By Kenneth Williams, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our lives. Many are away from their physical workplace and are teleworking. Schools ranging from preschool to higher education are delayed, implementing safety measures, and attempting to conduct face-to-face instruction, virtual instruction, or a hybrid. Administrators are having mixed success in controlling student behavior and enforcing safety measures and upon spikes in coronavirus cases are reversing course. The public is struggling with social distancing and safety recommendations, much of which is confusing as researchers discover more information about the illness. Is it 6 feet or 16 feet? Should I wear a mask or not? Is the coronavirus really as dangerous as some say? Businesses are laying off employees while others are closing. Most of the deceased had an underlying condition. Am I safe if I do not have an underlying condition? What about sports? What about going to restaurants and bars? When will we get back to normal? When will there be a vaccine? Some people claim to have all the answers. They are suspicious of the experts. They are right and everyone else is wrong. Who can I trust? This pandemic is chaotic, confusing, threatening, and does not make sense. It is disrupting our normal lives. If we are not careful, we will self-destruct by being overcome with fear, anxiety, and paralysis.

How do we respond? How do we make sense? How do we avoid making this crisis worse? How do we navigate these uncertain times?

A historical disaster provides insight. In 1949, a team of smokejumpers fought a fire in the Mann Gulch area of Montana. Of the 15 men who jumped in to fight the blaze, begun by a lightning strike and fanned by high temperatures and wind, only three survived. Among high grass and thick forest, the fast-moving fire quickly overcame the team. The team leader, “Wag” Dodge, started a fire which consumed the grass around him (the fuel the fire needed) and yelled for the other team members to drop their tools and run to him, to the spot where he had burned the grass. None of the team members listened to him, but instead, fled for their lives, trying to outrun the fire, but to no avail. Two men survived by sticking together, helping each other, and finding protection in a rocky crevice. (One of the two died later.) Dodge survived as a result of his escape fire.

Actions Leading to Lostness

The events of that disastrous day are recorded in Norman McLean’s Young Men and Fire and analyzed by Karl Weick in The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster.[1] Weick identified five causes of team disintegration and individual self-destruction. First, the team disintegrated because they stuck to their familiar model of firefighting, in spite of the evidence they needed to adapt. The team had trained in effective and efficient firefighting techniques, in which they would jump in, extinguish the fire quickly, and get out. They had not trained in fighting such large-scale, persistent fires. When they were overwhelmed, instead of reframing the situation as surviving a fire, they stuck to their firefighting paradigm and eventually abandoned it as the result of an either/or reaction – fight or flight. Since they could no longer fight the fire, they fled. Similarly, we want a quick resolution by doing what we have always done. For example, when facing illness, we follow a familiar pattern – we go to the doctor, receive a diagnosis, obtain medication, follow the doctor’s orders, rest, and let it pass as our body fights the infection. Or, if our illness is serious, we receive extend a treatment and expect to recover in time and life will return to normal. However, we are not prepared for such a contagious and deadly threat as the coronavirus, which exploits physical vulnerabilities and many diverse population groups. Our normal pattern of responding to illness is not effective. Medical experts are advising us to take precautionary measures that completely disrupt our normal way of life. We resist those life altering precautions in pursuit of getting back to normal. We want our workplaces, places of worship, schools, sporting events, restaurants, bars, and families. The reality is if we continue the pursuit of normal, we will self-destruct. Instead of hanging onto the normal of the past, we must adapt and create a new normal that involves creative ways of experiencing the place and people we love. Specifically, this means letting go of traditional workplace, social, and educational activities, such as being physically at the office, dining in restaurants, attending sporting events and entertainment, and face-to-face instruction. While social interaction is essential for development, it is also unsafe and deadly at this time. Humans are very innovative and when we put our minds to it we can develop alternative means of engaging in social interaction.

