Honor Among Thieves: A Review

March 23rd, 2015

Edges are interesting places. Unpredictable stuff happens there. Much of what many of us take for granted every day – belonging, security, understanding – can be missing, or at least fleeting.

61Jhq52WqYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his latest book, the second in a trilogy, J. explores these themes through the eyes and experiences of humanitarian workers and the people they are striving to help. Most of his protagonists live at the edges – between one place and another, never really belonging, often knowing that there’s something else, just out of reach, even if they don’t know what that something else might be.

J. weaves themes about the reality of humanitarian work into the story, giving the reader rare insights. Set in Cambodia and Washington, DC, the story evolves around Mary-Anne, whom we met in the first of the trilogy Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. In fact, we met Mary-Anne in the prequel, Disastrous Passion – a romance set in aftermath of a Haiti earthquake. The books track Mary-Anne’s journey at many levels – her growth as a person, her understanding of her place in the world, her increasing awareness, and sometimes dismay, of what it means to work ‘in aid’.

The title of this book is telling: it explores the sometimes muddy ethics and behaviours that underpin humanitarian decisions, the trade-offs and the sacrifices, the wins and the losses, the idealism and the pragmatism. J. does this very well indeed, weaving the stories of different characters to explore many of the inter-relationships and experiences that make up the ‘big’ picture of humanitarian work. Occasionally, he slips into the territory of too much humanitarian jargon and too much detail, but this is a small quibble in a thoroughly entertaining, and believable book.

J. knows his stuff too. He has lived and worked in the countries in which the book is set, he knows what it’s like to juggle the demands of a humanitarian career, he knows what it’s like to sit through endless ‘very important meetings’, to visit places many of us have only heard of, to travel endless miles in dodgy vehicles, to talk with people who simply want a chance to make the most of their lives. He’s not alone. There are many, many people who will recognise themselves in this book, and the themes it explores. What sets J. apart is his ability to share these experiences with those of us who are not humanitarian workers, who think we know how it ‘should’ or ‘could’ be done, who have opinions based on good intentions and little awareness.

This book will be widely read by those in the industry. It should be read by everyone who proffers an opinion about aid, NGOs, and humanitarian workers. It might just open some eyes, and hearts. Get it from Amazon

Language, please!

February 4th, 2015

It’s not what you’re thinking. I have no problem with bad language, swearing, cussing. Fuck no. My friend Kay Scorah wrote a brilliant piece recently about all those words you probably shouldn’t be using. As they say, be warned, strong language – and now go read it. I’ll wait.

Johnnie Moore found this gem too on the Ad Contrarian website. I couldn’t watch the video to the end. I was done after about a minute. Go have a look. It’s about McDonald’s philosophies, I think. I couldn’t get past the jargon and cliches.

Jargon. Cliches. Rhetoric. Weasel words. Obfucations.

I’m done with them.

Don’t tell me you’re a thought leader. I don’t want to hear about your innovation incubator. I don’t believe the answer to all your problems at work are to clarify roles and responsibilities. I certainly don’t care about your open and transparent dialogue. Business as usual is so overused it has its own acronym.

I want to hear plain language. Solid words. Anything ending with ‘..ion’ is probably an abstraction. Sounds fancy. Means not much.


Burlesque, red dust, sexual and mental health, fun, connection – and cocktails!

December 7th, 2014

photo-2While I’m on about inspiring, how about this? The Channel Country Ladies Day.

Also on ABC’s Landline. You can watch it here.

Women who live and work in isolated communities and properties in rural Queensland come together for a girls’ weekend. There’s everything you’d expect from a girls’ weekend: pampering, cocktails, talking, eating, shopping – and a whole lot more: burlesque dancing, body painting, talks about sexual and mental health. Plus I get an excuse to use a pic of an espresso martini in a blog post.

I love the idea of this.

I love how it’s a bit edgy.

All that’s missing is some improv!

