On root causes

Most of my work has to do with wicked problems. As the name indicates, like evil itself, those never disappear altogether, but can only ever be contained, or at best eliminated locally. Technically, wicked problems involve a large number of factor, all interconnected, so that chains of cause and effect are difficult to track. Effective interventions are always difficult to find, never perfect, rarely straightforward.

Enter the pandemic. In 2017, I was working with the Global Challenges Foundation, preparing a short introduction to global catastrophic risk. Pandemics featured in the booklet, alongside nuclear winter and supervolcanoes. To people around me, this all sounded like sci-fi. No more today, as I was reflecting with Phil the other day.

Pandemics – as all other global catastrophic risks – are wicked problems on steroids. Factors include urban congestion, encroachment over wild areas, global interconnectedness, compromised immunity, poverty, misinformation, mistrust in institutions, you name it. Except when one strikes and unleashes, it doubles as a chaotic problem for local and national governments. Underlining the shortcomings of our governance systems.

Chaotic problems, unlike wicked ones, present themselves locally, and take the form of extreme urgency. Any reaction is typically better than none. There is no time for robust analysis and full understanding. Both types of problems often go hand in hand. Climate change is complex, the 2019 Australian bushfires were chaotic. Pandemics are complex, the 2021 Delta variant outbreak in Melbourne is chaotic.

The curfew brought a deep sense of rage, and killed my spirit for a while. As the first wave of emotion passed, I took time to reflect further, and realised, I feel profound frustration at yet another governance failure. We let a wicked problem run its course until it manifested as local chaos, then addressed it with appropriate anti-chaos measure – blanket authoritarian bans. I am frustrated by a reactive government that addresses symptoms instead of causes, and aims to pass off short-term compliance as civic virtue.

Yet the Victorian Premier, and the Chief Medical Officer, are following the terms of their mandate. Letting the local outbreak go wild, in the present state of affairs, will cause more harm than harsh measures. Imposing a curfew is in itself pointless, but easing enforcement and strengthening the signal will increase short-term compliance, and the chances that Victoria manages this one outbreak. Their mandate is Victorian welfare, and most likely, given the outbreak, the chosen course of action is optimal.

Except, this is a game where everyone loses in the end. Because the signals sent, and the structures put in place, are affecting our local capacity to tackle wicked problems in the long run. Financial resources are running low – and with greater immediate pressure when things open again, who will take the time to sit and analyse long-term wicked problems, let alone work on them. And right now, we’re all affected in some ways – brain fog and a spectrum of mental health issues – limiting our capacity to do the tough long-term work. So, here goes another month with limited progress, in Melbourne, on global wicked issues. Which, meanwhile, evolve and grow.

Worst, probably, following an official rhetoric that blames individuals for non-compliance, we’re collectively shifting the burden of causality, not on inadequate governance systems, but individual morality. Which will neither help us address future pandemics, nor climate change, nor geopolitical breakdowns, and the wave of suffering that is likely to follow.

And this is not a cause for rage, but sadness and fear.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.


Values cards project – structure

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I find it strange that structure is listed as a value. Something can be well structured, or badly structured, but structure in itself, how is it a value?

B: Well, when I think of structure, I think about a hippie share house, you know, where under cover of freedom, everyone can impose their desire on everyone else – and it’s just a matter of arbitrary power. If you want real freedom, you need a minimum of order.

A: That’s a basic principle in the art of hosting. You set up boundaries, and so the structure matters. There’s a hippie vibe to the movement, but it’s not chaos. I’m thinking of those political and social movements that are not structured, the Yellow Vests, Occupy. There’s commentators saying that this is the real voice of the people – but it’s only chaos. The guy with the strongest voice is heard, the guy with the best Facebook video is heard. It’s surprising, actually, how people do not understand the system around them, how democracy works, how it favors a caste of people who know the system, or have the resources to understand it more efficiently. And they believe that in total chaos something good and new can emerge.

