Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page


In General Mish-Mash on September 29, 2011 at 9:59 am

My heart dropped when I read the headline on page 15 of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.

Panthers dudded us

I never, ever thought I’d see such a headline.

And now, today, there is a suggestion that the intention all along was to dud the good people, who are the West Epping bowlers, of their property.

This belies the honourable actions of those who made the decision for the West Epping Bowling Club and Panthers Group to merge.

It is true that West Epping Bowling Club joined the Panthers organisation with a healthy bank balance, a well position land property, and a belief that it [the amalgamation] would mean both security and improvements.

They became West Epping Panthers … and they were excited about their future in a bigger and (apparently) more robust family of clubs.

Not so long after the amalgamation was completed, there was a significant – a dramatic – change in the tax regime on poker machine revenues. As a result, proposed spending on the West Epping was placed on hold – it became impossible to finance.

It was clear that things would be  difficult but there was confidence and optimism built on the sound and shared values, and open communications.

I know many will justify the West Epping closure with cries that these are hard times, and the future looks even harder. Hard times demand hard decisions. It is an economic reality that these sorts of things occur.

But there are 2 points that need to made about that:

  1. Process – the Panthers philosophy in the past, when it was a leader in the industry, was to keep the highest priority on preserving dignity, behaving respectfully of others, & being honourable & trustworthy. Even the hardest decision, decisions that were at times bitter, were implemented with the values respect, dignity, & trust resonating.
  2. Economic Imperatives – have dominated the club industry for a some years now. This is one of the main reasons there is a disconnect between clubs and the general public. And especially with the younger generation who are quick and alert in detecting a lack of authenticity. Professor Hing expressed it very well a few years ago:

This change in focus [by NSW clubs] from social to economic imperatives has aroused public and political scepticism about the clubs’ actual distinctiveness from profit-based organisations.

The rising dominance of economic imperatives is great, great pity because the club model is a very strong enterprise model, capable of delivering enormous benefit to communities.

There are some clubs that have adjusted really well to the changing community needs but the one hat was once the innovative leader has allowed to its focus to trip it up to the point that rather enhancing the community it is accused loudly of dudding it.

I don’t know what is most depressing – the fact that the West Epping bowlers have been dudded, or helplessly standing by and watching the decline and decay of  what was once a great community organisation.

Note: Until last year I was the Marketing Manager at Panthers. I have tried to write this in terms of general principles rather than the specific issues that are impacting the governance & management of Panthers Group. 

Apropos of nothing much … except error & vulnerability.

In General Mish-Mash, Mish-Mash of Books on September 23, 2011 at 11:18 am

I have just come to the end of a book called: This is not the end of the book.

It is a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.

A delight to read – or, really, eavesdrop. Easy going, mostly (that is if you don’t mind reference to arcane, ancient and obscure texts).

The book has been criticised because it contains a whole swag of inaccuracies – but you’d expect this in a conversation. I supposed the errors could have been corrected in the editing … the atmosphere would change and it may have become a bit sterile.

Anyway, both Carriere and Eco have huge private libraries, and exceptional careers in the literary world, making them ideal commentator on the subject of the decline of the book. Their conversations is triggered by the incessant claim that the technology shift spells the end of the book. Hence the book’s title – it is a refutation of the thinking that the web means the demise of the book.

Eco’s library has over 50,000 volumes (I have spoken of this library before) – his collection of ancient text (about 1200 volumes) is dedicated to mistaken science, lunacy, magic, the occult. At one point he says:

“I collect books whose contents I don’t believe.”

Eco seems fascinated with error, misconception, deception, and misjudgement. Which brings me to this post.

It is so easy to form a vastly misjudged, one-dimensional view of someone – especially when they have high profile and attract media attention. One dimension expertly crafted by those tools (error, etc etc) we so often apply without any consciousness or conscience.

Patti Smith and Germaine Greer are women I’ve admired for their talent and toughness – I imagined them to be hard, harsh people, somewhat lacking in sensitivity or empathy.

Earlier this year I read Patti Smith’s book Just Kids – memoirs of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York.

Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith

I am now about a third of the way through Germaine Greer’s Daddy We Hardly Knew You – which I picked up last week at a market.

Germaine Greer

It seems to me now that even the titles of these books are antithetical to my biased perceptions. In fact, I bought Greer’s book precisely because its title challenged my perception.

