Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

Things which were deemed core business no more than five or ten years ago may now no longer be with us, and things that seemed marginal or unimportant might now be the tools and activities which will stand us in good stead.

I’m thinking particularly of parts of the library world which were slow to move to digitisation, digital tools, and online collaboration. The core, for them, had been cataloguing, systems, the collection; the pandemic has shaken that up and forced those institutions to rebalance, primarily because the only way to keep the doors open was to do so online.

Last week, I went to the National Library of Scotland’s lovely reading room for the first time in six or so months. There’s still something powerful about holding a book in your hand. I view books as tools and – if I own them! – I’m pretty prone to handling them as such; bending their spines, and so on. 

But I think you have a point around this question: can you democratise knowledge and information? Can you give access to more people? Where once you had to visit the library, libraries can now come to you.

In the work I did with Matt for the City of Newcastle just recently, we came up with three models of library service as part of the research underpinning their next infrastructure plan. There’s always going to be some kind of physical location, library-as-place; there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the notion of not having any building as such. 

So we came up with this concept of the Everywhere Library, which was around being flexible enough to test new ideas, trial new ways of serving communities, and to have a more mobile, adaptable view of your service and its activities. We can see that being proven now with the click-and-collect model that’s happening in libraries globally in response to the pandemic; with storytimes being delivered in an online environment, which would never even have been thought of six months ago. So that concept is one that we can now tease out a little bit more, experimenting with how far you can go: book vending machines at public transport stations, the library being present at places where people gather, rather than just being a place for people to gather in.

Certainly in the postal sector, you’ve got something similar: this whole notion of locker banks, where you take the material to where people actually live, as opposed to people having to move towards the material.

You could imagine a world where you go to the local supermarket to pick up your groceries, lo and behold, the library’s there: you pick up your book.

Some of the libraries were doing things like piggybacking on Meals on Wheels to provide home delivery as part of their aged care support. Some libraries in New South Wales even had parking inspectors delivering library materials during library closures.

The other thing that’s interesting, that’s come out of the pandemic response here in Australia, which turned up in the work I did for the State Library of New South Wales, is the return by some libraries to pretty old school methods. Care calling, for example: picking up the phone, checking on their elderly and vulnerable patrons. The surface reason for the call might have been given as “updating their records”, but what they were really doing was making that one-to-one connection with their user base. One library in Victoria, Yarra Plenty Regional Library, completed over 7000 customer calls. A powerful way to strengthen those relationships.

In libraries, you have a very personal connection to individuals; you’ll see the same individuals coming in over and over again. And with the demographics you might typically see – the very young and the elderly – you have that aspect of care and concern for both age groups, which I think libraries are brilliant at.

Smart parcel delivery locker via Wikimedia user Stephen

The other thing I take from what you’re saying is that hub-and-spoke system, where the spokes might be the deliveries, or the Meals on Wheels partnerships, or that presence in a supermarket. 

Shared locations are really interesting. One of the things we were looking at in Newcastle is whether they could set up in partnership with the Surf Lifesaving clubs out on the beach. The lifesavers’ hub-and-spoke, plus the libraries’ hub-and-spoke, integrating into a wider network for the benefit of all.

I guess the Royal Mail must have explored some of these issues too; new partnerships and models, especially with postal volumes dropping off; but also that one-to-one connection that people can still have with the post worker who knocks at their door.

There’s a couple of beautiful examples. 

Posties go to the door everyday, and they see lots of things. One of the things we did at the Royal Mail was set up an alert system for missing persons: “So-and-so’s gone missing, here’s a description, kindly look out for them while you’re on your rounds.” It was a brilliant piece of community service.

We also did some work around locker banks, as I mentioned earlier. They’re ubiquitous in places like Singapore and Japan. Again, it’s a question of connectivity: as our lives change – as they’ve changed very significantly now, all in our houses – how does the service need to adapt? Our job was getting post to the people, and we were trying to think more laterally: can you drop it with a neighbour, to a local newsagent, are there other solutions?

I guess there’s a similarity between libraries and post, is the challenge about losing control if you bring in a third party. You may have a quality gap, some items might go missing, and so on. 

We also share a tension between digitisation and physical material. Digitisation seems to many people to be the right thing to do, but not everyone’s got access to digital devices – 

Or even wants it –

– right. 

There’s a cohort who don’t even want this. However much digitisation you do, there still will be a percentage that says, “That’s not my world.”

People still want that connectivity with a human, don’t they?

