In management and leadership, it makes a huge difference to be working to a set of coherent and proven principles so that when one makes a decision, one can test its likely quality and utility against those principles. The benefits include that it helps protect decision makers from failures and criticism, and helps assure that decisions are most likely to be consistent with system survival and health.
An example of a principle might be: always encourage others to inspect your thinking to help avoid errors, ‘blowback’ and ‘blindsiding’.
‘Blowback’ is an intelligence agency term that denotes unintended, harmful consequences.
‘Blindside’ means to take unawares especially with harmful or detrimental results.
Sticking to that principle would mean always seeking impartial advice prior to making decisions, particularly those that carried downside risks to others. To do this, one needs to understand the downside risks so that they can be properly evaluated. Because people with an interest in a particular decision are often blind to the downside risks of their ideas, it is important to retain groups that are capable of thinking impartially about key issues so that decision making more completely informed about the potential consequences.
When attempting to control or manage a sprawling complex system like a society, the use of proven principles to guide actions and decisions becomes even more important because it is so easy to lose sight of the possible consequences of error. In rapidly changing systems that are highly interconnected, such as our globalised financial system, the consequences of error can be devastating and their onset rapid and unavoidable, as we have seen recently.
Another important outcome of sticking to tried and true principles is that it demonstrates to all observers the value and priority of using useful principles to guide our actions. They can then try those principles in their own lives and situation.
Typical principles that act to protect an organisation from damage or destruction caused by mistaken action include:
1. Always use impartially informed, evidence based, open and transparent decision making
2. Act to assure accuracy and open reporting and comment to gain useful feedback
3. Balance the needs of all members of the system in making decisions
4. Maintain current audits of the health and the state of the system (e.g. resource audits)
5. Treat citizens/group members equally and always act to assure their health and well-being
Principles such as these have been found to produce the best results for people as they help to nurture robust systems that contain healthy and well informed members. The more robust the whole system, the more likely its members are to survive and do well. Wise leaders understand the importance of sticking to principles and their behaviours embody their beliefs.
The entire purpose of having, and sticking to, principles like these is that they have been proven to work to protect the whole system and its members and help to avoid risks and errors. We know from experience that imbalance (for example) alone can easily become a threat to the system, e.g. excess fat in your diet can lead to sudden death or disablement.
Complex systems can be operated with rules that enforce useful principles to ‘normalise’ decision making and actions and reduce risks. For example fairness (3 & 5 above) can be maintained by governments using purchasing policies that always put jobs out to tender.
The use of common principles is also an important defence against corruption and corrupt practices.
When evaluating system management and leadership, we can compare what is happening with what would be happening if viable principles were employed. Any gaps between the two can then be explored and strategies employed to close them.
Meanwhile in the real world…
Looking at the actions of the ALP government in Tasmania, we see a government that is not only avoiding using principles that have stood humans in good stead over centuries, they are actively seeking to subvert them.
This came out most recently in the results of the Supreme Court case brought against the government by some Tamar residents who sought reasons for the government’s decision to approve Gunns pulp mill. The reasons that community members are concerned about the ALP government’s decision include:
Siting the world’s fourth-largest kraft pulp mill in a picturesque valley that traps pollution and is home to 100, 000 people.
Refusal to assess the socio-economic costs including job losses in tourism, wineries, agriculture and fishing, declining property values and damage to health.
Corrupted government fast-track assessment including paying a foreign pulp mill maker for ‘approval’, and legislating to block taxpayers from seeking damages.
Government acceptance of spurious reasons for Gunns’ withdrawal from independent assessment when critical deficiencies were due to be exposed.
The diversion of government funds away from failing essential services (hospitals and schools) to subsidise forestry and the mill (est $250m/year).
In the mill issue alone, the ALP government has violated every one of the principles mentioned above.
What has actually happened is that the Tasmanian government has used taxpayers’ money to give major advantages to one industry while simultaneously denying the taxpayers access to legal redress, any input into the planning or approval of a potentially hazardous industry in their midst, and any consideration or help in mounting a case against the project.
Instead of using the power of government to protect and nurture the citizens, the ALP government has used their powers to neuter their citizens and potentially place them, and their families, in danger with the only possible purposes appearing to be to advantage party donors or blindly adhere to dogma.
Tasmanians have seen exactly the same government attitude applied to both the poisoning of the people of Rosebery (an old mining town in Tasmania’s West) and to the repeated aerial spraying of toxic biocides over people and into Tasmania’s rivers.
This may all be explained away as political expediency but whatever the excuse, failing to protect the health and well being of the population is a recipe for system and social degradation and unnecessary expense.
In an apparent attempt to further demonstrate their lack of care for the taxpaying public, that same state government is presiding over a rapidly degrading health system while pouring money and power into a bloated health bureaucracy that contributes nothing whatsoever to the health and well being of Tasmanians.
And what good has all of this principle-free decision making done to the ALP government in Tasmania? As a direct consequence of their ignoring the basic protections and lessons of managing complex systems they are now widely on-the-nose and are in fear of their position at the next election.
These issues should be of concern to all Australians because the ALP holds government in nearly every state and territory and is a political party that demands that their politicians swear an oath to the ALP that supercedes their oath of office to the people of Australia. For that reason, it’s likely that the Tasmanian government’s actions are consistent with ALP requirements and probably typify the likely approach that ALP governments will take all around Australia.
All a citizen needs to do to forecast the likely actions of the ALP governments, is apply their behaviours in one context to the forecast context.
For example, the federal ALP government has just opened the way for uranium mining in Australia and appears likely to start moving down the nuclear power track in part to curtail criticism of its muted and administrative approaches to the risks of catastrophic climate change, and in part to stay sweet with the powerful figures and donors in the nuclear industry.
If ALP governments apply the same approach they used for the pulp mill, Australians can expect to see:
o Political parties supporting nuclear power after receiving hefty donations,
o Planning reviews changed to ‘approval processes’ to cut costs and ‘fast track’ nuclear ‘development’,
o Impartial advisor groups replaced by industry ‘experts’ with conflicts of interest,
o Citizen rights of appeal or redress removed by legislation,
o Huge taxpayer funded subsidies to the nuclear industry, regardless of detrimental impacts on other vital services,
o Massive pro-nuclear PR and advertising campaigns paid with taxpayers’ money.
Given the terrible consequences of nuclear ‘accidents’ and the insanity of nuclear weapons, a precautionary approach appears vital but with the ALP, precaution seems to have given way to expedience or short term self interest.
Technical skill and risk
Sticking with the nuclear example, it’s useful to ask ‘can we trust businesses and governments to design and operate high tech systems safely and effectively?’
One instructive indicator is the Melbourne Southern Star Observation Wheel, a $120 million dollar structure that was supposed to be the drawcard for the entire Melbourne Docklands development. But alas, it isn’t built to a safe standard by its Korean/Japanese suppliers. Structural cracks have been found that require expensive repairs and have forced the wheel’s closure.
In a recent embarrassing incident it was reported that a 5 Kg steel plate fell from the wheel, narrowly missing workers below. One report stated that the plate was only held on by the paint that had been applied!
So there we have it.
Risks? Legislate to prevent legal redress
Costs? Focus only on benefits. Conceal any current or future costs
Approvals? Use taxpayer monies to hire companies who stand to gain from approval
Objections? Hire spin doctors to propagandise the news. Fire internal dissenters.
Health concerns? Deny and focus public attention on something else.
Readers might like to add their own items to the list.
Meanwhile, watch this space…
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive/management coach.