Both of these books are very personal, evocative, and exceptionally moving.

More importantly, for me, these books placed a spotlight on my perceptions. It became obvious how easily and effortlessly I’d locked them both into a 1-dimensional prison, or flatlined them into 2 dimensions …

It must happen so often with such unfair and unrewarding outcomes.

Humans are multi-dimensional – no matter their profile or fame, no matter the public persona they cultivate, and no matter the perceived dominance one or a few of their characteristics.

And most of the time, most of those dimensions are simply not available or inaccessible, they must largely remain unknown and may be completely unbelievable.  An opportunity for adventure and illumination – much like Eco’s library, or even the mysteries that may reside on the pages of a single book.

And of course, we would never judge a book by its cover – especially now that we have been assured that this is not the end of the book.

The Challenge: Tent (sans instruction) or Unknown Territories.

In General Mish-Mash, Mish-Mash of Wisdoms on September 18, 2011 at 8:30 am

From my previous two posts, it should be easy to draw a conclusion that I see organisations as facing two fundamentally different types of challenges, needing fundamentally different approaches.

The challenges are those that are:

  • well-defined, short term, measurable, failure or success is quickly known or
  • long term, seemingly nebulous, not clearly defined, and difficult to find a metric that describes success or failure.

The sorts of challenges faced by companies are invariably complex but the first type has a clear set of rules, or at least some well-defined metrics and parameters that contain the challenge. The second type have no such boundaries or containment.

A far more eloquent and evocative description for these challenges are provided by Lauren Pollack & Katherine Wakid:

  • the tent problem – imagine having all the pieces needed to put up a tent, but no instructions.
  • the Lewis & Clark problem – named after the 2 explorers who blazed the trail to the west coast of the USA in the early 19th Century.

Pollack & Wakid are part of Jump Associates, a US firm offering help to organisations who have identified a need to address this second type of problem.

Essentially their thesis is that organisations are generally well placed with resources and know-how to handle the “tent problems”. Basically, because – like putting up a tent, even with no instructions – we know what good looks like* and there is a finite and defined path that will result in achieving the required result.

The sort of problems that might fall under the title “tent problems” are:

  • making a operations more efficient,
  • optimising supply,
  • refining product mix.

The Lewis & Clark type of challenges don’t have the luxury of a well-defined “what good looks like”, they are likely to have an infinite number of approaches or methods that can lead to one a multitude of results, they are fuzzy by nature, and may lead to dead-ends, failures, backtracking, deletions, and changes.

The types of problems that may fall under this title might be:

  • how do we grow our business,
  • how do we deal with generational change in our market,
  • how do we overcome stagnancy,
  • what do we do about the decay in our brand.

Even describing these types of problems is somewhat blurry but they are no small challenges nor are they lacking importance. But not all organisations can adequately manage this type of challenge. Indeed, organisations that can consistently do seem to be a rarity. The title Pollack and Wakid’s paper describes the sort of company that copes.

Thriving in Ambiguity: Lessons From Exploratory Organizations.

Just what are those lessons? In brief, Pollack and Wakid say organizations that deal best with the Lewis & Clark, ambiguous type of challenge have the following characteristics:

  • they foster empathy with their customers
  • they are not afraid to let answers emerge over time
  • they reward learning not just results
  • they create a culture of teamwork
  • they hire hybrid thinkers who can connect seemingly disparate disciplines and ideas.

Familiar characteristics, I’m sure.  Perhaps the last one might be a new expression. But despite their familiarity and their positive qualities, few organisations demonstrate any consistent application of them.

In fact, most organisations seem intent on ensuring that they confront only the well defined, contained challenges. Perhaps they even extend this restriction to a belief that they should either know:

  • the answer to the problem they face or
  • know the way to get the right answer or
  • both the above.

There is no room for error, no room for discovery or experimentation. There is no time to wait for potential solutions to percolate. There is shame or humiliation in back-tracking after finding a dead-end.  There is no tolerance for ambiguity. Opportunities could be – probably are – missed because of a lack of capacity to deal with challenges other than those where you can tick the boxes.

Creating the space for experimentation and discovery comes from knowing that you don’t know – admissions of ignorance.

(Note for self: we are back to Nassim Nicholas Taleb here – focusing on what we don’t know rather than what we do know.)
If anyone else is reading this my apologies for that interruption.

