Turning Risks into Products and Services

world risks report

Anyone looking for ideas for new products and services need look no further than the World Economic Forum, Global Risks Report. Each year a group of experts get together and work out which risks are the most threatening to our existence.

Once upon a time it was pestilence, plague, the weather and other natural disasters such as tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes. They have not gone away, but some very clever people have found solutions to these problems, and turned them into business opportunities.

The first modern sewage systems owe their existence to cholera outbreaks in the 1830s, 1840s amd 1850s in London, United Kingdom that killed tens of thousands, as well as the Great Stink of 1858 which resulted from the overpowering smell of excrement in the Thames River. A huge underground network of sewers was built under the city to pipe it away. Later other European cities followed suit, as did cities in Northern America. Today sewage is a trillion dollar business world-wide.

Safe water supplies using chlorination really only got going in 1905, after a typhoid outbreak in Lincoln, England. The first US installation was Boonton, New Jersey in 1908. Another trillion dollar business.

Until the 1800s, millions of people every year died from infections, most of then preventable deaths. It was only when we realized that germs were the basis of disease and that antibiotics such as penicillin could kill them, that most of us began to survive, not one, but multiple infections, routinely.  We have Pasteur, Lister, Fleming and Florey to thank for these discoveries. Sadly, millions in developing countries still die from diseases every year that are preventable in the west. Yet another trillion dollar business. However, our war on germs has caused some bugs to mutate and develop resistance. Think golden staff and TB.

Here’s a list of the top 31 risks according to the 2014 Global Risks Report, and an image from the report (above) which shows the interdependencies between the risks, and how they can impact each other:

  • Fiscal crises in key economies
  • Failure of a major financial mechanism or institution
  • Liquidity crises
  • Structurally high unemployment/underemployment
  • Oil-price shock to the global economy
  • Failure/shortfall of critical infrastructure
  • Decline of importance of the US dollar as a major  currency
  • Greater incidence of extreme weather events  (e.g. floods, storms, fires)
  • Greater incidence of natural catastrophes  (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions,  geomagnetic storms)
  • Greater incidence of man-made environmental catastrophes (e.g. oil spills, nuclear accidents)
  • Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (land and ocean)
  • Water crises
  • Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Global governance failure
  • Political collapse of a nation of geopolitical importance
  • Increasing corruption
  • Major escalation in organized crime and illicit trade
  • Large-scale terrorist attacks
  • Deployment of weapons of mass destruction
  • Violent inter-state conflict with regional consequences
  • Escalation of economic and resource nationalization
  • Food crises
  • Pandemic outbreak
  • Unmanageable burden of chronic disease
  • Severe income disparity
  • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Mismanaged urbanization (e.g. planning failures, inadequate infrastructure and supply chains)
  • Profound political and social instability
  • Breakdown of critical information infrastructure and networks
  • Escalation in large-scale cyber attacks
  • Massive incident of data fraud/theft

If you take a close look at the kinds of dangers we now most fear the most, they seem to be breakdowns/failures in the systems we humans have created. They are also mostly in the realm of governance. In the past governance has been the responsibility of our political leaders. And as any avid student of systems thinking will tell you, governance innovation, or the ability to redesign and influence the adoption of the rules of the system, is much more powerful than either product or service innovation.

Here’s a workshop to think about an opportunity creation approach to risk:


1. Brainstorm a list of risks that you, your community or your business face in a normal year. An abnormal year.
2. Choose 5-6 of the most likely or risky events with the potential for the most serious consequence for you, your community or business, and estimate the likely impact, damage etc.
3. Thinking about the 5-6 most damaging, chaotic or disruptive risky events, what if any solutions (technology, services, redundancy, forecasting, early warning, rapid response etc.) are easily or readily available to you. Make a list of the risks and how you can mitigate/reduce or bounce back easily.
4. Thinking about the risks that you cant easily resolve, especially those that have rapid knock on (chaotic effects) what could you do differently to deal with those risky events? What new disciplines might you explore for new and better solutions, or what multiple disciplines and new knowledge from those disciplines could you bring together to deal with the risk in a new way?
5. Thinking about the World Economic Forum Risks Report list of risks, how could you, your business or your community use its expertise/new knowledge/experience to prevent, mitigate, or rapidly respond to/damp down the effects of a risk, and turn it into a product or service for others to buy.
6. Whats a problem/issues you are experiencing in your community which has defied all efforts to make an improvement? In what ways might you be able to deal with this differently and become an expert in its resolution, then supply that service to other organizations or communities?



Fair and Reasonable

US dollar

As a visitor to the USA, I have often been puzzled at how US businesses both large and small are unable to see the folly of paying wages that are insufficient for people to support themselves and their families.

Some Americans have to work two or three jobs just to get by, or supplement their inadequate earnings with food stamps or donations from charitable institutions. Some 73 per cent of Americans enrolled in major public benefit programs are from working families according to research. An estimated half (52%) of front line staff of fast-food establishments are on support.

Every time a wage rise is proposed, there is the usual gnashing of teeth, and wails of complaint that the “sky will fall in”. It’s a case of “every man or woman for themselves.”

