media intelligence


noun: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view

Let’s play word association: “North Korea” – what are you thinking? If you are like me, you are replaying the images Western media feeds us. “Those poor North Koreans being feed all those lies about the world and their place in it!”

I used to think propaganda was what the bad guys did during war. But these days propaganda is ubiquitous. I don’t get angry easily, but I find anger swelling more frequently when I realise how (i) I have been feed falsehoods as absolute truth and (ii) when I see opinion pieces being presented as news and current affairs on the front pages of news papers and websites. The reason I get angry is that I grew up trusting the media, and it takes a lot of unlearning to be skeptical.

There are some easy targets. The concentration of media ownership scares me a lot. I physically shudder when I think people’s view of the world is shaped by commercial news and current affairs and what they read on their Facebook feed. But there are less obvious ones too. I also get angry when I realise how my own education has been full of propaganda. I think particularly of what we were taught about First Nations people and culture; that they were unsophisticated savages. I feel physically sick at the lie yet know how hard it is to unlearn prejudices.

Make no mistake, complete objectivity is impossible. But if it was up to me, teaching media intelligence must become central to education. We could do worse than watch Utopia, Mediawatch and re-runs of Frontline.

The business of professional journalism is being dismantled at an alarming rate. How will we keep abreast of current affairs of no interest to commercially driven media? How will we know we are hearing a balanced account? Who will we trust to shape our worldview?

I have only recently become aware of The Conversation. A pairing of academia and journalism is a promising idea, getting behind the headline and a single angle on a story. For example, you would think from our mainstream news that the Rohingyas evacuation from Myanmar was all about religious intolerance (apparently not), or you might wonder what we can and can’t say about the extent to which hurricanes Harvey and Irma were related to climate change.

Before I first went to PNG I visited my GP to get some advice about health risks. He said, “Just assume everything is covered in faeces and you’ll be OK.” To stay intelligent these days, let’s just assume every piece of media we consume is propaganda and we’ll be OK.



Inclusive Growth In Australia: Social Policy as Economic Investment

Our work at donkey wheel is focussed on developing an ecosystem for social innovation. I read this recently. Learned about contemporary research and thinking examining how economic policies designed to help poor and/or marginalised people work, and the extent to which they are effective. The book is academic and not politically partisan, but I came out feeling discouraged at the apparent lack of political will to base polices on an evidence base of what works and what doesn’t. The jury is not out anymore, the so-called Washington Consensus, the thesis that the benefits of economic growth trickle down to benefit everyone has been disproved. There is a better way, involving investment in social infrastructure rather than welfare payment from consolidated revenue … but as with so many areas, political ideology prevents us from examining the evidence and acting accordingly.

Inclusive Growth explores a new synthesis of social and economic policy for Australia. It is based on the ‘Inclusive Growth’ roundtable hosted by the University of Melbourne – Brotherhood of St Laurence partnership in October 2011. The hosts brought together leading thinkers from key institutions including the Workplace Research Centre University of Sydney (WRC), the Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW), the Grattan Institute, the Business Council of Australia, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who have all been engaged with this policy challenge. Inclusion and growth can indeed be compatible. Numerous leaders of the economics profession have been calling for some time for the reinvigoration of the radical reform ethos of the late twentieth century. This book shares that sense of imperative, but not the ethos that saw welfare as harmful to growth. The authors detail the way in which the benefits of growth were skewed to the rich. To enjoy legitimacy, any new Australian economic reform agenda must have a stronger role for social policy and redistribution. This book investigates what an inclusive growth strategy might look like in Australia in five parts: the national and international policy context; the question ‘has growth been good for the poor?’; meeting the productivity challenge; social infrastructure and productivity; and labor market flexibility and social security.

About the Author

Paul Smyth is a professor of Social Policy at the University of Melbourne, and General Manager of the Research and Policy Centre at the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, Fitzroy, Australia. This joint position involves leading research and the development of policy around partnership solutions to Australia’s social problems. His work combines policy development and research at the BSL with teaching and research at the University’s Centre for Public Policy. John Buchanan is a professor and Director of the Workplace Research Centre (WRC) in the Sydney Business School. In recent years, John’s research interests have focused on changes associated with the demise of the classical wage earner model of employment. He is especially interested in new approaches to integrating industrial relations and social and economic policies to achieve simultaneous improvements in productivity and fairness.