B: That’s where I like to call myself a conservative. If something’s been around for a while, you know that you can live with it, or you would be dead already. There’s something like that about structures, a conservative wisdom: better the devil you know. That’s one of the points I think I have an attraction for Asia – the social structures – I see them as a façade, something that’s very good at protecting the individual.

A: I’ll agree with you on that one. It’s much more oppressive to pretend that something artificial is natural than to set a structure that is explicitly artificial, and ask everyone to follow. Foreign businesses in Japan are a good example of liberating the surface to control the essence of the work. By contrast, in traditional Japanese companies, there’s a lot of control over the ritual, but that’s a way to give staff members autonomy. If you’re happy to play the game, and if you don’t see it as useless, then you can get all sorts of things done. If you’re a western consultant, you think all these structures and rituals are not rational and you destroy them – but you miss their social function in the organisation of work – and everything falls apart.

B: There may be something there about human passion. Fear. I think we’re all terrified of chaos, and we can’t do things together without addressing this fear of chaos. That’s why we put structures in place. I’ve seen this in churches. The ones where the ritual is very structured, where there’s a stable form, they’re also the most open theologically. While the loose happy clappy ones have a much more dogmatic message. Same with the monarch. I think people need a symbol of cohesion that is not purely rational, this allows for greater freedom, and that’s exactly what the Queen does.

A: Well, you would see this in France, where the president is supposed to be above parties, but is actually supporting one party. This can be extremely dangerous.

And so yes, as we said, I think we have a sort of aversion for chaos. Apart from certain dysfunctional people who might like chaos, and seem dysfunctional because they are likely to create chaos. And that would be how structure becomes a value. Not in itself, but as a protection against chaos.

Corona thoughts – obsessive cleanliness

I never understood obsessive cleanliness, but always knew that it’s a thing. When I was growing up, I had two cousins who were ‘maniaque’, as the French used to say: “you could eat on the floor in their place.” The rest of us mocked them, slightly – and I never quite understood them. Why spend so much time on something so pointless.

Covid-19 taught me something in that regard. I have read descriptions of the virus surviving on surfaces for hours, entire days even. And noticed myself, going out of my apartment, relating to the built environment differently. I touched a doorknob, pressed on the elevator button. There might be germs, and they might kill me. I even bought an antiviral aerosol, and found myself spraying doorknobs, table surfaces and phone screen. Was this the way my cousins had related to their homes the whole time?

I wonder, then, how Covid-19 will impact our desire to control, and our capacity to let go. For isn’t obsessive cleanliness a desire to control: through bleach and mop, make the surrounding world an extension of the self, by destroying any trace of ‘pollution’.  The virus is an alien presence, threatening our sense of continuity with the world. Will we let it take over surfaces, textiles, and doorknobs, and accept its destructive potential – or will we not give up on controlling it, and bleach it out of our self-isolated existences?

On hoovering

I can’t work if the floor is dirty. Flakes of paper and flecks of dust on the carpet impair my concentration.

I work from home on most of my projects. I enjoy it, and feel productive. The commute from bedroom to study never includes passive-aggressive proximity with another commuter. I avoid all office politics, fridge wars and mug rage. But my office doubles as a home. Therefore, it gets dirty faster – and I don’t have an invisible night cleaner to fix it for me.

The floor is the weakest point. My house has dark blue-grey carper, where breadcrumbs and paper stand out sharply. But cleaning the floor is many steps more complicated than wiping the breakfast table. I have to go to the bathroom, grab the vacuum cleaner from the corner, plug it in the living room, and hoover the floor.

Today, after an early stretch, I felt a block. I gathered my notebooks into my back and headed out to nearby Stellini Cafe for a short productive stint on planning two coming meetings. After a 45 minute burst of efficiency,  I didn’t linger. The table was small, there was no Wifi, and I had things to draft in Google Docs.

As soon as I got back in, my energy vanished. I knew the floor was the cause.