Some argue that if employers were required to pay a higher minimum wage they would not be able to compete successfully with others. But this is false logic, because if every other employer has to pay the same minimum wages, then we would have a “level playing field.”

Some on the employer side, argue that minimum wages reduce employment. However, numerous studies suggest otherwise, although there is some evidence that minimum wages may have a small impact on employment of young people entering the workforce

But to an Australian, who grew up in a culture where every year there is a legal determination of what should constitute a Basic Wage, it seems mean-spirited and unfair.

From a systems perspective, one of the frameworks we at Maverick & Boutique use to examine the effectiveness of strategy, the clear purpose of the Australian system is to ensure “a living wage” for all, so that the whole system benefits. The clear purpose of the US system is to minimize the expenses of the employer rather than adequately compensate the employee, kind of half-way towards expecting people to work for free.

Not so the Australian system, where the principles of “reasonableness and fairness” are enshrined in the annual minimum wage setting ritual, where employers, employees and the Federal Government argue their case for an increase or not.

It’s been happening ever since the 1907 judgement against agricultural machinery manufacturer, H.V. Mckay.

The judgement wisely says this:

“The remuneration could safely have been left to the usual, but unequal contest, “the higgling of the market”, with the pressure for bread on one side, and the pressure for profits on the other.”

“The standard of “fair and reasonable” must be something else; and I cannot think of any other standard appropriate than the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilized community.”

“I have invited counsel and all concerned to suggest any other standard and they have been unable to do so.”

“If A lets B have the use of one of his horses, on the grounds that he gives them fair and reasonable treatment, I have no doubt it is Bs duty to give them food and water and such shelter and rest as they need.”

Australia did not become a third world country by adopting the minimum wage. Instead, our country ranks as one of the most successful in the world, economically and socially. Here are some of Australia’s rankings (Wikipedia, 2015):

* CIA World Factbook, life expectancy, 2008: No. 6 in the world
* Economist Intelligence Unit, Prosperity Index, 2008: No. 1
* The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal, Index of Economic Freedom, 2008: No. 4
* World Bank, Ease of Doing Business Index, 2009: No. 9
* United Nations, Education Index, 2008: No. 1
* World Economic Forum, Soundness of Banks, 2009: No. 2

The Australian minimum wage of $16.87 per hour far exceeds the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, even when the exchange rate of $US1.00 = $A0.77 is taken into account. It is the epitome of fairness and reasonableness, at least for the moment. And the sky has not fallen in.

Here’s a workshop to think about these issues:


1. How many hours a week should you work: Thinking about your own circumstances, how many hours a week should you be expected to work to earn enough to live comfortably on your own, with a partner, or with a family?
2. What expenses should your pay cover: Thinking about your own circumstances, what should a normal week’s worth of work pay for? Think about all the kinds of expenses that you must consider in this day and age.
3. Under what circumstances, if any, is it OK for an employer to pay you less for a full week’s worth of work, than what it costs to live comfortably?
4. Over the past 20 years the minimum wage has declined in value: How did this happen? Who let it happen? What
5. Social costs of the current system: Imagine for a moment that are a sole earner, with several children, maybe toddlers, maybe teens. You earn the minimum wage, which requires you to have two jobs to make enough money to keep your family in food and a roof over their heads. What are the consequences of this for you and your family? Think about travel time, working hours, time you leave for work, time you arrive home, what the children do during the day, during the evening, your social life, your expenses, what you cant afford….
6. Purpose of the system: In an ideal world, what might be a more powerful approach to setting the minimum wages that people are paid and making sure they keep up with rising costs? Should the US continue to leave it up to the market? Or a gridlocked congress? Or should there be another system independent of politics/the market to weigh what’s best for everyone? Suggest some new and better alternatives.

Beyond Lean: Optimal ways to Eliminate Waste


What was originally known as the Toyota Production System (TPS) has evolved into a management philosophy and set of production practices that focuses on the use of resources to create value that a customer is willing to pay for.

As Toyota became more successful around the world, interest in their processes spread. Their set of tools, now know as Lean production or just Lean, were developed to ferret out and eliminate wastes, or Muda.

Basic Lean Workshop

Here’s a set of questions to help you facilitate a workshop to start thinking about ways to reduce the original seven kinds of Muda/waste:

  1. Transportation: In what ways are there unnecessary (non-value added) movement of parts, materials, or information between processes in the system?
  2. Waiting: In what ways are people or parts, systems or facilities idle – waiting for a work cycle to be completed?
  3. Overproduction: In what ways are we producing sooner, faster or in greater quantities than the customer is demanding?
  4. Defects: How and when does the process result in anything that the customer would deem unacceptable?
  5. Inventory: What, if any raw materials, work-in-progress (WIP) or finished goods do NOT have value added to them?
  6. Movement: What, if any, excessive movement of materials, people, equipment and goods occur within a processing step?
  7. Extra Processing: What extra work is performed beyond the standard required by the customer?
  8. Engagement: In what ways, are people disengaged in the process that has an unnecessary impact on the system?

