Complexity, leadership, scanning & experiments

In this interview with Shane Parrish, the leadership expert Jennifer Garvey-Berger addresses the connections between four areas that many governance teams fail to grasp: complexity, leadership, scanning, and experimentation.

About fifty minutes into the interview she notes:

“In complexity we want to play really close attention to what’s going on right now in the system, because right now in this moment is where the seeds of whatever is going to happen next live…

Leaders that I think are really outstanding leaders – those leaders are able to pay attention to this system in such a way that they can hear whispers of things – the whispers of things today are really important to pay attention to. 

So in complexity you’re trying to find out how can I get a good sense of what’s going on right now, and then figure out which of those things I want to amplify and which of those things I want less of, I want to dampen down and move the system away from altogether. 

Because you can’t know exactly what’s going to happen next, you devise a series of what (Dave) Snowden calls Safe to Fail experiments.  These are experiments that you don’t know what’s going to happen, but they will help you learn.”

NBR Column – driverless cars

This is my NBR column from December 2016:

Since the invention of the first “horseless buggy” in 1891, there haven’t been many significant changes to the basic of the car. There have been incremental improvements to the platform – such as better engines, increased safety and more comfort – but the core has remained unchanged. A driver from 1920 would be able to adapt to a modern car and the reverse would also apply.

While a driver from the 1920s would be able to drive a car, a mechanic from the same era would no longer recognise the key components. Today’s new cars are equipped with collision avoidance sensors, traction control, ABS, air bags, reversing cameras, engine computers and media players. This technology means that new vehicles contain more software than a modern passenger aircraft and a laptop is more useful than a wrench when tinkering under the hood.

While this may be startling to some people, it pales into insignificance compared to what’s about to happen to the car when driverless vehicles become mainstream.

Since their first significant debut in 2004, driverless cars have evolved quickly. They have now been demonstrated in a range of situations, with manufacturers posting videos online showing just how well their machines work (usually in near-perfect conditions).

These advances have been enabled by developments in sensors, cameras and computing power. On their own, each of these required technologies was prohibitively expensive only a decade ago. Fast forward to now, however, and the cost has fallen to the point where it’s feasible to bundle them into a car.

For example, one of the key components is a device called a LIDAR which creates a millimetre accurate map of the world around the car. Early versions of LIDAR systems fitted on a car cost $75,000. Just last week one manufacturer announced a version with similar capabilities that would cost about $50.

Implications for ownership
While a lot of attention is on the technology in the car, most astute analysts are focused on the second and third tier implications of driverless vehicles. This is the most interesting part of the discussion because cars are ubiquitous in most urban environments, and a change in their form and function has massive implications.

The most significant implication will concern the very notion of car ownership.

A car is one of the most expensive assets in a household but at the same time it’s also one of the least used. Most a car’s life is spent stationary, though the cost of ownership is justified through what it creates.

In modern society a car creates access to opportunity, and for cities without an efficient mass transit system, car ownership is the way people access opportunity.

However, the notion of car ownership is being questioned in some cities and people have calculated that using a car-sharing service is cheaper than owning a car in some situations. Driverless cars are the next evolution of on-demand mobility without requiring ownership.

The most likely scenario to emerge in cities is that private car ownership will dwindle, and the demand for mobility will be met by fleets of vehicles available on demand and tailored to your requirements.

For example, a two-seater car could take you to a meeting, while a people carrier may stop past your house in the morning to collect your kids and take them to school.

Eliminating road congestion
Once you have a network of fleets running in a city, and every car is sending data about its state, it then becomes possible to optimise roads in a way that’s simply not possible now. When you know exactly how many cars are on the road at any one time and where they are going, you can start to organise their routes in such a way that eliminates congestion.

Another implication of driverless cars is the remodelling of city streets to remove carparks – cars without drivers never need to be parked for hours on the kerbside.

The biggest benefit of driverless cars is likely to be the near elimination of road accidents. A car that’s operated by a computer will never get distracted by phone calls or fall asleep at the wheel. Some researchers have predicted that driverless cars have the potential to reduce road deaths by up to 90%.

Regulating for driverless cars is one of the biggest hurdles to their adoption, and for this reason uptake on private roads (which are free of regulation) has already begun.

