May the Fourth be with you

May The Fourth Be With You. I was just 12 years old when my big sister took me to a preview screening of Star Wars – A New Hope in 1977. We had no idea what we were going to see. From the moment the credits rolled with the star destroyer thundering overhead, until the end of the film when Luke pushed the computer away from his eyes and used the Force to aim the laser cannon into the Death Star’s “fatal flaw”, I knew my life would be separated into “TimF76452F4-C5D1-435E-A45E-7BA829291F3Be before Star Wars” and “Time after Star Wars”. Don’t get me wrong, it is not all perfect. But I have forgiven them the corny ending to A New Hope, the ewoks, the Wookie Christmas Special, Jar Jar Binks, all of Episode 1, and poor Haydn Christensen. Because the themes are universal, and for a 12 year old (now in a 52 year old’s body) incredibly powerful – the struggle between light and dark, the possibility that you have special powers, coming to terms with the relationship with your father, that everything has a weakness including trying to do good, and the power of intuition and feelings. So yes, call me a tragic, but I’ve been pushing the computer guidance away ever since, and relying on a sense of right and wrong and connectedness to guide my actions and constantly give me a new hope.

Sawdust and Old Spice

The most beautiful object in my life is a wooden sea-plane made with love by my Dad, Max.

He has been working with wood for most of his life – sawing, carving, gluing, sanding and polishing. Mostly human scale pieces, with the largest being a gazebo – it’s his personal creative outlet. If I remember his smell from my childhood, it is of sawdust and Old Spice.

Woodwork became my favourite subject at high school. I made increasingly complex pieces, culminating in an Appalachian Dulcimer. Like Max, I loved working by hand with plane, hand saw and sandpaper.

When the next generation of children came along, he turned to making mechanical wooden toys. Blue soldiers with arms that beat on snare drums. Red and white birds that pecked at seed when you pushed their tails. Green monkeys with arms and legs that danced on strings.

Then, alone in his workshop, he fashioned the plane.

Together when I was ten, we had made a balsa wood kit plane, complete with a moulded body, perspex cockpit, and giant rubber band that wound up the propeller. It was a thing of beauty. It crashed on its first flight breaking a wing – but I knew even then that the journey of its making was far more important than any destination the plane itself might fail to reach.

And now here was Max, thirty years later handing me the most gorgeous gift – a wooden sea-plane with hand-carved Huon Pine fuselage, and Mahogany wings and propeller. The proportions are perfect, the contrast of wood types striking and the overall impression beautifully harmonious.

I was (and remain) very moved. A hand-made object retains traces of the labour and love invested in its creation, which brings me closer to him every time I see it.

There was no expectation that this plane would fly – but as planned, of course, it instantly reached its destination in my heart.

© Copyright 2017, Fig Tree Digital. Olio Interiors

Five things I learnt about homelessness by doing the 2017 CEO Sleep Out

Last night I slept out in the University of Melbourne car park to raise money for homelessness services. Here is what I learnt. 

  1. I learnt that it is hard and cold sleeping on concrete.

That some people snore really loudly. Maybe that includes me too…

That earplugs are one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century.

But also that there are worse things in life than sleeping on the ground undercover in a secure area in a 3 degree rated sleeping bag along with 200 CEOs

Experiencing actual homelessness would be one of them.


  1. I learnt that homelessness and incarceration are the two pinnacles of what’s described as pyramids of social exclusion.

That there are more than 105,000 people experiencing homelessness across Australia.

That of these, sixty per cent are under the age of 35 and that more than 17,000 Australian children under the age of 12 have no permanent home.

But also that people experiencing homelessness are much more than statistics – and they should not be defined as “homeless people”.

They are, of course, people like us – with hopes, dreams, loved ones, qualifications and hobbies – and like us they come from all walks of life.


  1. I learnt that experiencing homelessness is about much more than sleeping rough.

That it can feel like being lost in a maze 24/7 – chaotic, unpredictable, relentless, seemingly random and with no clear way out.

That looking on we think the right direction to take is obvious, and we might be quick to look down on people stuck in the maze.

But also that being listened to is critical to finding your way out.

Sometimes it is easier to reach out to strangers like the “Vannies” (who run the soup vans) than it is to risk the judgement of those closest to you – such as your family.


  1. I learnt that homelessness often does not have a single or simple cause.

That many but not all are experiencing mental illness and/or have problems with drug use.

That many but not all are escaping family violence and/or are experiencing poverty and unemployment.

But also too often we are quick to stereotype, partly because we want to simplify and understand, and partly because homelessness is scary and we want to externalise and contain it as something outside our experience.

It could happen to me – it could happen to you.


  1. I learnt that people can be overwhelmingly generous.

That if you are experiencing homelessness there is help available from passionate, caring people (like St Vincent De Paul).

That the most generous people are sometimes those with the least to give – particularly people who have experienced homelessness themselves,

That if you are fundraising for services for homelessness there are many people who will give freely (thank you).

That in Victoria we raised almost $700,000 for Vinnies homelessness services (there is still time to donate here J)

But also that it is nowhere near enough. Somehow it turns out we can be very generous person to person, but systemically not so much.