Second, when their paradigm was no longer effective and they were threatened, each regressed into the fight or flight response and acted in self-preservation, resulting in their eventual death. Instead of abandoning their firefighting model, they could have adopted a fire survival paradigm. In the same way, when we discover our familiar pattern of dealing with illness is not effective and we are overwhelmed with the disruption of our lives, we tend to rebel, deny the threat, and keep doing what is familiar, to our own demise. It has been said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” There are those who deny and dismiss the cautions of medical experts, looking for ways to discredit them. Others refuse to distance themselves socially and to wear a mask, putting others at risk in order to stick with what is normal, familiar, and comfortable. Instead of resisting the threatening environment, we must adopt a coronavirus survival paradigm as collective action, acknowledging that our actions impact the health and safety of the community around us.

Third, their lack of communication hindered collaboration that would have resulted in their survival. There was no dialogue or feedback loop that occurred among the team members. It appears that in general, our communication has devolved into blame, fear mongering, belittling, degrading, and discrediting. Unless we reverse this pattern and begin healthy communication and dialogue on that which is in the best interest and safety of our society and communities, we should not be surprised by further spread of the disease, increased death, and escalating blame, conflict, hate, and anger. Navigating this uncertain pandemic requires us to engage one another in respectful and compassionate dialogue. Now is the time for encouragement, emotional support and collaboration for the common good.

Four, they lost their identity as smokejumpers. The fire was too massive for them to control and extinguish. Instead of being courageous smokejumpers, they were reduced to fearful escapees. As this pandemic continues, our normal life of the past becomes more elusive, and we experience increasing death, many will be overcome by fear and lose the meaning of being human. Care, compassion, and respect will be replaced by self-interest, callousness, and bias. In reality, we may already be experiencing these as many have voiced that the current number of deaths are acceptable and the disproportionate effects on impoverished areas that lack sufficient healthcare are also acceptable.

Fifth, as a result of having lost their identities, they lost their sense of meaning and purpose, and therefore their hope of survival, that is, they lost their way. Life becomes chaotic and does not make sense. Familiar behavior patterns and our systems of membership (teams, society, and community) disintegrate, as we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, abandon our responsibilities and shut down. As ambiguity grows, we discredit and doubt the authorities and experts who are responsible for our safety. Dysfunction and problems add up. Instead of panic, we need to re-evaluate our identity and our reason and purpose for living. Are these limited to our career or are they much broader and deeper and involve all aspects of our lives? Also, we need to identify an ambitious, desirable future that answers the questions: What kind of person do I want to become? What impact do I want to have? What legacy do I want to create?

The current pandemic closely resembles the Mann Gulch disaster. We face a fast moving virus that is consuming everything in its path and threatens to overwhelm us, our medical system, and our lives. If we continue to do things as we have always done, if we fail to adapt to a paradigm of survival, if we fail to maintain enter personal dialogue and feedback on the situation, if we lose our identity as human beings, but choose to view ourselves as victims of circumstance, if we ignore sound sensemaking guidance, if we become inconsiderate of others, then our teams and our support systems for survival will disintegrate and we will self-destruct. But if we take appropriate action, we will find a way through the chaos and uncertainty.

Five Actions for Adapting to Chaos and Uncertainty

Navigating these uncertain, uncharted waters requires five actions. First, let go of the past. What we knew as normal is gone. The longer we hold onto it, the more we are vulnerable to stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear and hinder our ability and our need to adapt to a new normal. Instead of being closed to change, be open to adaptation.[2] Observe the many people in your network expending so much energy to get back to a normal that cannot be achieved rather than focusing that energy on adapting to the disruptive environment.

Second, improvise by “figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you currently think.”[3] Dodge applied his knowledge of the nature of fire to start the escape fire, which consumed the fuel the wildfire needed, and created a safe space for him and his team to survive. What is the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fuel the virus and pandemic needs to destroy us? In what ways can we exercise that fuel and find a safe place for survival? The virus needs people in order to spread and kill. Therefore, we must practice physical distancing and restrict our movements, and practice sterile hygiene. We must avoid the sources of fear, anxiety, stress, and worry. Watching the negative news for extended periods of time feeds the panic of the pandemic. We can apply the wisdom discovered in other stressful and threatening experiences to this crisis. Engage in activities that are meaningful and enhancing to our existence as human beings, exercising our emotional, mental, and spiritual muscles. Reflect on the ways your could use your past experiences, education, skills, and expertise in fresh ways. Consider the positive and encouraging activities we can add to our daily routine – send messages of encouragement, pray and meditate, begin a new hobby, complete that postponed project, start a virtual support group, and connect regularly online with family and friends. In other words redirect the energy we are expending by worrying about the pandemic to beneficial, meaningful activities.