Three pre-conditions for developing a new strategy


In two weeks I will walk into the offices of an unfamiliar organisation to talk about their desire and need for a new strategy. For reasons known only by my subconscious, I woke up early this morning thinking about the conversation. Or more precisely, I was going through in my mind the requisite conditions that would make the effort worthwhile. And that’s before we even talk about the implementation of said strategy.

So, here are three conditions, without which it is not worth the effort embarking on developing a strategy. If any one of these is missing, don’t waste the time, effort or money.

1. Cohesion in the leadership group

Developing a strategy without leadership cohesion is like pouring water into a colander and expecting it to fill up. The leadership group, (the Executive Team, the Board or whoever is owning the work) is the container in which the research, debate and decision-making will happen. If the group is not aligned and operating with a foundation of trust, the best efforts to develop, let alone implement a strategy will achieve lip service agreement at best and white-anting at worst.

If the strategy development process is designed and facilitated well, it will help with building cohesion, but the foundations of trust must at least provide a basis on which to work together with good will. Functional unity at a minimum.

2. The CEO and effective visionary (if they are not the same) must be fully engaged in the process.

Strategy, if it is to have any traction in affecting the way the organisation operates must be owned by those who are steering, either by positional authority or relational influence. And the only way for genuine buy-in to be achieved is intimate engagement in the nitty gritty of the process.

A strategy cannot be ‘sold’ to a CEO as a package, so if they are not willing or able to commit significant time and energy to the process, do something else but don’t formulate a new strategy.

3. It’s about the strategy not the artefact.

Oh dear. How much do we love process and outputs, especially in large organisations! Unfortunately, it is too easy and too common for the process to end up being all about a good document rather than a good strategy.

At one level this is excusable, because strategy is useless if not communicated. But a strategy exists independently of any attempt to document it. For the sake of absolute clarity, articulating it in words or diagrams is crucial, but they are only a representation of the strategy, they are not the strategy.

The best indication of strategic clarity is that everyone in the organisation, when prompted, will give the same answer when asked about the strategy. Slight variations that account for language preference are good, but the substance will be consistent and succinct.

If the starting point is a template, beware. Be-very-ware.

So where do you start then? I often ask what has prompted the need for a new strategy. The most common answer is, ‘our old one is due to expire.’ Great, but that’s a pretty low bar.

Why do you need a strategy? What are the business issues you need to solve? What questions needs to be answered in order to solve those issues? Articulating these questions is the key starting point for strategy development. In most cases they will be tricky questions and the pursuit of answers will be interesting, even compelling for most people in the organisation. If not, you might not want to bother with an elaborate engagement process. Unless of course you are happy and motivated to oversee an administrative process that ticks the boxes and gives you something at the end to sit on the coffee table in reception.


time for some old fashioned innovation

image copied from quotesnackcom

image copied from

Tonight is a big one for my dad. He is on the Spirit of Tasmania with his new motorhome, off on his first real excursion, testing his capacity to bring a dream into reality. It will not be easy. His mobility is limited and there is much he will need to figure out as he goes.

But hardest of all is not figuring out how to cope with the practical realities of daily life on the road. Hardest of all is that my dear mum is not with him. She will spend the next few weeks in the dementia ward of the aged care facility that is her home these days, without my dad’s daily companionship. The next few weeks will require lots of different kinds of courage from Dad. As he has said on more than one occasion, ‘old age is not for whimps’.

Maria’s dad is also in an aged care facility so we have spent quite a bit of time around them in recent times. And I feel uneasy. You know when you get a deep feeling that things are not right, but it is hard to figure out what the alternatives are …. aged care feels like that.

One of the triggers for thinking about this was Karen Hitchcock’s (in The Monthly) intelligent rebuttal of Andrew Denton’s contribution to the euthanasia debate. In essence she argues that a ‘quality of life’ argument for euthanasia cannot be legitimately offered until we fix our societies inability to treat our senior citizens with an integrated dignity and respect. “Death can only be the solution when life itself is the problem.”

I thought about it again tonight when reading Sophie Grove’s essay in this month’s Monocle magazine where she discusses what innovative architects and planners are doing around the world to place the very young and the aged in proximity. Childcare centres and aged care facilities co-located with shared facilities including meals. Places in Paris and Seattle are doing interesting things. NYC firm HWKN is also exploring alternatives. And of course, many societies don’t have far to look to find traditional family and community cultures that integrate the lives of ageing people, including South Korea and Japan whose populations lead the table of ‘oldest’ societies.