There’s also the element who don’t want contact with anyone, or anything! It’s not always about loneliness and social isolation; some of the people we worked with at Infoxchange were homeless and simply didn’t want to be found or connected in any way.

If you go to do something physically, you sometimes do other things as well. You might stop off for a cup of tea and a scone while you’re out, have a natter: there’s also “out-and-aboutness”. 

I was talking to Michelle Lim, one of the world’s leading researchers on loneliness, and one of the things that came up was this question of when or if we will return to our offices. People miss the company and the social aspect  of the office. Whether it’s a cup of tea together, or a cigarette outside, the loss of that adds to a kind of weariness we’re experiencing around Zoom and staring at a screen all day, trying to interact with people that way. And it is a weariness exacerbated by the lockdowns and restricted movement that comes with the pandemic.

I’m not in the habit of making sweeping predictions, but I do wonder if, when we get the pandemic under control, there will be some issues arising around people working from home and the sense of isolation that may be associated with that.

From my old corporate experience, the best part of a meeting was always the two minutes when you walked away from the meeting, and asked them: “What do you really think about that?”

You have this great conversation for an hour or so, great Powerpoint slides, but actually as you’re walking away and grabbing a tea, that’s when you’d hear people’s real thoughts about an issue.

Getting a cuppa and a biscuit in the half-time break from a long session, it’s an opportunity to connect and maybe even speak with someone that you hadn’t had a chance to connect with before. It gives you a chance to get to know other people and maybe create some new relationships, new opportunities for you both.

This world-of-Zooming we’re in now is constructed and constrained in ways that don’t allow for that looseness and serendipity.

I’m quite a visual thinker, and I was notorious for jumping up and grabbing a pen in meetings and starting to draw stuff. That spontaneity disappears a bit in these new contexts, doesn’t it?

Superhero as workshop facilitator, workshop facilitator as superhero? – from Squirrel Girl volume 8

I’m a whiteboarder too, and here I am without one at home! There are virtual whiteboards and new applications, but they don’t have that tactile satisfaction of the pen in your hand, and that dynamic of a group in a room, thinking together, throwing stuff on the board, rubbing it off.

I find that kind of work to be a nice stepping-off point as well, when you’re meeting in-person. You can’t play with ideas in the same way, within the strictures of the Zoom environment. That play doesn’t always take you very far, but it can spark something else – “What about this?” – and that spark is what gets you to something worthwhile.

And those sparks sometimes come as afterthoughts, during that walking-away-cup-of-tea conversation. Those are also sometimes the moments when the quieter voices in a room get to speak up and have their say. Those are things I wouldn’t want to leave in the past, when we emerge from the crises of 2020.

I think finding ways to hear those quieter, thoughtful voices is vital. One of the things about scenarios, for me, is that they’re an opportunity to challenge official strategy. We all have those strategy documents that have been through the board, the CEO, the consultants, and so on, and the official future is in there, but often people understand that other things are also happening outside of that document. They perceive forces emerging far in advance of the formal strategy. The people who are doing the work often see what’s going right or wrong more quickly than the C-suite.

I heard a story some years ago – it might be one of those folk tales, to be honest, but you can still learn from a folk tale – about a major Australian corporation, headquartered in Sydney, which got a new CEO. The old chief exec didn’t smoke, but the new one did. Every hour ago, he’d go downstairs sixteen floors and sit in the loading bay with the cleaners, the couriers, the delivery boys, where he’d talk to them. This unnerved the executives so much, they all took up smoking so they had a reason to be down there to be part of the conversation!

Even if that’s an urban myth, it’s a good illustration of the ways in which organisations struggle to connect those that do know with those that should know. 

My experiences in that vein aren’t to do with smoking, but it’s similar: you’ll design a dashboard or a scorecard or some other tool which will give you oversight of a situation, but when you talk to the people who are actually doing the work, the dashboard metrics sometimes stop seeming all that important.

“This is the thing that customers tell me, and I see the customers every day”, is immensely valuable – but it’s the unofficial versus the official source of data.

The other thing I see is that often frontline workers are immensely more agile than the corporate. 

We’ve certainly seen this in the New South Wales pandemic survey work on libraries’ response; it’s pretty obvious, from doing the data analysis for that, that quite clearly all across the board, libraries adapted really quickly, and for some institutions, they could even see the crisis as being a good thing, because decision making became really fully shared by staff. And that wasn’t even just responsive crisis decision making for now, but also decision making for the future, those strategic questions around what the business model is that we’ll move towards.