This article – Thriving in Ambiguity – has finally given some meaning to some psychometric testing I did years ago. The testing showed, amongst other stuff, I had a high tolerance for ambiguity. For years I have wondered about this description – and now I have a reference point.

Anyway, the article is worth a look. It is also worth having a look around the Jump Associates website, it holds some interesting and enlightening work.

Note: * credit for the terminology “what good looks like” has to go to my mate Bob Adamson who came up with this expression while implementing innovative business systems project at Panthers. Or maybe it was while have one of those lengthy after-work discussions involving our colleagues Johnny and Jim – Walker & Beam, respectively.

Anyway … who needs explorers?

In General Mish-Mash on September 12, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Well, probably most of us enjoy the benefits brought by exploration … and so, most of us need explorers in some way.

The bigger question is whether we can cope with the explorer. They [explorers] are risky business. And it is safety that most of us seek. Even in adventure, it’s safety first.

And explorers in the corporate world? Heaven forbid.

This expression of how to secure support for new developments or projects – for exploration – is the epitome of reasonableness.Better to be safe than sorry.

Before trying something new let’s just make sure it works first. Let’s not be first.

(It reminds me of the clip posted on mishmashmax by Chris Keeble – First Follower: Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy.  Here it is:)

This was actually a TED Talk given by Derek Sivers.

You know, I think our CFO friend, would wait and see how this dance panned out and then maybe would permit our participation … at the next festival … and only if it started up again and had some followers. Let’s just be careful.

It may be true that the first follower adds some credibility to the “lone nut” and

It may also be true that the 1st follower gives permission for the 2nd & 3rd followers to join in and thus reach the tipping point, tipping eccentricity into a movement.

But …

I just love the lone nut!!

Out there. Suffering the gibes, the guffaws, the sniggers, and the ridicule. He may be an idiot … but he just may also be a genius, and way, way ahead of his time and way, way ahead of the sniggerers.

Anyway, must we continually be on the right track? Can’t we stray? Do we need to be constantly seeking confirmation that where we are headed is right? Is there no longer room for error?

What about that old saying:

If you’re not making mistakes, it’s probably because you’re not doing anything.

Do we really need to make sure someone else blazes the trail before we give it a go? It seems to be the modern day M.O. – take a step and check, take a step and check, then dip your toe.

A stilted dance – no rhythm, no seduction, no magic, no mystery, no adventure.

All lost in the name of surety, safety, clarity, and transparency.

So, who needs explorers?

My Answer: Everyone.

The world is speeding.  Accelerating – the rate of change of speed is increasing. Every day there is new territory in just about every aspect of life – and the following day there is more.

And new territories mean new behaviours, new markets, new demands, new values. They require new organisational structures, new consumer relationships. The following graph shows just one interpretation of the shifting landscape. The graph links to where I found it … an interesting post (from July 2008) in the WordPress blog: IT Blagger 3.0 .

Changing Corporate Capabilities

Without exploration of these new territories, the new landscape, yesterday’s successful businesses risk irrelevance or worse. Perhaps they face the fate of the dodo.

The CFO philosophy described above, instructs us to combat this rapidly and wildly changing world with tools that are well-guarded, well tested, sensible and reasonable.


Unless the CFO is the 7th son of a 7th son, and the original hoochie coochie man in disguise – then I reckon I’ll pass and go with adventure and exploration.

Efficiency is NOT a strategic direction!

In General Mish-Mash on September 6, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Towards Strategic Repositioning

Note: This is an edited version of a paper prepared in July 2008. I have included it here because it is relevant other bits of mish that have recently been – or are about to be – mashed!

Setting the Scene 1 – McDonald’s

In 2003, McDonald’s announced losses of over $300m for the final quarter of 2002. It was the first time the company had resorted to red ink in its 48 year history.

The losses were the result of a drop in sales. Share prices plummeted. There were serious doubts about its future.

Despite having 30,000 restaurants in over 100 countries and more than 47 million customers a day, it had stagnated.

The pressure brought to bear on the company came from issues that had, in essence, changed its brand position.

The issues facing McDonald’s were simultaneously shrinking their market, their sales, their margins, and their brand equity. The issues included the challenge of obesity and especially childhood obesity, price wars with its main US competitors, anti-globalisation movements and, the killer for the fast food burger, a change in consumer habits.

Setting the Scene 2 – The A-League

In 2003, the game of soccer in Australia had reached such a nadir that there was a parliamentary enquiry into how it was administered.

