Reflections on my 2017 observations.

Reflections on my 2017 observations.

 

Each year for the past few, I have looked at my prognostications for the coming year and given myself a score. It is now 2018, so time to do it all again, before I rub the crystals to see what might be coming down the track this year.

As a lead in, I find it difficult to improve on last years recitation of J. M. Keynes, it still seems absolutely right.

Never have JM Keynes’s words been more relevant: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones

He said this in relation to economics, but it seems to me that it is now ubiquitous across everything we do personally and as communities and countries.

Working as I do with medium sized businesses, particularly those who actually manufacture stuff rather than flogging intangibles,  all are hugely challenged to compete in a globalised and commoditised world. Some common themes that underpin,  define, and are redefining the path to commercial sustainability appear to be largely ignored.

What is old is not new again.

It seems to me that this old truism is now redundant, as the pace and scale of change is so vast that the old stuff no longer gets recycled, and while by not understanding history we are doomed to repeat it remains true, the new versions are radically different to the old ones.

The ‘old’ ways of doing things are not  being changed, which implies that there is a progression of some sort, they are being disrupted, by which I mean thrown out the window. Uber and Airbnb are the poster boys, but look at what is happening with artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, and it is hard to conclude anything other than the old is dead, and the most relevant question has become ‘how will we cope with the new?

How did I do? 4/5. The year past just seems to confirm the view that the old is just old, and should be ditched. However, the lessons that can be learnt from the old should not be missed. The foundations of success over the last 200 years remain the same. Uber disrupted the taxi industry, not because there was any really new customer  value to be found, but because the taxi industry around the world had dropped the ball entirely, and Uber leveraged some tech to pick it up. People still need transport, so in that sense Uber is not new. We also learnt from them that success has its own dangers

 

The fight for attention.

The tsunami of stuff coming at us in a myriad of ways, increasingly mobile, is overwhelming, and most are seeking ways to aggressively filter out the stuff they do not  want, but there are industries out there finding ways around the filters. The old notions of privacy are out the window, and so the tsunami just grows geometrically. So called digital helpers, might claim to make life easier by anticipating what you might need and want based on previous behaviour, but they are really just ways of gaining and holding attention in order to create a transaction favourable to them. Mobility is an absolute requirement of attention. Not just do we require our data to be immediate on demand and mobile, we do our searching and thinking while mobile.

How did I do? 4/5 again, the fight has just got harder and harder, and that will continue. However, it must happen that quality will win out over quantity at some point, so the notion of an overnight success after 10 years of effort still holds.

 

Immediacy is currency.

The world is immediate, we want it now, on demand, and will not be satisfied with less. However, it is hard to get immediacy from legacy systems. Why should it take Telstra a week to connect a new mobile phone, interspersed with bullshit from an off shore call centre, when obviously it takes a few seconds on a keyboard. Not good  enough anymore. With the immediacy is mobility, a sort of coinage from the currency of immediacy. Everything in life is on demand, from cabs to grocery deliveries, and not meeting the demand has become a harbinger of failure. If you are  not mobile you will be missing out.

How did I do? 4/5 again, doing OK so far, except that if anything, I underestimated the impact of immediacy, and again, expectations are becoming more demanding by the day.

 

Creativity delivers attention.

Amongst the tsunami of stuff, the few that stand out will be different, and in some way strike a chord in an individual. It is ironic that the notion of ‘big data’ is really geared to ‘little data,’ picking through the masses of data-garbage to find the few bits that are focussed on the individual. The customer journey, so easy to map over the past few years, has had its day in the sun. No longer can we rely on the standardised generic journey from which, while we know there will be deviation, remains in general sufficiently true to use as a base for decision-making. No longer. There are simply so many ways to travel the road, that the only way to get them to stop is too be creative, arresting, or as Steve Martin says, ‘so good they cannot ignore you’

How did I do? 3/5. I still think the idea is right, but the creative drivers have become more about immediacy than creativity, so the creativity has suffered. In a contest between the ‘big idea’ and reach/ frequency equations, creativity is losing out due to the demands for immediacy, and creativity takes time. It is just as hard to come up with that great idea as it has ever been, and 10 mediocre ideas do not add up to 1 great one. We have a long way to go.