It’s hard to read into data things like emotions, but I got the impression that for some library managers, there was even a sense of relief; that the pressure of having to be the person or the management team who were making those judgment calls was released as they moved towards a fully shared decision making process. Perhaps one of the interesting outcomes from this process will be a flattening of the hierarchies?

There’s also an argument that the flatter your organisational structure, the better the decisions that you make. Going back to dashboards and scorecards, you manage what you measure.

One of the big questions for the library world will be, what do metrics look like in the future? People through the door and items out the door might not be the measures you need in a different world. In the library world, actual loans of items have been dropping off, so what is your real impact? I think it speaks to your comment on measurement: what you measure is, to some extent, who you are. If you’re a public body and what you measure is declining, that should prompt change.

That comes back to scenarios, too: what is plausible? For the Royal Mail, one of our straplines was “Managing the decline of letters”. Not exactly inspiring, is it? What did you value about getting post through the door: a birthday card, a Christmas card, and thank you note?

Right, and also you might potentially get into the mindset of managing a decline and then there’s a huge upset, like the pandemic, which might trigger a huge uptake of letter-writing. If the trend bends or breaks, the decline that you think you’re managing might snap back in your face.

I’ve been thinking about examples where the pandemic has sent us to an extreme – libraries having to go fully digital, for example – and wondering what happens when the pendulum swings back the other way, or adopts a trajectory that isn’t the one you’ve been busy getting used to. 

It sounds weird talking about the pandemic as an opportunity, but there is always opportunity, no matter what happens. In Britain, right now, we’re locked down, or slightly locked down – the restrictions aren’t always clear – but if we get to Christmas, and you can’t visit your relatives, that would be a huge opportunity for the postal sector. That sense of human connectivity we were talking about earlier could be restored through Christmas cards, parcels, and so on. It comes back to your point of that tactile element versus a digital screen culture.

It is difficult to move big organisations, of course – you’ll know that better than I would – but if I were Australia Post, I’d consider introducing a 5 cent lockdown stamp, to get people back into sending messages, even if it cost some money initially. The impact isn’t the message or the delivery of the message; it’s more likely to be the act of writing the message and the sense of connection and wellbeing for the individual that that brings.

It’s about habit-forming, isn’t it? If you had a 5 cent pandemic stamp, you might not make much money on it, but it’s a low-cost product, and you could get people back into the habit of doing that, popping something in the post.

If you’re sitting at home in lockdown, you might write some letters to friends and family, it occupies your time, but it’s also building those connections. So a 5 cent lockdown stamp may well produce long term mental health benefits. 

Years ago, when we did the GoDigi project with Australia Post, we came up with the National Year of Digital Inclusion. We wanted to have a stamp for that year, but the team which oversaw stamp design and creation needed a two-year run up to release a stamp! So maybe the 5 cent stamp might be ready in time for the next pandemic!

One of Royal Mail’s large customers experienced massive growth and it moved them on to a different timeframe. They came to us with a contract that incorporated a two-week timeline, which seemed impossible. So one of the things I did was address this from an operational solutions point of view; I could see this was good work, profitable, why don’t we have a different conversation with the trade unions, and say, “If we can get into this space, that protects jobs, and it could even create jobs.” Within that fortnight, we’d put in Sunday night shifts and later collection times, and the adversarial relationship had shifted to one which was more collaborative. Why turn away work, was my attitude.

We could compare the philatelic services with the libraries’ cataloguing world, where things move at a different pace; or conservation services, which are actually surprisingly forward-facing – they have to consider, will we have the technology to read a floppy disc or a USB stick, what media should we be storing our data on? Or with books what glues to use in repairs that ensure the next repair might be 200 years away rather than 100.

Sometimes the slower moving parts of the organisation do see things on a different timescale, and we can get value from those different time horizons.

One of the things we explored was introducing machine learning. It wasn’t entirely successful, because the data wasn’t good enough, but one of the things I found was that older legacy systems were just sitting there, still in use, and the organisations using them hadn’t taken any time to imagine what the new world will look like, and it becomes so costly, you don’t get any rate of return.

I came across one large bank that was still using Supercalc, the precursor to Excel! 

There are certainly stories you hear about submarines and aircraft that run on floppy discs, because that was the technology at the time of their production. Being able to hack into those systems is probably quite difficult, to be fair!

I know someone who works for a large airline, and one of his team is the floppy disc expert; he’s a complete asset, because he’s the one guy who knows how the software on the discs actually works.