Later on, new wastes were added to the list, including the waste of unused human talent, and wastes that for the time-being are necessary to enable the production system to function, but which can ultimately be designed out of the system. Here are two more questions to consider:

  1. Focus: Which wastes (Muda 1) are unnecessary, that you might eliminate first, or wastes (Muda 2) that are non-value-added but necessary for the system to function which you can minimize until you can eliminate them?
  2. Capacities/passions: In what ways are we under-utilizing people’s capabilities, interests and passions to achieve a synergistic result?

But that’s not all. When production and service delivery systems are considered from a complex adaptive systems perspective, the approach that we at Maverick & Boutique have developed, there are at least five extra Muda to be considered, which offer even “more bangs for the buck” because they involve thinking about systems from the points of highest leverage (Meadows Institute, 2015).

Sub-optimal system transformations: What Lean does not seem to take into account are the transformational shifts that occur in the socio-technological system, which present opportunities for the elimination of wastes. These wastes become apparent when you start to think of production/consumption as a complex adaptive system.

If you adopt a linear perspective to production/consumption rather than a complex adaptive systems perspective, it is quite possible you will not be able to recognize the large scale periodic transformations of the socio-technological system, that keep arriving with ever shorter times-scales.

New technologies, and the systems that support them, come along every so often and largely displace, one or more existing products – best described back in the 1980s by Richard Foster, a former vice-president of McKinsey, in his book, The Attackers Advantage. As each new disruptive technology emerges, after an often clunky start, they race up the experience curve and often achieve productivity gains measured in the hundreds or thousands of percent. Think containerization, the motor car, digital photography, the iPhone, Amazon and the radial tire. At these transitions, the structure of the system changes, not just the technology, but the production and distribution methods, skills required and the theories/models that underpin their development.

The productivity gap between the emerging product system and the previous product system is waste/Muda.

Inadequate Conception of Risks and Solutions: Anyone who works in the risk management world will tell you that occasionally black swans and unknown unknowns or Unk Unks come along to cause major problems. Black swans are events we can imagine, but have never seen before. Unk Unks are not ever on our radar. Think events such as the Japanese tsunami which swept straight over the sea walls, the missing MH370 777, the BP Gulf blow-out which was not supposed to happen, and rise of the Caliphate in the Middle East instead of the Arab Spring. All of these are wastes, sub-optimal expressions of value that the customer does not want to pay for.

We get to understand these possibilities by seriously considering a wider range of models/theories from a broader range of experts, who can help us develop a more robust model of the system. Robust Models, says Conant, one of the father’s of complexity theory, are essential to being able to exercise control over a system. If we are still thinking linear and our competitors are thinking ecology, then we are sure to lose.

Inappropriate Scale of the Tools we Use: The use of tools and skills that are inappropriate to the scale of the problem or opportunity is also a source of waste. For example:

  • Expecting a bureaucracy to invent new products.
  • The use of mortars, tanks and fighter planes to develop a better relationship your next door neighbor creates a huge gap in customer satisfaction.
  • Using a sledge hammer to drive home a nail.

Not Preparing for the Future: The new kid on the block is anticipatory awareness. Amazon has perfected, and Big Data is trying to get its head around this idea. Amazon ships products to warehouses near you in anticipation that you (or others) will buy them within a statistically predictable window of time, thereby reducing the time the goods are kept in stock or out for delivery, and reducing waste even further. And although Big Data is trying to do something similar, the data merely confirms the hypothesis. You still need humans to figure out what new models/theories are emerging, and using an out-of-date model to run your organization costs time, which costs money. The difference between a successful and unsuccessful project can easily be the length of time you need to borrow the money. Too long and the cost of servicing the debt becomes a millstone around the project’s neck, which can quickly escalate into seriously expensive Muda.

Lean+ Workshop

Here are some additional workshop questions that help identify the wastes that the original process did not uncover:

  1. Optimal Wise Application of knowledge: How well are we achieving the wise application of knowledge for the entire system, e.g. inadequate pay for staff, negative impact on the environment, resulting in costs to the consumer after use e.g. disposal of hazardous chemicals or remediation of old mine/factory sites, which are paid for by all
  2. Transformation between paradigms: In what ways are we failing to transform all aspects of a system (roles, rules, tools, relationships, culture), so it continues to operate sub-optimally e.g. embedding old coordination, leadership, decision, learning models in a new technology/production system or product/service
  3. Robust model of the system: In what ways do we have an inadequate model of the system by leaving out black swan/unknown unknowns, trans-disciplinary learning features, etc. especially for early stage products; missing out on efficiency/productivity gains by regarding systems as a network, rather than an ecology
  4. Appropriate Scale: In what ways is the production/distribution system unable to adapt to changes in scale required, i.e. production ramp up/ramp down, raw materials shortages, natural disasters e.g. tsunami, hurricane
  5. Anticipatory awareness: In what ways are we not getting a solution to the customer fast enough so the NPV (net present value) is optimal and there is little or no waste due to capital servicing?

