The Laughing Buddha

A.K.A. The Collector of Good Questions

Should Business ‘Master Geo-Economics’ Like Government?

How persuasive is this advice?

At the methodology level, the WEF report is based on a ‘Risk Perceptions Survey’ of 900 individual members of the forum, and while the report flags the possibility of the Availability Heuristic affecting the responses, the mitigation of such cognitive biases does not appear robust enough. Did they, for example, consider using relatively simple mitigation approaches such as Dialectical Bootstrapping? More than this, the bizarre similarity, in terms of graphical prolixity, of the two visualisations on pages 5 and 6 of the report to the much-maligned Medusa’s head Afghanistan strategy map presented at the Pentagon in 2010 rings some alarm bells about the traps of strategic distraction and ‘analysis paralysis’.

As for the supposed ‘mastery’ that governments have of geo-economics, how robust is their skill? To use a metaphor employed in the article, do they waltz well around the globe? Even a cursory glance at any week’s headlines would seem to suggest that, in many matters of global import, our governments appear congenitally hobbled by two left feet. But, rather than appearing to suggest that governments are by their nature malformed, let me summarise some key observations made by many analysts in recent years.

The First World, as the developed West and Japan were known in the pre-Soviet-collapse era, now accounts for less than 15% of the population of a new world of demographic heft seemingly bursting with both rapid economic growth and cryptic, unpredictable risk. (To quote Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England, ‘If the history of [economic] growth were a 24-hour clock, 99% would have come in the last 20 seconds.’) The number of variables that forecasters of all stripes – including governments – need to keep track of in their attempts to look into the future is exploding bewilderingly all the time. Governments, even the most powerful ones, with their ‘sensors’ deployed in unlikely places (as suggested by the Assanges and Snowdens of the world), failed to detect so many of the big seismic events in global society in recent years. Remember the confusion of most Western governments when the Arab-Spring-that-wasn’t broke out? And the largely unforeseen Global Financial Crisis is still managing an ominous Cheshire-cat smile, even as the worst of it seems to disappear. What hope do corporations, even giant corporations, have of looking into crystal balls that have been opaque to powerful governments? Probably vanishingly little, unless one of the tech giants has a near-AI forecasting machine buzzing away somewhere out of sight, being fed all the data in the world to process for prediction. (Although even they would face challenges of oversight, not to speak of technological limitations.)

Snarly Siblings: Comparison of  Visually Prolix Maps
Snarly Siblings: Comparing the WEF risk interconnections map, at left, with the derided 2010 Afghanistan strategy map, at right (presented at the Pentagon in 2010) triggers alarm bells on account of thick visual prolixity.

As Daniel Kahneman, among others, has found, ‘experts’ are able to most reliably predict outcomes of actions only when their expertise is built upon actions that have relatively quick outcomes. Anaesthetists/anaesthesiologists are more likely to be ‘expert’ in this regard than radiologists, for example. So it should not be too surprising that some of the world’s most feted intellectuals have suffered ignominy when they tried their hand at long-term, or even medium-term, forecasting. Remember Francis Fukuyama’s now-risible ‘The End of History and the Last Man’following the collapse of the USSR, where he made the bold prediction that liberal democracy and benign capitalism would sweep the world from then on, and remain in place forever (when will we grasp the magnitude of this freely-used word)? The book was actually a bestseller, happily devoured by academics and leaders, among others.

Despite the vast output of such professional forecasters, who among them foresaw the arrival of the China Express with such ferocious momentum? Or the financial crisis; the bogging down of climate change discussions in labyrinths of accusation and doubt and biases; the turmoil in the Arab world; the perplexing rise of ISIS; the oil price fall; the resurgence of religio-cultural ‘pride’ across large swathes of the globe; the transformation of multiculturalism into problematic ‘plural monoculturalism’ in the West (as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen describes it); the recoil from globalisation? The few who might have predicted correctly were drowned out by the better-heard words of those who were wrong but safely managed to be forgotten. I recall a sardonic comment by an East Asian classmate at business school: “China is now manufacturing most of the world’s ‘things’, while the West is mostly left manufacturing words.” Not entirely inaccurate, I thought sadly.

