Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, deep state conspiracy theories, absolutists and populists, “political truths” are wielded like linguistic weapons. Any form of dissent (or contrary evidence) is branded as “unpatriotic”, “undemocratic”, “unconstitutional”, “disloyal”, “treasonous”, “elitist”, or “subversive”.

“The Treachery of Images” (Painting by Rene Magritte, image sourced from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Experts are treated with scepticism, scientists with suspicion, relativists with disdain, pluralists with apoplexy. Anyone seen to be challenging the status quo is dismissed as an “enemy of the people”. The public is being co-opted/coerced into buying wholesale certain political claims and party agendas (often hidden), without any opportunity to subject them to independent scrutiny or fact-checking.

Facts and logic are often the first victims in this abuse of language in the exercise of public discourse. Political slogans don’t even bother to avoid or deny accusations of propaganda: “Yeah? So what?” is often the response.

With that in mind, let’s play semantics and semiotics! To begin with, some opening statements:

1. This is a red car. (Observation, and a Fact if we agree on what is “red”) *

2. Red is the most popular colour of car. (Statement of Fact, if proved statistically) **

3. Red cars hold their value more than green cars. (Opinion, but also a Fact if it can be proved statistically, and we agree on what “value” means in this context)

4. Red cars are better than green cars, but blue cars are better than red cars. (Judgement tending towards a display of bias and prejudice)

Depending on the positioning and messaging, #1-#4 could be used in various marketing and advertising campaigns to sell red cars (or in the case of #4, sell blue cars).

Now, here are two reasonably uncontroversial propositions:

  • “Traffic laws are important to the functioning of society.”
  • “Good government relies on the democratic will of the electorate, and adequate funding of public services via taxation.”

We can see from the way language and truth are mangled in the service of current political debate and social commentary, that “statements of fact” can be easily positioned as “expressions of opinion” (and from there manipulated into pejorative and derogatory accusations or subtexts):

1. Red cars are involved in more road accidents than any other colour of vehicle
(Anyone who drives a red car is more likely to drive recklessly.)

2. People who drive red cars don’t observe the speed limit.
(Anyone who drives a red car is either a libertarian or an anarchist.)

3. People who drive red cars fail to pay their taxes.
(Anyone who drives a red car is anti-government.)

4. People who drive red cars are subversives.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a terrorist.)

5. People who drive red cars are law-abiding citizens.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a conservative. OR: Anyone who doesn’t drive a red car is a criminal.)

6. People who drive red cars give to charity but people who drive blue cars give more.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a better person than someone who drives a green car but not as good as someone who drives a blue car.)

The combination of sweeping generalisations and over-simplification in public discourse can obviously distort meaning and generate distrust. For example:

1. What if all taxis are red? That might mean they spend more time on the road, and therefore are more prone to be involved in traffic accidents.

2. What if more sports cars are red than any other colour? That might mean their drivers are more likely to speed. Or that their owners have more money. Or they are status conscious.

3. What if people who drive red cars come from a specific socio-economic, sectarian or ethnic demographic? Even then, they won’t all agree on the same issues, and they will likely display a similar range of divergent, opposing and contradictory views as the drivers of any other colour of car.

Unfortunately, the current environment for political debate and public commentary is being reduced to a binary state, where nuanced and subtle argument is being sidelined in favour of polarised and partisan politics, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of some convenient diatribe. If only politicians were accountable to voters under the Trade Practices Act – although we may soon see election campaigns subject to misleading and deceptive conduct legislation.

* Colour can also depend on context, as these experiments demonstrate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFC7EyR1lhU

** It’s not actually true: https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/most-popular-car-colours

Next week: Business as Unusual  

“How do I become a business strategist?”

I was recently asked for some career advice, specifically on how to move from a technical role to a more business strategy role, within a corporate environment. Like a lot of the questions I receive regarding career development (especially on LinkedIn….), the initial question was quite broad, a little bit vague, so I needed to frame it before responding.

At the outset, I should stress that I am neither a qualified career counselor (although I have done some related coaching work), nor an organisational behaviorist/industrial psychologist (but I have some formal experience of using personality profiling tools, and trained as a counselor very early in my career). Plus I have had a varied career path and some in-depth corporate experience to draw on!

