Thinking about education, work & AI

The world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant. An important challenge is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions. A key question is how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce. ‘Just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy. Perhaps the future utility of might be best seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible – ‘Literacy 4.0’. Smart people in future will need to understand and work across skill clusters and the various dimensions of the smart society – smart educators will help them …

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This blog has its origin in a workshop I attended week or so ago about AI and the future of work – you may recall a blog from me on that topic a short while ago.  One of the exercises we undertook was a group conversation about what university education might look like in 2025. There was a fair bit of lively discussion about technology, collaboration and equity of access, but I must say without any definitive insights.

I think one participant hit the nail on the head when they posed the question; will there actually be universities in 2025. The obvious answer is ‘Yes’, but really the question was rhetorical, because while universities will in all probability continue to exist as institutions with that name for decades, the role, constitution and structure of the university is changing, and will continue to change.  It is doing so not just under the pressure of technology but from social, cultural and economic developments.

Tertiary education is something I have thought about and discussed with many intelligent people over the years.  The main things I got from tertiary study were the importance of structuring my thoughts and learning how to learn – both pretty much learnt by doing.  I guess long story short my view is the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.

A key concern, of course, is the question of how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce.  There was acknowledgement and some excitement around the current move in university circles to offer micro-credits or if you like ‘à la carte’ selection of elements from their portfolio of offerings. The sensible idea is that students can fine tune their learning as close as possible to their specific needs.  This comes close to the position I have arrived at; that ‘just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy – a little bit at a time, focussed on a tangible goal or to take the next step or getting that necessary credential.  The days of imbibing a large body of knowledge early and living off that for years seems long gone (if it ever really worked).

I reckon there is no wrong pathway but there are multiple pathways.  While I respect people who commit to even extended academic journeys, my feeling is that an integrated work and learning pathway will track better in an environment of uncertainty about work futures.  One obvious example is the apprenticeship model.  In the past this worked similarly in essence for the degree model, in the sense that the apprentice/student gained a body of knowledge that was meant to last a lifetime of employment.  One important development for both over past decades has been the recognition of the need for constant skill maintenance, however this still operates within the original silo. What is increasingly necessary is the ability to chart a course between learning models and across spheres of employment, to create an individualised trajectory of knowledge acquisition and value creation.

University of Melbourne has launched a brand campaign showcasing what it regards as its distinctive curriculum, the ‘Melbourne Model’.  Its YouTube video presents the idea of education that equips students with world knowledge, so that they can adapt and be ready for every possible future.

As slick as this is, it does strike me however that an important challenge with this approach is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions – universities aren’t the only ones using YouTube!  How often have you heard someone say, ‘Oh I learnt how to do that from a YouTube video’?  The ‘University of YouTube’ might serve as an umbrella term for the ready and instant availability of knowledge and ‘how-to’ instruction on the Internet.  Not to mention the access to the vast storehouse of human knowledge Google (and other search engines) have given over the last couple of decades, and the power of social media to foster the rapid emergence of communities of interest and practice to share and develop knowledge.  Sure there are quality and trust issues, but that doesn’t stop people successfully using these information resources all the time, in both their personal and professional lives.

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In some ways it’s perhaps analogous to the problems facing subscription television – a classic fixed cost versus variable income problem.  As their offering is increasingly unbundled and contested by ‘watch only what you want’ streaming services, maintaining the integrated network infrastructure becomes increasingly difficult. Similarly universities require significant financial logistical and educational agility to sustain a coherent offering from a swarm of micro-learning opportunities.

One key aspect of the modern knowledge equation is the advent of AI and big data, and it will be interesting to see how the application of data analysis to educational design and experience will play out. AI will not be monolithic, various actors and agents will contend and contest and are unlikely to be perfect. Humans are likely to be the adults in the room for quite some time to come. In fact it occurs to me that governance will be a growth area in AI-world along with curation and editing of AI-based products to best fit human needs. One very interesting area will be learning and developing ways to interface with AI based systems – the common office screen and mouse systems are likely to go the way of the command line DOS prompt of old, and perhaps work interfaces will come to resemble contemporary digital game environments?

Students will definitely need to get accustomed to an increasingly data dense educational environment. A positive outcome could well be better management of diversity and complexity in catering to individual student needs and wants, enabling a better matching of learning environment, methods and partners. Perhaps AI assisted ‘adaptive education’ could assist managing these multiple pathways?

In this context it was interesting to note the 2017 report from the AI Now Institute at New York University, focused on the use of AI in government and the law.  It suggests that “the design and implementation of this next generation of computational tools presents deep normative and ethical challenges for our existing social, economic and political relationships and institutions.”