Unlike McDonald’s, Soccer Australia had used exclusively red ink for its entire 27 year existence. The game was riddled with political and ethnic problems. In Australia it had low brand equity,  low attendances, and very dim prospects.

Yet it had control of the Australian franchise of the most popular sporting product on the planet.


These two scenarios, though carrying quite different antecedents resulted in very similar responses.

Someone had to make a strategic decision. The competing strategies were to either battle on or make fundamental change(s). In both cases the decision was to stop, pause, re-think, and completely re-shape their businesses.

In both instances a stake was placed in the ground. The stake represented a “point of no return” commitment to change.

While the resulting change fingered all aspects of these businesses operationally, there was much about the process that was marketing driven.

The NSW Licensed Club Industry – Circa 2008

In 2007-8 the NSW licensed club industry is operating under pressure.  Pressures are being applied from a variety of sources.

Changes in consumer behaviour are shrinking the size of the market for club products, increases in competition shrinks the market place even further, the current economic cycle and changes in some regulations are driving sales down.

Other regulations (smoking, harm minimisation) and the tax impost are driving costs up.

This operating environment hamstrings any ability to re-invest in the club business and leads to an inability to live up to the raison d’etre of many clubs.

Being unable to finance their reason for being leads to an inability to justify or support the “community benefit” defence against attacks.

The industry and its operators are on vicious cycle.  Their vulnerability as a target magnifies and is an easy mark for those intent on attacking 2 of the core products of our industry – gaming and alcohol. If community relevance is in doubt then so must be the “licence” to trade in the 2 core licensed products.

It is not pretty.

Responding to the Pressure

There seems to be 2 choices in responses to this pressure cooker:

  • Option 1 – battening down and trying to outlast the conditions
  • Option 2 – transforming our business model to take advantage of the prevailing conditions

Option 1 – Riding Through the Storm

Choosing to play the waiting game, reducing the size of our businesses while we wait,  assumes that the fundamental model of our business is right and the conditions we face are a temporary aberration.

It assumes the paradigms under which we are now operating are “in sync” with our normal environment and the current conditions will, at some time, settle back to that normalcy.

This is what we have been doing.

Our attention has been on battening down the hatches and getting ourselves lean, strong, and fit enough to emerge bruised but intact when the storm subsides.

This takes the form of our emphasis on operational efficiency and effectiveness.

Option 2 – Overcoming the Conditions Through Transformation

Choosing the second option assumes that our model, relative to the operating environment, has hit a systemic flaw and the conditions are a symptom of a deeper malaise.

It assumes the environment has shifted and that our paradigms need to change to accommodate that shift. That is:

“what was normal, is no longer”.

To counter this involves a strategic examination of the environment and how we connect and communicate within that environment.

It doesn’t assume that over time the “storm” will change but that we must change so that we take advantage of it.

Selecting this path is also to select a path that contains inherent risk and angst.

There is a third option. This involves taking the actions necessary to stave off the prevailing conditions while we critically examine and then shift the paradigm of our model. Essentially though, this option is merely the sensible, even necessary, method of approaching Option 2.

Cycles – Vicious or Virtuous

We are always in some type of cycle.

The question is whether the cycle is vicious – a slippery slide to undesirable destinations – or virtuous – a more difficult path but with attractive outcomes.

The indications are there that we are on a cycle that is vicious.

What we face is not a simple aberration but a systematic and predictable downward trend. There may be a coincidence of events causing magnification to some problems – a perfect storm type coincidence – but the signs are that many of the issues we face are here for the long haul.

In my opinion, there is one possibility for shifting the cycle from vicious to virtual – and that would be a major reform to gaming taxation. Such a shift would give us room to do what most successful businesses do – invest in ourselves.

Even if this happened, I think we would still need to ask whether it would represent a turning of the cycle or just a shift up the existing cycle. Any future stutter or stumble causing a quick slide downwards again.

We predicted much of what we face today. That, in itself, suggests that the conditions are not an aberration but part of some type of system.

Operational Effectiveness and Strategy

As an industry there appears to be very little movement on addressing any of the issues we face. Well, little movement beyond providing guidelines for governance, checklists for compliance and tools aimed at improving operational effectiveness.

Our communciations have been limited to trotting out facts and figures about the impacts we have on employment, community infrastructure and projects, welfare, sport, and charitable organisations.

