Do it like PJK

A few weeks back when I went to the Friends of the ABC event there were copies of Kerry O’Brien’s biography of Paul Keating after the event. Kerry was mobbed by adoring fans and was kept busy signing copies of the book as he sold them. My friend was of those who bought a copy and, as we parted that day, he handed it to me saying he wouldn’t get around to reading soon so why don’t I start on it first? I accepted it hesitantly, promising not to spoil it by telling him how it ends.

The book was born out of a series of interviews between O’Brien and Keating a few years back broadcast on the ABC. I remember watching it, as always absorbed in the wit, intelligence and sheer vision of Keating. It was great viewing for a policy wonk like me, especially if you share my admiration for the great man himself.

It’s a thick tome, and given its genesis an unconventional biography. Each chapter begins with O’Brien giving an overview of the politics, the events, the issues and the personalities of the particular period. He then begins to question Keating in depth about the period in question, and Keating responds with customary confidence and panache. His recall is vivid, aided by an extensive library of articles he kept from the time. His ability to explain complex themes simply was always a great strength of his, and even many years after the fact he is still able to clearly articulate the salient issues. All of this is articulated with his usual wit and idiosyncratic style. I could listen to him all day, full stop, but for an economics buff like me to hear him explain the mechanics of what he did is fascinating. It’s a long way from dry.

I’m about halfway through and I’m reminded just about every page of all he achieved. I knew what the Hawke/Keating government did, I know it, and occasionally I will reel them off when I’m in company to people unaware or ignorant. I don’t know if there has ever been a more significant Australian government than this. Even knowing all of that I find myself surprised again at the breadth and depth of achievement. It was a true transformative government, and while much of it was economic – floating the dollar, opening up the financial markets, the superannuation guarantee, the accord, and so on – much also was cultural, nothing more so than Mabo.

Just about everything he did met resistance, and often fierce resistance. None of it was easy. He had to find ways to persuade, compel, coerce, cajole, bribe and occasionally threaten to get his nation building initiatives through. It’s something I’ve taken notice of, and am looking to learn from.

I work on a much smaller scale, but much of my job is – in theory – defining, creating and implementing business and process solutions. Many of the solutions I propose are bold, some evolutionary, and some radical in terms of where they’re at (which is in the stone age). I’m great at defining and creating solutions, and have a lot of confidence in what I do. The problem I have is implementing them. It’s not that they’re well received – generally they are – it’s just for political or budgetary reasons it’s hard to get them implemented.

I’m a bull. I advocate hard. I’m not a fanatic, but for everything I propose I document in detail the benefits of it – generally increased productivity, swifter and more efficient processing, and happier customers and staff. Often it’s hard to quantify such things, but generally the benefits are clear. I realise that I have to sell more than just a cool idea, and so I break it down to a granular level. I try to answer the questions before they ask them.

Mostly it’s not enough. The politics here are pretty tangled. Resourcing is very tight and budgets keenly managed. On top of that IT is pretty much dysfunctional, and senior management are very conservative (that’s to put it kindly). As a general rule they’d prefer to retain an inefficient process than make the effort and incur the upfront expense (in resources or dollars) to implement something that will be much more efficient, productive and cost-effective over the longer term. As I result I have about 8 stalled initiatives, and it’s frustrating to the pint of utter exasperation.

I have to find other ways, and this is what reading Keating has made me realise. I can be blunt, but I can also be a persuasive advocate. I use that to get people on board, either as supporters or with promises of partnership. Even that has not been enough – there’s no-one who says my ideas are bad, and in general they are much applauded. They’re just too unpalatable to an organisation that thinks small.

So being persuasive, even charming, is not enough, and nor is occasional blunt force. I’m now re-shaping what I propose. I still seek support, but I’m breaking things down into smaller, more easily digestible chunks. If I break the big idea into parts then I can sell the parts separately. Once we get the first part in place it leads on naturally to the second part. And so on – that’s the theory.

I’m still dubious. There’s such a backlog of work, and so much structural inefficiency (not to mention managerial timidity) that even so it’s hard to get anything done. It makes a lot of what I do purely theoretical, and practically pointless. I’m persistent though, as always, and hopefully channelling the great PJK will be the difference.


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