There is no excuse for poverty and homelessness in a country as rich as Australia.

Thanks to St Vincent de Paul for organising the 2017 Vinnies CEO Sleep Out and thanks to all those who donated to help fund homelessness services

#CEOSleepOut #FaceToFaceWithPoverty


Who’s on first? Strategy, Planning or Budgeting?

wp-1449390649630.jpegOver fifteen years in higher education I’ve seen Strategy, Planning and Budgeting battle it out for supremacy in a three way match up. Let’s look at the line-up. In the red corner we have Strategy, which should be the strongest of all, but too often is missing when the going gets tough. In the blue corner is Planning, with the ability to drive strategy out of the organisation, because it can have a sclerotic effect on our ability to cope with uncertainty. And in the green corner, we have Budgeting, with a natural advantage because the dollars need to add up regardless of strategy or planning.

Strategy is often no more than a heart-warming fable, because it is misconceived as a task of rallying staff around a chosen future. And of course we choose a future in which we thrive – why wouldn’t we? For example, most of the top 500 Universities aim to be in the top 100 by 2020. We need to learn from Heraclitus, because, in the same way that we never put our feet in the same river twice, so too are the options available to us for the future changing as each moment passes.

Planning can fall into the trap of reverse engineering a financial outcome that preserves the natural order of things. How many students do we need to afford the staff that we have? What capital investment do we need to house the staff that we have and accommodate the growth in student numbers we need to afford the staff that we have.

And Budgeting is often stage managed as a fierce annual contest over a small discretionary pie. It is momentarily satisfying, but inviting a Pavlovian pattern of behaviour to emerge.

So is there hope? Can Universities find a way that these three can work together to add value to our organisations?

First, I suggest that strategy is strongest when it is preparing us for the range of possible futures that may emerge and enabling us to adapt. People follow value, and money follows people. So money isn’t the starting point for future proofing your University – it is value. How do we continuously find value for our communities – instead of finding communities for our value?

Second, planning should be about alignment, collaboration and learning. How do you adaptively align the internal logic of the organisation with the external reality? How do you collaborate to achieve your goals? And how do you learn and improve from your experiences.

And third, budgeting – well that’s just the financial part of planning isn’t it?

I’ve seen good practice in three places I’ve worked.

In the late 1990’s, I was part of a Government wide project in South Australia linking planning and budgeting. Together we produced the first ever State Strategic Plan, one of the first of its type in the world. It set out the State Government’s areas of focus for the next five years. The budgeting process was then about focussed as best we could on achieving these targets.

In the mid 2000’s I facilitated the University of Adelaide through a scenario-based future proofing exercise, which identified the core capabilities we needed to thrive in the likely futures. Student experience was found to be a critical success factor, and so we then co-created with our students the most dynamic student learning hub in Australia, and through that learn how to listen and partner with students.

And through the mid-2000’s to the present, the University of Melbourne has pursued three transformational strategies to position Melbourne to thrive in an uncertain global higher education market.

The curriculum was re-engineered by creating professional graduate degrees and reducing the undergraduate degrees from 96 to 6, which led to a broader set of subject choices for undergraduate students, and helped propel the graduate schools of Law and Education into the top ten worldwide.

The focus in the early 2010’s on academic standards and performance has actively rewarded better performance and enabled resources to be directed to growth areas.

And the introduction of a new operating Model in 2015 has provided a support services platform that enables better strategic focus and agility of leadership, driven down cost and supported a once in a generation transformation effort to improve the service experience and better support the academic mission.

The common themes throughout these experiences has been the need for strategy to help us make sense of our value to our community in the face of uncertainty, for planning to help us adapt to the changing reality, and budgeting to make sure our resources support performance. Ultimately, institutions of learning need to get better themselves at learning faster than the rate of change. It is not the fittest species that survive – it is the most adaptable.

Continue reading Who’s on first? Strategy, Planning or Budgeting?

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles, 23 March 2016, 11:30am

It has taken me five years finally to return to the Getty Museum to visit Robert Irwin’s garden.  In 2011 I visited the Getty Museum high above LA, but missed the garden altogether, too overwhelmed by the arrival, the buildings and the collection to realise that an even more extraordinary experience was waiting for me a few steps away. I made an attempt to see it with my family in 2013, but jetlag got the better of us.

In 2011, I had arrived at the Getty having just seen Irwin speak at the LA County Museum of Art. Reading the book of his interviews “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” inspired me subsequently to enrol in Contemporary Art History and research Irwin and his art in some depth.

So to say there was some build up to this present visit is an understatement.

Robert Irwin began his artistic practice in the 1950s with abstract expressionist works characteristic of the times. Not satisfied – he calls them “brown scratchings” now – he began a remarkable career of continuous innovation, along the way cofounding the Light and Space Movement in the 70s, and then branching out into installation art – first with ephemeral interventions within the art museum context, and subsequently with major external public commissions.