Third, network. Maintain and nurture your personal and professional relationships. Although we are limited in social interaction, we can maintain the various elements of our social network and continue to contribute our role. The smoke jumper team could have increased their chances of survival if each member imagined the others’ roles, developed courses of action, and communicated with the others. What are the unfulfilled roles and responsibilities each of us could assume to ensure our collective survival? Are your community leaders and managers overwhelmed and unable to perform certain tasks that you could perform? What gaps can we plug and tasks can we perform to enhance our family, community, and organization? Perhaps, reach out to those in your contact list to check on them. Offer to help neighbors with tasks. Provide resources and information for others’ survival. Also, expand your network by reaching out to others in your profession or community to develop mutually supportive relationships, hear their challenges, and discover their lessons. Use your new connections to explore creative and innovative ways of adapting to the uncertainty and chaos.[4]

Fourth, be a learner. Take on an attitude of wisdom by becoming a learner, accepting uncertainty and reality, and not complaining about “the way things should be”. Certainly, this pandemic has disrupted our mindset of the way things should be. But, we can sabotage and constrain our survival by adhering to our mental bias on what the authorities or others should do. Instead of demonstrating skill or expressing how much one knows, our attitude should be of wisdom. Wise people are aware of their ignorance and are not overconfident. Weick quoted McLean, “…if the major purpose of your group is to ‘put out fires so fast they don’t have time to become big ones’, then you won’t learn much about fighting big fires.”[5] He went on to state wisdom is finding balance between “extreme confidence and extreme caution [as] both can destroy what we most need in changing times, namely, curiosity, openness, and complex sensing” (emphasis added).[6] In other words, our focus should not be on resisting the change that this pandemic is going to create in our society and our life, but in discovering ways to adapt to a new context. The pandemic is going to change our world significantly. We need to ask the question “What can I learn and how can I grow to adapt, survive, and thrive?” Based on what you heard from your expanding and exploring network, experiment with various adapting activities and observe the results, paying attention to what works for you. Then, share your results with others.

Fifth, engage respectfully. Survival will require interaction in ways of respectfully sharing our perspectives with each other and discussing the meanings of this pandemic. We must demonstrate respect and trust toward one another, sharing and hearing honest observations of our experience. Survival requires trust, honesty, and respect for self and others. As human beings, all of our experiences are valid. Empathy involves hearing and understanding others’ perspectives, and incorporating that understanding into the ways that we interact with each other. The sharing of perspectives results in collective sensemaking and the development of responses for survival. We can and must be resources to one another. Therefore, we should ask each other, “How is this pandemic affecting you? What does this pandemic mean to you? In what ways is this pandemic changing you and your situation? What are you learning and how are you growing through this pandemic? In what ways are your priorities changing? What is your source of meaning, purpose, and hope?

Panic occurs when there is no meaningful, comprehensive, unifying, permeating vision. When there is a weak vision, we feel threatened, vulnerable, abandoned, resulting in everyone for herself or himself. Our vision should not be that of preserving the economy or getting back to normal. The vision should involve surviving the virus and adapting to a new existence in the presence of the virus.

Weick concludes by stating that teams and organizations, and I would add society and communities, are characterized by collective interdependence. Resilience and survival involve all members collaborating and leaders who: (1) communicate the vision, task, guidelines, standards, expectations, and role responsibilities; (2) do not reinforce the status quo, the routine, and business as usual; (3) model and hold everyone accountable for safety, effective communication, feedback, and cooperation; (4) delegate leadership roles to the ones who have the most expertise in a specific area; and (5) demonstrate humility.