Unpredictability seems to be on steroids. In addition to the most-discussed risks, what are the likely implications of, say, the arrival of full-fledged Artificial Intelligence (fears about which, aired by Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, among others, are often portrayed as somewhat droll in the media)? Or of the progressive shortening of attention-spans in the ‘connected’ world in the last few years, as we struggle through our modern days of constant electronic distraction, seeping out through the now-porous shells of our ‘individuality’? (Haldane, in his recent speech, has dwelt on the implications of these distractions as well). Does this accelerating trend cut so deeply into the available ‘mental bandwidth’ of billions of individual ‘economic players’ that they are exposed to risks similar to that afflicting the poor, as Sendhil Mullainathan at Harvard has described?

And these trends don’t travel on lonely trajectories; they have mysterious conversations with each other. Who really knows what they are up to together?

To quote from WEF report: “At the heart of the problem is a risk-management approach based on responsive measures that assume things go back to normal after a crisis – an approach that falls short with complex or slowly evolving environmental risks such as climate change. Stakeholders have been slow to address the underlying causes of environmental risks or to address their economic, social, political and humanitarian consequences.”


Because the relatively short duration for which leaderships – both government and corporate – are normally at the helm of their respective ships restricts their focus on nearer horizons, and voters as well as shareholders tend to be more concerned about short-term results for personal economic reasons. (I don’t really want to drag out the worn quote, but it’s inevitable at this point. ‘The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead’ – John Maynard Keynes). Consequently, there remain numerous prominent players looking to dubiously benefit by exacerbating, through their actions or conspicuous lack thereof, at least one of the global risks discussed in the WEF paper. The problem, therefore, lies in the nature of the decision-making structures that we have inherited from history, which now appears far less complex both in the nature and the magnitude of the problems it grappled with.

Given these complex realities, would adopting the WEF suggestion of ‘mastery’ of geo-economics – rather than simply everyday-news awareness and a judicious level of cooperation with governments and institutions – be either a prohibitively costly exercise of uncertain benefit or an unnecessary distraction for most companies?

And what exactly is meant by this ‘mastery’? The ability to influence geopolitics/geo-economics? Access to ‘inside’ knowledge from governments? Cyber-espionage? All of these? Mastery of this sort at anywhere near government-level is a game that only a few may hope to play, at least in Western democracies.

Only those positioned at the most favourable spots along the rivers of information sloshing around the world may have some advantage. Large corporations located relatively advantageously, geopolitically speaking, are able and likely to use a variety of means to influence the trajectory of national and international politics as they seek to mitigate the adverse impact of unforeseen events or trends. This approach, setting aside ethical debates or its potential impact on democratic institutions within nation-states, has its limits, of course, especially at a time when there is sometimes little clarity even to nationalistic governments about whether a particular company is ‘national’. Medium-sized companies, or those operating in relatively smaller economies, would have even less hope of success at such influence, especially if they have global growth ambitions. The best strategy for them may turn out to be analogous to that of sailors, who, as the popular (and somewhat misogynistic) old legend goes, hedged against the loss of their progeny in volatile times – where wars, plagues and murderous robbers were never too far away – by having a family in every port. Building resilience against an uncertain future by intelligently spreading risks is a sound and robust strategy over the medium-to-long term, despite its costs.

Awareness of visible risks, fuelling a judicious level of co-operative engagement, may then be the reasonable course of action for business in seeking to ameliorate risks at a national/regional/global level. Spreading business risks should be a sound strategy. Perhaps it is time to veer purposefully towards the conglomerate/keiretsu/chaebol model. Google appears to be moving in that direction. And Asian conglomerates, Bain & Company have noted, ‘consistently outperform their peers in developed markets and pure plays in their markets’.

Originally Published on LinkedIn.

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Employee Engagement, Emotional Intelligence … and Poetry?