It cautions that “Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, health care, welfare, and education should no longer use ‘black box’ AI and algorithmic systems”, since difficult decisions need to be made about how we value fairness and accuracy in risk assessment. It is not merely a technical problem, but one that involves important value judgments about how society should work. These concerns, expressed particularly about the legal system in the report would seem to be as applicable to educational institutions, which would seem as susceptible to perpetuating AI-driven harm as any other.  Thinking about this leaves me to an observation that education can largely be seen as a lagging institution: that is rather than driving our massive social and economic shifts, it is essentially driven by them, adapting and configuring it’s offerings to suit the times.

One notable exception that observation which occurs to me however is the fundamentally role of literacy as a social and economic enabler.  Perhaps that is one way of conceptualizing the future utility of education rather than providing intellectual toolbox or skill set it might be better seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible. Dr Josh Healy Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne writes about what researchers are calling the new literacies, what he terms ‘Literacy 4.0’.   Educational institutions and educators will need to consider how they can anticipate to the new and changing lattice of options and adapt themselves to best assist their students to navigate that environment.

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) spells out where that literacy might be used (without using the term) when it discusses 7 ‘clusters of work’ – skills that are transferable across jobs – to help young people (and I would suggest people of any age) navigate the new work order. Their conclusion:

By understanding the skills and capabilities that will be most portable and in demand in the new economy, young people can work to equip themselves for the future of work more effectively. Our mindset needs to shift to reflect a more dynamic future of work where linear careers will be far less common and young people will need a portfolio of skills and capabilities, including career management skills to navigate the more complex world of work.

The FYA analysed skills requested by employers across 2.7 million online job advertisements posted over the past two years and the occupations were then grouped based on whether employers demanded similar skills from applicants. These clustered in the following seven groups (take a look at the report to explore them further):

  • ‘The Generators’
  • ‘The Artisans’
  • ‘The Coordinators’
  • ‘The Designers’
  • ‘The Technologists’
  • ‘The Carers’
  • ‘The Informers’

A glimpse of the future smart society that these clusters of skills might be used in is given a World Economic Forum (WEF) piece titled: The society of the future looks nothing like you might imagine.  A ‘smart society’ is defined as one where digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: the well-being of citizens, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions.  A natural group of countries to use as role models was the Digital 5, or D5, nations, representing the most digitally advanced governments in the world. The group comprises Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK – sadly Australia does not seem to rate a mention.

The D5 nations are used by the WEF to define a global benchmark for a smart society organized them so that each indicator could be classified under one of 12 broad benchmark components. These broad components are:

Citizens/People Components:

  • inclusivity,
  • environment and quality of life,
  • state of talent and the human condition,
  • talent development.

Economy Components:

  • global connectedness,
  • economic robustness,
  • entrepreneurial ecosystem,
  • innovation capacity.

Institutions Components:

  • freedoms offline and online,
  • trust,
  • safety and security,
  • public services.

It would be an interesting exercise to map the seven FYA skill clusters more precisely across these WEF smart society benchmarking components – something for another day perhaps.  In any event, smart people in future will need to understand and work across both these dimensions – smart educators will help them …

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The specialist generalist

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions. Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions. I must say I am enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.

Since ceasing full time work, and starting my Charles 6.0 transformation, I have met a number of people (some more significantly advanced in years than my own) that continue employment on a consulting or contracting basis. It has sometimes been suggested that perhaps that’s something I would like to do. Quite apart from being pretty fully occupied without having any work-like obligations, one reflection on this has been that these people normally have a highly specific and singular expertise that is valued in the marketplace, such as database programming, construction engineering or town planning.  The world of the consultant contractor is the world of the dedicated specialist.  Quite reasonably most clients are looking for someone to undertake a specific task with well-defined outcomes – that way they know they will get at least an approximation of what they are paying for.

At various times during my working life I have worked as a self-employed consultant/contractor. To be completely frank I’ve never really been all that good at it.  While I easily discharged the usually IT related tasks (such as application coding or database design) entrusted to me by various clients, I generally wanted to do more and often found the focused, repetitive aspect of the work they wanted me to specialise in frustrating and somewhat unfulfilling – when I’ve done something once I generally want to solve a different problem or acquire a fresh skill. The basic problem is that I’m interested in too many things.

Over the years I have come to understand that my real aptitude lies in helping to explore and define problems rather than to craft specific and technical solutions.  However, usually people either feel they have a good handle on what needs doing or they lack the trust necessary to commission someone else to explore the problem space.

By and large there is also an inclination to ‘rush to solution’ – there is little appreciation of the art and skill of sitting with a problem long enough to understand its true demands and dimensions – which quite frequently are more or less different to the immediately presenting issues.   Newsflash: that is not a proposition easily sold into a competitive market place – there are not many clients willing to pay someone to sit with a problem – they want them solved – ASAP!

I actually found the best place to practice that particular art is as a full time employee – oftentimes you can layered the necessary time spent sitting and thinking in among all the busy work that employers seem delighted to visit upon their workers. It is here you can cultivate the position of the generalist employee, easily deployed to various tasks but sometimes lampooned as the ‘jack of all trades that is master of none’.  However as the Wikipedia entry about that saying notes, such an individual may be a master of integration, knowing enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring the disciplines together in a practical manner – what I would call a practical generalist.