May we be those kind of citizens, leaders, team members, and friends.

Kenneth Williams is the founder of Oyster Leadership Coaching and Consulting, LLC. 

(C) 2020 by Kenneth Williams

[1] Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 1993): 628–52,

[2] Deborah Ancona, “The Secret Ingredient for Great Leadership: Sensemaking,” Latin Trade (English) 26, no. 3 (Quarter 2018): 33–33.

[3] Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations.”

[4] Ancona, “The Secret Ingredient for Great Leadership.”

[5] Norman Mclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[6] Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations.”

It reads like a scene from a movie you don’t want your children to see: Global pandemic. Racial killing in cold blood. In public. By an officer of the peace. Followed by riots. Followed by… But wait, this isn’t a movie, and there’s no one coming to save us! That’s our job, you and me. Here are my thoughts on how we start today.

What’s going on here?

Human brains are wired to search for danger: the same brains that our ancestors had back in the time of sabre tooth tigers and marauding bands bearing clubs. Unlike then, however, we are constantly bombarded by what our brains perceive as “danger” in the form of 24-hour news cycles, global connectivity, social media, always-on lifestyles and accelerating change.

This leads to chronic stress and a host of destructive reactions, including the inability to distinguish between real and imagined threats. Scary stories loom large, when we’re stressed, like monsters under the bed. Monsters that may include our boss, our co-workers or our neighbors. They may be people who hold different political or religious views than we do. They may come from cultures with which we are not familiar. In order to protect ourselves, we may draw on the ancient tradition of telling stories about them, based on little or no real understanding of how they feel or what they care about. We cast them as “other” and ultimately less than human.

Sometimes we go public with our fear, on social media, perpetuating memes of separation in the name of righteous ideology. Other times, we hide our othering, ashamed that we, who profess to love our fellow humans, would engage in such a thing. All of which causes more stress and more fear.

We must calm ourselves in order to think clearly and take action that matters.

The first thing that every one of us must do is find a way to calm the cycle of overstimulation and fear that permeates modern life today. We need to train our brains and our bodies to relax, so we can be part of the solution, not the problem.

An excellent way to do this is to adopt a regular mindfulness practice. There are many examples, including meditation, yoga, tai-chi or other martial arts, walking in nature and journaling. The key is to commit and do it every single day. Research has shown, for example, that meditation produces physiological changes in the brain related to positive cognitive and emotional outcomes, including patience, compassion, clarity of thought and the ability to remain calm under pressure.

So start now and keep going. Even better, find one or more people as accountability partners and share the journey. We are also wired to be and do things together, and this alone helps calm us by letting us know we belong.

Now comes the hard part.

Once we calm ourselves down, we can begin the real work of shining the light of our awareness on our own dark places of prejudice and fear. It’s time to get under the bed with a flashlight and take those monsters on. It’s easy to direct our justifiable rage and indignation at what happened to George Floyd, and a lot harder to own each thought we have, each action we take—however small—that perpetuates inequity, inequality, and othering.

We must start by being compassionate with ourselves and with others. Remember, we all have thoughts we’d rather not own, and we all have done things we regret. They do not make us unlovable. They are part of being human. The task is to acknowledge them and begin the process of replacing them with the way we want to be.

Here’s something you can do today.

Find someone you know who is really different from you. Maybe a different gender expression, someone from a different cultural or racial heritage. Explain that you would like to understand their perspective about something (it could be being a parent or working at your company…whatever seems most natural) and invite them to share their views. You can preface your request by saying that you’re practicing being open to the viewpoints of others.

Then, what you do is listen. Really listen. And notice the feelings and thoughts that come up; but let them go. The main thing is to refrain from judging yourself, which only perpetuates stress and fear. You might adopt a phrase to acknowledge your thoughts like “how interesting!”. The next step is to compare experiences and find places to connect around things you care about.

These are excellent practices to help address diversity and inclusion at work. In Equality: Courageous Conversations about Men, Women and Race to Spark a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough, author Trudy Bourgeois offers an enlightening and compassionate approach to addressing systemic inequality that we all contribute to until we build our awareness and choose a different path.