 

Business is personal.

Peter Drucker is famous for observing amongst other things that the sole purpose of a business was to create customers, and never has that been so right. However, in order to create a customer, being different is essential, which requires continuous innovation and more importantly the ability to deploy innovation almost in real time. Marketing is now all about the personal, therefore the ability to create  automated personalisation, or perhaps personalised automation, will define the parameters of success.

How did I do? 5/5? Never has anything been more true, and if possible it is getting truer every day as we ‘communicate’ via digital platforms, we are inundated with likes and connection requests that are covers for a sales pitch. No end to this in sight.

 

Success is dependent on attention.

This is getting harder and harder as the access to organic social feeds is increasingly limited by those with their feet on the choke point, the digital platforms through which this all flows. In order to be successful the need to own your own digital platform is getting greater by the day, just as it is getting harder to achieve it, simply because the task of gaining attention has become geometrically harder.

How did I do? 3/5. TI think I got this one right, but seriously underestimated the challenge of attracting people to your own digital real estate. The challenge has multiplied as we have gone mobile, up substantially from just a year ago. As the volume of information increases, it is getting progressively harder to attract people to our digital platforms, away from the social ones.  In the long term however, the value of owning your own digital property will not go down, and the value of those you can attract, and keep, will multiply.

 

Trust requires transparency, and transparency requires trust.

The world is a way less trusting place than ever, nobody leaves their front doors open any more, and we are wary of public gatherings. Even in a place like Sydney, where last night’s New Years fireworks on Sydney harbour brought an unprecedented level of security, which really serves mainly to get in the way of most, as the really determined would simply plan their way around the cops on the beat. The most concerning danger is the one we do not see and understand, and by over-reacting we are just making things worse for most while offering solace to those who trade in mistrust.

How did I do? 4/5. Hard to get this one wrong, as it has always been so, even if we did  not recognise the importance. I think the turmoil in US politics over 2017, reflected for different reasons in Australia, has just made us more cynical and less inclined to trust anyone we do not know personally.

 

Are we educating for the future, or reflecting the past?

I am no expert in education, but between my 4 grown kids there is 6 undergraduate degrees and a masters, so I claim to have rubbed up against the system a bit. My education goes back a long time, but  the best teacher I ever had was an old Harvard professor, Jim Hagler who was somewhat ostracised even by that august institution because of his ideas about the value of rote learning Vs creative thinking. That was in the 70’s, and I do not see much progress, he would still be outside the mainstream of bureaucratic education implementation. It seems to me that we are setting about the process of education by reflecting the past, and assuming the future will be pretty much the same,  when even the most blinkered thinker will concede this is not  the case. Our universities need to be funded, but the economic rationalists seem to be in control, and are screwing the pooch. The environment of thought, learning and education in its broadest sense is bastardised by the requirement to flog bits of paper to whomever is willing and able to pay for them. Somehow It seems to be a road to perdition, a place where a degree can be bought, and is therefore worth little as a mark of true education. At the same time we have been telling our kids that they are second rate if they do not have a degree. The trades have become dirty, and the skills that built cathedrals, bridges, machines, and the water systems that enable us to be civilised are rapidly being lost to generations who think that manipulating digital currency is useful work.

How did I do? 5/5, and if anything this has become more important than ever, and it certainly has cemented its place in my corral of hobby-horses.

 

I am 65 in a few days, so perhaps I am just a dinosaur, but from the perch of all those years in and around businesses, education and the public sector, I am becoming seriously concerned with the world my grandchildren will inherit.

Anyway, I hope that 2017 turns out to be a great year, one that marks a turning point in our capacity to see ourselves as others see us, and understand that as communities we simply have to live and work together, as the alternative is pretty ugly.

Happy 2017 to you all.

 

And, now on to 2018, (and my 66th birthday…. do not feel 66) the year in which if we believe the bullshit emanating from Canberra, all will be well. We have made same sex marriage legal, and established that the provisions in the constitution, arcane as they may be in relation to citizenship, need to be followed. Now to get on with the stuff that really matters, like shaping a community for our children and grandchildren. (Always the optimist, I expect to be, again, disappointed)

7 Mental models for business planning

7 Mental models for business planning

Business planning, when you think about it is a  bit of an oxymoron.