Interaction and Intervention Innovation

intraction Innovation

Meet Interaction & Intervention Innovation (i2), a new type of process improvement, which has joined the ranks of proven innovation methods like product, service, business process and business model innovation. This one helps people experience new ways of interacting in order to create new knowledge and innovate successfully in the midst of emergence, complexity and uncertainty, the “new normal” for business today.

The closing session at the 2013 Hargraves Institute conference was an excellent example of this fast-paced, dynamic process. In just 90 minutes of intense conversation, sixty people working in teams created eight clever prototype concepts for healthy living products and services. The high-energy finale was designed just-in-time. The presenters, having met for the first time over lunch, quickly combined their talents to design and jointly facilitate the session without any rehearsal.

John Findlay & Abby Straus of Maverick & Boutique  contributed the Zing collaborative meeting system (which uses the i2 process), their Complexity Model of Change and improv games to warm up the crowd. Michelle Williams, of Ideaction  contributed the guest speaker to brief the audience, a 5-step design process and five customer profiles representing key markets segments, for which participants would design.

Here’s how it went:

The session began in a conventional way, with a five-minute talk by healthy living expert, Peter McCue, head of Healthy Planning, a state-wide New South Wales program designed to deal with the challenge of obesity in modern life.

Next, John Findlay and Abby Straus introduced their Complexity Model of Change to explain the “the obesity epidemic”, which has occurred, in part, as consequence of widespread adoption of brain work and the replacement much physical work in the Knowledge Age. Another key factor is the invention of labor saving tools and transportation methods that enable people to get only a fraction of the daily exercise our ancestors got just a century ago.

The Zing wireless keyboard collaboration system and i2 methodology were used to help participants create a rich picture of health trends and issues. Then, Michelle Williams stepped the teams through five rapid-fire, five-minute long mini-activities, with each team designing a product or service that would appeal to one of five customer profiles representing the different market segments.

The teams were encouraged to use any medium at hand to present their prototypes: poetry, improvisation, movement, graphics, etc. The new concepts included:

  • An exercise cycle to generate electricity in order to watch TV,
  • Trekking adventures for life fulfillment and purpose,
  • A spiced-up date night event app with options for romance, active and casual interactions,
  • A smart phone pedometer app that delivers a daily report on diet and exercise,
  •  A life coaching service for a healthier lifestyle taking in the outdoors, dog walking, food education and prioritizing relationships, and
  • A Lifestyle Innovation program for women to achieve a better life-work balance with child care support provided by the employer.

Participants used Zing and i2 to capture ideas and report back on their new products and services. They also gave lively and entertaining demonstrations of what they had in mind.

i2 is increasingly being used by conference organizers to switch the focus from sessions dominated by experts to interactive events, such as this one at the Hargraves Institute conference, where the audience is facilitated in creating new knowledge on the spot.

The i2 method is built on two key concepts:

1. “Simple rules of interaction” (SRI): a concept, borrowed from the science of complexity, which we commonly observed in nature when birds flock and fish shoal. Following just three simple rules—stay a fixed distance from others, fly/swim at a specific angle and turn when others do—huge groups of animals are able to execute breathtakingly beautiful and complex feats of coordinated movement.

Examples of SRI in human interaction are the “Yes-and” rule from Improv that encourages people to add value to each other’s ideas and the Talk-Type-Read-Review etiquette, designed for the Zing team meeting process, which helps dozens to hundreds of people work efficiently and productively on the same issue at the same time.

2. The conversion of models, methods and thinking processes into a series of rich, open-ended questions, which encourages each person’s brain to become his/her own “personal Google”. Participants make creative connections and develop new ideas, which they share with others in conversation in small groups, and then with the larger group in a process of synthesis and integration. When everyone works in parallel this way, they are able to perform complex thinking and creative tasks with surprising ease.

When events are conducted using this method, everyone in the room interacts in a synchronized way, no one talks at cross-purposes and all interests are valued and recognized. People from diverse disciplines and community groups can reliably deal with any kind of complex problem, even “wicked” ones, and reach broad agreement about what to do.

Shifting between the collective wisdom of the group, provided by the Zing collaboration method and localized team work, provided by the 5 step rapid fire sessions, allowed a shift from macro/big thinking to micro perspectives of problem solving and innovation.

With Zing, the participants can see the entire community’s collective wisdom and build on those ideas for this process. The report is easily generated after the session allowing for extra analysis together with a plan for immediate action. The 5-step process allowed everyone to work on a wicked problem that affects everyone in a way that removed people from their current mode of thinking outside the restrictions of KPI’s set by their organizations. It also helped the participants innovate more deeply and in more detail and develop their personal capacity for creativity and innovation.

The fields of mathematics, biology, neuroscience, psychology and systems thinking are fertile ground for the new conversation and decision methods developed using i2. Sources of inspiration include academics and thought leaders, especially those who present at Aspen Institute, PopTech or TED.com conferences. You can see examples at www.colorfulconversations.blogspot.com.

Common examples of these methods are SWOT Analysis, Six Thinking Hats from Dr. Edward De Bono, Polarity Thinking from Dr. Barry Johnson and The Choice Trilogy of Keep-Abandon -Reinvent from Maverick & Boutique.


