What my daughter deciding that we should be vegetarians reminded me about change

I deal with change on a daily basis, often in organisations where I am trying to drive it. Change can be a real challenge because people are not often big fans of it. For change to stick, there are generally 3 big things we should consider…

1. There needs to be a case for change

It is very tricky to get people to do something different if they don’t accept that there is something wrong with the way they are doing things currently. Change requires effort, and we are inherently lazy, so changing without a reason is not likely to work. In our case, my daughter (aged 8) had two good reasons.

Firstly, she believed that animals were frequently mistreated and secondly she understands that by reducing demand for red meat, we can influence the supply of red meat which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. She presented a good case for change.

2. You need to understand the risks and issues associated with the change

Change is not without risk or challenge, these must just be assessed to determine if the change is worth it. For us, we encountered two big challenges. Firstly, we have two celiacs in the family (if you don’t know what a celiac is, please do me a favour and look it up, consider if you might have celiac disease and respond accordingly. It is more common than people realise and severely underdiagnosed.)

So, two celiacs means we have to be meat free AND gluten free. That significantly raises the difficulty level for us. The second challenge is that my daughter advocating the change is not what one might call a “fan” of vegetables. If she wants to make this change, she is going to have to really commit to increasing the range of things she will eat.

3. There must be a viable or reasonable alternative

To encourage people to accept change or even embrace change, we need to provide a viable alternative. It’s no good highlighting a “burning platform” and not provide some solutions. We need the “as is” AND the “to be” to help stakeholders get involved. For our soon to be vegetarian family (two of whom can also not eat any gluten) we needed delicious and nutritious menu options. My youngest daughter (age 6) is proving to be the most difficult stakeholder to engage. No logic will prevail, and in our house we have a “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” policy when it comes to obstinate children. So we are planning menus that can hopefully tick all the boxes.

It’s ok if the “to be” doesn’t look exactly like you expected on Day 1 of the journey

I am not going to lie, I just threw this one in because we did not quite get to our desired outcome. Change is hard, we had a clear objective of eating a vegetarian diet. We had serious constraints of auto-immune disorders and fussy eaters that are prepared to whine for 3 hours straight. We are currently not eating red meat but have kept fish, free range eggs and dairy in the diet. So not quite our stated objectives, but certainly a long way to addressing the issues we were trying to resolve at the beginning of the journey.

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It is critical that we think critically

Firstly, personal context. I am not American. I am a former South African now living in Australia. I am not overly political, but have been following politics more closely recently.

My various social media feeds are rife with both sides (referring to left (Democrats) and right (Republicans) on the political spectrum) posting attacks on the other. What really gets to me are the fallacious arguments that get posted and what gets to me more is how people eat them up! A statement only needs to vaguely correlate to what someone already believes and they will pick it up an go full on Usain Bolt with it.

So here is a game you can play at home. Winners of the game get smarter! When you see someone post something that takes a side in a heated political issue : e.g. Gun rights in the USA, marriage equality in Australia, Trump’s capability as a president, Colin Kaepernik taking a knee during the anthem, anything related to Jacob Zuma etc, try to find the logical error being made in the statement. For extra bonus points, do it to the statement trying to reinforce the view point you already believe in.

This is an exercise in critical thinking. It is a defense mechanism against the deluge of pithy one liners thrown into the void of social media.

THINK FOR YOURSELF, QUESTION EVERYTHING.

I am not an expert at this, but I want to be much better. There are plenty of books on the topic, but this Wikipedia cheat sheet might give an insight into what I am talking about. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies)

Warning: Do not turn this into a drinking game as you may not survive.

Please add your own examples to comments below. Also, I would love it if you have examples that take the other side to comments posted. It is important to realise that this is not an attack on ‘left or right’ or ‘black or white’. This a defense against attacks on our intelligence, against fake news, against people pushing agendas poorly. If you have a good point, make them. If there is a genuine hole in your theory, accept that maybe you are wrong. If you think my guesses at the logical fallacy are wrong, please educate me. Like I said I am not an expert.