Often, irrational needs keep us from moving ahead. Often, we refuse to acknowledge our own irrational needs, and try either to negate them, or rationalise them. Meanwhile, we don’t accomplish much. There is no deep rationality why specks of dust and breadcrumbs on the floor prevent me from focusing on stuff. But I can take it as how things are – an arbitrary fact about my own mind. It takes only five minutes to clean, and doubles up as a work out. So – why am I regularly not doing it?

On distraction

Strengths and weaknesses are context-dependent.

I often hear concentration praised. The capacity to remain unaffected by noise in our environment, stay focused on a complex task, and achieve consistent results over long periods, this is a desirable trait. Not so the tendency to switch off fast: sensitivity codes weakness and incompetence.

Yet excessive concentration can harm. Always follow the usual procedure, irrespective of changes in environmental conditions: surely, nothing bad could ever come out of that? Easily distracted people may be better at adapting – always shifting, always balanced in a fluid world.

Saturation stiffens then? Concentration kills? By the same token, excessive distraction amplifies ambient chaos. Never resist entropy, surely, no wrong could ever come out of that?

The message should not be therefore, how can we concentrate better, or how can we become better lateral thinkers? But rather, when is it appropriate to court distraction, and when is it appropriate to ward it off. Neither teachers nor managers seem to make a very good job of it, unfortunately.

On clutter

I imagined this personal initiative: the ‘cubic metre project’. When I migrated to Australia, my belongings fit in a 1m3 box. Over seven years, clutter has accumulated. My apartment is 50 m2, with tall ceilings about 3.5m high. That’s 175 m3 in total Enough for two people and parties, not for junk. So, could I get rid of 1m3 in a day?

It was less difficult than I thought.

First stop around the bin. In a minute, I got rid of a bulging ‘bag of bags’, full of useless plastic and air. Second stop, my study. A few months ago, I went through my bookshelves, and selected about 40 books  to donate. They were still sitting in a pile. I slid them inside an old shopping trolley. They’re now ready for the op shop. Third stop, a quick run through perishables. Curry paste from 2014, sweet soy sauce from 2012, almond cordial from 2010, I bid thee farewell. They joined a broken suitcase, a useless plastic jug, and worn out pillow cases in the bin downstairs.

“Decluttering” is a popular trend. People have read the book, ‘minimal aesthetic’ equates happiness. Many resist, of which I am: are things really that evil? Or maybe, we just don’t want to painfully sort through piles of emotionally loaded mementoes, papers, books, photos, or even clothes. But often, half the problem can be solved in an hour. The same wisdom applies to houses as computer hard drives. If it feels clogged, clear the trash.




On mess

One of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners opens inside a house, with a woman cleaning, and wondering where all the dust comes from. As I look at the brown fluffy stuff on the pales of my fan, I ask myself the same question.

Cleaning trains our patience, and our sense of wonder. No matter what, dirt always returns, It’s a thin layer of grit in the corner of the shower or at the base of the tap; it’s a spot on the kitchen pavement; it’s crumbs on the table.

I find its younger brother, mess, more perplexing somehow. I put things in the right place, yet the minute I turn around, they’re all over my apartment. Papers, books, pens, glasses and cups seem to take a life of their own, and occupy as much space as they possibly can, like bodies organise themselves inside an elevator according to some personal space algorithm, maximising spread.

It’s even worse on my computer. Folders mingle, files double up, and the desktop image (a cloudy picture of the Nanjing Lake) disappears under layers of pdf, excel and word icons. I spent half a day tidying during the break. But mess has not been vanquished, only tamed for a while. The first creepers are already there.

Why have I not been trained in properly dealing with mess? All I can remember is a moral injunction to ‘just keep things tidy’ and a faux-philosophical invitation to ‘just let it be’. Never, I believe, was I simply trained to accept that things clutter as a part of any process, and that regular sorting, filing, reordering, is no more than good hygiene. That it’s not through some personal failure that my things get messy, nor a sign that I should respect mess as a product of nature. That I can calmly tackle it as it grows, and prune it back, like a weed; and celebrate its appearance as a sure sign that I’ve been standing on fertile soil.