Do this well, as I have at various stages, and you’ll find yourself in positions where the latitude to sit and think is extended significantly and can in fact become the accepted reason for your continued employment and contribution. At that point you have actually moved beyond simply being a simple, practical generalist and have started to engage with the role of the specialist generalist. This is someone who, rather than simply bringing together a variety of specialties, works in the world of the complex and the unknown, to define and appreciate problems and then to architect the shape of possible approaches and solutions.

One conceptual tool I have found useful to frame complexity in this context is what is commonly known as the ‘Stacey diagram’, so named after the British organizational theorist and Professor of Management Ralph Douglas Stacey. It has apparently been frequently adapted by other writers, as noted by Wikipedia often in ways not consistent with Stacey’s – to the point that apparently ‘he dropped the diagram and now argues against its use’.  I am as guilty of appropriating and extending his original thinking as anyone!  But I find it incredibly useful as framework for analysis and thought, and so I have sketched my own take on it, as illustrated here.

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There are two axis to the diagram – Uncertainty and Disagreement:

  • The horizontal x-axis is Uncertainty. When an Issue or decision is close to certainty it is because cause and effect linkages can be determined.  This is usually the case when a very similar issue or decision has been made in the past, you can then use past experience to predict the outcome with a good degree of certainty. The other end of the certainty continuum is ‘far from certainty’. This is when the situation is unique or at least new to the decision makers.  The cause and effect linkages are not clear.  Using past experiences is not a good method to predict outcomes in the far from certainty range.
  • The vertical y-axis is Disagreement. This measures the level of agreement about an issue or decision within the group, team or organisation.  The degree of agreement on what should be done is an important factor in determining success.

I have found a very useful and succinct exploration of the Stacey matrix in relation to art of management and leadership, on this GP training resource archive.  It maps various forms of decision making onto the matrix: Technical rational in the ‘simple’ region which is close to certainty and close to agreement – in terms of this blog the place for the specialist; Political for the area having a great deal of certainty about how outcomes are created but high levels of disagreement about which outcomes are desirable; Judgmental for the opposite set of issues with a high level of agreement but not much certainty as to the cause and effect linkages to create the desired outcomes.

Political and Judgmental for my purposes here are the realm of the ‘practical generalist’.

And then there is the Complexity zone which lies between these regions of traditional management approaches and chaos and is the natural home of the specialist generalist.

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A few observations on what is required to work as this close to the edge of chaos – for it to be a ‘zone of opportunity’ …

  • Be prepared to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing much of the time!  The qualification is to be able to ascertain rapidly what needs to be known and to acquire that knowledge rapidly rather than to have a stored repertoire of specialist knowledge to hand.
  • Work on the basis of principles rather than rules. I like this recent post I found on LinkedIn – ‘Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles’, which observed “Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive.”  But a specialist generalist needs to be prepared for uncertainty even here: paradigm shifts in terms of the set of principles to be applied in a given space, to find space for innovation and novel principle to emerge.
  • Be a systems thinker – I like the following illustration of the Tools of a System Thinker (attached to a tweet by @SYDIC_ITALIA Chapter Italiano della System Dynamics Society Internazionale – no further reference to acknowledge). However a specialist generalist must be an open-ended systems thinker, sensitive to emergent systems and to proto-systems at the edge of chaos.  You cannot insist on systems at all costs, but need to utilise the insights systems thinking can generate.  Be a network systems thinker, value the connections in the models you will perceive and generate as well as utilizing networks of skill and knowledge around the problem space.

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It took me a long time to recognize and name myself as a ‘specialist’ generalist.  It is a very difficult and demanding role, one that is difficult to sell and articulate, but one which can deliver dividends with multiplier effects well beyond the contributions of specialists and practical generalists, since it is the role that seeks innovation, requires agility and rewards resilience.   That said, in the end with respect to my specialist computer-related skills, I decided to employ my abilities to my own ends rather than to try to meet the often poorly articulated and often contradictory needs of clients, be they internal or external.  I must say I am similarly enjoying the freedom of Charles 6.0 to suit myself as to those problem domains and chaotic edges in which as a specialist generalist I choose to dwell.

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AI – where might we be going?

This blog is based on my observation of AI since I first came across the idea working at the Royal Blind Society in the early 80s – although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts. Thinking about developments for the next decade, I settled on the term ‘Sentience’, which deliberately avoids the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in), to choose a word reflecting a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020). It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships to things, information and other people. It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

I have been interested in the interaction of humans with technology since my initial university studies in anthropology and sociology.  We are not defined by our tools, but our tools have functioned as an extension of ourselves and as facilitators of interaction with our environment. Over the past millennia they have produced an accelerating transformation of the shape and pace of human society.

This post is shaping to be a two part blog: the first exploring my thoughts and experience with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology – broadly defined – and the second next week looking at the discussion about the implications of this technology for the world and future of work.