If you would like more information about Interaction Innovation or to engage Maverick & Boutique or Ideaction to design and facilitate a workshop, seminar or other or interactive event. Here how it works:

1. Create customer profiles, for example:

  • Mary: 65 years retiree. A bit overweight. Enjoys gardening. Likes swimming and dancing. Wants to lose weight so she can live a long and productive live. Takes walks in the park.
  • Tom: 55 year-old, former construction worker, with bad back, now on light duties in the warehouse. Weights 120 Kg. Drinks lots of beer. Watches the football on TV.
  • Samantha: 22 year old girl about town. Works in public relations. Time poor. Always eating out. Exercises seven times a week.
  • Jane: 35 years old, fitness instructor. Eats a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, meat, grains and nuts. Has not yet met the man of her dreams, who also has to be fit and eat well, but not a narcissist or macho man.
  • John: 30 years old manager on the way up. Works 70-80 hours a week. Numerous meetings, often early and late. Eats out, or buys take-away on way home. Kids are in bed when he arrived home. Wife also works. No time for play. No time for exercise.

2. Ask each group to choose a role.

3. Ask a series of questions, one question per five minutes.

  • Context: What are major trends (e.g. time pressures, new and growing lifestyle diseases) occurring in the world around health, lifestyles, quality of life etc.?
  • Challenges: What lifestyle or health challenges might your customer demographic face? What personal challenges might they face?\
  • Needs/interests: What are the likely unmet work/home/life needs or interests of your customer demographic?
  • Product/Service: What kind of product or service would appeal to your customer segment that helps them deal successfully with their life/work situation? Think outside the box.
  • Prepare for Report back: What novel, unusual way could you report back. Song, Dance, Improv, Movie, Skit, Poem, Report, Haiku. You have sixty seconds.

4. Report back: Report back in any way you like – Song, Dance, Improv, Movie, Skit, Poem, Report, Haiku. You have sixty seconds.

5. Ask the question: What did we learn from this experience?


Deliberate Team Formation Sets Projects Up for Success

becoming a team 2
Organizations around the world will spend $US3,300 per hire (Forbes, 2013) on recruiting yet spend just a few hundred dollars, a small fraction, on the equally important task of setting up their teams for success.

Mostly the on-boarding process focuses on socializing people into an organization’s, culture, learning “how we do things around here”. But often the process requires the new arrival to adopt the organization’s identity while downplaying their own, which can be “psychologically depleting” (Cable, Gino & Staats, 2013).

This “don’t rock the boat” approach may be ideal for firms in slow moving backwaters of the world economy, but in a rapidly changing world it is an organization replenishment opportunity foregone.

New, more mobile arrivals, whose average time in a job is now 4.6 years, bring to an organization a rich diversity of cultural knowledge, mental models and experiences. They are often better able to work across ever-evolving or transforming boundaries than incumbents who have been at the firm for many years. Their adaptability skills may as valuable to their new firm, as the skills for which they have been hired.

The problem is most acute in the world of complex project management, where innovation, change and increasing complexity is the order of the day. Projects, by their nature, occur at the pointy end of the economy, where new systems are developed that are often so leading edge, the details are not fully worked out until the contract has been awarded and implementation is underway.

In a way, starting a project is like recruiting a band of mercenaries. Project people are used to working in temporary organisations for short term assignments. They also know disruptive change, because when their work is done, they are often rewarded by losing their jobs, until the next project comes along.

So how do you socialize the engineers and technologists who design and implement new projects, who are expected to be very adaptable and flexible, but also be perfectionists, to guarantee the system they build will work, not just reliably, but without harming anyone?

Another challenge is to create the infrastructure, system, technologies or tools which will serve a useful purpose for not only the current way we do things, but for the next 30-50 years. On time, on-budget and fit for the purpose.

This means that the leadership of complex projects often must recruit a mix of talents that are on the one hand creative and daring and on the other very conservative or risk averse. They include introverts such as programmers and extroverts such as team leaders plus a handful of cowboys and geeks. They come from a diverse variety of disciplines, in order to create new systems with many moving parts, often made or built in a wide variety of locations, remote from each other, anywhere in the world.

Add to this potentially difficult mix, accelerating knowledge creation and implementation, and growing complexity and you have what could easily turn into a conflict and contradiction nightmare.

To make matters worse, some project teams just jump straight into the work because they are focused on getting results. Others party until the cows come home, and cant get started until they have a perfect solution that solves everyone’s problems.. Kumbaya on steroids.

Our recipe for success is a balance between results AND relationships. 

On day one, get to know one another, and build systemic connections across the team. Then and only then do we engage in an initial round of strategic planning to clarify the purpose of the project/program, develop shared goals and a create a plan of action.