To illustrate, some Australian mines have operated driverless trucks since 2008, and since their introduction productivity has increased and accidents have decreased. In New Zealand one of the first significant pilots of driverless vehicles will take place in 2017 when Christchurch airport will introduce a driverless shuttle bus on its private roads.

In the next few years the workforce will start to be impacted by this technology, with truck drivers likely to be affected first. Already a delivery truck owned by an Uber subsidiary has driven almost two hundred kilometres across the US on interstate highways in self driving mode. This has profound implications for the three million truck drivers employed in the US and the industries that support them.

The next decade will be a transition period where driverless vehicles start to become commonplace in some situations. They’re unlikely to be widespread in cities as many experts believe that there are very hard problems that still need to be solved. For this reason it won’t be until after 2025 that we’re likely to see a dramatic change in the transportation fleet.

What makes this timeframe interesting, is that unlike many technology driven changes that have slowly changed business, this one is clear to see.  Organisations that have the foresight to leverage insights about the changes created by driverless cars will do extremely well. Those that don’t will end up like the horseless buggy.

Copyright NBR. Cannot be reproduced without permission.
Read more:
Follow us: @TheNBR on Twitter | NBROnline on Facebook


VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous

One of the themes emerging from a range of sources in the foresight arena around the world is that it’s increasingly hard to understand where the world is going.  An acronym that helps describe this is VUCA:

It’s an acronym developed by the U.S. military after the collapse of the Soviet Union to describe a multipolar world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Volatility reflects the speed and turbulence of change. Uncertainty means that outcomes, even from familiar actions, are less predictable. Complexity indicates the vastness of interdependencies in globally connected economies and societies. And ambiguity conveys the multitude of options and potential outcomes resulting from them. Where once we could count on the seeming certainty and predictability of binary choices — capitalism versus communism, democracy versus autocracy, Corn Flakes versus kasha — choices and consequences are now far less clear.

Source: Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World

(off topic) Cathedral Square 48 Hour Design Challenge

Over the weekend I worked with a team from Arup and Opus on the 48 Hour Design Challenge (to redesign parts of the Christchurch CBD after the recent earthquakes).  We worked to redesign Cathedral Square and I blogged some of our thinking, progress and end results here.

Last night we were rapt to win the award for the design of this site and hope that some of our thinking will be used by the City Planning team.

How do you spread a vision?

Today I’m humbled by the help offered by friends over at the extraordinary Brains on Fire, who have blogged a request for help about how to spread a vision for building an iconic Christchurch (my home city). The wonderful Robbin Phillips sums it up below:

So I have a request, how in your opinion, can a small band of passionate leaders in Christchurch create excitement and hope about rebuilding an iconic Christchurch?

Like (Which I love BTW!)

How can they rally support in a town with a population of about 400,000 at a time when even finding spaces to meet are hard? (Most of the 80,000 people that fled town have now returned, but many are finding it hard with constant aftershocks – over 1600 since Feb 22nd.)

How can they get the community to take shared ownership when many are still caught up in the grind of survival?

If you’ve ever been hit with personal loss, you know that dreaming again is a very good sign. Let’s help the people of Christchurch dream BIG.

Let’s show our support. Share this idea with your friends. Let’s start a conversation. Do you like the idea of an Elevated Garden City? Have you seen anything like it? Would you visit it?

I am humbled at how connected my community and my world has become lately.

Even if you just send a word of encouragement or retweet using the hashtag #elevatedgardencity, let’s toss some big time love out in the world on this Tuesday morning.

Please take the time to check out Elevated Garden City, link to the Brains on Fire blog (below) or simply spread the word on Twitter.  Thanks.

via Brains On Fire Blog » Blog Archive » More thoughts on community, connections and being human..

(below is a conceptual image from Elevated Garden City)

(off topic) Lessons learnt from two disasters

This is completely off topic, but in conversations over the last few weeks people have consistently asked me to write this, so here it is.  This is about disaster planning and my experience of living through the threat of disaster, and through two actual disasters.

The story begins the week after 9/11.  My wife and I were living in London at the time and I vividly recall the Chief of Police giving a statement on television that said it was not a matter of if terrorists would target London, but when.  It occurred to me that this was an extraordinary statement, and after giving it some thought I went out and purchased enough food and water for a week.