I first came across AI when I was working at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) in the early 80s, although what AI was then and what it is now are very different beasts.  At the time I was completing my Master of Commerce, in which I had pursued my interest in technology in various topics ranging from Information Systems Design to Industrial Relations.  It was in the latter that I engaged with the ideas of sociologist Daniel Bell and the notion of the ‘post-industrial society’.

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It is interesting that the term ‘convergence’ had been much discussed in the seventies. It was a product of the Cold War – the idea that industrial economies would converge in their structure and organisation and that essentially Russia (then the USSR) would come to resemble the US and Europe. There is a whole thesis waiting to be explored in figuring out what happened to that idea in the vortex of history – too much to go into here.

The key learning for me was that the complexity and interrelatedness of technological innovation and change with economic and social factors such as:

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  • Factors of production
  • Technological interdependencies and linkages
  • Organizational structures
  • Sectional, regional and individual distribution of income and wealth. International interdependencies
  • Public and private demand

 

I applied this learning at the RBS when researching the impact of technological change on the employment context and prospects for visually impaired people.  It was a time of considerable technological excitement as the personal computer began to penetrate the mass market – a signature moment was when TIME Magazine nominate the PC as ‘machine of the year’ for 1983.

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One element of technological change which played into these investigations was machine vision: while wildly futuristic at the time, it was also becoming almost imaginable and at the apparent rate of change and innovation seemed possible in a foreseeable future. It turned out that machine vision, particularly ‘in the wild’ was actually much harder than might have been apparent and is something that is only now (2017) starting to find wide spread use in things like self-driving vehicles – and so far as I know has yet to find practical application in the everyday lives of visually impaired people.

However this sparked my general interest in the whole field of computers mimicking or emulating human cognition or perception. Expert systems were an area of market enthusiasm, one that I found particularly interesting. I actually crafted and experimented with my own primitive expert system shell, written from scratch using turbo Pascal which involved delving into the arcane and technical worlds of generative grammars and token parsing as well as algorithmic inference processing.

But ultimately both for myself and the world at large expert systems proved to be a dead end. This this was primarily due to the issue of knowledge capture that is the sheer effort required to manually encode knowledge into decision tree type language. The other limiting factor was the limited processing power and memory storage available on their computers off at the time.

The general interest in AI peaked by the end of the decade – the cover of this Economist 1992 special feature would not have been out of place today, but the discussion is much more about the limitations and cumbersome nature of the technology than grand horizons.

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Increasingly the view came to be that any particularly advanced or clever piece of coding was seen as intelligent while it was a novelty, but rapidly became ‘part of the furniture’ and thence became part of the ‘dumb’ and rather pedestrian reality of IT which came to dominate our working lives.

During the course of the 90s the word ‘convergence’ at least in tech circles changed and came to be much-discussed in terms of the coming together of the traditional silo platforms of broadcasting, telecommunications and print. Pervasive digitalisation  broke the legacy nexus between the shape of content and the container which carried it – a voice call was no longer solely defined by being carried on a plain old Bakelite telephone network; a TV show no longer solely by arriving via a transmission tower and home receiver (the same for radio shows); music spread rapidly beyond the domains of the vinyl record, compact cassette and CD – it got ‘shared’ online; and the Internet carried news much further and faster than a newspaper.  This meant that commerce and regulation constructed on the premise that content could be priced and controlled by how it was delivered increasingly lost its force, both in logic and in practice.

Then over the first decade of the 21st century (the ‘noughties’), IP-based networks and then social networks came to play an ever more important role.  This has meant content became non-linear, interlinked and ‘uncontained’ while people increasingly expected to connect and communicate seamlessly – anywhere, anyhow, anytime. Entire new and massively successful network businesses emerged in the second half of the decade – Google and Facebook to name the most obvious.

‘Silos’ was the convenient way to describe the pre-convergence arrangements and ‘Layers’ was an important alternative way to look at the way the technological environment was changing, as a way to describe the actuality of what was called convergence.  Layers had been in common technical use for a decade or two before this, but it around at this time the general utility of the concept more generally became apparent, since it is native to the way in which networks are constructed and the Internet works.

As the noughties wore on, it also became apparent that ‘layers’ as such could not ultimately and successfully grapple with all the developments in the marketplace.  The ‘bright lines’ between layers are blurring under the impact of virtualisation and software emulation.  An example of virtualization is the way in which several physical computer servers can emulate a single large (virtual) computer OR a single large physical computer can emulate several (virtual) computer servers. This has been extended beyond the enterprise and is essentially the basis for cloud computing – the customer buys the computing and storage they need as virtual resources from the supplier who takes care of the physical requirements.  Multiple, inter-networked free-scale networks which can configure to emulate many other network forms better explain the complexity and rapid adaptability of the market in the current decade, whatever we decide to call it (the ‘tweenies’?).