I have never worked in a full-time Business Strategy role – rather, Business Strategy has been integral to the whole of my corporate and consulting career, whether I have been working in product management, market expansion, business development or start-up roles. So while Business Strategy can be defined (and practiced) as a specific discipline, from my experience it’s just another management component or business tool everyone needs to understand and apply, especially on a practical level.

First, my exposure to business strategy really began when I was in a product management role. So I it was part technical (requiring some formal qualification and subject matter expertise), part production (understanding the design and manufacturing processes), part strategic (managing the commercial, financial and market dynamics). That framework continues to inform my approach to business strategy, even in my consulting work – and helps in understanding my clients’ business.

Second, business and management tools come and go; some are mere passing fads, others are the result of changing technology or market conditions – so there is little point in trying to grapple with each and every one, or whatever happens to be in current fashion. Rather, I believe that we should each identify some core models and frameworks that work for us, which can also be adapted to different situations either organically or by analogy. For example, even the over-used Johari window and SWOT analysis can be useful techniques for mapping out markets, customer segments, or growth options. And having some basic accounting, legal and risk management ability is really useful!

Third, a key personal skill is being curious, and remaining open to possibilities. Simply asking the right questions (Q “Why do we do it this way?” A “Because we’ve always done it this way”) can uncover opportunities for improvement or alternative solutions. Without being a perpetual rebel, it is possible to constructively challenge the status quo, to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, more ethically, more environmentally friendly etc.

Fourth, if there was one thing I had understood better before entering the corporate world and management roles, it is the function of teams, the role of team dynamics, and the importance of open communications, pro-active stakeholder engagement, and bringing people on the journey with you. Never underestimate how stubborn, stupid, wilful or malicious some people can be – but often, they are acting out of a position of fear, ignorance or weakness. It’s rarely personal (it’s just business, right?), but it can feel that way. So, whether you are managing up, down or sideways, be prepared to overcome objections, present solutions (not just problems), and get buy-in early on. Making the team collectively and individually responsible for decisions means that they are personally invested in the outcomes. It’s also a way of empowering people.

Fifth, this leads me to the whole issue of decision-making. Companies will always make some poor decisions – but worse is sub-optimal decision-making. Partly this comes from not having appropriate systems and oversight (proper matrix processes, clearly delegated authorities, well-defined mandates, strong governance frameworks, transparent and accessible policies, and documented audit trails, etc). Partly this is a lack of cognitive skills (empathy, self-awareness, communication). And partly it is an absence of informed decision-making (e.g., understanding any inter-dependencies), and the misalignment of goals and incentives.

As a follow-up question, I was asked about some of the tools I have found useful for being successful in my strategy roles. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the value of an MBA vs gaining hands-on experience, or learning as you grow into a role. MBAs have their place, but they are not the Be all and End all of a corporate career.

I’ve also been dipping into a few of the “leading” business text books of their day, that were recommended to me over the past 15-20 years or so (Blue Ocean Strategy, the Long Tail of markets, defining Metanational companies, etc.). While they all provide some insights, and even some practical examples, they feel very dated in terms of current technology, business models, and market environment. Hence my comment above on passing fads…

Even though I worked for major multinationals for over 20 years, I think I’ve learned a lot more from working with and for startups and entrepreneurs over the past 10 years – and to me, that’s where a lot of the more interesting stuff is happening, notwithstanding the challenges of founding a new business. But I realize it’s not for everyone as a career choice.

Finally, no doubt there will be huge lessons for business and corporate strategy as we come out of lock down and it’s how we apply those lessons that will determine the next generation of success stories.

Next week: “There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

 

Can we come out now?

At the time of writing, the Victorian government has just announced the State’s very own measures as part of the “3 Steps to Recovery”, designed to ease the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, in a controlled and manageable way. This follows last week’s meeting of the National Cabinet, where broad agreement was reached on a plan to help “prepare Australians to go back to work in a COVID-19 safe environment and getting the economy back to a more sustainable level“.

Even at the MCG, the advice is stay safe, stay home, and think of others

The biggest “winners” in Victoria will be our immediate friends and families (groups of up to 5 people can gather at each others’ homes), outdoor activities (groups of up to 10 people), wedding organisers and funeral directors (more people can attend ceremonies)…. oh, and the AFL (training can resume!).