He was telling me recently that they were having to reload routes; if you take a route out, say you stop flying from Schiphol to Melbourne, it disappears from the plane’s navigation, so you have to reload all the routes again. 

And I understand there’s another complication in the sheer number of floppy discs that you have to go through loading everything before the plane can take off!

It’s an interesting point: we talk about digitisation going forward, but digitisation has to move backwards as well, in order to work. At some point, you need to get your technologies converging.

This comes back to our very first point, was there a normal in the first place, or were we just muddling through? We might never actually achieve that convergence, because we didn’t manage it in the past. People are talking about the “post-COVID economy” and so on, but I wonder if we’ll ever get “there”, as if it’s a new steady state.

We’ve both worked with scenarios, and they can be very democratic in this sense, can’t they: bringing in different voices, allowing us to challenge this singular, official future, the big glossy expensive strategy. There’s an opportunity to incorporate quieter, excluded, dissident voices into the conversation. I don’t think there’ll be a monolithic “new normal”; there’ll be a new reality of some sort, but it can’t just be a repetition or even an iteration of the old. It’s really that opportunity to build back better, isn’t it?

There’s an opportunity here, and you hope that some will be taken; greater localisation, stronger supply chains for food and so forth. The property market is doing very well in regional Victoria because of the lockdown. Real estate agents in regional towns were on the news complaining about the lack of stock to sell, because people in Melbourne were all in the process of selling up and leaving the city, because now they know they can work from home successfully. They can have a better quality of life, work online, and reduce how much they commute.

Those manifestations of change are setting the scene for the post-COVIDS world; they’re the seeds of the world we’re going to live in, even if it’s going to be as fragmented and complex and dynamic as the world that went before – not a “new normal” but just the reality of what we’ve learned to live with.

In Britain, they’re talking about people moving out to the country and coast, away from those expensive city-centre properties. You can have the seaside, a bigger garden, whatever it is, without sacrificing your career. Will we see a ripple effect from that decision, for example, in terms of local amenities? In Britain, a lot of high street banks have gone, will we see them return? Will there be a resurgence in local produce, in markets, and so on?

I was doing some work with a real estate firm, one scenario which came out of that project was very much like this. They saw that there would be really expensive properties sitting in the middle of London, unwanted.

I can see that happening in Melbourne at the moment, and all those empty office buildings too. That’s also an opportunity – those empty office buildings I can see from my window, what will happen to them? Some of the banks and big corporates were already trying to use their spaces in different ways, with co-working and other approaches. What happens when it’s not just empty buildings, but empty cities – do they become more suburban and residential? Does the 16 story office block become half residential, half office? Do you go down 16 flights to your coworking space each day? I don’t see it as all doom and gloom as there is so much invested that creative solutions have a strong chance to emerge.

It also gives us an opportunity to advance the green agenda; as the commute disappears, we can think differently about transit, about how you green streets. Living in Edinburgh, the streets here have been closed to cars and you can immediately see the difference. There are tables in the streets, people walking around, the city is a quieter and more intimate experience. You don’t have to pause at every crossing for a car to pass.

And think also of air quality, too. Social gathering has been one of the core activities for public libraries over the years; if you now have to have one that is socially distanced, you have to think about air quality and air movement through the building in a way you might not have been pre-pandemic. And that means, if you’re looking at the library as a gathering place, you might have to explore the use of outdoor spaces, too; even repurposing your car park or the road outside your institution, as part of that transformation. If everyone’s cycling to the library, you might only need half the parking spaces, and then you could rework that remaining space in a library-friendly way.

Part of it is around how we reimagine ourselves. I’ve travelled around Norway and Denmark during the winter, and people don’t go indoors during the winter. In those countries, they’ve worked out how to live outdoors even when it’s cold.

Melbourne’s a big coffee city, we love our cafes. What’s the opportunity to make cafes and bars spill out further into the streets? How can you live outside, in an age when the outdoors are safer than enclosed spaces? We could learn from those Scandinavians too; we can put on a big jacket and enjoy the outdoors even in the coldest season in Melbourne.

It comes back to this question, was there ever really one normal? People in other parts of the world do live differently, find different solutions to the challenges and opportunities of the environment they find themselves in, and seeing that can let people live differently as well, giving them more choice, hopefully being more inclusive too.

The opportunity to do things differently has to be one of the most valuable things about this rough year. When you think about how many “normals” there were over the 20th century, which one do you want to hold on to and proclaim was the “normal”? We long ago left behind the World War I normal, or the Cold War normal.