So the term ‘silo’ was useful shorthand to describe the pre-nineties technological environment, ‘convergence’ summarized the nineties, ‘layers’ was useful for the noughties and ‘networks’ is perhaps most apt for our current decade, which as you may have noticed, is drawing to a close.

This ‘progression’ is reflected in the movement in the discussion of the technological environment from ‘convergence’ to the ‘networked society’ and ‘connected life’.  This shift does not suggest that the transition to the ‘networked society’ is complete, but rather that the concept of the ‘network’ better describes and encapsulates the current dominant movement and theme at work and influencing society during the decade.  Having remarked on this progression, the obvious question is to ask: what is likely to be the concept that fulfils this role in another decade’s time?

My stab at it a few years ago was ‘Sentience’.  I was deliberately avoiding the term AI (although as a loose umbrella term it can be read in) and chose a word that reflected a more modest level of machine capability. This ‘sub-intelligence’ if you like is conceivable from the intersection of a number of network and ICT trends / technologies emerging by the start of the decade (i.e. 2020).  It seems to me that ‘sentience’ might best be described in terms of being surrounded by, embedded in, environments that are in some way aware of the individual and their context – various relationships  to things, information and other people.  It will not be complete but its emergence seems likely to be a dominant theme for the next decade, a logical inheritor of the consequences from digitalisation, convergence and then network developments, with the same kind of wide ramifications for culture and society.

What is different now in the contemporary explosion of interest and practical utilisation of AI is both the remorseless contribution of Moore’s law and the breakthrough in the algorithmic understanding of machine learning and its application in what is called deep learning. This is the technique which led to the victory by AlphaGo (the Google Deep Mind app) when it played the human Go master, Lee Sedol. It is also evident in everyday examples ranging from face-recognition, language translation, predictive text and enhanced search algorithms – things that in the eighties would have been dubbed AI are everywhere!

I am not particularly married to the precise term ‘sentience’ – numerous others exist. For example Shivon Zilis, an Investor at Bloomberg Beta surveyed every artificial intelligence, machine learning, or data related startup she could find (her list had 2,529 of them to be exact).  She addressed the labeling issue of using “machine intelligence” to describe how “Computers are learning to think, read, and write. They’re also picking up human sensory function, with the ability to see and hear (arguably to touch, taste, and smell, though those have been of a lesser focus) … cutting across a vast array of problem types (from classification and clustering to natural language processing and computer vision) and methods (from support vector machines to deep belief networks).”

She noted that:

I would have preferred to avoid a different label but when I tried either “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning” both proved to too narrow: when I called it “artificial intelligence” too many people were distracted by whether certain companies were “true AI,” and when I called it “machine learning,” many thought I wasn’t doing justice to the more “AI-esque” like the various flavors of deep learning. People have immediately grasped “machine intelligence” so here we are.

And I landed on ‘sentience’ – it is important to note that it does not indicate an ‘end state’ but rather flags a way to discuss a possible dominant theme of its decade (say 2020-2030). Another theme will arise and it is relevant to consider what sentience would not describe: to establish the boundary conditions for the concept and think about what may remain ‘undone’ by 2030-ish.  Thinking beyond that boundary may in turn give clues about the shape of the decade and those to follow … noting that such a shape is impossible to discern beyond broad conjecture.

One direction for such conjecture might be about the emergence of ‘machine autonomy’. It can be useful (in terms of imagined scenarios) although increasingly dangerous (due to the temptations and risks of predictive hubris) to speculate even beyond the rise of autonomy to further phases, perhaps the realization of fully conscious artificial intelligence, perhaps the emergence of essentially incomprehensible ‘alien’ machine-based intelligence:

  • 2030s – ‘machine autonomy’?
  • 2040s – AI ‘awareness’?
  • 2050s – ‘Alien’ intelligence?

It occurs to me that perhaps this is where the fruits of ‘convergence’ as mentioned in this blog have come full circle.  It seems that the developments which can loosely be pulled together under the umbrella term AI are genuinely flagging the arrival of ‘post-industrial’ society, that the world Daniel Bell conjured with is emerging in front of our eyes, even if we do (can) not accurately perceive it.  However the shapes we can discern are certainly the source of some anxiety, particularly as related to the world of work – and that will be the topic for my next blog post …

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A reflection on resilience

Resilience is about mastering the control and release of energy. One of the core elements of resilience is not letting events blow you off course. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes. Strategic patience positions you for resolute action.

Well, I actually had a different blog topic in mind for today, but yesterday, neatly book-ended by two unrelated groups with similar messages changed my mind to report on these and share reflections  about resilience – let me tell you why …

Yesterday morning I felt a bit ‘flat’ and since it was Monday  if I was working fulltime I would have shrugged it off as Monday-it is – but now Monday  as such shouldn’t make much difference to me. I suspect I was probably still recovering from the exertions of my participation over previous days in the Association Croquet Silver Brooch tournament.

