is to be anything more than ‘shelf-ware’. Obviously this is easiest when constructing a strategy for a group of one!

But strategy itself will probably be insufficient to engage people in groups larger than one of two.  It will need to draw on a deeper narrative about why the group exists, what the group is seeking to achieve and what it values – what you might think of as the ‘reason for being’.

Too easy.  Surely it’s obvious to members why they are there, even for quite large organisations. The temptation is to solve this query quickly; but it can actually be very difficult, because it does pose fundamental questions.

Usually it is indeed obvious to any given individual why they are part of a group and what the group is trying to achieve. It’s just that, surprisingly often, different answers are equally obvious to others in the group. Put different obvious answers in the same room and ensuing conversations are not always easy, because the obvious is, well, obvious … and people are usually emotionally attached as well intellectually invested in their views.  Social science tells us discussion is as likely to drive them deeper into their position as to persuade them otherwise.

One useful, but sometimes neglected entry point to discover this deeper narrative is the group’s brand statement – for an established organization this might be clearly and explicitly detailed; for other groups, like community organisations, it may be undocumented and less explicit, more akin to folk-lore.

Brand is much bigger than the visual identity that is the usual public face of a brand. An important element and summation point for brand development is capturing the essence of the organisation into a single and unifying statement—a Single Organising Idea or SOI.

The SOI should describe what the group wants to stand for in people’s lives.  An SOI should in a single phrase or short sentence, distilled from the promise, beliefs, values and the core focus of the group, state the unique and distinct purpose of the group, and therefore the brand

Critically this statement should communicate and connect at an emotional level.  It is not necessarily stated in terms suitable for public exposure (that can come later when developing a brand ‘tag –line’) but it must resonate with at least the majority of members.

One caution however is to avoid design by committee, something that can sandpaper away the distinctive edge of your brand thinking into blandness.  Leadership is essential in framing, conducting and concluding the necessary conversation. When it’s done, it’s done, and someone has to call it – this is not necessarily the task of the formal office-bearers of the group, who may well contribute best by encouraging and empowering ‘situational leadership’ – probably the topic for another blog.

The behaviour of individuals associated with the group is a critical manifestation of the brand. So the brand should be developed and used to set the behavioural cue for everybody in the organisation.  It can and should be a catalyst for thinking, planning and action, thus becoming a strategic organising device to focus energy, alignment and attention within the organisation on its mission, intent and vision.

In one way or another, a brand for the group will exist, and to succeed any strategy must be consistent with this ‘reason for being’.  It is essential for strategy to link with a group identity and to resonate emotionally as well as intellectually with its promise to the community, what the people behind it believe and aspire to, the values it represents, and its core focus of action.

Alignment with these brand attributes will help communicate a strategy with consistency, integrity and longevity and assist to deliver the outcomes or capabilities it requires. Perhaps think of this as a positive form of ‘group-think’!

Strategic thinking today

This blog suggests that strategic thinking should be applied sparsely and is best conceived of in terms of capabilities to be built and sustained, rather than predetermined outcomes to be achieved.

There’s an old saying that if you think you are mad, there is a good chance you’re not.  My suggestion is that there is an echo of this in much of what passes for strategic thinking – if you think you are being strategic …

This blog suggests that strategic thinking should be applied sparsely and is best conceived of in terms of capabilities to be built and sustained, rather than predetermined outcomes to be achieved.

For one thing, there is far too much of it. I know that’s a weird thing to say when we are urged at all sides to be more strategic in our thinking, and failing to do so is a frequent point of criticism. But bear with me.

A little bit of excellent strategic insight and direction, embedded and pursued relentlessly, is far more effective than endless strategic review. Strategy is like seasoning in cooking, it can define the dish and mark great from good – but it is not the primary ingredient and must not be overdone.  I won’t pursue the culinary metaphor today, but it might prove interesting for another day.

One important distinction, often lost, is between strategy and tactics.  Tactics do require frequent attention, being closer to operational execution This is actually getting stuff done, which should occupy most of your time and energy.  Much of what is thought of as ‘strategic’ is more or less sophisticated tactics and indeed deserves appropriate recognition – nothing is merely tactical.

The distinction relates to scale and scope – croquet is often called a strategic game, but even the most advanced forms really only require appropriate selection of tactics – the strategic envelope is determined by the game itself and there is a widely agreed optimal approach to winning. A croquet player might however adopt a strategic approach to what tournaments they play in to develop their skills and advance their ranking.

Which edges us closer to what ‘strategic’ means – it is about the longer term, the broader view and provides the context to guide tactical choices and operational decision-making. A crucial question must always be; “Is what I am about to do consistent with our strategic direction?”

So while constant strategic awareness is a critical skill, less so endless strategic questioning and review.

‘Ah ha’ you say, but surely the world is changing so fast these days we have to keep our strategy under constant review. It is indeed clear that the disruption exemplified in the digital industries has, and continues to, spread into the ‘real world’ of cars, accommodation and can be observed in politics and culture.  Indeed, I recall the salutary experience of sitting on an ICT industry group committee which had duly crafted a 10 year strategic plan, but was undertaking a review after 6 months, because circumstance had changed – who knew!

Constant review and ‘catch-up’ analysis will indeed seem essential if you have conceived your strategy as a kind of meta-tactic, built in terms of predetermined outcomes to be achieved.  Which will very likely consume time and energy best spent on getting stuff done!

So what to do?

In my view the answer lies in strategic scenario planning. Using various techniques you can generate a range of scenarios which are more or less likely to emerge in your particular landscape.  From these scenarios identify essential capabilities needed to operate successfully.  Look to see which capabilities occur across the largest number and highest likelihood scenarios.  Conduct a gap-analysis to see which ones need most attention.

You can use this analysis to frame the intent to develop and sustain the capabilities which are most likely to be needed across the widest range of likely challenges on your strategic journey.  This thinking is something that can apply on many scales – you will see something of it in the Charles Six Dot Zero architecture for instance.

The next trick will be to involve everyone concerned with that strategic intent – achieving intellectual agreement is easier said than done, and forging the necessary emotional engagement often neglected.  In another post I will explore the power of ‘brand’ to assist in that alignment task.

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!