Example 1 : 

Here is an example that I saw on Facebook today. I think that this is either a red herring (specifically ad hominem / attacking the arguer not the argument) or ignoratio elenchi (missing the point). The poster is trying to draw ire to Colin Kaepernik for protesting that he (Colin) is oppressed. When in fact, Colin Kaepernik is protesting against wrongdoings against African-Americans in general. The fact that Colin is doing well for himself does not change the fact that other African Americans are not.

Example 2 :

After what happened in Las Vegas, the Gun Rights argument has obviously flared up again. I have seem forms of this argument pop up. I would guess this is an example of False Equivalency / False Analogy. Comparing spelling to gun deaths is just ridiculous.

Example 3 :

Whoever posted this is attributing a lot to Obama that they cannot conclusively prove. For example, gas prices alone exist in a global market where other sovereign states have a huge impact on supply. I would guess that this is “post hoc ergo propter hoc” – or basically correlation proves causation.

Example 4 :

I think the gender pay gap is an interesting one. My personal belief is that women are generally still treated poorly. But statistically, I think the gender pay gap is poorly reported. From the BBC’s More or Less (which I highly recommend http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07pjkj5) – basically the statistics are so varied and nuanced that you can make them say anything. TLDR – statistics need to be considered regarding part time / full time, qualifications, types of job etc… so this is I think an Ecological fallacy. Woman (in general) ARE paid less, but this not necessarily due to discrimination.

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An interaction with Virgin Australia had me thinking about process improvement

Before we begin let’s be clear: I am a big fan of Virgin Australia, racking up about 100 flights per year. It’s fair to say that I have quite a lot of interaction with them.

While I have been fortunate to fly business class quite often, only once have I purchased a business class ticket. The rest of the time I have upgraded using Velocity (Virgin’s loyalty program) points.

A new feature was introduced where if no points upgrades were available, you could apply to be on the waiting list. Earlier this year, I tested this waiting list functionality and did not receive the upgrade yet the flight I was on still had four business class seats.

I am not precious about flying “cattle class”. It interested me more that the company could have a process and it (seemed to me) that it did not work.

Before we delve in to that, let’s consider why this process exists in the first place: Loyalty points come with their own accounting rules. According to the notes in the 2015 Virgin Australia financial statements : “The obligation to provide awards to members is accounted for by deferring a portion of the flight ticket sales revenue.”

Basically, a liability is created on the balance sheet and when the points are used the liability is reduced and released as revenue in the income statement. So this process not executing properly means that the liability does not get adjusted and revenue is not released.

I know that one redeemed seat is hardly going to make that much of a difference but at3,000 flights per week it hardly seems worth passing up.  The liability on Virgin Australia’s balance sheet for flight related loyalty points was $632 million as at June 2015, up from $552 million the year before. If rectifying this process captures on average one additional upgrade per flight, at roughly 5,000 points for an upgrade, Virgin Australia can burn through 15 million points per week. Assuming a point value of $0.01 per point that is $7.2m a year of additional revenue for a little process fix. (Granted with no cash flow impact as the money has already been received.)

When I noted my observation of the four available seats to the team at Virgin Australia (not via any official channel, simply through Twitter) they politely explained why the upgrade may not have been granted and provided me with a link to the terms and conditions.

The social media team response was prompt, polite and correct. But I don’t know if anyone then thought “Maybe this is something we should look in to?”, in much the same manner as I have done in this post.

Can we learn anything from this?

There are a few things I have learned through this and I wonder if you agree with me :

  • Just because a process exists does not mean it is working well.
  • People engaging with customers should have a directive (and the relevant training / capability) not to merely placate customers, but consider the potential value of the feedback that they provide (not saying my idea is a winner or that nothing was done with the situation, but it could warrant a second look).
  • Processes introduced in businesses do not always work as intended, perhaps due to poor design or perhaps they interact with many other parts of that business (In this case : reward seats, group bookings, other airlines). It might be worth taking a step back and asking the question : “Is this working as intended?” or “Can this be improved?”