Here’s a workshop to help a team prepare for success:

1. Warm-up: In 25 words or more, tell us the story of the most amazing, crazy or dangerous thing you have ever done. What you learned from the experience?
2. Passions: In 25-words or more, what are your excited or passionate about?
3. Life story: What’s the story of your life? Name of the movie and the plot.
4. Your interests: Why did you join the team? What do you hope to get out of the project if it is very successful?
5. Skills and tools: What skills, methods, tools etc. do you bring to the project and how could they contribute to its success?
6. Biggest issues you have faced: Give an example of a big issue or challenge that you have had to deal with in your work/life that you would really like to have better answers for in the future.
7. Helping others: Thinking about all the other members of the team and their interests, and the challenges or issues they face, who could you help and what could you do to help them?

Democracy in Unusual Spaces

Monroe Library New Jersey Medium

As the facilitators of community meetings that require the use of technology many of the rooms are too big, too small, too constrained or just plain weird.

The venues are often a challenge. Maverick & Boutique use the Zing collaborative meeting environment in our work. It requires a video projector, a giant shared screen (for example, a big white wall), wireless keyboards, a computer and tables and chairs for conversations.

After Hurricane Sandy the debrief of the Jersey shore communities (in Monmouth County) were held in a two different courtrooms and an IHOP (the International House of Pancakes) restaurant. The Essex County community response to the Emergency Preparedness Plan was held in the party room at a skating rink. The Vermont economic development strategy was created in a fire brigade meeting room, a night club, a school classroom, an adult learning center, a ski resort and not one, but two old theaters.

We have also heard of other unusual settings for our kind of meetings:

  • In the Papua New Guinea highlands, a large white sheet for a screen, a portable generator for power.
  • In an Italian restaurant, one DeBono Thinking Hat per course
  • In a lecture theater of computerists in Melbourne, clumped together in groups
  • At an embassy in Washington DC
  • A church in Phoenix
  • A boathouse in Canberra
  • On a kitchen table

What we have discovered is that it really does not matter where we meet. It is more important how you set up the room, how people interact and the kinds of questions you ask.

In the world of complex systems that we inhabit, we know that structure influences behavior. The structure of a meeting not only includes the shape and size of the meeting space, whether we have rows of seats or chairs and tables, the rules of interaction, and the way you generate, record and make sense of your collective knowledge.

Here’s some examples:

  • Rows of chairs facing a stage, people on the stage facing the audience: Some Japanese call this the American speaking hall, because the people on the stage speak, and the audience listens.
  • People seated in a U: You can really only talk to one person next to you. Hopefully, no one misses out on a partner in the discussion.
  • People seated in a circle facing each other: No power positions, but very uncomfortable for the introverts among us.
  • Town halls: where the audience members take turns to ask questions, make statements, or issue challenges.
  • Voting: a show of hands or a vote results in winners and losers.
  • Idea Integration: If two people are asked to combine their ideas, then those two people combine their joint idea with two other people, and those four people…..

Here are a few rules of thumb that can ensure meetings are a success:

  • A very large shared screen so we can see and read everyone’s ideas as they are being generated, which sparks more of our own ideas that are connected to their ideas
  • People work in small groups of 6-8 with people from other organizations/fields, so we expose people to points of view outside their community, discipline, part of the organization
  • People discuss the issues in pairs, so there are many parallel conversations
  • One keyboard for every 4-8 people, so everyone gets heard, and there is plenty of variety
  • We employ rich questions that guide people to similar conclusions, also despite our differences.
  • We read all the ideas aloud, so all ideas are valued
  • We introduce a sense-making step, so everyone in the room is asked to look for and we record the patterns in the ideas so we can develop a new shared model, despite our differences.


So here’s a few questions to help rethink your meeting:

1. Where’s the most unusual place you have ever held a community meeting? Describe what happened as a result of the unusual location?

2. How are your meetings organized and what is the result?

3. What outcome would you prefer to achieve from your meetings?

4. Thinking about the structure of your meetings (room size and shape, seating, rules of interaction, agenda/questions, type of questions (closed/open), technology to support record keeping/idea sharing) what aspects of your meetings perpetuate or reward conflict?

5. Thinking about the structure of your meetings, what aspects result in reaching agreement despite your differences?

6. What could you differently about the structure of your meetings that would reward success?

An Era of Ignorance

Goals of the ssystem slice

A decade ago, it seemed as if were on the verge of a new era, in which the wise application of knowledge would be in the ascendancy and a breakthrough to less turbulent, more reasonable, more thoughtful times was imminent.

Why? Because most of us now have at our fingertips, the best available data – records, statistics, scientific studies, reports from exhaustive commissions of inquiry, amazing methods for analyzing the data and superb models that should provide citizens with the tools to make excellent choices.

Did not happen.

Instead, ideology is trumping science. Dogma is defeating evidence. Partisanship has walked all over collaboration.

It is all do to with ignorance, for which the dictionary definition is, “lacking in knowledge or information.”

As any systems thinking practitioner will be able to tell you, distortions like these occur when the goals of the system are perverted or displaced by a subsidiary goal.

Here are a few examples of what can go wrong:

1. Oligarchs who earned their millions and billions using third world tactics in their home countries, flock to the reliable laws and certainty of big cities like London, New York and Sydney. They buy up the real estate and financially squeeze out the very people they need to deliver the services to support their lifestyles.