The only thing you know for sure about your plan is that it will be wrong.

George Patton said ‘Without a plan, you are just a tourist’ and even that great social philosopher Mike Tyson weighed in with ‘everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face’.

However we persist in writing what is usually a document full of crap that is not looked at again, until next year.

Here I am going to offer you an alternative to the formatted, templated, disciplined plan, so beloved of accountants, banks, and education institutions. I am going to suggest you use ‘Mental Models’ to ask the right questions, gather information, generate insights, create strategies that are meaningful, implementable and measurable.

Albert Einstein used mental models to develop his theories of relativity and quantum physics.

If employing mental models is good enough for Albert to articulate a picture of uncertainty, ambiguity, and then hypothesise about its hidden drivers, it should  be good enough for us.

Mental Models are frameworks that can be used to simplify problems, to ensure that the right questions have been asked, and the explanations that evolve from those questions hold when subjected to detailed scrutiny and testing.

Mental models frame things.

As a kid I loved cricket. I would walk to school early, and play for a couple of hours before ‘the bell’. As I came up to the oval attached to the school, when someone was batting, I could see the stroke, then a second or two later, hear the bat hit the ball. Clearly there was something at work here I did not understand. Dad explained it by telling me that sound travelled at 740 mph, while light, which enabled me to see the stroke travelled at 186,000 miles per second. This meant the sight was instantaneous, the sound was not.

Hearing the bat hit the ball a second or so after seeing it hit the ball created a mental model that made the understanding of the effect of the differing speeds of light and sound absolutely clear. Had I been a mathematical kid, I could have measured the speed of sound by measuring how far I was from the batting crease, divided by the time it took for the sound to reach me. This is exactly what Albert did to come up with E=MC2, although a little more complicated.

Einstein used simple mental models to come up with his theories of relativity, then worked his way through the maths to test and ultimately validate the theories mathematically. It is only now that some of the stuff he hypothesised about is becoming confirmed, as the measurement of the effects he hypothesised are becoming available.

The origins of the business plan was to attract funds. If someone was going to lend you money it is reasonable that you told them where you would be spending it, what the risks were, and the means by which you were going to repay the debt.

Banks, which are usually the first port of call when seeking funding are not particularly interested in your success, they are interested in the asset backing you have, so that when you go broke, they can sell up and get their money back. They would prefer you did not go broke, just because that complicates their lives, but they ensure they are covered if you do.

Banks are not your friends, they sell a commodity: money, and like any sales organisation, will sell as much of it as they can within their risk parameters and any regulatory restrictions, by solving your cash shortage for you.

Therefore the standard P&L, and balance sheet projections, with a few discounted cash flow scenarios were enough. All accounting and management education was oriented towards this model, so it became widely used and abused, but if you are going into a serious business planning exercise for your business, in this homogenising and increasingly volatile world, it should not be enough for you.

Do  not think about business planning as a linear incremental process, with a known set of tasks to be done, which is what all  the templates assume. Rather, it should be the application of a series of mental models to the circumstances of the business, each looking at the business from a different perspective.

It is like looking at a display in a museum. Looking from the front only, you get one view, but go behind, under, above, and you can get a 3D view of the display. Often very different, and ensures that you capture the whole picture of the business.

To continue the museum exhibit metaphor, is the exhibit in a room of its own, is it in a quiet corner with other pieces of no distinct value, or is it in a room full of similar and complementary exhibits. Each will influence the way in which you see the exhibit.

Out of interest, I googled ‘Business plan template’ and got 9.4  million responses in .45 seconds.

Must be important????

Problem is when you look at  them, they are all pretty much the same. The words change, the graphics change, but they are essentially a fill in the form and bingo, a business plan.

Might be OK for a bank, but as a document that determines the allocation of your scarce resources to achieve an outcome, it is next to useless.

A template is the easy way.

The hard way is really hard, but is worth the effort,

However, you must have the right ingredients, or the cake will not work.

It is all about the questions you ask, and what you do with the resulting information, intelligence, and instinct.

So, take Alberts advice, which is also the advice of Charlie Munger,  Warren Buffets offsider who knows a thing or two about being successful, and who uses Mental Models extensively.