In times like these, when it can feel like we live in scary movie, we must be disciplined about doing what we can with what we have. We can all start with ourselves, wherever we are, rising to the occasion by building our awareness and shining it with courage and determination at our individual and collective dark corners. Let’s start in our workplaces, learning more about each other, about our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our struggles. Let’s rewrite the script and tell a story about people who dared greatly, to make a great future, together.

To get you started, we would like to offer you a free downloadable meditation.

On April 30th, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “weavers” and “rippers”: those who actively seek to find the ties that bind us together through good and bad times, and those who look for—and enlarge—divisions that separate us from each other and our common humanity. He cites multiple polls that show Americans from both ends of the political spectrum united in the desire to do whatever it takes to deal with the current crisis. He talks about acts of selflessness and heroism that bring tears as I type.

Brooks also points out that we Americans are more united now than we have been in the almost twenty years since 9/11. I remember back then former-NY Governor, Mario Cuomo, asking what it would take for us to be selfless, kind, and united on a regular day, not just in a life-threatening emergency; and Brooks asks that question now.

It’s a good one, and one each of us can ask as we live and work together in times that push boundaries and challenge norms. Not just because we live in the midst of COVID 19, but because we and our world are changing in formerly unimaginable ways, right before our eyes, socially, technologically, and ecologically.

“Everywhere I hear the same refrain:” writes Brooks, “We’re standing at a portal to the future: we’re not going back to how it used to be.”

But where are we going; and how are we going to get there? United as weavers, or divided as rippers? What is a future we all can get behind, and how might we all participate in actively creating that future, beginning now?

Here are some questions to share with your colleagues, partners, family, and friends to support you in thinking about creating the future now:

  1. What are the changes happening in the world (social, economic, technological, environmental) that are having a big effect on the way you live and work? Think about multiple generations in the workplace, gender preferences, virtual workplaces, social and political perspectives, climate change, etc.
  2. What effects are these changes having on you and the people around you and how is everyone responding: are you “weaving” or “ripping”, or a combination of both?
  3. What does a future look like that everyone in your organization or community would be excited about creating?
  4. What if you knew it could happen? What specific actions could you take now to find commonality and take action?
  5. What would be the positive impact on you and your organization when you have accomplished this?
  6. What will you commit to doing now, and with whom?

Two hugely influential leaders in economic affairs, on opposite sides of the planet seem to be lacking a good model of the system to help us navigate more successfully to a brighter fiscal future.

Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, was honest enough to say he did not have a good model of the macro economic changes that were occurring the world as a result of technological change, and doubted if anyone else did.

Down Under, in Australia, a country that has successfully weathered the global financial crisis better than most, the Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, is presiding over an economy heading south at a great rate of knots due primarily to some major fumbles on his part.

Hockey is responsible for setting economic policy directions for the country. This week he proclaimed in Parliament that the opportunity for Australia is in services – health services, tourism services, accounting services and property services – at the very point in time that the McKinsey Global Institute is warning that the automation of knowledge work (all services) is one of the Big 12 disruptive technologies, that are helping to drive the way our world works.

As any systems thinker will tell you, the most effective way to get the best out of a system is to be able to navigate from one good model of the system, to an even better model, as the system undergoes transformations from one stage of its development to another. The second most effective way to get the best results from a system is to have a great model of that system, and to leverage the features of the system.

Krugman’s problem is he does not have, nor does he believe anyone has, a good model of the system. He points out that technological change of the “whole digital era, spanning more than four decades, is looking like a disappointment. New technologies have yielded great headlines, but modest economic results.” “Why?” he asks.

The problem with Krugman’s model, is he appears to have conflated two, if not three stages of human socio-technological development, and called it the “digital era” when in fact we already know and recognize these stages as the Information Age (50 years), Knowledge Age (10 years), and the current Wisdom Age (which is almost over before it has even begun).

The hoped-for boost to productivity gains that Krugman seeks from investments in the latest technologies is largely negated by embedding out-of-date leadership/management approaches, coordination methods and processing techniques.