There had been a lot of cat and mouse play between evenly matched opponents – not always pretty but quite entertaining at times. 3 games in the first day had left me feeling a little less than upbeat, but eventually over the full 2 days everyone won 2 out of 4 games, and I came 3rd on nett points. Further on the positive side of the ledger I actually beat both of the other place getters in my games with them, and ended up with 6 additional points in my handicap index.  I will come back to that idea of positive framing shortly.

So in that slightly Monday-ish mood I set off for my third 9am Tai Chi class.  The teacher, Master Alex emphasises relating your mental state to the physical movements.  He talked about the importance of balance, breathing and purposeful, smooth movement when walking.  We followed his lead into the increasingly familiar routine and I am starting to get an understanding of how the dots might join. In fact for a brief moment I started to get some flow experience going and for about 5 seconds actually felt the beauty of the thing … more to come with practice I hope! The fundamental proposition seems to be about mastering the control and release of energy and by the end of the session my energy levels and my mood had lifted substantially.

A day of household chores and shopping then pretty much flew past and I set off to attend my first Sydney Facilitators Network meeting in, oh let’s see, probably 15 years … as I observed in a previous blog I had recently discovered the group was still in existence. Typically it meets on the second Monday of the month and each meeting features a guest facilitator who conducts a session to showcase or test ideas of techniques.  I went simply with the notion of checking-in to see what there was to see – so it was pot-luck.  As it happened the topic was ‘The Art of Resilience’ and about 30 people had turned up to participate.

It was a fun and useful couple of hours of guided group and individual interaction and sharing on the theme of resilience. The leader and guest facilitator Lina Mbirkou used the ideas of Jon Kabat-Zinn summed up as: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” and we explored questions like how to develop the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties? How to strengthen our ability to deal with challenges? Is it really possible to build resilience?

She started by going round the group asking each person to say their name and in one word how they were feeling – my response was ‘energised’, as I realised I was still drawing on the Tai chi session early that morning. There were an interesting number of contact as she spoke about the importance of breathing and purposeful movement when walking.

As the group worked and shared I also found myself drawing on my croquet playing experiences.  I have found that playing a competitive sport for the first time in late middle-age incredibly interesting.  In my Zone of Opportunity blog I mentioned ‘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.

One thing I have observed in myself has been the development of greater resilience in the face of competitive and performance pressure. One very useful tool which I shared with the Facilitators group has been the Reflect, Relax, Refocus (RRR) approach.  When something goes wrong with your game, you need to own it and understand it (Reflect) before trying to put it away. Then let it and the feelings it has created go – forget about it because you have learned any lesson (Relax). Finally, get back into the game with a clear head, back with your game plan (Refocus).

To me this is one of the core elements of resilience – not letting events blow you off course.  This can be as short-term as a passage of play in a croquet game, when the RRR sequence might take a matter of a few seconds. Or it might be something that plays out over weeks and months, like say for instance planning a career change … or retirement.

In any event, the Tai Chi-like thinking about the control and release of energy seems integral, again applicable across the same time-scale. Exercising the discipline of ‘strategic patience’ (a useful phrase I first heard recently used in relation to the current crisis on the Korean peninsula) means you can conserve your energy, refine your plans and then act rapidly and resolutely when the moment comes.  Strategic patience positions you for resolute action – yin and yang perhaps?

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Building resilience is also a key concept in contemporary management practice, the key to fostering innovative, agile and relevant organisations as we all confront an environment of constant change.  When we are confronted with novel and complex environments the need for resilience increases exponentially.  This challenge was nicely expressed by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock, subtitled, ‘When Everything Happens Now’.   He suggested:

A simple visualization is to think of time as a river flowing at a certain pace. Below a certain threshold, the movements of things on the river are fairly linear and predictable. … This is historical progress as we have come to know it over the millennia.  But when the speed of the flow increases beyond that threshold, the river becomes turbulent, non-linear, unpredictable. Such is the state of time in 2012.

… and there are few signs that things are slowing down or becoming less complex as we wind down 2017!   For an interesting riff on this take a look at this Forbes piece from 2012 – ‘Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: The End Of Time Is Not The End Of The World’. The resilient conclusion is:

Most importantly, the end of time as we have known it is not the end of the world. It is a new world that we can assert control over in new ways. So get over your doomsday hangover and get to work!

Resilience is the necessary organisational capacity to perceive relevant facts from emerging trends, adapt to change, and bounce back from setbacks.  One useful approach I have found (used in our ACMA transformation program) is to think in terms of the four ‘muscles’ of resilience (spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional).  Each “muscle” contributes to different forms of organisational capability, in the following way:

  • Physical – applying scarce resources to maximise leverage and outcomes
  • Intellectual (Mental) – generating alternatives and reflecting on legacy approaches
  • Spiritual (In Spirit) – nurturing genuine commitment to shared values, beliefs and goals
  • Emotional – promoting self-awareness and considered responses.