The goals of this system are to exploit the rules in one territory to make a financial gain, and to employ the rules in another territory to protect the gain.

2. Then there are the businesses that relocate to minimize their income and property taxes, forgetting that this is what pays for the education of their workers, who then wonder why they don’t have enough skilled workers to do the job.

The goal of this system is to maximize shareholder value rather than serve the interests of stakeholders, a strong meme that is very persistent. This strategy, of course, enriches shareholders, especially key executives, who often mostly get paid in shares or options. It also leads to decisions which ignore the needs of the communities in which many of the business were nurtured. In our work in economic development we frequently encounter communities left floundering when a once very successful business, is bought by an international company, which a few years later closes the plant and retrenches the workers because they can make the product cheaper somewhere else in the world.

We see ideology in the way corporations pay wages, which limits demand. When a government tops up worker wages with food stamps, this is really a giant subsidy, not for the workers, but for the corporations unwilling to pay an appropriate price – a living wage – to their employees. There are social consequences as well. People in minimum wage jobs have to work two or three jobs to get by which means many children are home alone most days of the week. There is a lesson to be learned from Henry Ford who paid his workers well so they could afford to buy the automobiles they made.

The goal of the Henry Ford system was to bake a bigger economic cake for all. The goals of the present system is to enrich a select few.

3. Hijacking of the goals of the system is very alive and well in Australia, my home country. Last year the incoming government decided to tackle the problem of unemployment by requiring benefits recipients to submit 40 job applications a month and wait six months before being eligible. At the time there were 145,000 job vacancies and 850,000 people on unemployment benefits. The idea was to punish these “dole bludgers” who the government believed were lazy, did not want to work, and were rorting the system, and to force them into work. Not going to happen.

Fortunately, the business community recognized that the policy would have a huge adverse impact on their businesses and called a stop. They pointed out that HR departments of companies large and small would have to contend with millions of applications every week from people with little or no aptitude for the few jobs available.

However, the government is still happy to pay $1 billion a year to private and not-for-profit sector “job placement” agencies to find jobs for those unable to find work, which seems to be an impossible goal. The new economic activity created by the government is “job placement”, when in fact, it should be “job creation.”

So what are the goals of this system? Pretend you are placing people in jobs – that do not exist. A more appropriate goal of the system would be to create new opportunities – jobs, businesses and social entrepreneurial activities

4. Australia also said goodbye to the motor car industry, arguing that it was time to end corporate welfare and set about trying to close down the newly emerging $10 billion a year renewable energy sector in order to promote jobs in the coal sector.

Funnily enough, the USA now employs over 200,000 people in its solar energy sector using technology mostly made in China and originally developed in Australia at the University of New South Wales. Who knew? California has 58,000 solar workers, about the same number of people employed in the Australian coal mining industry. California has a population of 22 million, on par with Australia’s population.

This same government is trying really hard to avoid building the next generation of submarines in Australia, and instead keep Japanese workers in employment. At the same time the government is cutting its public service by 20,000 staff, and reducing investment in science and education, all in the interests of “efficiency”.

No one is quite sure what the goals of the Australian government’s system are, other than to be re-elected. Some people suspect it is to protect the interests of the large energy companies, especially the coal sector, or to keep the conservatives in the parliamentary party on-side who voted for the current prime minister because he was prepared to disavow the possibility of climate change. But at their current level of unpopularity (51% will vote for the opposition, 49% for the government), this does not seem to be working for them.

5. My favorite ideological irresponsibility is the Norfolk, VA, real estate agent who realized that rising sea levels and sinking land (both are happening) was going to make it really hard to sell valuable properties in this Atlantic coast city. So she started a one-woman successful campaign among her political colleagues to declare climate change bunk. What bookmakers odds would you give that this PR approach to climate change will really work?

What’s the goal of this system? Simply to continue to sell valuable real estate and earn commissions from those sales even if the properties will be underwater.


So if you would rather a world in which we made great decisions in the interests of our communities, here is a workshop to begin the conversation:

1. Describe your favorite ideology that ignores the science or data.
2. What are the perverted/displaced goals of the system? Whose interests do they serve?
3. What might be a much better outcome (goal of the system), if we applied the science or the data? What should we do differently? Who would benefit and how? Respond like this: Situation + what science/data says + better outcome + who would benefit.
4. What can we do to bring the ideologically challenged into a conversation and help them think and operate more responsibly?

New Partners in Economic Development

There’s a revolution underway in economic development across the USA. Inching its way out is the traditional real estate-focused approach to economic development and some of the $80 billion in tax breaks (NY Times, December 1, 2012) and other incentives state and local governments offer to attract new businesses and jobs.

Enter stage left are new partners in economic development, a grass-roots assortment that includes libraries,  community organizers, special interest foundations, teenage app developers, Big Picture schools, churches or sustainable energy entrepreneurs.

