The new education #1: Agility

Week 1 of “What they should be teaching at school” – Agility.

We are used to ‘agile’ in terms of project management and software development; it’s even been applied to a style of business management itself. From the agile process, we recognise the value of continuous learning from a combination of task-based collaboration, iterative experimentation, rapid validation and constant improvement.

So it would make sense to deploy agile learning in school. Whether it’s research methods, data validation, practical experiments, rapid testing, team collaboration or scenario planning, agile thinking can foster the ability to be empathetic, consider alternative perspectives,  evaluate different contexts, and respond to new data or situations.

While it’s important to learn core foundational facts and key conceptual frameworks, we can’t remain rigid in the face of new information. But the rate at which our knowledge is changing (new science, new data, new discoveries) also means it’s a challenge trying to keep up. Therefore, agile thinking is essential to being able to gather appropriate information, process and interpret the data, construct and validate innovative theories, and apply them to new situations, based on the available evidence. This approach should also foster greater creativity, build stronger reasoning skills, and see the development of logical thought processes.

Next week: Resilience



Corporate purpose, disruption and empathy

There’s been a renewed debate recently, about corporate purpose: why do companies and organisations exist?

Partly this existential angst comes from a sense of feeling redundant – sunset industries, declining and non-existent markets, outmoded technology, irrelevant products and services. The whole evolutionary model, survival of the fittest, etc.

Partly it comes from a shift in the balance of power – from access to resources, markets and technology, to the future of work offering people more choices in the ways they can generate their living.

Whether companies face disruption or decay, their purpose has to change and adapt accordingly – look at how Kodak is backing a project to issue cryptographic tokens to help professional photographers track the use of their IP.

Equally, employees are more invested in working on interesting ideas, and more interested in working for businesses that align with their values, rather than buying into a corporate purpose. So it’s as much about the “how” of an organisation as much as the “what” and the “why”.

I sometimes find it hard to feel much empathy for companies or industries that become outmoded – although I can feel some empathy for the people who lose their jobs as a result. However, if the political and economic response to declining industries is to focus on job losses (or job subsidies), it tends to overlook where the new opportunities are actually coming from – even though this growth does not always offer traditional jobs or work/career options. Equally, individuals need to adapt to the changing work environment – no-one can be sure of a “job for life” anymore, no matter how much some of our political leaders would like to think otherwise.

If we look at the traditional function (not the same as purpose) of many companies, it was to harness certain resources in the pursuit of creating assets or wealth. So, companies were once really good at sourcing and managing financial capital, human capital, and intellectual capital. They were even “better” at this if they had monopolistic access to, or operated within, highly controlled and tightly regulated markets.

Now, of course, thanks to disruption and other forces, companies no longer have a monopoly on these resources, as many markets have become outsourced, open source, disintermediated or decentralised. Rather than being formed by shareholders and other stakeholders for long-term ventures, “companies” can just as easily be a collective of self-forming, self-governing and self-aware resources that combine for a specific objective, for as long or short a time as the objective or enterprise requires. And technologies like Blockchain, digital assets and smart contracts will determine how, and for what reason, and for how long such entities will exist, and the resources they will require.

Next week: More musings on ICOs and cryptocurrencies  








Finding wisdom in a binary world

Sometimes I think that the thirst for data, combined with a digital mindset, is reducing our analytical and critical thinking to a highly polarised, binary-driven view of the world.

Rather than recognizing that most ideas and concepts are composed in “technicolor” we are increasingly reducing our options, choices, responses and decisions to “black or white” conclusions. Everything has to be couched in terms of:

  • on/off
  • yes/no
  • true/false
  • positive/negative
  • for/against
  • like/dislike
  • friend/unfriend
  • connect/disconnect

It feels that our conditioning is driven by the need for certainty, the desire to be “right”, and the tendency to avoid disagreement/difference. However, uncertainty is more prevalent than we may like to admit. To illustrate what I mean, here are four personal learning experiences I would like to share by way of demonstrating that not everything can be reduced to black or white thinking:

1. The scenario is the same, but the context, therefore the answer,  is different

Although I was born and grew up in the UK, I completed part of my primary education in Australia. Before returning to the UK, I was required to complete the 11-plus exam, to determine which secondary school I would attend in England. (The exam was mainly designed to test literacy, numeracy and verbal reasoning.) Here’s a multiple choice question which I got “wrong”:

Q. Why do windows have shutters?

I chose “to keep out the sun” as my answer. In fact, the “correct” answer was “to keep out the wind”. The invigilator was kind enough to include a note to the examiners that my answer was based on the fact that I had been living in Australia, where window shutters are primarily designed to keep out the sun (and therefore the heat). Whereas in the UK, shutters are largely used as a protection against the wind.

2. The facts are the same, but the interpretation is different

While studying for my law degree, I had to write an essay on reforming the use and application of discretionary trusts, based on the current legislation and recent court cases. I argued in favour of an alternative approach to the relevant court decisions, and deliberately took a contrary view based on my social and political outlook at the time, and influenced by what I saw were changes in public policy.

To my great surprise, the tutor gave me one of my highest ever grades in that subject – even though she disagreed with my conclusions, she recognised that my reasoning was sound, and my interpretation was valid.

3. The intention may be “constructive”, but someone will always choose to see only the negative

Early in my career, I participated in a TV documentary series about different types of interview situations. As a local government officer, it was my role to advise members of the public on how to navigate the various regulations and policies in respect to accessing council services, as they related to their own particular circumstances.

One interview I conducted was included in the final broadcast. I thought my advice was objective, and based on widely accepted principles, but without advocating or recommending a specific course of action, as I believed it was my job to remain impartial yet factual. I later discovered that another local council used part of the same interview footage to train their own staff in how not to conduct an interview, because it could have been mis-interpreted as a way to get around the system. So, whereas I thought I was being constructive, someone in a position of authority chose to see it as a negative influence.

4. The assumptions may be reasonable, but the results often prove otherwise

Years later, I found myself having to defend a proposal to launch a smaller, and cheaper, version of a global product in a local market. The received wisdom among many of my colleagues was that the proposal would result in less revenue, even if customer numbers grew. As part of the initiative, I also advocated shutting down a legacy local product in the same market – partly to reduce production costs, and partly because very few customers were actually paying for this outdated service. Again, I faced resistance because a number of internal stakeholders thought customers would refuse to pay for a superior service, and that the business would end up alienating existing customers and, by extension, upsetting the local market.

Subject to a detailed customer migration plan, some very specific financial metrics and frequent status reports, the project was greenlighted. 12 months’ after implementation, the results were:

  • Comparable revenue was doubled
  • Overall production costs were halved
  • A significant number of new clients were signed up (including several from new market segments)

The closure of the legacy product did see the loss of some customers (about 10-15% of the legacy client base), but this was mostly non-paying business, and was more than offset by the increased revenue and customer growth. [In my experience, significant platform migrations and product upgrades can result in up to 20% of customers electing not to switch.]

What are we to conclude from this?

It’s totally understandable that businesses want to deal only with certainty (“just give me the facts…”) and often struggle to accommodate alternative or contrary perspectives. But despite the prevailing digital age of “ones and zeroes”, we are actually operating in a more fluid and diverse environment, where new business opportunities are going to be increasingly less obvious or come from non-traditional sources. While we may find comfort in sticking to core principles, we may end up missing out altogether if we are not prepared to adapt to changing circumstances: context is all about the difference between “data” and “knowledge”.

Wisdom comes from learning to acknowledge (and embrace) ambiguity; individuals, teams, organisations and businesses are more likely to benefit from greater diversity in their thinking, resulting in richer experiences and more beneficial outcomes.


2015 – A Year for Optimism?

After a very challenging 2014, I am trying to face 2015 with a spirit of renewed rationalism and optimism. It won’t be easy, but if we can remain true to our real purpose, and (re)-connect with those things that bring us a sense of joy with the world, maybe we can get through it together. Now, more than ever, we need a Chief Rational Optimist