Sadly, the operating center of gravity of many organizations remains stuck in the earlier Industrial Age paradigm operating according to a command and control model of management waiting for some upstart from nowhere to finish them off in an act of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction”.

The problem with Hockey’s model is it hails from two socio-technological generations in the past, an Information Age or at best Knowledge Age view of the system. He is betting Australia’s future on an economic model that is on its way out, kind of like over-investing in the horse and buggy and buggy whip manufacturing at the start of the 20th Century, just as motor cars were taking off.

The Australian government is further damaging Australia’s future prospect by cutting investment and support for R&D in the technologies of tomorrow by both the public and private sector – with renewable energy at the top of its hit list.

Instead they are giving big tax breaks – a $20,000 instant write-off – to small business for capital equipment such as cars and computers that are no longer made in Australia, or will soon cease production.


Here is a workshop you can use to help your organization think about the structure of future paradigms. It uses a model Maverick & Boutique has developed to help people think about the paradigm shifts that occur at increasingly shorter intervals (see image at the top of the post). We have created thus model by identifying the central scientific model or essence at the heart of current and emerging paradigms, and using the new metaphor to extrapolate from the current system to the emerging system.

We have filled in the blanks for the past three paradigms using the most appropriate metaphor that fits our observations – the computer (Information Age), the network (Knowledge Age) and the ecology/complex adaptive system (the emergent era, we have tentatively called the Wisdom Age). Just for completeness, the earlier paradigm is the Industrial Age and its’ metaphor is the machine.

Our best guess for the next paradigm is the “hologram” metaphor. This conjecture is based on what we have learned from examining the contributions to our strategic planning/future creation workshops involving hundreds of people from all walks of life, in many countries.

The task is to imagine the features of the next paradigm after the Wisdom Age, to think about and describe the kinds of technologies/tools that may be emerging as well as the coordination methods, the rules of interaction, the roles that people play using the hologram paradigm as our guide.

So what features of a hologram might be useful? We know, for example, that if you cut a hologram into small pieces and shine laser light on any piece, you get a 3-D image of the whole, just fuzzier. The means for reproducing the hologram is distributed throughout the entire hologram; just as DNA is distributed throughout every cell in an organism. Thinking about this feature, could we perhaps postulate that leadership capacity or coordination capacity might be best fully distributed throughout the system, in every person, each being capable of stepping up to a leadership role when necessary, rather than being found only in a few individuals, at a single central location (e.g the C-Suite) or at nodes (e.g. team leaders).

1. What are the features of a hologram? Thinking about what it does, how it works etc.

2. Thinking about the features of a hologram (e.g. information distributed throughout the whole of the hologram), how could we interpret this for each of the following features of a socio-technological system – the technologies (tools, technologies, processes, techniques etc.), roles (jobs), rules (rules of interaction, co-ordination or leadership methods), relationships (structure, systems)?

3. Test: How well do the features of the new paradigm align with each other? How well do the features evolve from one paradigm to the next? What inconsistencies are there? What earlier features now inconsistent and need revision?

4. Improvements: What improvements could we make to the model that resolve the inconsistencies within the new paradigm and across paradigms for each feature?


Democracy of the people, by the people, for the people seems to be failing us. Politicians elected to make decisions on our behalf seem to listen more to their political supporters than the experts.

Climate change is a perfect example of the failure of the current democratic systems to deliver up good governance.

Around the world, there is a growing consensus that we need to take action on climate change. Some 97 pr cent of climate scientists agree on the science, and what the future holds if we do nothing – rising sea levels, wilder weather, displaced populations and changing ecosystems to begin with.

Even some past detractors are changing their minds. In Australia, AGL, one of nation’s largest coal-fired electricity generators, recently announced it would be phasing out its plants by 2050, and expanding its efforts in alternative energy.