But Premier Andrews has stressed that this is neither an excuse to host dinner parties every night, nor a reason to ignore established protocols and best practice on personal hygiene and social distancing. So no overnight raves or camping trips. And no dining-in at restaurants or cafes, and definitely no pubs, bars or clubs.

For some people, the continued Stage 3 restrictions seem too much to bear, with a few fringe elements (along with the anti-vaxxers and the anti-5Gers) being more vocal and more physical in their views. But they probably fail to see that no-one actually enjoys living under this regime, and nobody would do it if they had a choice or other safe options.

Thankfully, the majority of the population are willing to comply with the restrictions, however uncomfortable or inconvenient, because they realise the consequences of a second wave of infections (especially as we come into winter) would be worse than some temporary limitations on their freedom of movement. There is also a renewed albeit grudging respect for and trust in our political leadership (if not always felt towards individual ministers), and here in Australia we can also consider the political decisions and public advice in light of scientific data and medical evidence.

A large proportion of Covid-19 infections in Australia came via overseas travellers (cruise ships and ski trips), while some of thee first community infections came from gatherings such as weddings and religious services. And then there have been “hubs” within sectors such as aged care, meat processing and airport baggage handling.

There are still questions over plans to re-open schools, and sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality have a long way to go before “normal” service resumes. Parts of the retail sector have managed to survive thanks to on-line shopping and e-commerce solutions (supply chain logistics and delivery) but we should expect some businesses will never bounce back. Every employer will probably need to have a “Covid-19 Safe” operating plan before bringing staff back to work in significant numbers, whether as part of their best practices on risk management, or as a prerequisite to satisfy workplace health and safety obligations.

The apparent rush to get professional sport back on the field feels like a misplaced priority – especially given the controversy around NRL and AFL players who apparently lacked the self-discipline to comply with the social-distancing measures; and those players who are refusing the flu vaccine as a condition of rejoining their clubs. On this point, I rather admire the comments by Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard, who expressed his unease at the thought of professional footballers getting priority for Covid-19 testing, ahead of essential and front-line workers, simply to fast-track the resumption of the EPL.

Even with the various safety plans and gradual easing of restrictions, it’s up to each of us individually to be responsible for our own actions, and maintain a personal duty of care to each other so as not to risk spreading the infection, nor risk exposing others as a result of something we do or omit to do.

Next week: The Bitcoin halving – what happened?

 

 

 

 

 

Signing off for Saturnalia

According to a Gallup Report, in 2018 the world was “sadder and angrier than ever. If recent global events are anything to go by, 2019 will easily top that. And as I write, much of south east Australia is on fire (the bushfire season having started back in early August), only adding to the sense of rage. I can’t recall an angrier year, maybe not since the 1970s.

Image of Scott Walker scanned from the NME Annual for 1968

Reasons to be angry? World politics, climate change, fake news, growing nationalism, economic stagnation, and sectarian intolerance. Evidence of anger? Brexit, Impeachment, Hong Kong, France, Chile, Iran, India, Iraq, Adani, Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo, etc.

Meanwhile, considered academic debate has been reduced to very public slanging matches. Even popular music seems shoutier than ever, and no action movie is considered complete without gratuitous violence, hyperbolic pyrotechnics and pounding soundtracks.

So much noise, so much hot air (verbal and atmospheric) and so much sheer rage, not always easy to articulate or understand – and not easy to predict how that will translate at the ballot box, given the election results in Australia and the UK. Politicians of all persuasions are increasingly seen as being a key cause for voter anger, but in both cases, continuity was deemed preferable to change.

As we wind down for the holidays, it’s frustrating to think that the “season of goodwill” is limited to just a few weeks of the year. I’m not suggesting 12-month-long Black Friday Sales. Rather, can we find it in ourselves to be more civil to each other throughout the year, even if we disagree on certain things? In particular, I’m thinking of the growing evidence of sectarian strife. Established religions may condemn to hell (or even death) anyone who disagrees with their belief systems, but in a democratic, secular and pluralist society, the right to “freedom of religion” also means everyone is entitled to “freedom from religion”.

In light of that, I’d like to wish all my readers a safe and peaceful Saturnalia. Normal service will be resumed in the New Year.