The power in performance

December 7th, 2014

josh01Josh Arnold is a country music singer, songwriter and seemingly all-round good Aussie bloke. His story was featured on Landline – an ABC program that features stories of Australian agriculture, and rural life. You can watch it here. 

He brings music into classrooms – at all levels – helping kids connect to music, gain confidence, write songs that are relevant to them, and to perform. He’s developed the Small Town Culture workshops to celebrate small town culture. There’s even a Small Town Culture YouTube channel.

How great is it that kids, in school, are learning about music, about celebrating their local lives, and about performing?


Where ‘YES!’ leads

November 18th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly mornings are not my best time. People I used to work with joked that no-one should talk to me before 10 am. Bit rough, I reckon. So you will understand that dragging myself out of bed at 5 am to attend breakfast meetings in Melbourne, was, well, a touch out of character (this included about 2 hours’ of travel). There was a group called the Creative Performance Exchange hosting events each month that were edgy, different and intriguing. Unsurprisingly, it also attracted some very interesting people. Fast forward a couple of years and four of us who met at these meetings remain good friends. Despite different backgrounds and trajectories, we all find ourselves in a similar space right now – specifically interested in new and different ways of doing business. We’re all enthusiastic about games in their myriad forms: physical games, on-line games, improvisational games, participatory games, serious games, drinking games. Okay, maybe not drinking games…

Viv, Nicky, Marigo, LeeSaying yes to coffee, years ago, after a CPX gathering has led to this: a collaborative offering of a half-day experiential games event in Melbourne. That’s the four of us who will be hosting the event in the picture.

Will you say ‘YES’?

Games hold huge potential – for engagement, for tackling undiscussibles, for creating, designing, innovating, all while having fun. Alexander Kjerulf has been an advocate for happiness at work for a long time. And has built a successful business around just that.

Pablo Saurez works in the serious world of humanitarian aid. He uses games to ‘wake people up’ and to make some of the complexity around humanitarian decision-making more accessible. He describes it as moving from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Ah-ha!’

Don’t take our word though, or their word.

Come and find out for yourself what all the fuss is about games in business.

Thursday, December 11th. Book here.

Birdwatching from my desk

November 18th, 2014

Grey FantailGlancing just a little to my left of my computer screen, I can see, through my office window, one of the bird baths in our garden. It is an endless source of joy for me.

This morning I saw four different species using the bath at the same time: Grey Fantails, Red-browed Finches, Brown Thornbills and another unidentified SBB (small brown bird). When the New Holland Honeyeaters come to the bath, they frighten all the others away. They often come in raucus groups, all sitting on the edge chittering away madly and diving into the water. The much larger Red-wattle Bird visits alone, perches on the edge, looking around and then dives in sideways for a single dip and flies away. It will return a few times, repeating the procedure.

Crimson RosellasThe Crimson Rosellas nearly always visit in pairs or family groups. There seems to be a hierarchy. The highest ranking bird will bathe first while the others hang around calling and waiting their turn. The Blue Wrens visit whenever they want, and when the Magpies decide to splash vigourously in the birdbath, it quickly empties of water. Nothing compares to the sound of the Grey Shrike-thrush as it calls from the nearby trees. And if the Grey Butcherbird decides to visit, with it’s clear, melodious call, and treacherous beak and murderous intent, all the other birds take cover.

Simple pleasures.

Why I broke up with TED

October 19th, 2014

I’ve broken up with TED.

We had a short, but intense relationship. We never met face-to-face. We’d meet on-line. I devoured much of what TED said. I became a TED Associate. I’d receive gifts in the mail – books that I would never have read otherwise, and games. I used to be so delighted when TED’s gifts arrived. TED knew stuff. Lots of stuff. I couldn’t get enough of TED.

I dallied with TED’s offshoot TEDx. It didn’t end well. I felt alone, like an outsider. There were a few moments of “Wow, what a great story!” but in the end it wasn’t enough. Eventually I realised I was just one of many. TED was one, talking to many. I want, and need, more than that.

I still listen to TED occasionally. It’s nice to reminisce. TED seems to be doing just fine without me.