But the climate deniers still fight on, hoping to persuade us that the scientific community is committing a massive fraud on the citizens of the world.. In April the Australian Federal Government announced it would be “investing” $4 million to help Bjorn Lomborg who contends that climate change is “overstated” and “not a priority”, to set up a new “consensus center” at the University of Western Australia. Lomborg is from Denmark, that is now the world leader in wind-power generation. Denmark currently generates 39 per cent of its electricity needs from wind, and plans to achieve 50 per cent by 2050. Even in nearby England, where the conservatives have been in government for the past four years, 25% of homes are powered by wind.

This is the same government that slashed investment in R&D for co-operative research centers and cut the funding of Australia’s premier research institution, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. It also abolished the Climate Commission, which comprised Australia’s best climate scientists, economists and energy experts on the basis that the $1.5 million annual operating costs was too expensive.

So what’s going on?

Its all about pandering to the base, the reliable rusted-on voters who deliver political support, and the vested interests that deliver financial support.

A few years ago, the current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, defeated the then leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, in a vote to be the leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party.

Turnbull, an advocate of carbon pricing, was preparing to do the unthinkable; support the Labor Party government of the time on legislation to implement an emissions trading scheme. This plan so upset his rather right-wing backbench and some of their mining industry supporters, many of them climate change deniers, they booted Turnbull from the leadership, by a slim majority, 42-41.

Abbott survives as Prime Minister by a knife-edge majority of parliamentary support, even though his performance in the job has been abysmal. His public approval rating hit a recent low of just 29 per cent.

The breakdown of Australian bi-partisanship on climate change over the past decade mirrors what is happening in the USA. Despite overwhelming evidence from highly respected scientists at NASA and NOAA, the Republican and Democratic parties, at least at the Federal Level, are on a collision course over tougher rules for coal-fired power plant emissions.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans (63%), like the majority of Australians (75%), believe that climate change is real and a major threat. Yet a small minority in both countries have managed to shift the political game to serve their interests at the expense of everyone else.

If the purpose of democracy is to best serve the needs/interests of the people in both the long term and the short term, then the system of Parliamentary democracy, is longer working as well as it should.

Francis Fukuyama, an influential member of the Reagan administration and author of The End of History, argues that a both-and solution is necessary: liberal democracy in partnership with an “autonomous administrative bureaucracy” composed of people whose job it is to bring the best knowledge and data to bear on any and every issue.

This was once the case in Australia, where the role of the public servant was to give fearless advice to the political leadership, no matter who was in power. Not any more. Australian political leaders now routinely get rid of department heads that offer contrary advice in favor of those who are more compliant or ideologically aligned, rather like the American model. According to Fukuyama, this leads to corruption of the system.

But even when you have a powerful bureaucracy to balance an equally powerful political class, there is no guarantee it will be any better. Consider the current European Union “administrative think” that supports austerity as a way to increase economic output.

In System Thinking terms. a lens through which it is useful to analyse any issue, corruption occurs when the goals of the system are perverted to meet the narrow needs of a few, rather than the broader interests of the many. It comes in many forms, from the extreme case of taking bribes (either administrative or political) to give a party an unfair advantage over another, siphoning off funds to pet projects of either the politicians or administrators, or by simply ensuring that an industry gets preferred treatment, and is allowed to main, harm, despoil or generally have a negative impact of citizens despite the evidence to the contrary, as occurs when there is a free flow of talent back and forth between industry and the bureaucracy.


So here is a workshop about political governance.

1. What, in your opinion, should be the goals of the political system? Whose interests should it serve, and how should the system serve those interests?
2. What impact does accelerating change, rapidly expanding complexity and divergence and deepening of disciplines have on the ability of citizens and political class to be informed about the latest knowledge and data on complex and conflicting issues? Give examples of conflicts that are crying out for better analysis.
3. In most current systems of parliamentary democracy, citizens vote for a person to represent their interests in decision making, rule or law making forums. Is the role of representative still relevant? What might an alternative role for the political class be? Where should we strike a balance between representation and leadership?
4. What feedback loops, checks and balances might we build into any new system of democracy to ensure the system can adapt rapidly to new data, new and more robust knowledge and paradigm shifts?
5. Thinking about the way democracy works in your community, state or country what’s working well you would want to KEEP, what’s not working at all that you would want to ABANDON, what could be improved you might want to RE-INVENT, and what is so totally in the past, that you might want to TRANSFORM it into something new, that is a better fit with the emerging paradigm?
6. If you were given the task of designing a democratic system that made it possible for all people to be better and more fully informed about the best and most up-to-date data, the most reliable (or superb theories), unfettered by dogma/ideology, and with biases identified and made clear, what kind of system would you design? What features would it have compared to the existing system. Respond like this: Instead of (current state) we might have (new state).