Following are some of the more common ‘Mental Models’ to apply.

Each has its strengths, but none is the silver bullet that those who write books about them claim them to be.

The trick is to be familiar with them so you can run through the models and pick the ones that apply to any given situation.

 

Most are familiar with SWOT.

We spend time dreaming up items, then filling in boxes, rarely with any useful numbers, rarely anything new, and everything is equally weighted.

Most times, there is as much debate about whether something is a strength or an opportunity, a weakness or a threat, as there is about the strategic impact of the item itself. Many do not recognise the distinction of strengths and weaknesses as being internal to the business and opportunities and threats as being external, and that they are all relative. For example, a strength is really only a strength when it has two distinguishing features: It is something that you do that your competitors cannot do, or chooses not to do, and that it is of value to customers.

SWOT has limitations in fast moving and technically evolving industries, and typically, there is insufficient time given to the consideration of the options that may emerge that offer some degree of differentiation.

In its generic form, a SWOT also fails to weight the factors it identifies, so I do that as well in a different table.

Because SWOT is well known, it often gets a run in the projects I do, almost always in parallel with another that better explains the problems, and offers another perspective. It is a good start to the process because it acts as a catalyst for the more difficult questions, and identification of the cause and effect chains, and eventually to the use of other models that drive a deeper analysis.

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Many will be familiar with the 5 forces that shape industry competition first articulated by Michael Porter 30 years ago, and still is a great way to examine the nature of the industry in which you compete.

Bargaining power of suppliers

Bargaining power of buyers

Threat of new entrants

Threat of substitution

The sum of these forces adds up to the state of current competition in any market.

A thorough examination of the forces really surfaces most if not all of  the issues that have to be faced.

When you think hard about it, everything can be broken into one or a mix of the forces.

As with SWOT, it suffers a bit in a fast evolving environment, as the searching questions about the future are often missed, but it is extremely useful.

For example, if you are a supplier to supermarkets, this is a great tool to use, as it captures the drivers of the competitive environment, but if you have an idea for a new piece of software, the outcomes of the analysis will be a little less certain because of the more ambiguous competitive environment.

 

Roger Martin is an academic and widely experienced commercial consultant, who wrote a book a short time ago called ‘Playing to win’ with AG Lafley, who was the CEO of Procter and Gamble.

This sequential process he outlines is a very good framework indeed, forcing difficult choices to be made at each stage before moving on, while encouraging necessary adjustments via the feedback loops.

One of the factors I really like about this model is that it creates a flow, from the macro to the micro, and forces you to make choices all the way. One of the key factors I look for when doing a StrategyAudit for a client is the manner and degree of ‘flow’ that exists in the business.

It is the flow of information, flow of product through a production process, and flow of the planning execution and revision of activities that take place.

 

The Balanced Scorecard goes back to the mid 90’s, and offers an integrated set of ‘perspectives’ through which to observe, measure and plan the business.

You agree the vision and strategy, then determine the measures of that strategy against the 4 perspectives, and map the interrelationships.

Balanced scorecard analysis can become very complex, particularly as you set out to  cascade it through an organisation.

However, It makes absolute sense to look at, and measure the strategies agreed upon from the perspectives of those perspectives impacted by choices made.

The financial performance of the business.

The customers perspective of how the business meets their needs, now and into the future.

The necessary business processes required to deliver value over the long term as well as immediately.

How the business will learn and grow.

It is still widely used, mostly by large organisations with centralised strategic planning functions.

 

A business plan on one page.

Halleluiah.

This methodology evolved quite recently out of the ‘Lean Start-up’ movement, first articulated in a book called, surprisingly, ‘Business Model Canvas’. The thinking underpinning this tool is still evolving, and it is still oriented towards tech start-ups, but I really like it for any business as a way to quickly ensure the right questions are being asked, and is to my mind a must use model.

It is designed to be iterative, and its strength is that it is both iterative, and stackable, in that where there are two major customer groups, or product groups in a business you can do two, or even more canvases, and they will all be stackable.

It forces choices to be made, and is iterative in that as you progress, and learn more, you often need to go back and review and balance the choices made earlier.

Generally I do this in a rough order.