The cause, and solution, to all our problems

October 19th, 2014

Tin Can telephoneIt’s inevitable. In every movement, organisation, group, and relationship the villain is often communication. And the saviour.

“The problem is communication.”

“The solution to our problem is better communications.”

I hear variations of these all the time. Hell, I’ve even said it myself.

It means something different every time. While the situation, the participants, and the needs vary, what  I think sits behind the communications paradox is this.

Communications becomes a proxy for relationships. It’s easier to blame ‘communications’, especially if someone else is responsible, than acknowledge an underlying cause. It takes time, effort, and some vulnerability, to build relationships, to admit there’s stuff you don’t know, to listen to a diversity of views, and to be changed by the people you work with. It’s probably not on anyone’s performance plan or stated as a KPI.

Work towards better communications. Yes. And don’t forget better relationships as well.

How to do more of what works

October 15th, 2014

Funny how things come together sometimes – an online course about decision-making in complexity and uncertainty, a book about being an astronaut, a workshop on social labs, and an exhibition on making animated movies. I didn’t plan it this way, it just happened, and now I have something to write about.

I’m reading Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. If you don’t know who Chris Hadfield is he’s a Canadian astronaut who played a modified guitar and sang Rocket Man while orbiting the Earth on the MIR space station.

The gist of his book is to ‘be ready’. He maintains that sometimes, the things we want don’t always happen, but if they do, it’s good to be ready. It enables us to take advantage of good planning, serendipity, the unexpected and luck.

Putting humans into space requires good planning. In fact it requires more than that, it requires meticulous, detailed planning and implementation. Any stuff-ups could result in disaster and loss of life.

Another book I’m reading is The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges by Zaid Hassan. I went to a workshop hosted by Zaid and he said this: “There are some common characteristics of complex systems: they are emergent and inherently unpredictable; there’s lots and lots of information, making it hard, if not impossible to keep up with all of the information available; and adaptation is needed, we change our behaviour based on emergence and information.” Much of my work is in this realm – I’ve yet to work with astronauts, and I’m ready if they ever come calling! The environment, natural resources, poverty, human rights – these are all complex, and demand the best we can give. Our response to the uncertainty we face is to plan. But we can’t plan fast enough – the situation has changed even before the ink has dried, new information is coming at us faster than we could hope to absorb it.

Should we throw away the plan? Probably not. Though I do quite like that idea. We might want to take a leaf out of the animator’s book instead. What a fabulous, inspiring exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne: Dreamworks Animation. They come up with ideas for a character and then make them, first as a drawing, then in clay, then in wood. Each iteration reveals something new about what works and what doesn’t.  Then there’s storyboarding – telling the story with pictures, each board a minute detail, some survive, many don’t, most change. Again they are physical. There was 100,000 A5 storyboards for the original Kung Fu Panda movie (2008).

If you’re doing something complicated, like building a bridge or sending humans into space, plan carefully. Please.

In this complex, changing, uncertain world the biggest killer to innovation, change, creativity, and maybe even success is the attitude of business as usual and “we’ve always done it this way.” While you’ve been doing things the way you’ve always done them, the world has changed. Try this instead – inspired by astronauts, animators and the Social Labs revolution!

If you’re doing something complex, like community engagement or saving the planet, be ready. Be ready for what might emerge, for the unexpected. Be ready, and flexible enough, to take advantage of serendipity, coincidence and opportunities. Learn stuff. Even if you think you’ll never get a chance to use it. Prototype. Talk about ideas, with anyone who will listen, write them down, AND try them out, see if they survive contact with the real world. If the idea sucks you’ll find out sooner rather than later, before you have invested too much, then you can try another idea. Do more of what works. Stop doing what doesn’t work to make room for more experimentation to find more of what works.



Cognitive biases in decision-making

September 30th, 2014

Wow. Who knew there were so many cognitive biases?. This article summarises them nicely.

Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in a certain way.

Raises lots of questions about working with groups, don’t you think?