The art of rule-breaking

From Annie Smits, CEO

 

I consider myself a ‘seasoned rule-breaker’ having dedicated much of my life to challenging systems that don’t work. I spent 10 years as a minister pushing up against one of the biggest institutions entrenched in tradition: the church. What comes to mind for me when I think about Piscasso’s quote learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist is the journey to mastering a trade – from novice, to apprentice, to journeyman, to master of a craft.

 

 

So, what does this have to do with social entrepreneurship and innovation? Well everything!

As social entrepreneurs we desire to break the rules, rearrange the system, and to change how we treat people and planet.  To see the true change in a system, we need to apprentice with the problem before we can shift it or break it.   ‘Apprentice with the problem’ is a saying of the late great Pamela Hartigan.  By this she meant we need to take time to understand the problem before we could truly be of any value as part of the solution.

 

I think a great example that illustrates this for me is how KeepCup apprenticed with the problem of ‘wasteful coffee culture’.  I remember once sitting with Abigail Forsyth, the founder of Keep Cup, who wanted to change peoples’ behaviour around the use of disposable cups.  As a café owner and barista, she spent many years studying people’s relationship and behaviour to takeaway coffee culture – I remember being fascinated by this.  Abigail was confident she could convince people to buy a reusable cup, but that wasn’t the entire problem, it was also continual use of it.  The biggest question she spent her time answering was how do we incentivise people to remember to bring their reusable takeaway cups with them every time?

 

 

Why are we breaking the rules in the first place?

 

For me personally, the most powerful reason for systems-change is exclusion – someone is being left out or not able to participate in a system. I think of our finances system in the West, where bankers and finance experts have created a system of intimidation and closed knowledge that excludes people through the language they use.   I think of equality ‘trade-off’ debate: women can have more power and a voice, as long as it doesn’t leave the guys out.   As a mother of two young boys I don’t want my sons left behind, but I also have a daughter and want her to grow up with equal opportunity in the system.   In fact, some of the most outrageous reasons for exclusion we’ve seen, have been through our work with Indigenous people – for example, laws that don’t acknowledge the rights of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people?!

 

At TDi, much of our work to date has been about helping the excluded to participate in existing systems (for example, our work through YuMi).  But I don’t think in any of these issues its just about helping someone to participate in the current system.   More and more, I’m asking myself the question what if we need to build new and inclusive systems, create a new language and a new centre?

 

If we’re creating a new system, it requires all of us to think and act differently. Who is going to own this problem?  The most powerful place for change is when we own the problem, take responsibility in how we’ve been complicit in that system.  This requires us to be changed as a part of the process, not just a passive expert facilitating someone else’s journey from the outside. An expert comes with all the answers, all the knowledge and all the power. Instead, we need to approach problems from a position of vulnerability, empathy and be open to the process of change, changing us.

 

Be patient grasshopper

Change requires a thoughtful, patient process.  There’s a youthful energy and enthusiasm that comes with rule-breaking that I love, but it also needs to be tempered with patience, to get the long-term or scalable change we are looking for.   We need to observe, participate, practice, practice, practice in a system, before we can make it our own.  There are three qualities that I dig deep for to help me on a patient journey: humility, curiosity and most of all an ability to sit in the messy unknown of a situation before you jump to the solution.

 

Humility: our ability to say ‘we don’t know’ is a constant gift.  It opens space for new ideas, further discussion, and others to contribute to the conversation providing new points of view.

 

Curiosity: our greatest friend. As kids we are born with a great sense of curiosity, constantly asking ‘but why?’ Many of us lose this as we grow older, or it’s considered a childish trait, but I would argue it is through a sense of curiosity that we master a situation.

 

Sitting in the unknown: our ability to suspend judgement is critical to arrive at a solution for lasting change.  At TDi we call it ‘the messy middle’ where we sit in the mess and the unknown before we can come up with a solution.

These three things are hard to do when you’ve got pressure from external stakeholders to ‘have the answer’.  But a true response will take time and thoughtfulness.  This isn’t the easy journey, and might mean that, like Abigail, you sit alongside the problem or behaviour you are looking to change to understand the levers and relationships which affect long lasting change.


The Full Monty the movie, and the next economy

From Anna Moegerlein, Principal

 

The Full Monty is one of my favourite movies. Recently I stumbled across a chapter by J. K Gibson-Graham (2006) describing the film through the lens of the next economy. It took my appreciation to a whole other level.