  • Problem to be solved
  • Customer segments
  • Value proposition
  • Revenue streams
  • Key activities
  • Cost structures
  • Channels
  • key resources

 

There are many others:

  • Ansoff matrix,
  • BCG matrix, dogs, stars, that most of us are aware of.
  • Options games
  • Blue ocean strategy
  • Scenario planning
  • Jobs to be done
  • A3

The real point is that there are many ways to plan, but there is no easy way, no silver bullet, and you must get amongst it or fail.

The old cliché: failing to plan is planning to fail is unfortunately correct.

There is no school for fortune telling, unless you join the circus. All these purport to be able to at least remove some of the uncertainty of dealing with the future, but they are all tools, and the value of a tool rests with the skill of whoever is wielding them.

To my mind, using a bunch of them, each with slightly different perspectives offers the best opportunity to remove more of the uncertainty.

However, if I go back to Albert, E=MC2 does predict that time travel is possible.

Much of what he projected is coming true, a bit like Arthur C Clarke, Jules Verne, and others. Perhaps this is Alberts time to become a strategy guru?

 

I think it is only right to finish where I started, with Albert.

His theories of relativity, that famous formula we all know, but have no idea what it means, explains the workings of the universe. Perhaps it can also give us an insight into the value we can add to an enterprise, which is after all, what we are setting out to do by planning.

In my view, the internet has changed everything about the business models that will be successful in the future. Therefore we have to find a way to recognise the power of digital access and the compounding that is possible by leveraging networks in our planning processes and mental models.

I like e=mc2 because it explicitly compounds the value of networks.

E is the enterprise value, not the stock market valuation, which is only a financial calculation, but the value that is created by the enterprise, which has many forms. Value can be time, services, transparency, design, everyone sees value as being different, and is subject to the context in  which it is seen. Apple is the most valuable company on the planet, which has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they outsource the manufacture and assembly of what has become generic electronic gizmos. The value of Apple is elsewhere than the functionality of the devices.

M is the mass of the enterprise.  This is the sum of the physical assets and processes of the business, the stuff that enables the work to be done.

C is the Capital of the enterprise.  It includes financial capital, but the greater part is in the capital contributed  by  the people who populate the place, and this comes in many forms, Intellectual capital, what is between peoples ears, and the relational capital they bring, and the cultural capital, the way in which there is collaboration and alignment of activity towards the creation of value by the enterprise. This is squared, simply because of the geometric nature of relationships, and the network effect, the more you have, the greater the sum of the value that can be created

 

The strategic wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld

The strategic wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld

Strategy is all about making choices, often difficult ones in situations where you are setting out to assemble the resources and capabilities to deal with the future.

In days past, those who claimed to be able to tell the future were burned at  the stake, so be very careful!.

In order to have any chance of being in the right ballpark, it is essential that you are able to assemble a list of possible outcomes that will impact on your businesses, and then prioritise them by some weighting system that gives relative weights to how likely they are to occur, and how significant might the impact be.

There are also considerations of internal and external forces. Internal you  can control, external, the best you can do is anticipate and respond.

The key to all of this is asking intelligent, informed and searching questions that reveal a picture of the future to which you can respond.

We have all seen what has become a cliché first uttered by US secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld:

‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’

While he was widely lampooned, there is a logic to it, when you break it down.

A robust strategy process addresses all of these, and the better the questions, the more likely that you will uncover the things that others miss, which is after all the essence of differentiation.

In assembling the agenda for a strategic session, it  is worth assembling the list of questions that will at least get the conversations going.

There are questions to which you already know  the answers, so are not worth asking, again.

There are questions that have no clear answer, which are well worth debating

There are questions that we do not really want to ask, the potential answers are too confronting in one way or another. Very valuable.

There are also those questions that may reveal themselves in the debate, and general creative conversations that emerge in these situations. With great attention to the detail, and sometimes a modicum of luck, these are recognised for the nuggets they may be, but are always really easy to miss as you proceed through an agenda

There are questions we do not think to ask, and do  not see. The danger here is that your competitors do see them, think to ask them then come up with an answer that creates competitive circumstances outside your control.

None of this happens by chance.