I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know something is not right when we syphon off those whose bodies can’t keep up with the frantic pace of contemporary living, and put them out of sight. Yes, of course we should be doing everything we can to make our aged care facilities better. But I have that uneasy sense that it’s not about doing things better, it’s about doing better things. There is an oldie but a goodie about innovation that says it is about putting two things together that don’t normally go together to see if they ‘stick’. Mostly they don’t stick, but sometimes they do – and an innovation is born. Sophie’s simple but potent idea of co-locating aged care and childcare could just be one of those system changing innovations.

personal manifesto: the end summary bit …

This post is the final in a series of 16 posts sharing my personal manifesto. If you have stayed with me over the journey, thanks. And if you have have found some useful thoughts I’d love to hear from you. DM me, send me an email at or just leave a comment.

The complete manuscript is available here.


A GENERATIVE LIFE is a life oriented to appreciating the beauty in the world (pleasure). It is characterised over time by a pattern of doing what we are good at (betterness), and has a defining direction of creating a better world for future generations (meaning). Saying it like this might sound a bit grandiose, but I can live a generative life with no public profile. It is not about impact per se or even recognition. It is about living appreciatively in the wonderful place that is our world, about being fully who I am as a contributing adult, with an innate understanding that I am connected with everyone else, that our collective destinies are ultimately different parts of a bigger whole.

External circumstances are important. Living in a naturally beautiful environment can enhance our experience of pleasure. But it can also tend to take what is readily accessible for granted. Only in exceptional circumstances am I, or will I, be robbed of opportunities to experience beauty (pleasure).

My particular life scenario might apparently prevent me from using my best skills, but even then, I gravitate to doing everyday tasks in ways that suit my innate or acquired competencies (betterness). And there are people all around me. The opportunities to make a positive difference to those who come after me are as plentiful as the interactions I have with strangers and loved ones every day. As is often quoted, “if I don’t stand for something, I’ll fall for anything.” (meaning)


The inner strength and moral capacity to harmonise my drive for pleasure, betterness and meaning comes from, in the first instance, a ‘home’ where I am fully accepted for who I am and in turn accept others for who they are. Unconditional love. This is my basic human need that, unless satisfied gatecrashes my motivation in virtually every other relationship and endeavor.

And I am a communal being. I do my best work, and experience my most pleasurable moments in relationship with others. So finding kindred spirits in my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning is natural and necessary. I need community.


To enable and sustain mental health in this journey, there are a number of disciplines that, in essence help me live with the tensions of being fully in the moment, but with an orientation to broader patterns and new opportunities. Firstly, I must be alert to addictions. I must develop the mindset that chooses – intentionally – everything about my attitudes, behavior and routines. I must get and stay unstuck.

Secondly, I must resist the contemporary urban pathology of living a busy, cluttered life. To live a generative life I must say ‘no’ a lot. The ‘slow’ and ‘local’ movements are more than a fad; they are a healthy reaction to the unhealthy excesses associated with the increased expectations of speed, efficiency and globalisation. I need to unclutter my life.

Thirdly, the capacity to understand what each of my roles in life requires of me (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to optimize my engagement in each associated context – the discipline of modal living – will equip me with that powerful but too rare trait of being fully present.

Finally, I need to become a master of contentment. Contentment comes from the discipline of opening my eyes, ears, hands (and yes, I guess nose and mouth) to the opportunities for satisfying experiences of pleasure, gratifying contributions aligned with my skill set, and purposeful and meaningful service, right here right now. Contentment is the foundation piece. Its antithesis is restless fantasizing about my future or the current lives of others. Contentment does not trump ambition, but it does trump the obsession with getting and experiencing what I don’t currently have.

Yes, external circumstances are important, but living well, living a generative life, is mostly about choices to have positive attitudes and develop live enhancing patterns of behaviour. This is a good thing, because so many of life’s circumstances are outside my control whereas the communities of people with whom I choose to share life and the associated habits of thinking and doing, are entirely up to me. I will not settle for anything less. I will figure out what I need to do to live better, right here, right now.


1. A generative life has these elements (as above).

2. How this is expressed is up to me. But I know that a generative life will be continually and intentionally evolving, growing, developing, changing, not for change’s sake, but because stagnation, equilibrium is death. The external environment in which I seek to live is relentlessly asking different things from me, and offering me new experiences of beauty and wonder.

3. And ultimately, the essential characteristic of a generative life is that it facilitates the possibility of a positive future for others. This is the litmus test. In theory, all the other elements could get ticks, but if my commitment to living a life oriented toward the welfare of others is inconsistent over time, then, in old age, my answer to the question “What kind of life have I lived?” will leave me with deep dissatisfaction.