 

The Full Monty is set in Sheffield in the England shortly after the closure of the steelworks. A group of unemployed men gather each day at the Job Club. Some are looking for work, others have given up all together. Then a male strip show comes to town and a small group of the local men, led by Gaz, decide to put on their own show to rival the Chippendales.

 

Things don’t go so well initially. There’s an excruciating scene where one man is auditioning for a part in the group. He fumbles, stops halfway and runs out. This is followed by a hilarious scene with an older black man who stuns the group with his charismatic dance moves. The film strikes the perfect balance between funny and sad.

 

What Gibson-Graham so deftly point out is that The Full Monty is a story of economic transition that actually goes well. The central characters give themselves permission to embrace a more flexible male identity (that includes vulnerability and creativity), they’re thoroughly successful in their enterprise and are celebrated by their community.

 

In their book, Gibson-Graham talk about how important identity and agency are to successful economic transition, and specifically to an economy that is more inclusive, more equitable and not dependent on fossil fuels. In fact, they suggest that the task of building this new economy is more about performing different economic identities (identities that moves beyond ‘homo-economicus’ to include work/business that integrates purpose, as well our interdependency with the natural world, among other things), than it is about macro-economic planning. I’d suggest it’s both, but the stories we tell ourselves and our national economic narrative is absolutely putting the brakes on change.

 

Gibson-Graham’s book also reminded me of how important community is to any transition. People need hope, agency and the encouragement of their peers. There’s also that point where you let go, step into the unknown and see what happens.


Technology, inequality and the future of work

Image courtesy of Square Up, Australia.

 

Reflections on The University of Melbourne Lecture Series 

Recently, I attended a discussion about the future impacts of technological innovation on Australia’s workforce and economic and social equality, at The University of Melbourne. Tim Dunlop (Futurist) and Tim Lyons (former ACTU Assistant Secretary) debated the likelihood of new technologies widening, or perhaps redefining, the gap between richer and poorer Australians by changing the way we work in the future. In particular, Tim Dunlop's perspective resonated with me, as I share below.

 

The Good:

Dunlop painted a new kind of future in which institutions are self-governing, brave and interested in wealth redistribution, rather than principally driven by profit maximisation for shareholders. Dunlop says that technology can be the enabler for this future if we embrace its power and actively use it to drive equity.

 

The Bad:

Despite our general reluctance to look at alternative options of workforce and working in favour of traditional forms of work, work patterns and hours, change is arriving fast. Our future will be one where machine learning, robotics and automation will radically change the way we work.

Looking at the current labour market, it is easy to understand predictions that much of “Working Australia” operating in unstructured environments and with flexible hours will be the first to face automation. According to a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), approximately 36 per cent of Australian jobs face a significant or high risk of automation, and it is expected for young people without tertiary education will be most affected, given their higher rates of under-employed, non-employed or low pay. In short: more young people struggling to get work.

 

The Ugly:

Dunlop expects higher paying knowledge roles and lower paid essential caring and healing jobs to remain mostly unchanged.  Rather, he asks what jobs will be created and who will and won’t have access to them?  His prediction is that “Working Australia” will be most impacted by technology and automation, carving out a deeper hole in equality and opportunity. He says that for generations we have rewarded the stewards of extraction far more that the stewards of renewal, and without a significant refocus we are set to continue driving a greater wedge between the “haves “and “have nots”.

 

The Way Forward:

To counter this, Dunlop paints a vision for economic and social equality, that values participation and contribution to society, rather than just labour, which can be enabled by technology. Rather than leaving wealth distribution to the invisible hand and being fearful of the impending change, he says we need to lean into technology. Technology can allow workers to improve their productivity, but instead of lining the pockets of our shareholders with the margin earned from these efficiencies, use the reclaimed working hours to innovate, and create social solutions (or, solve social problems) and increase quality of life.

We've seen this already through the likes of Hire Up providing more choice to customers, OurSay allowing people to participate in local decision-making, or Square Up enabling electronic payment for any business.

Dunlop argues that we are on the verge of a technological shift large enough to impact us as much as climate change.  We need to decide what future we want rather than let history dictate our future.

Of course, this approach requires us to reimagine the way we value our work and a fundamental shift in prospering Australia’s rich (10% of Australians hold 49% of the wealth), which will in no way be an easy task.

These technologies have the potential to disrupt the very fabric upon which we have built our way of working. And these technologies will, on the whole, increase productivity and drive a surplus. So, if technology and therefore productivity is coming, how will you innovate, create or solve with the surplus?