We left London a couple of years later and never had to use our emergency supplies.  On returning to New Zealand I remember seeing a programme on television about the preparation required to live through an earthquake.  One of the comments was that you should have a “grab bag” packed with essentials that would allow you to survive for a few days.

Given the London experience I thought this was excellent advice, so in addition to duplicating the food reserves from London, I also prepared a grab bag.  This included the usual things (first aid, torches, batteries towels, toilet paper, hand sanitiser etc), along with an encrypted USB stick with scans of all the important paper documentation that would prove identity, insurance and wills.  I stored this in the basement right beside the door.

I also bought a Pelican Case to store our backup data as we have ten years of digital photos on hard drives.  If you’re not familiar with Pelican Cases, they’re storage boxes that I’m sure are made from the same stuff they use to build airplane Black Boxes.  You can put eggs in a Pelican Case and then throw it off a ten metre cliff and the eggs will not break. I thought that was good enough for my data.  They are also waterproof to some ridiculous depth.  For disaster planning I kept the Pelican Case in my office in case something happened at the house.  If you work in IT this is called an off site backup.  If you don’t work in IT it’s called a bloody good idea.

In September the unthinkable happened.  Christchurch was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.  Bear in mind that Christchurch had not been affected by earthquakes before, and there were no known fault lines under the city.

The damage to our house was luckily minimal, but the grab bag was indispensable.  We had no power for 24 hours, no water and questionable sewerage.  Luckily it wasn’t long before utilities were back to normal for our home.

However the experience made me re-examine how prepared we were, and I resolved to not only restock what we had used, but also increase the level of preparedness.

I decided that have survival gear in the basement was a bad idea, because if the house collapsed we’d have nothing.  We did have a separate garage and I decided that our essential gear should go there.  With that in mind I went to a local hardware store and bought the biggest, toughest storage case I could find.  I then filled it with tents, sleeping bags, spare cell phone, a water purifier, torches batteries etc.

I also purchased a few more specialty items, but researched these carefully before buying them.  I didn’t want to buy cheap, poor quality equipment that would fail when you really needed it.  Here’s a handful of the key items:

  • the storage case was a builders tool chest.  It was from a company called Tyson and I bought it at a hardware store called Bunnings. Tyson make a range of cases and I got the mother-of-all-chests.  It is lockable, dust proof, rodent proof and “as capacious as an elephants scrotum.” It’s tough plastic and made in such a way that I reckon that the garage could collapse and it would stay intact.  However just to be sure I placed a couple of large cupboards either side of it in the garage (filled with bottled water)
  • a wind up/solar torch/radio.  You can get these easily at local shops but the quality is usually appalling.  I spent a lot of time online and ended up getting a Trevor Bayliss design that had a radio, torch, and a low powered red light (to preserve your night vision and the battery at the same time).  It also had a solar panel which would charge the unit in 12 hours.  What’s more it has a rubberised outer case which means it’s less likely to break if you accidentally drop it.  I tracked down the manufacturer in the UK, emailed a bunch of friends to see if they wanted one too, then bulk ordered ten.
  • a wind up torch.  I ordered this in New Zealand from a company in Nelson.  It’s a pure wind up torch (no radio) that also charges from the mains, and can in turn charge cell phones.  It is also water proof to about 10m (all you need) and has two beam strengths (once again to preserve the battery life).  As soon as it arrived I plugged it in to give it a full charge.

We distributed this gear around the house in the following way in case of another disaster:

  • torches beside the bed to grab immediately
  • a small kit by the front door.  This also happened to be the strongest point in the house, with three door frames in close proximity.  It also had no glass windows around it.  The kit by the door included warm clothes for everyone, jackets, more torches, a radio, first aid kit and some water.  If we needed to leave the house in a hurry we’d grab this and bolt.
  • the grab bag in the basement.  This was the next port of call if we needed to evacuate.  It had slightly more gear in it and could be carried quickly to the car.
  • last stage was the Tyson case in the garage.  I also got a sack carrier trolley to go beside the case so I could move it quickly outside as it was too big and bulky for one person to lift.

I figured that would put us in a good position should the unthinkable happen.