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?



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.


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?

It can be challenging to interact with people whose perspectives and opinions differ from ours, but there are many benefits, including making us smarter. In this Washington Post entry, Gregory Rodriguez explains why this is so.



In the backwater we call local government, in what we used to call the 3Rs – “roads, rates and rubbish”, change is happening, but not the kind of change we like.

All across America, for example, local governments are struggling to pay the bills, dependent as they are on taxes on business activity and property. Both are in the doldrums as a result of the collapse of property prices from their bubble highs, and the tight credit that struck at local business activity.

Some parts of the US heartland are in a sorrier state. Closed factories and plants are leaving behind shellshocked families who thought their jobs were secure well into the future. These are the communities where the big employers who have ignored the winds of change, are facing intense competition from communuties halfway around the world in India, China and other parts of Asia and South America.

The quality of life in some of these communities has plummeted, although overall the U.S. continues to do well compared with the rest of the world.

In my own country, our perceptions of Lifestyle Quality continues to rise. Australia is now second after Norway on the United Nations Human Development Index, a combined measure of standard of living, education and life expectancy. The United States is in 13th place after countries such as Ireland, Japan, Finland, France and Switzerland.

Australia has survived the global economic downturn with less pain than many others. One of the reasons Australia is doing relatively well, is we took our medicine over the past 20 years. We thought about the future, and the changes that were flowing through society. And we started to do things differently, to regard the role of Local Government as also embracing economic, environmental, cultural and spiritual worlds. We began to invent new services and programs that embraced a wider spectrum of life, and smarter ways to deliver them.

Futurist, Dr. Peter Ellyard, author of Designing 2050, is one of Australia’s “thought leaders”. He has helped cities and towns re-invent themselves and create a better future for their citizens using a holistic approach. His ideas about the transition from a cowboy to a planetary culture have influenced many to change their ways. To think and act differently.

He has helped local government, business, universities and school education sectors rethink their roles, and begin the process of adapting to the new world that is emerging. The focus has been, not so much on eliminating jobs through process innovation, which has been the American focus, but the opposite. The creation of new opportunities to which valued staff can be redeployed. The more intimate engagement of citizens in the processes of designing and creating more human and nature friendly ways of living

He uses a “Preferred Futures” methodology and the Zing team meeting system for many of his large scale local government interventions. In diverse groups of 20 to 60 people at a time, the citizens of a community  contribute their ideas in response to questions that ask them to think about what kind of future they would like and how they can achieve it. They map out an ideal, but largely unattainable Ideal Future, a Probable Future that will result from the continuation of present trends, and settle for a Preferred Future that is both achievable and a big stretch. Then they write a Future History back to present times to detail the steps required to achieve their goals. For each community, he conducts 10 to 30 workshops with the help of a “roadie” who sets up and manages the technical aspects of the system, the wireless keyboards, the giant shared screens and the software. In this way, every voice is heard and valued, and contributes to the outcome.

The program is extremely productive and energizing. Typical of the output of these workshops is the 700 ideas generated in a 90 minute session contained in this report for the City of Townsville in Central Queensland. The city and several consulting firms in the city now have their own portable Zing team meeting systems to continue the economic development and community building process.

Here is a workshop for inventing new to the world products using his Planetary Culture values model:

1. Describe a Spaceship Culture product or service that incorporates one of the new values.
2. Describe a Spaceship Culture product or service that incorporates two of the new values.
3. Describe a Spaceship Culture product or service that incorporates three of the new values.