As an operator, we are doing many of the things you’d expect – in summary we are:

  •  finding ways to cut our cloth so that we operate in a way that suits a contracted market situation.
  •  looking for ways to convince people that we are relevant to the their community
  • developing messages to try and counter the strident critics.
  • developing communications that will create a desire to visit us.
  • developing reporting mechanisms that tell us with ever-increasing accuracy how much more we need to cut, how much less there is to spend, and how long it will be before we expire if we don’t cut.

Despite my language, I do not mean, in any way, to diminish the importance of committing to and exploring ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operation.

However, it is important to understand that operational effectiveness is not strategy.

Paradoxically, for an industry to have efficiency as its primary focus, the end result is imitation and homogeneity … and the inevitable result is diminished returns.

We, our industry – indeed, probably much of enterprise – have allowed operational effectiveness to supplant strategy as the key driving force.

In our case strategy has been forced at gunpoint to get into the back seat.

We have recently been through and continue to exercise improvement to our practices that will increase our effectiveness. That has been, and continues to be, necessary – even vital.

But it is not sufficient.

There are worrying signs that strategy is seen as nothing more than a communications campaign. Strategy is pigeon-holed as a segment of the marketing function – a creative way of selling the things we have always done and continue to do. It is a thinking that is very dangerous.

The evidence for this?

  • promotions continue unabated and unchanged for lengthy periods
  • suggestions of change to product mix are met with horror
  • potential group initiatives beyond  group wide promotions are not supported, even undermined (eg standard of core membership benefits)
  • the expression, “our competitors are doing this so we should” is almost a mantra from some quarters.
  • price increases or reduced discounts are statements of sacrilege.
  • our Board becomes increasingly concerned about operational issues. They “sweat the small stuff”, so to speak.
  • severe reluctance to make choices

There is good reason for the existence of this evidence – I think.  It is endemic and systemic.

We have no well-defined strategic position that can be used to support a paradigm shift by our operational managers. We cannot engage our site managers from a central group strategic position because we cannot get that position to hold water – at the moment.

Further – the pursuit of operational effectiveness is at all times tangible, it is actionable, measurable and can be very re-assuring. It is easy for a focus on operational effectiveness to dominate the agenda at the expense of strategy.

Developing a Strategic Position.

Now is a great time to redress the balance between operational effectiveness and strategy. It may even be a necessary time.

It is time for us to stop, pause, re-think and re-shape – to place the stake in the ground.

While this process can be driven by marketing and financed by the marketing budget, it can only work if we collectively grab the stake and drive into the ground. We all need to commit to the process and its outcome(s), … whatever they may be!

Lightning strikes …

In Quick Mish-Mash on September 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

A dramatic snap …

It looks like the lightning struck the Eiffel Tower, but Bertrand Kulik, the amateur photographer who captured this moment, says the lightning bolt was behind the tower.


The power of simple arithmetic …

In General Mish-Mash, Quick Mish-Mash on September 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Just roaming around YouTube the other day, I came across this video from Albert Bartlett. Whoever posted it on YouTube gave it the title “The Most IMPORTANT video You’ll Ever See”. My immediate thought was that it would likely be rubbish. But then I saw the lead comment about the video:

2 million views for an old codger giving a lecture about arithmetic?
What’s going on?

Since that comment was made in June 2007, it is now at 2.9 million views.

Not gigantic in YouTube world but huge for the intersection of old codger world & arithmetic world.

The comment and the increasing number of views, attracted my attention and caused me to hit play.

It is a lecture, but it is not really about arithmetic. The title is:

Arithmetic, Population, & Energy

It is more about how we could apply simple arithmetic methods to examine the sustainability of our resources … and how to simply interpret the logic of statements made about sustainability and resource usage.

In total, the lecture is a little over an hour long and is broken into 8 parts. Unfortunately the parts aren’t really modular or self-contained. Once I started I just had to keep going. Many don’t – as can be determined by the viewing figures for subsequent parts.

Part 2 has had only around 750k views and Part 8 is slightly below 500k views.

So, if you start viewing it seems there is only about a 25% chance you’ll find it interesting enough to finish Part 1 and start Part 2. And only about 1 in 6 seem to make it through to Part 8.

So, don’t despair if it is not of interest. If Part 1 piques your interest here is the link to Part2. And from there you will easily find the rest.

Albert Bartlett is a Professor of Physics at University of Colorado, Boulder.