(Originally published on my LinkedIn Blog)

Corporate Poet Laureate

High levels of employee engagement are widely considered to be a valuable indicator of organisational health. However, numerous Gallup and other surveys over recent years continue to report obdurately slow progress in engagement, and in stanching the bleed of hundreds of billions of dollars in costs suffered by organisations annually.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) – and empathy in particular – plays an important role in employee engagement. Despite Adam Grant’s recent controversial blog post, the ability to successfully understand, express, and engage with the nuances of emotion remains valued by many, if not most, people connected with organisations (including, unsurprisingly, Daniel Goleman himself, and also others.)

Events or personalities triggering, or even vaguely suggesting, negative emotions can play havoc through the ‘emotional contagion’ effect within a low-EI organisation. According to Neal Ashkanasy of the University of Queensland, ‘emotional contagion’ is an affliction that can spread pretty rapidly within a group of people, infected by the smallest of alarming/elevating emotional cues. Carnegie Mellon economist George Loewenstein puts moods and fears among the ‘visceral factors’ that “have a disproportionate effect on behavior and tend to ‘crowd out’ virtually all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factor.”

While, following famous articles by Goleman and others, a robust books-and-consulting industry has grown up around EI, studies by researchers such as David C. Kidd and Emanuele Castano have latterly begun to suggest that readings of literature (Chekhov and Dickens, for example) may be better at lifting component measures of EI such as empathy.

Other researchers have employed poetry – the earliest, purest, and arguably most emotionally rich form of literature – in helping develop EI. (See here and here).

As the late Jacob Bronowski once said, all that we constantly learn during the course of our lives is “an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” But not all uncertainty is adventure; so, perhaps, within our organisations, we could partly deal with the vicissitudes of uncertainty using the greater emotional certainty of poetic beauty.

In the modern organisation, periods of change and transition are constantly occurring at the personal, business unit, project, or corporate level. These may trigger emotions ranging from celebration, excitement, apprehension to consternation. These emotions do not always lend themselves to a good grip, and their significance and implications are often hard to articulate well across the broadest swathe of people.

Could poetry composed specially to mark such occasions help in easing into these transitions? I have a strong hunch that it would be good for the emotional climate within organisations, although the benefits might vary somewhat between different national cultures (the ‘we-look-down-on-emotions’ culture in some countries in the Anglosphere, for example) and industry sectors (sports clubs; national reserve banks?).

The pragmatic Classical Greeks recognised the importance of poetry by appointing a Poet ‘Laureate’ (the latter word essentially means ‘having your head adorned with a laurel wreath’). The practice was revived in Renaissance Europe, and continues in many nations and territories around the globe. According to Wikipedia, the Poet Laureate is ‘often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions’.

I propose that organisations begin appointing/electing Poet Laureates.

The nurturing of a sense of group identity is an important part of the development of a group’s EI. The ritual of electing a Poet Laureate (through an organisation-wide contest, perhaps), and of enjoying poetry to mark shared organisational experiences may well help in the strengthening of group identity.

Only a part of the whole gamut of organisational challenges related to engagement and emotional intelligence can realistically be attenuated through this proposal, of course. Modern organisations are far too complex and dynamic entities for me to have inflated expectations from any single initiative.

Responses and suggestions from you would be greatly welcome.

Opportunities may exist for using short, keepsake poems (or even limericks!) to mark events such as welcoming a new team member or bidding one goodbye, launching a new project or announcing the completion of another, acquisitions and spinoffs, major contracts inked, and the like. (Readers who know their poetics – and their organisations – far better than my modest grasp of literature may well have better suggestions.)

I tend to turn to literature during periods of significant change in life, in an instinctive bid to gain insight and perhaps inspiration from intensely and masterfully ‘condensed’ life on the page. C.P. Cavafy, for example, has in the past extended a metaphorically powerful hand to help still my sway in the face of life’s unpredictable headwinds:

As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

(From Ithaca, by C.P.Cavafy, 1863 -1933)

It would be good to spread the joy and divide the discomfort of transitions within organisations through the use shared, luminous words and prosody, however brief, composed by someone who knows their craft well.