I think this is why scenarios can be so powerful too, because they really let you break out of the official narrative, what we’ve believed according to the past, what is believed and written by people who have got some power and therefore benefit from continuing the status quo. The narrative around what’s normal is quite often already written by vested interests, it has all of these anchors built into it.

Look at the narratives around fossil fuels, and the continued decisions not to go down a renewable path, certainly here in Australia. And you’re talking about a country where it’s almost endlessly sunny, the wind doesn’t stop blowing, but the stories we tell ourselves about normality stop us from taking advantage of that. We’re going to focus on that bucketload of coal under Australia rather than look ahead to the future.

Just outside Edinburgh, like a lot of places in Britain, there’s an awful lot of new housebuilding. And what I find remarkable is that the houses look pretty similar to the way they have done for centuries. Yet my house, which is 180 years old, isn’t designed to be green, so why are these new buildings not adapted to the future instead of continuing the past? Why aren’t I seeing solar panels, heat pumps? What could be different? Why are we still building houses that look like that? Even Scotland has a bit of sun, plenty of wind, an abundance of water, so why aren’t we building houses to take advantage of that?

The trouble is it’s cheaper to build on the model of the past rather than to get ready for the future. 

On my last visit to Scotland, driving through the countryside, I saw a lot of places where one corner of a paddock would have a solar panel or two. It seemed there was a lot of small scale local solar, certainly compared to Australia.

It comes back to this question of localism, doesn’t it, and people making their own decisions. It is something that needs to go back to central government, or housebuilding associations, and address why we aren’t doing more to move this forward on a national scale.

Britain, this year, has had some periods fully powered by renewables, which is remarkable. So there is hope, there.

We’ve recently, up the road from where I am, fenced off some land and put in some vegetables. Just trying to make that difference at a local level. It gives people an opportunity to dig, grow stuff, see it, eat it; to participate in that process. And it was just a matter of putting in the fence, getting some shovels, the vegetables to plant. It’s not massive, but it gets people involved, and it becomes a talking point, a place of connection.

We got talking to women in Garnethill in Glasgow, where we saw this going on, and one of the women had worked in Melbourne University; we had a common friend! Local and global all at once.

I think that’s going to be a big deal for us in the future. 92% of all the goods in Britain arrive from somewhere else, whether it’s a piece of chipboard or an avocado. If we’re thinking about a more protectionist world, or one where the supply chain is challenged, we need to think differently, more abundantly, about both consumption and supply, new ways to meet our wants and needs.

I’ve noticed a number of shops where I live have started to source local produce. It might just be my perception, but I definitely appreciate them, they taste better!

Well, they’re not put in cold storage for days on end; apples can be in cold storage for years. 

Talking about local resources, there’s an example of where the libraries in New South Wales, flattening their hierarchies, focussing locally, and one of the things you could imagine in the future is that local resources also mean the skillsets of your staff, and a leadership question becomes how you activate all the talents and abilities of the people who live and work around you in your community, all those skills that have been activated by the pandemic response. That’s not just picking up a shovel and digging over a vegetable patch, that’s someone who’s worked in theatre who will now be doing lockdown storytimes, it’s looking for those assets, that abundance, which might not be in formal job descriptions but are in the person, and can be shared as part of the community.

We do tend to look at technical skills when we look at people, but it’s not just a question of “do you have the technical skills to do the work?” It’s also how you know when the work is changing, do you know how to improve work, do you know when to change what you do. 

I have this image of a triangle in my head: the CEO and the C-suite at the top, and then you go all the way down the hierarchy, the pyramid, to the people who actually do the work. I always try to challenge myself, and my clients to invert that triangle. Look at the base of the pyramid, where the frontline experience is. Because those who have ascended the pyramid will have been judged and interviewed and promoted based, generally, on the past, on achievements which have taken place beforehand. And it’s the base of the pyramid that is contact with all the realities of the present, and therefore the first signals of the emerging future.

You only learn going forwards. Things that you haven’t done yet are where the learning is.

I like a good experiment. Experiments can be short-lived. If they succeed it’s great, but if you fail, it’s even better, because you’ve learned something!

Both scenarios and experiments are energy-giving. Keeping that good, positive energy up and running is vital.

People buy into things if they’re part of them, whether it’s an experiment or a scenario process. I also think that management has been more willing to experiment through this and that’s one thing I’d like to keep into the future.

What’s the line, from Kierkegaard? “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Find more from Brendan and Murray at LinkedIn.

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