Monday, May 24, 2010

Problem definition, ownership and the importance of consultation

While I am still working my way through the exploration of my own ideas now underway in Sunday Essay - threads in Belshaw thought, I wanted to point to two posts by Paul Barratt that I thought were interesting and quite important.

The first post, Afghanistan is a wicked problem, deals with the issue of problem classification, in this case in the context of Afghanistan.

Tim Russell, a wise colleague of mine, promotes the concept of problem ownership. He suggests that before you respond to a problem, you actually have to decide whether the problem is really yours. To his mind, people often try to respond to problems over which they are have not control and are not in fact theirs.

Part of Tim's message is that before you act on a problem, you have to actually analyse it. Paul's post links in that it deals with particular types of problems.

Paul's second post, Resource rent tax: what happened to the nemawashi?, deals with consultation processes.

Looking at Paul's Japanese comparison reminded me of something that I have tried to teach, using the difference between Australian and Japanese approaches as an example.

In Japan, I suggested, they spend a lot of time conceiving and defining the project, but then act fast. In Australia we act fast, but then have to spend lots of time fixing things up. My message was more thought, less problems and faster overall action.

Paul has had, I think, more consultation experience than me and at a higher level. However, his comments and especially his emphasis on proper consultation before action ring very true.

The most complex and indeed frightening consultations that I have been involved in involved the telecoms unions and the deregulation of the Australian telecoms marketplace. This was part of the process that I referred to in Case studies in public administration.

The immediate issue was possible changes to the protection afforded the manufacture of communications equipment in Australia. However, we knew that the whole telecommunications sector including services was facing major change. When I mentioned this at a meeting with the unions, Col Cooper as chair threatened a national strike!

To say that this scared me would be an understatement. There was no Government policy position. I was providing advice as to things that I thought were inevitable based on our analysis. We talked things through and matters calmed down.   Subsequently we got union compliance, if not support, for fundamental change.

My point here is the same one, I think, that Paul is making.

When you want to bring about change, in most cases you don't decide and then try to impose. You allow time and consult. You also do so at lower levels and in an iterative process. This allows issues to be worked out. Even if you are dealing with an issue on which total agreement is impossible, you will still generally get a better result.

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