Effective questioning takes a lot of preparation, deep consideration of the circumstances, and generally the application of some ‘mental models‘ to stimulate the process. The most common ones being a SWOT, Porters 5 forces, and more recently variations on the Business Model Canvas, and Clayton Christianson’s ‘Jobs to be done‘. I use all of them, as each approaches the challenges from a different perspective, and often uncover differing ideas from each that stimulates lines of thought and question that would have otherwise been missed, and adds some wisdom to the process.

There is a German word: ‘fingerspitzengefuhl’ which refers to the instinct that comes with domain knowledge, explained in this fascinating Taylor Pearson post. it is this instinct, this curiosity, fed by domain knowledge that enables the exposure of the things we do not know we do not know.

‘Rumsfelian’ would be easier to say.

 

 

 

 

 

How do you make change when nobody really wants it?

How do you make change when nobody really wants it?

Making change is about the hardest thing any leader has to do. I specify leader, as in my experience, managers cannot effect change, the best they can do is optimise the status quo.

Regularly, I am faced with situations where change simply has to be made, where there is recognition that the status quo is no longer viable, where there is verbal acknowledgement that it is necessary, but insufficient commitment to the hard stuff that needs to be done, so it does not happen, in any meaningful and lasting way. There is no situation I have seen where at least some of those involved would rather not change, and when they are in a ‘blocking’ position, it can get messy very quickly.

There is only two ways:

  1. Fast and bloody, the ‘Chainsaw Al’ approach which can deliver short term results but long term usually destroys value.
  2. Bit by bit, building on what has gone before, adjusting the small things that may not have worked so well.

Behaviour is about the most elastic thing I have seen, you can change it, like stretching an elastic band, but take the pressure off, and the elastic goes back to the original shape. The challenge is to make the adjusted shape the default, so that when the pressure is taken off, the shape does not change.

Mostly that is all about how you design and manage behaviour.

When I have seen change work, behaviour has been overtly managed in a number of ways:

  • Progressive. While people are clear about the need for change, and the end point, the actual changes to behaviour are progressive, in small doses, and the easier ones are done first. This enables you to bed in the foundations of the change, and build the habit that change is actually not as painful as could be expected, and the benefits make the pain worthwhile.

 

  • Track progress. While changes happen progressively, tracking progress overtly builds in the confidence that the next step will not be the end of the world, and look how far we have come! As I watch my kids play video games, I am surprised at the compulsion that emerges from the overt tracking of progress through the stages of a game, how it becomes almost addictive. I speculate that this behavioural characteristic is not isolated to video games.

 

  • Offer rewards. This can be tricky and backfire, as the reward must be associated with the changed behaviour and the human outcomes of that behaviour. Offering rewards, that are not connected do not result in further motivation, and I have seen them counter-productive as they alter behaviour to chase the rewards, rather than the outcome. The best example is the difference between offering public acknowledgement of great work done (almost irrespective of the outcome) Vs offering money for a change. People may chase the money, but it will rarely result in the changed behaviour becoming a part of the status quo.

The take-out is that, as in selling where most people like to buy, but hate to be sold to, most people will resist being controlled, but are happy to be guided, mentored, to be led.

When you need an experienced hand to help, give me a call.

 

Photo credit: Brad Rose.

 

Too many slices and the loaf disappears: Is this the end of Australian FMCG?

Too many slices and the loaf disappears: Is this the end of Australian FMCG?

What the hell have we been thinking?

Some time ago I mused that the slow death of the Australian FMCG manufacturing base was akin to nicking a slice off a cut loaf, one at a time. At any specific time you do not really notice the difference, but looked at over a period, the loss is obvious.

Well, it seems that someone nicked the Food industry loaf, and all we have left are the crumbs.

A report released last week by Food Navigator reveals Australia’s top 10 FMCG suppliers.

Not one of them is  owned by Australians.

Let me say that again: Not one is owned by Australians!

Over time I have worked for two businesses on the list, and at the time, both were aggressively and proudly Australian, wearing the national flag on their shoulders, and in their advertising, and both were in their way successful despite themselves.  However, dismay at some of the nonsense that went on is a primary reason I have been self-employed for the last 22 years.

I struggle to think of many substantial companies still domestically owned, Bega, Patties Pies and San Remo come to mind, but we are then down to the minnows.