We explored how communities might partner with such organizations/people at the Build North East conference in Worcester (September 7-9, 2014). Robert Leaver of New Commons Rhode Island and John Findlay, Maverick & Boutique conducted rapid-fire 5 X 5 workshop to:

  • Identify opportunities for partnering with strategically positioned community organizations such as libraries, leading edge schools and colleges
  • Explore how to expand social and business entrepreneurial activities at a grass-roots level, especially in urban and rural settings
  • Plan the start-up of public access making/manufacturing, design publishing, app development in the center of a village or town

Six teams began by identifying a village or town in New England that was experiencing an intractable economic/community development problem.

  • Good New England Bones
  • OK for 6 months of year
  • Struggles economically during Winter
  • Youth unemployment, drug epidemic
  • Can’t get critical skills
  • Good in parts – has sprawl, some blight, brownfields (costly to remediate)
  • “Poverty in paradise”

Each team chose one of six PARTNERS to work with, for which a profile had been developed. Here are the profiles:

Libraries: are adopting new “wise application of knowledge” roles in a rapidly changing and more complex world. They provide a local high touch experience for the high tech world we live in. Their new roles in economic development include:

  • Maker spaces – 3D printers, electronic and electrical, publishing equipment
  • Public access to the Internet, computers
  • Lend books, CDs, software, equipment,
  • Meeting rooms and meeting facilitation
  • Incubator spaces
  • Courses for completing K-12
  • Support for college study and research
  • Research for new businesses
  • New skills – software, webpage, databases

Public access manufacturing/makerspaces: Cooperatives and companies such as TechShop are establishing manufacturing and production facilities for the public to rent/use by the day, week or month. Their new roles in economic development include:

  • Time share equipment use
  • Basic training, On-site instruction and college courses
  • Metalworking – mills, lathes, routers, plasma cutters, 3D printers
  • Culinary – shared commercial kitchens, Many kinds – metal working,g rooms Agricultural – equipment for bottling/canning, fermented products – wine, beer, cheese and yoghurt production
  • Arts and Artisan – woodworking, framing, showrooms etc.

Big Picture Schools: Personalized learning one student at a time. Big Pictures Schools prepare students for the real world, with applied as well as soft skills – leadership, project management, mentoring and planning – rarely found in “curriculum driven” schools. Their roles in economic development include:

  • Students complete an authentic project connected to their interest
  • Students learn how to be adults by being with adults
  • Mentors are expert in the field of student’s interest and in their field
  • Assessed by growth and change, not tests; family involved
  • Project based – portfolios, exhibitions, reflective journalling
  • Small group learning, maximum of 150 people per school
  • Learning by serving the community via projects

Churches: As community and economic development are increasingly inseparable. Faith-based organizations, which have a long history of education, health care and support service delivery have a critical role to play, including personalisation – reversing the trend to corporatisation and large scale service delivery. Their roles in economic development include:

  • Education and health care service delivery
  • Support for those who have fallen on hard times
  • Aged, children’s, and rehabilitation services
  • Fostering a sense of community
  • Drug dependence and recovery services

A gaggle of 14 year old app developers: Who knew? Many of the next generation of Tech Millionaires are starting their businesses on-line before they are old enough to drink or drive.  They are developing phone and tablet apps that operate at between current paradigms and disciplines. Their new roles in economic development include:

  • Capable of building new applications in a few weeks.
  • Low-cost business models
  • Solve customized local business and community problems
  • Connected to the world and other developers
  • Entrepreneurial – regard work as projects rather than careers
  • Low barrier to market entry

Sustainable energy entrepreneurs: Plug-and-play sustainable energy solutions which deal with the business case, permits, marketing, installation, connections to the grid or shared use are the hallmarks of the sustainable energy entrepreneur. Their new roles in economic development include:

  • Local energy production from solar, wind, biomass, pellets
  • Local solar networks, linking neighbors with great and not so good aspects
  • Architecturally appropriate moldings to integrate solar into New England-style houses
  • Transportation fuels from landfill gas, biomass gas; biodiesel
  • Plug-and-play solutions which solve the complexities of permits, connections

Participants used a worksheet to collect ideas from both the perspective of the TOWN and the new new PARTNER, and how each could serve each other’s interests in a syngeristic, win-win-win way, so not only did the participants get a successful result, but so did the broader community system.


Here’s the workshop outline:

1. TRENDS: What are the big trends for your TOWN? What are the big trends for your PARTNER?

2. CAPACITIES RESOURCES: What resources, capacities and other stakeholders do others in the TOWN have that could be really useful to your partner? What skills, capacities, access to resources, customers and other stakeholders does your PARTNER have the town needs?

3. BAKING A BIGGER CAKE: How could the TOWN help your partner become very successful and the town/region to be successful as well? How could your PARTNER help the town/region? How could you put the TOWN and PARTNERS’s resources and interests together to bake a bigger cake?

4. FUNDING AND FIRST STEPS: To get started, what are the first steps? Who will you get involved? How will it be funded? Actions: Who, by, for?

5. REPORT BACK: Prepare for the report back in any way you choose but at MINIMUM, give the project a SNAZZY 4-5 WORD TITLE AND A 25-WORD DESCRIPTION. (Consider Song, Dance, Skit, Slides/Talk, Demonstration, All of the above, etc)