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Guard yourself against self inflicted propaganda

This is a political post AND it isn’t. This is more about me reminding myself to always challenge my own thinking. I think it will help me and I hope it will help you.

We are the media now. We are our own media! We don’t need you.

This is a quote from the linked news article. It doesn’t matter that this happened at a Trump rally, it could have been anywhere.

Basically, the person in the article has lost faith in mainstream media. Partly, I imagine because they have lost faith in the quality of journalism and partly because people don’t like being confronted with views that don’t align with their own.

So they opt out. Choosing their own media.

But as we become ever more selective, reading news from personally cultivated blogs, friends Facebook feeds and following links from trusted sources – do we not run the danger of exposing ourselves only to commentary that aligns with our existing beliefs?

If I am (say) pro-Jacob Zuma, and I only read Gupta owned media, read the press releases by the ANC and refuse to read anything that sullies his name (because it makes me angry or the people that write it “don’t know what they are talking about”), I may firmly believe the man is the patron saint of Awesome. Rightly so, I have seen no evidence to the contrary! I will have effectively carried out a brilliant propaganda campaign : self-inflicted ignorance.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech does nothing to protect us from ignorance if we choose to listen only to people who say things that we agree with.

This is the real world equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and screaming “NANANANANANANA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU” whenever someone says something I don’t like.

In an effort to not become ignorant (or perhaps not become MORE ignorant), I will try to commit to looking at more that one side of the important stories. And I love reading people’s posts on Facebook who have different opinions to me, because if you disagree with me and I listen to you….I just might learn something.

The guy in the article may have discovered a whole country he didn’t even know existed.

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Do you internal controls work, or do you just think they do?

There is a hotel I stay at regularly in Sydney. The elevator requires that a guest use a room key to be able to get to the desired floor.

This is a fairly common access control in many office and residential buildings. It is a preventative measure to make sure only the people who are authorised may access the appropriate floor.

In the hotel in question however, every guest floor can be accessed via the internal stairs, which are accessible from the foyer. Not the fire escape stairs, the regular (open to public walking in off the street but quite far away from the front desk) stairs.

This means two things :

  1. If they spent any money to get the access control feature in the lift it was a waste of money and
  2. There is no access control to the guest floors (even though the hotel may think that there is)

This happens in businesses all the time. Internal controls are made redundant over time or don’t work to mitigate the intended risk due to poor design.

How should we respond?

There are a number of things an organisation could do to try to prevent this from happening, but here are a few suggestions :

  • Have a proper risk framework in place and evaluate if effective controls are in place to mitigate against the unacceptable risks (this top down approach makes sure your big risks are covered as opposed to checking if your in place controls are working).
  • Foster a culture with your employees that “doing something because we have always done it” is not an acceptable way to do business.
  • Check that your in place controls are working as expected and mitigating the risks as they intended to.
  • Consider whether the cost of maintaining a control is more expensive than the risk you are trying to avoid (not just the cost of the risk, the probability of that risk occurring x the cost of the risk eventuating)

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Rat bounty hunters : Incentives and the law of unintended consequences

Peshawar in Pakistan’s north west has a big rat problem. The problem is big and, at 30cms long, the rats are big too. In order to try to control the situation, a bounty has been set on rats, ranging from 25 to 300 rupees.

An incentive has been created. Much like many companies may try to incentivise sales staff to meet certain targets. The problem with incentives is that, in my experience, if they are not well designed they may result in the exact opposite of what you were hoping to achieve.

Take the rat example. Rats have a very short gestational period, just over 20 days. How long before people are breeding rats in order to kill them in order to collect the bounty? Net effect = more rats.