P.S. Just as I was about to publish this blog post, a friend brought to my notice that the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas has a Limerick Committee. (Art Markman, not surprised to see your name on the page!)

A New Name for Highly-Survivable Cancers? (Updated)

The original post was published on LinkedIn a few days ago. It prompted responses from one of Australia’s leading oncologists, Dr Ian Davis at Monash University. (He’s also the Chairman of the cancer trials group ANZUP). I’ve taken the liberty to paste his responses (and my reply) at the end.

As of today, the LinkedIn post has also attracted the attention of a senior Celgene executive, as well as a European pharma director.


Early last month, I visited a close friend’s father in hospital following his surgery for prostate cancer.

At the age of 65, Uncle H. had just had his prostate removed very cleanly by one of Australia’s most experienced prostate surgeons, who used the Da Vinci robot for the procedure. It was the morning after the operation, and Uncle H. seemed to be doing quite fine, taking tentative walks around the ward.

Kipling Quote

However, my chats with him over the next few days made it clear that he was very anxious and possibly depressed. He had been shocked into silence for several days following his positive biopsy after the pathology lab reported a high PSA level in his blood. Cancer had been the last thing on his mind, with preparations for a daughter’s wedding underway.

A week after the surgery, the pathology lab reported that his cancer was confined to one part of the prostate, and was fully contained within the organ’s ‘capsule’, with no evidence of spread: a Stage 1 tumour of low grade.

This was excellent news. The long-term relative survival rate for this stage of prostate cancer is well above 90%, and possibly approaches 99% because the previous survival estimates used data from some years ago, of course. And treatments have improved since then.

However, Uncle H. continues to be depressed. The word ‘cancer’ and all its grim connotations weigh heavy on his mind.

Coming only a few months after a close relative suffered considerable anxiety following surgery for low-grade bladder cancer – also highly survivable, although requiring a surgeon to poke around inside for any evidence of recurrence twice a year – this episode got me thinking. Was there a simple way to even partly reduce the stress of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of such people around the world who now were reaping the rewards of decades of cancer research and could expect long-term survival?

This may be an important question for many employers as well, because of the potential benefits of having more confident employees when they are long-term cancer survivors with excellent prognoses.

My suggestion below is made in all humility, and with great respect for organisations doing wonderful work in alleviating the psychological challenges faced by cancer sufferers around the world. (These organisations include the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, the British Psychosocial Oncology Society, and PoCoG in Australia). I am not aware whether any similar proposal has already been made, and been comprehensively shot down by the far better-informed oncology community – a risk that I am happy to bear.

Is it perhaps time to rename highly-survivable cancers, thus subtracting the heavy weight of the ‘C’ word from the minds of numerous cancer survivors who have a greater than 95% (or better) chance of dying from something other than the disease?

Lower stages of many cancers, including prostate, testicular, breast, bladder etc. now often have relative long-term survival rates in the high 90-percents (actually approaching 100% in the most common form of testicular cancer). If the disease is redefined to accommodate survivability in the name, the new name for high-survival cancer stages would have implications not just for the mental states of millions of survivors, but possibly also for employers, insurance firms, and immigration departments.

The word ‘Aranea’, more benign-sounding Latin than Cancer (crab), is my modest suggestion, if the proposal above at all survives criticism. (Araneae is Latin for spider, which has only superficial physical similarity to crabs).

Would telling someone that they have ‘Aranea’, a highly-survivable illness, potentially make a positive difference to the patient as well as those around them?

It would be great to know your thoughts.

[The latest cancer survival statistics for common cancers have been published by Cancer Research UK here.]


Response from Dr Ian Davis, Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncologist, Monash University and Eastern Health; Director and Chair, ANZUP.