The only thing remaining on my list was a pair of handheld walkie talkies.  When the earthquake struck in September the mobile phone network went down and I thought that if this happens again the only way to ensure you were in touch with someone was to have your own communications.  However I thought this might be a little over the top even for me and delayed spending the NZ$330.

On February 22 the unthinkable happened for the second time.

Another earthquake – this time a magnitude 6.3 – hit Christchurch in the middle of the day.  Buildings collapsed, roads were torn up and over 160 people died.

I was in town, my wife was at home with my youngest son and my oldest son was at school.

When the shaking stopped I immediately regretted the decision to save money by not buying the walkie talkies.

Learning from September I knew I had a window of a few minutes to let people know I was ok.  I sent a text message to my wife saying that I was ok and that I was going to school to get my eldest son.   She immediately send a message back saying that she had our other son and that she was fine.

I then sent a text message to Twitter about the earthquake.  This may seem odd but my Twitter feed goes directly to Facebook.  With one message I had told hundreds of people that I was ok and therefore avoided countless emails and text messages checking to see if I was unhurt.

I had chosen the location of my office to be in close proximity to my son’s school and it took only a few minutes to run there.  I was the first parent there and sent another text message telling my wife that he was fine and I was with him.

Then the mobile phone network was overloaded and service stopped.

Within an hour it was back up, but only for a few minutes before it died again.  Phone calls were impossible, and sending messages became a process of sending again, again and again until it went through.  This sometimes took an hour.

This breakdown meant that my wife and I were out of touch, and this caused a huge amount of stress when I didn’t stick to the disaster plan we’d agreed after the first quake in Sept. My text message to her updating my revised plans never reached her, putting her in danger (but that’s a longer story).

Eventually when we met at home we could not immediately get to the basement, as a large plate glass window above the entrance had exploded, covering the doorway in glass.  I went straight to the garage and unlocked the Tyson case, pulled out the tents and pitched on the lawn (the inside of the house was strewn with glass).

In the end we were all ok, but being prepared took the stress down one notch in an extremely stressful situation.

Everyone I’ve told this story to asked me where I’d written this, and I finally resolved to blog it.  With that in mind, here’s what I learnt from living through two disasters:


  • always ensure that your phone is charged each nigh.  In a disaster communication is critical, and a fully charged phone becomes your best friend (next to your walkie talkie)
  • never leave anywhere without your phone – after the first ‘quake I would even take it to the toilet with me.
  • think carefully about what you have in your disaster kit, how good that gear is (don’t go for the cheapest option), and what makes it work (AA batteries, solar or windup). Also think about where you keep it – we now have the three-stage system in the house, a grab bag in the boot of the car and I carry walkie talkies in my bag with my laptop.  This last bit may be over-the-top but on Feb 22 I would have paid thousands of dollars to talk to my wife and avoid that stress.  The walkie talkies I purchased were a pair of Uniden handsets that weigh nothing but transmit 10kms by line of sight, and are powered by AA batteries.
  • never let your car run to an almost empty petrol tank.  The day of the ‘quake we only had a 60km range and this was not enough for us to get the kids out of town.  I ended up taking two hours to find petrol then queue to fill the car.
  • plan to live, and live the plan.  Make sure your friends and family know the disaster plan, and reinforce the need to stick to it.  Plan for the disaster most likely to affect you.

Finally here’s a list of the gear mentioned above:
Tyson toolbox:
Pelican cases:
Wind up radio:
Wind up torch:
Uniden walkie talkies:

Innovation and Govts – you cannot mandate innovation

From BusinessWeek comes this pertinent observation about innovation.  Whether it’s at a national level, or a corporate level, you have to let go a little in order to create a lot:

Governments can’t mandate or manufacture innovation, no matter how much they invest. Clusters happen where like-minded entrepreneurs congregate, start risky ventures, and learn from one another other by networking. Innovation is a by-product of this synergy and experimentation. What is needed is less government control, not more.

via Okinawa’s Doomed Innovation Experiment – BusinessWeek.

Blogging pause due to earthquake

You may be aware that my hone city – Christchurch – in New Zealand suffered a very large earthquake earlier in the week.  As a result I have not been able to get to my office for a few days now and I’m only working on essential business.  As a result I’m pausing blogging until I can get my professional and personal life back to normal.