Now that may seem ludicrous to you (and rat-haters in general) but I am sure you would agree that this incentive may encourage that. And a similar arrangement has done so in the past – 1902 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Bounties were offered on rats tails. At first the population declined but then the rat trappers realised if they simply chop the tail off and release the rat, the population would increase and so would their income.

There are a number of documented examples and the occurrence of such an incentive and the subsequent unintended consequence even has a name – “the cobra effect” due to a similar program involving venomous snakes in India.

Not only does the idea in Pakistan seem like it may be prone to abuse, history has shown on multiple occasions that incentives like this are abused.

Why does this happen?

I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that those that set policies / controls / incentives are not the same as those that have to live by them. A different mentality is present when setting the policy…the curse of the reasonable man. A reasonable man wouldn’t breed more rats just to kill them or cut off their tails to earn 25 rupees, would they?

What does it mean for my business?

When creating any kind of incentive, put yourself in the shoes of the person operating under that incentive. What could you possibly do to earn more money over time, that would cause you to act against the interests of the company? Would you delay signing on customers? Would you sell unprofitable products? Would you take large losses in one year in exchange for better returns in another? How can I balance the KPIs required to achieve the incentive so that it encourages behaviour that is beneficial for both parties?

I hope I have encouraged you to pause and think before offering incentives to staff. Not that you shouldn’t offer an incentive, but that it should be designed to avoid those unintended consequences.

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Lessons from sport : Sunset sailing in Sydney

I recently had the pleasure of competing in a race around Sydney Harbour on board Southern Excellence II, a 70 ft yacht that has competed in the Sydney to Hobart a few times (pictured above).

I was part of a group that fulfilled the role of ballast in this particular endeavour, our chief responsibilities included not being in the way and not spilling beer on the deck, jobs we executed brilliantly. In a related note, I now truly appreciate what it means to swear like a sailor.

We didn’t win (in fact, we came dead last in our division), but I am a firm believer that when you lose, don’t lose the lesson. Here are the lessons I learnt on a beautiful evening on Sydney Harbour, with sailors cursing all around :

1. Starting can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be perfect

Sailing must have one of the most challenging starting sequences in sport. Every boat must time their approach to the starting line and not cross it before the official time. This involves circling around the harbour and positioning yourselves with a good run up to line. Cross too early and you have to circle around and go over the line again. The boats that got this right had an immediate advantage at the beginning but it did not mean that they had won the race.

Starting is important. Start too soon and it may cost you dearly, start too late and you give the competition a free head start. The most important thing thought is that you HAVE to start. If you don’t start (or launch or ship or open the doors), you can’t finish and you certainly can’t win. 

2. Just because you are in front does not mean you will stay there

There was one particular boat I desperately wanted to beat. They had cut us off earlier, apparently breaking some right of way rule which no-one could easily explain (but did introduce me to the previously mentioned swearing). I didn’t need to know the finer points. We were cut off and I had boat rage. We lead them for most of the race but a poor course selection meant that we had to tack twice before rounding one of the last buoys. That cost us precious time we could not make up and they ended up beating us by 24 seconds (on an hour long race).

If you are in the lead (or have majority of the market share or possess game changing IP), don’t get comfortable. There are so many things outside of our control that change the situation very quickly. Even things inside our control may be executed better by the competition. 

3. A team is better than a group of talented individuals

Our crew on this race had not yet raced together before. Individually, they were all very experienced sailors but they had not developed that almost sixth sense that a well drilled team have. Even though they had an exceptional vessel at their disposal, they were unable to coax the speed needed to secure a higher finish.

This reminded of Peter Drucker’s famous statement – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This team had a strategy and they were all competent but there was no culture.

It is critical to have a plan, but if the team can’t implement it then what is the point? A team that works well together can outperform a group of stars that do not work well together. 

In the end, we made it back safely to dry land. The sting of losing softened by the the glorious sunset, casting the Harbour Bridge and Opera House as stunning silhouettes.

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