With the Getty garden, Irwin’s journey seems to have come full circle – he started with a strong desire for his art to leave the confines of the two dimensional frame, then for his art to leave the wall and influence the viewers’ perceptual experience of the art space, then leave the confines of the gallery altogether, only now to return to provide a fundamental framing experience for a whole museum.  This is an astounding achievement.

As I sit to write this in the Getty garden, at last, on a bench in the dappled shade of a crepe myrtle, the smell of garlic reminds me of my Nanna’s garden, and memories come to me of that wonderland – gone now, like the Hanging Garden – the myth still growing with each remembered scent.


Through a series of steel and herbaceous brush strokes, Irwin’s criss-crossing pathways promote the release of external pressures and provide sensory milestones that encourage me to feel like I am walking through a giant artwork. But nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of the central azalea water maze. The last place I felt this strongly about a man made landscape was the Taj Mahal.


Given there was some controversy surrounding Irwin’s selection for the Getty Garden commission over Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Museum itself, it would not have been unexpected to feel a sense of competition, or at least an assertion of conflicting ideologies, between built form and landscape, straight lines and organic sweeps.  But Irwin is evidently a generous man, as the garden more than respects its neoclassical surrounds – the central water feature finds its source in an amphora shaped cavern, certain vistas align with buildings, and certain plant choices relate to choices of building material (such as the bark of the plane trees and the patina of the travertine blocks).

As artists for centuries have striven to understand and interact with the multiple perspectives of the viewer, it is interesting to contemplate how the garden provides a possible resolution.  No two viewing experiences are the same, and one returns each time to a different garden, through seasonal changes, time of day, weather, and inevitable death and decay (of plant and person).  The gift of the gardener is to curate a platform for an infinite variety of individual experiences.

But in the face of this plurality, in the end Irwin guides us to the “power spot”, a place more awe inspiring than the buildings’ formal symmetry could have achieved alone.  At this single point, looking back, the entire site is in perspective – a special case within a much broader experience.


Irwin’s achievement is stunning, demonstrating once again his ability to innovate across multiple decades and different media.  The only puzzle to me is why this artist is not better known.  Perhaps his shape shifting has worked against his fame, but I sense that means not a lot to Irwin, who is more than prepared to let his work speak for itself.


Mistakes.  I’ve had a few.  Probably more than a few but who’s counting?  Last week I was reflecting on the biggest project mistakes I’ve made at work, and realised they had some common themes.  I try to learn from these experiences so here is my view.

1. Not enough demand pull
All successful projects have the right balance of ‘push’ from the project team and ‘pull’ from those that want the project to be a success.  If you don’t have the right amount of demand pull, the project usually ends with champagne corks popping in the project team, and deathly silence or worse from the rest of the organisation.  I implemented a travel expense management portal once that met all the corporate requirements and was voted best in class at the trade fair next year, but was universally loathed by the users.  They didn’t want it, and didn’t use it.  So the lesson: find a way to deliver what people actually want.

2. Arbitrary timelines
Every project has to juggle the trade-off between time, cost, function, quality and user experience.  If your timelines are arbitrarily short, it inevitably costs you somewhere else.  A few years ago, inspired by an episode of The West Wing, I channeled my inner Leo McGarry, stood in front of a large project team and wrote the number 512 on the board.  What was that?? It was the days left before the go-live of the new system.  The impact of this was so powerful apparently that from that moment on, no one was brave enough to tell me that we were never going to make it…  The timeline was essentially arbitrary, and had not been determined based on the project needs, but was taken from the original business case presented to the Executive very early on. So the lesson: understand the real timelines and manage the impact of this on the other objectives.

3. No truth teller
The scariest experience as a Steering Committee is overseeing a project that ticks all the governance boxes, has excellent reporting mechanisms all of which show consistent green and amber traffic lights, users are all signed up for testing, only to discover one month out from completion that the project was about to implode.  And everyone knew.  Except you. Human nature is that no one really likes bad news, and no one likes giving it.  And also, most people are optimists.  So the tendency is often to work harder and try to resolve problems in house, and not pass on concerns.  The problem is if everyone else is doing that, you are in real trouble.  So the lesson: find a truth teller or two who will tell you what the teams really think, and do project health checks from time to time where you eyeball the people doing the work.

4. Not enough focus on capability
People, People, People.  It’s all about people.  I have seen fully staffed project teams not have enough capability to undertake a piece of work, and then a team half that size deliver a result.  Resourcing a project is not just a numbers game – it is about capability.  If your project involves fundamental change in approach to a piece of work, you need to help your people develop to be able to do that.  Coaching, training, mentoring all need to be part of the project journey. So the lesson: develop, develop, develop.

5. No shared vision and lack of consistency from the top. The best project I have ever been involved with had the clearest vision and the greatest consistency of leadership.  They are critical ingredients.  Some leaders think their role is mainly at the initial business case stage.  Winning the funding is the hard part – OK project team now get on with it.  And developing a clear vision is very demanding.  But it is fundamental to success.  So the lesson: put the hard work in up front to gain agreement to the vision and major benefits framework.

Mistakes can be a gift, so long as you accept them. The greatest mistake would be not to.