All these multinationals will rightly say that they pay lots of taxes, employ lots of Australians, both directly, and indirectly, and that they have Australian best interests at heart.

Bullshit.

It is true they employ many people, and it is true that they pay unavoidable taxes, like GST, local government rates, and collect from their employees PAYE, but do they carry the full weight of their ‘moral obligations’ to the communities they live in via income taxes?  The reality is that have their own best interests at heart, or at least, most of them do. Transfer pricing, creative funding, corporate domicile on low tax environments, and all the rest of the shenanigans revealed again, by the Paradise Papers in the past weeks or so are widespread. It should not come as a surprise to anybody when these large companies make decisions in their interests, not in those of Australians and Australia.

This is like renting a house. You are allowed to live in it, under certain conditions,  but you have no control over the property, someone else makes all the key decisions. The renters best interests are not a factor in the determination of the owners best interests.

We tell ourselves we are a food bowl, and we are, but without any access to the markets at all. We no longer even have any brands for direct contact with consumers (Vegemite is a rare example, purchased back from Kraft last year by Bega, hooray). We are therefore nothing other than commodity suppliers in a price driven world. Not being a low cost producer, without the umbrella of brands and control of the operational infrastructure that can deliver genuine value to consumers, we are inevitably going to be screwed, with the benefits of ownership exported.

Coles and Woollies have ‘conspired’ to destroy the domestic suppliers and their brands by limiting ranges, replacing proprietary brands with house brands, sourced from wherever is convenient and cheap, realising short term margin gains at the expense of long term prosperity, both theirs and that of the communities they serve.  They have also lost in the process the cover of brands at a time where there is a huge retail  disruption looming: Amazon, online ordering, AI, ‘Ubered’ home delivery, and all the rest.

It seems to me the two retail gorillas will now reap the poison crop they sowed as an outcome of their short term,  one dimensional and absolutely unimaginative strategies.  Taking on Amazon with that mind-set is suicide, as if we know anything about Amazon, it is that they do not play by the existing rules. They make up a new set, and  the incumbents are left to wonder in their wake.

Food manufacturing used to be our biggest manufacturing industry, and we have given it away, or at least the benefits of ownership of it, for next to nothing. It is not even as if for the most part the interlopers paid a premium for control, they just waited until the numbers were so crap that they could take it for a song. The most recent example, Murray Goulbourn is a classic case in point, as are two of my previous corporate employers, Dairy Farmers and Goodman Fielder. Both reasonably large, reasonably successful businesses stuffed by poor management decisions until they became unsuccessful smaller ones, that could be scooped up out of Multinational petty cash.

Our kids will pay a heavy price for the short sighted and incompetent management of their fathers and grandfathers. (Cannot help wondering if their grandmothers and mothers would  have done a better job)

Our so called leaders mumble abut populist causes, ignoring the difficult and challenging long term choices that need to be made, which are usually by definition, not populist. It took a crisis to get them to consider ‘power policy’ in their quiet, moments when not looking after their own jobs in the face of failing to check if they are technically Australians, but it is 25 years too late. ‘Manufacturing policy’ discussions are pretty thin on the ground, now the motor industry has folded their tents, and more specific ‘Food Industry Policy’ discussions are as rare as sightings of the  Tasmanian tiger. Rumoured but carrying very little real credibility.

There has been very little of much value about any policy setting that might help us control and leverage our own agricultural and manufacturing capabilities that would enable us to feel confident we can feed ourselves, and others in the region into the medium term. The horse has bolted, and we are left with a pile of shit in the stables.

Sadly, few in power seem to be too concerned with the demise of our ability to control our own food supply, value adding and distribution.

If nothing else, we may have discovered an innovative solution to the national obesity problem.

 

5 realities we Australians should  be thinking about.

5 realities we Australians should  be thinking about.

This is a personal rant motivated by the continuing  sight of politicians pontificating about stuff that does not matter and either ignoring much of the stuff that does, or presenting as facts, suppositions and bullshit that is supposed to make their case and cover their culpability for inaction  and stupidity.

Not a bad start.

However, much as it is good to blame someone else for the things frustrating the hell out of us, it is not entirely their fault.

We live, for those who have not noticed, well into the 21st century.  Our institutions were designed and evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most would accept the notion that change has never been faster or more all-encompassing as in the last 20 years, so why are we surprised that  the institutions have failed to keep up?