Through the purposeful creation of a context that values spiritual endurance, intellectual agility, physical dexterity and emotional maturity, these four “muscles” can be developed and strengthened in each individual and therefore for the whole organisation that they are part of.

Perhaps the most challenging element is that of emotional maturity. Emotional maturity in an organisational context requires a high level of self-awareness (of both the external position and the internal organisational dynamics), as well as the ability to manage feedback constructively.  I prefer the term emotional ‘agility’ to the perhaps more popular term ‘emotional intelligence’, sometime shortened to EQ … it captures more accurately for me the fact that it is a skill that can be acquired, rather than perhaps being seen as an innate quality.  I found this statement in a recent HBR article provides a succinct summary:

Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential … Recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.

There is no way I would claim to have perfect resilience for myself, and ultimately events can stretch and exhaust the resources (the ‘resilience musculature’) of any individual or organisation.  However I am always looking for tools, communities and perspectives to build those muscles as best I can, knowing that they will likely be tested by only real constant in life and history: the unexpected!

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Life cycle analysis

The life cycle concept is a useful tool for systems analysis and design thinking – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes. This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design. The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. However, does the pace of change and the rate of innovation that simply will not slow perhaps have implications for the lifecycle of humanity itself, connecting the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society? Maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we might contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

This was a tricky blog to get started – the topic opened so many doors to dense topics it was hard to get the sense of a thread to join them.  So I went for a run instead and after the quiet reflection that such activity induces I had the beginning and the end … now all I need to do is navigate between them.  I hope you can stay with me for the ride.

20170905_161507I first came across the idea of the ‘life cycle’ as a formal tool for analysis and design in the early eighties when I picked up managing the new DEC VAX computer system while working at the Royal Blind Society, and subsequently broadened my Master of Commerce degree studies at UNSW to encompass Information Systems Management (ISM).

I took to the concept immediately, firstly because I am something of a natural systems thinker, and secondly perhaps because of my engagement with biology as a subject at high school – it was my enthusiasm for social biology that drove my initial interest in studying sociology at university.  In the early seventies sociology was a new kid on the block at NZ universities – in fact it wasn’t available to first year students when I commenced at Auckland, dictating an initial stint with Anthropology and Psychology instead.  But I digress …

I explored the lifecycle topic quite extensively in an ISM essay from around 1986, which I unearthed in that front room filing cabinet. I noted:

A ‘System Lifecycle’ notion is often used to describe the development, planned or unplanned, of information systems based on computing tools. Although “there are many different methods for representing the lifecycle … all contain essentially the same components” (7, P.13) and these components can be viewed in a simple linear sequence. But when generalizing to the information systems activities of an organization or sizeable organizational unit, a more sophisticated understanding is necessary.

For organizations in the ‘real world’, the stability in simple linear models of change does not exist. A simple linear model would ignore the fundamental characteristic of information systems that they age and wear out like most other assets, and renewal must be part of the planning process. Therefore, as a first complication, we must accept “the complete life cycle of a system, from its initial conception to its ultimate disposal.”

An even broader sense of discontinuity to further complicate planning scenarios is pointed to by Buss when he suggests that “Complete uniformity across all IS projects is likely to be impossible because organizations will be at different stages in their use of … various technologies.”

I have chosen those paragraphs because they continue to ring true for the task of managing information technology today (the language and technology have changed, the challenges remain almost exactly the same! They also capture the essence of how the life cycle concept contributes to analysis and design – by adding the fundamental idea of renewal to what might otherwise be seen as linear processes.  This then captures a more dynamic view of systems, accepts change, favours flexibility and explicitly accommodates feedback into design.

The life cycle idea is also closer to the general dynamic of social relationships and can have a powerful personal resonance, which can help bring design closer to people. This was exemplified for me as I wrote the words to celebrate my eldest sons’ marriage a few years ago, where I commented on the family pattern of ‘building up, letting go and welcoming in’ – a pattern that has been continued and confirmed by the most welcome birth of our first grandchild.  I have appended the notes for that brief speech, which to my surprise was the subject of a number of favourable remarks, at the end of the blog (lightly edited to protect privacy).

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I found the idea of a ‘life cycle’ to be useful well outside the narrow world of IT systems.  For example I used it as a consultant in the late nineties to create a model of Neighbour Aid service delivery, identifying possible benchmark events for these Services. That model was built around the various activities and processes of groups of stakeholders (community management committee, service coordination, clients, and volunteers), reflecting what might be called their ‘life cycle’ in the organisation. The model then neatly provided a starting point to detail functions which Neighbour Aid services might usefully benchmark between themselves.

Single Code Customer Life Cycle

The concept then found applicability in my work as a consumer advocate at CHOICE in the noughties.  In 2003 I advocated that a Customer Life Cycle perspective would provide a useful structure for a Single Telecommunication Consumer Protection Code.  The code surfaced almost a decade later and rather than explicitly use that framework assembled various existing codes into chapters – thereby inevitably covering a number of customer lifecycle event but without that overarching logic.