I aspire to live a generative life. I am happily determined to look back on life with no regrets; I intend to experience as much beauty in the world as I can; to become the best I can possibly be with what I’ve been given; and to ensure that my legacy is to have facilitated a better life for others.

personal manifesto: generative engagements

I can sustain engagement with a cause, an employer or a recreational activity when what I give and what I get are generally in balance. There are three ‘currencies’ with which I give and take; physical, emotional and intellectual. It doesn’t matter which ones are in play, but overall, what I give compared to what I get will need to be correlated.

For example: If what I give at work either physically or intellectually is significantly less than what is deemed reasonable given the size of my paycheque (physical), then I am likely to get a tap on the shoulder and asked to lift my game or lose my job. If what I contribute through volunteering at little athletics is not matched by the emotional satisfaction I take, I am likely to opt out.

Further, if my engagement involves my core values and decision-making drivers then I am likely to give more, resulting in a deeper engagement. If I do not, my engagement will remain superficial. The deeper I engage, (usually accompanied by strong connection with others who are also engaging, see notes on Community above) then the deeper I will be drawn in. It is possible, that the ‘reason for being’ of a particular community or cause, becomes or is recognised as being aligned with my own sense of calling and passion. At this point the engagement actually generates energy and the giving is overshadowed by the positive flow outwards.

We can call this generative engagement.

A generative life, is therefore not just a life that ticks the three boxes of pleasure, betterness and meaning. Generativity happens when I engage deeply in the different dimensions and experience an energising that enlivens my life and flows onto others. This most typically happens in the context of ‘community’, where my engagements tap into the purpose and meanings associated with the entities.

generative engagement 1

generative engagement 2

generative engagement 3

Surfing is somehow more enlivening when the routines and activities are shaped by the reality or fantasy of belonging to the surfing tribe. When what I experience is the same as what I imagine that reality to be, it is a generative experience. This is what I love.

When I burn the midnight oil to solve organizational problems and design and facilitate change processes that deliver the outcomes that are at the centre of the organisation’s reason for being, I feel pride and confidence. My facilitating is a generative practice. This is what I do.

When I collaborate with kindred spirits to enable a real difference for people, whether via an international development project or a empowering a local values driven organization, I feel like I am living in tune with my purpose. It usually takes blood sweat and tears, the effort is substantial but the outcomes pay me back with surplus. The world is a better place because I have linked arms with others and done something that wouldn’t have happened without us. It’s a generative contribution. This is what gives meaning to my work.

personal manifesto: generativity and living well

As with generativity in other domains (see my last post), the elements do not predetermine what the outcome looks like. Rather, they are the basis from which individual decisions and creativity happen. So this is not about saying what I must do, or how specifically I must live in order to live well, it is about identifying why a particular season of living, or even a life overall, just works.

The three common dimensions I observed in generative domains were:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements. From my observations of my own life and those around me, the drivers and foundations of a well-lived life outlined in Part 1 are the design elements of a generative life.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively. A generative life is intentionally and continuously evolving. This applies to pleasure, betterness and meaning, the pursuit of which draws me to experience more of the beauty in the world (pleasure), continually develop my innate and acquired talents to be the best I can be (betterness), and contribute with ever increasing effectiveness to a better future for others (meaning). The disciplines (getting and staying unstuck, uncluttering, modal living and contentment) equip me to navigate this ever-evolving terrain with determination and grace.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future. A generative life generates life. The meaning here is not about physical reproduction. A generative live is life-enhancing, life-giving. There are two expressions of this: Firstly, generative living is engaged with communities (see note above) in ways that generate internal energy (see note of generative engagement below). The harmonizing of the design elements creates and sustains energy for living.

If any one of these three dimensions is lacking, life misses that generative edge. If the foundational drivers of pleasure, betterness and meaning are unharmonised, then generativity gives way to striving, restlessness and a sense that something is not quite right. And if my life is not continually evolving, moving from the known to the unknown, then stagnation takes over. As biologists remind us, equilibrium or static balance is death. And lastly, to live generatively, my orientation in life must be positive. Always hoping the best of and for people. Always looking to build up rather than tear down, always seeking to leave the word better than how I found it.

And then in addition to these three dimensions, a generative life energises those with whom it engages. In simple words, being around a person living a generative life is inspiring and motivates us to experience pleasure, be more fully ourselves and prioritise what matters most to us. A generative life is a potent, if not always publicly acknowledged force for good in the world.