So, let me just have a look at an area I am at least partially familiar with after 40 years of operating in it, the current state of small business, and the relationship they have to the economic well being of the communities they serve. Nothing about the stupid non binding vote on same sex marriage, nothing about the nonsense of setting out to build submarines of a hybrid and bodgied  design over which we have no control, and cannot crew anyway in the name of saving a few government seats, nothing about the hysteria and confusion about what is means to be an Australian citizen, …. Need I go on?

There is a general recognition that small business is the backbone of the economy, employing 5 million (the data is 2 years old, which tells you something about our institutions) people and contributing billions in tax, in other words, they carry the weight of the economy, but the statistics do not tell us all we need to understand, as they, like everything else, were designed to give information on the 20th century economy, not the 21st.

A few examples.

  • Micro entrepreneurs are everywhere. There are hundreds of thousands of Australians making a bit on the side via eBay, Etsy, and Amazon, buying and selling stuff that never gets counted. This is a new breed of entrepreneur, and they are operating almost under the radar. The tools that enable this sort of activity did not exist 20 years ago.

 

  • The net is ubiquitous. The enabler of the previous point, the net, has also enabled thousands to start new businesses, often on the side, simply because the cost of failure is now so low, as the cost of entry has shrunk to a fraction of what it was 20 years ago. Many of these businesses fail, perhaps even most,  but that no longer means penury for  the entrepreneur, he/she simply picks up and has another go. Few of my children’s friends and colleagues expect to work for a corporation all their lives, then retire, as my generation did, although many of us are radically rethinking that at  the moment. They expect to get some experience, at somebody else’s expense, then  leverage that into their own business.

 

  • The tax base is hiding. The goldmine of PAYE tax is rapidly disappearing, as individuals go into business for themselves, rather than working for corporations, and often, as well as working for corporations. This gives access to all sorts of reasonable deductions of expenses not available to a PAYE employee. While we have a spending problem in this country, pollies spending to get themselves re-elected, or massively overspending to correct the failures of the past (look at the Sydney road and rail systems for any evidence you need of this) we also have a revenue problem. The GST was a sensible step, compromised as it was, and is, by politics, but the whole tax and welfare system needs a radical rethink, which simply will not happen until we are faced with a true crisis. On top of all that is the simple reality that paying tax has become optional for the large multinationals around the globe who have the reach and resources to structure their affairs towards minimisation. it may not be illegal, but it sure as hell is immoral, and the price we ‘ordinary taxpayers’ are all paying, and will continue to pay unless we, and other international tax institutions figure out that we need to collaborate to stop it. Perhaps we should summon the ghost of Kerry Packer to deliver another broadside.

 

  • Baby Boomers are not ‘retiring’. The so called baby boomers, of which I am one, are not retiring, they may be cutting back, but often they are starting businesses, setting out to use their experience and lifetime wisdom in some useful way. The retirement age is a function of a world where we worked physically much harder than we do now, and the body gave out just before we kicked the bucket. Now the body is not giving out, and when it does we go in for renovations to keep on going. The  only bucket we are interested in  is the list of stuff we still want to do.

 

  • Manufacturing is not dead, it has just changed shape. The 20th century manufacturing model is dead, but is being replaced by a highly technical, globally connected combination of technologies from electronics to additive and 3D manufacturing, which employs just a few highly qualified and motivated people. Yet, our industrial institutions still believe we have big factories full of people doing repetitive tasks. Worse still, our education systems are still geared to mass production of kids who can recite rather than think, and this is despite the disastrous rebalancing of education towards university at the expense of trade skills. While we need less people digging holes, we need more who can design, fabricate, and operate a complex piece of machinery or electronics, and we are not training them in sufficient numbers, or giving them the self belief that valuable and rewarding work does not necessarily equate to sitting in an air conditioned office driving a mouse.

 

All of this simply means that opportunity multiplies, as the institutions that supposedly govern us sit idly by at best, but get in the way most of the time, more often than not by accident. The status quo for which they were designed has been chucked out, trashed, and is significantly irrelevant now, rapidly becoming utterly irrelevant  and a wet blanket on progress without real and immediate change.