 

 

 

I also used the idea to describe how advocacy worked, which found utility in the work of a consumer focus group convened by the Australian Communications Authority in 2004.  It had the objective:  “To improve the effectiveness of consumer input and influence to the regulation and governance of the communications industry.”

CDC Representational Cycle

We gave ourselves the label Consumer Driven Communications and we established a powerful logic in drafting our work into the ‘Strategies for Better Representation’ Issues Paper by combining what we dubbed (and rather crudely illustrated) as the Representational Cycle with our version of the Regulatory Pyramid (a whole other discussion probably for further blog post sometime).

CDC Reg PyramidCDC Matrix

 

This produced a matrix of 36 topics which extensively covered the field of consumer engagement with the telecommunications industry and governance – a little too comprehensive for the appetites of some in the end perhaps. The group produced an extensive discussion document and then generated a final report with numerous recommendations, all of which pretty much disappeared under the tides of history, as the Communications Authority merged with the Broadcasting Authority to produce the ACMA in 2005.   Digital archaeology on the project is difficult – Google will only unearth scattered, mostly cached results.  Such is life, as many famous advocates have said.

 

Nevertheless, as I hope I have demonstrated, the ‘life cycle’ is powerful and persuasive tool – it doesn’t fit every situation, but when it does apply it can deliver coherence and insight – both useful for analysis and design.

There is a distinct sense today of technological acceleration, and certainly in the IT world we seem to be seeing ever shorter life cycles, as we move from products and services dependent on hardware to those defined by software, and now to offerings crafted from data analysis by machine learning and AI.

It certainly seems clear that the pace of change and the rate of innovation will not slow: as one group with a real-world interest in understanding technological change (the Office of the [US] Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office NeXTech project) suggested that “… in the period the team is actually supposed to be planning for, the strategic horizon of the next 25 years, we will see technologies literally one billion times more powerful than today.”

Some draw a conclusion relevant to the lifecycle of humanity itself, connect the current shape of change with the deep development of human language, technology and society. This line of thinking is illustrated by a reviewer’s summary of the thesis in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari:

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

Perhaps this is, as the reviewer remarks, “exaggeration and sensationalism”: but maybe we are coming to the inflection point where we can contemplate the historic end of the ‘life cycle’ over the next couple of decades, at least as far as human society is concerned.

Do you agree?

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Meanwhile on a more immediate & personal note, celebrating my son’s wedding I said:

I have often said that if I had known how great it was

to have kids, I would have started a lot earlier …

but of course then I wouldn’t have been able to

do it with my wife …

and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as

great or as much fun.

I have personally learnt heaps,

and grown a lot, from being a parent .

By and large I reckon I have got more out of the

 parenting deal than my kids have

… so I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

As time has gone on, one of the things I have learned

is that the toughest job of parenting is not:

The missed sleep and 24/7 demands of the early years;

Nor the school concerts and soccer matches of the middle years;

Nor the taxi / linen / reserve banker services of later years.

No … those nurturing tasks are comparatively easy … because,

although they can be emotionally demanding

and sometimes physically draining,

you are in control.

I think the truly tough job of parenting is …

the letting go,

acknowledging you are no longer in control.

This was brought home to me when J***** set off on

his first long solo drive.

He was taking himself and his brother T*****

to a St John’s training camp in the Blue Mountains

…  all I (we) could do was wave goodbye and then

trust that he (and T*****) would arrive in one piece.

However what we were trusting was not good luck –

we were trusting that J***** had learnt well

and that he would navigate safely and

independently to his destination.

And of course he did.

And he has been travelling well ever since, working hard,

making good choices and getting good results.

And today J***** is continuing his life’s journey

joining with J##### to build what will be the most

important asset they can possess between them

– a happy and productive partnership.

An old friend once remarked that the investment

he most valued was his marriage – something I have

always remembered –

I always say I have 3 super funds to maintain:

Firstly – my marriage;

Secondly – my fitness / health; and

Thirdly and only then – any actual super account dollars

–  because without the first two,

money alone has little meaning or usefulness.

Growing value in a partnership is about

the opposite of letting go –

it means letting someone else in,

trusting, sharing and learning how to fit together.

What I have found to be quite miraculous about

creating a family is how that unit can grow

and extend.

I remember that when we were expecting T*****

(two and a half years after J*****)

 I expressed some concern to my wife that

I loved J***** so much

I wondered how could love

another child as much.

What I discovered was that the envelope of

family love extends easily and

T***** immediately had a huge place in our hearts.

So families are about welcoming in

as well as being about letting go,

While today marks for us a continuation

of letting J***** go,

we are also happy and proud

to welcome J##### to our family,

and to the extended family,

who over the last decades

have extended such a warm welcome

to me – one for which I am very grateful .

So, welcome J##### –

 there is always room for one more.

We wish you and J***** all the best

on your journey together,

and as you craft your own pattern of:

building up;

letting go; and

welcoming in.

 

 

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?