Dear Nav,

An interesting article and an interesting idea. I agree that a lot of harm is caused by overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and that some cancers are better left either undiagnosed or, if found, defused in significance in some way. Perhaps your suggestion might help. The other side of that coin though is that these pathologies are not always well-behaved, and even the percentages you use in your blog fall well short of the 100% mark. In fact, they are in the same ballpark of survival probabilities as Russian Roulette… I remember seeing a patient one day with a huge melanoma on his forehead. Impossible not to have noticed it. When I asked him why he had neglected it so long, he said, “The doctor said it was just a lesion.” I’ve had similar stories of missed cancers where other euphemisms have been used: tumour, growth, opacity, neoplasm. Kipling was right, but it works both ways.

Ian Davis.

My Reply to the Above:

Dear Dr Davis,

Thank you so much for your response – someone as skeletal an outlier in this area as I am could hardly have hoped for a reply that begins so encouragingly as the one below. The scalpel precision of the hole that you cut into my proposal is even more potent! The most conspicuous candidate for my little proposal seems to me to be Clinical Stage I Seminoma (CSI Seminoma). A former colleague was diagnosed with it last year, and subsequently proceeded to crumble to bits under the psychological distress of being struck with a cancer at a relatively young age. He is still unable to start looking for employment, despite many sessions with counselors. Dr Davis, CSI Seminoma, with its relative long-term survival purportedly ‘approaching’ 100%, appears to me to have a mortality rate not much outside the range of appendicitis, and curtails lifespan possibly by only somewhat more than Type 2 Diabetes (I may be quite wrong here, of course, as I’ve based this only on a couple of online data sources). And, from what cancer immunotherapy and other developments in the last 2 years or so seem to suggest, this ‘cure’ rate may well be replicated across 3-4 other cancers (or at least some subtypes) over the next 10 years or so. My proposal is aimed only at this quite small, albeit growing, number of potentially highly-survivable cancers. While I do understand the risk, in CSI Seminoma for example, that labeling it as something other than cancer (based on the criterion of relative survivability) may cause a higher dropout rate in surveillance – especially among younger patients with big risk appetites – perhaps this could be addressed by spacing out the surveillance schedule (to monitor for relapses) without detracting significantly from outcomes? The intention really would be to attenuate the substantial psychological morbidity that hits many men diagnosed with CSI Seminoma. Dr Davis, I apologise sincerely for any impertinence. And thanks again.

Dr Davis’ Reply:

CSI seminoma is a good example.

It’s often cured with surgery alone but can relapse, and a small proportion can go very bad. Relapses can occur very late, as well.


Thanks and goodbye, Sentia

I leave Sentia Media this week after more than 5 memorable years. And it is like stepping out of the cool shade into the intense heat of a tropical sun. It is more than a trifle uncomfortable.

There are many things that I am thankful to Sentia for, and many of them are ineffable. I’ll try and put into brief words my gratitude where it is within my skills to express. My impulse to write a longer piece is best avoided in our social media age.

In the midst of our daily battles together to further our company’s mission, there were brief interludes of conversation and benign gossip with colleagues and friends. I will always remember with admiration their warmth, liveliness and refreshing charm in the face of our everyday challenges. So thank you, dear colleagues and friends, for finding those precious moments to infect me enduringly with your enthusiasm!

Sentia remains a solid, steady ship in the proverbial stormy seas of the media industry. The team we colloquially referred to as the ‘generals’, despite their normal strategic and tactical ups-and-downs, continues to win the appreciation and respect of a broad swathe of their troops.  And this is even truer of the commander-in-chief, who goes to great lengths to ensure that internal communications, the lifeblood of any organisation, flow robustly throughout the company. So thank you, John, for keeping your door open – literally and metaphorically – to ideas, suggestions and thoughts from anyone in the Sentia family.

I have now leapt from the cliff, so to say, not because I fell out of love with the company, but because I longed again for the raw thrill of uncertainty. My job at Sentia was my first real job ever, as I had previously always ‘worked for myself’. So, after these five years, my deepest gratitude goes to all of Sentia Media – for giving me the confidence, as I do my own version of Felix Baumgartner without a parachute, that I will build my wings on the way down.

MOOC your way to broader horizons

A discussion at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) in Sydney this weekend prompted me to share some reading-up I’ve been doing on MOOCs, and some of the sites that I’ve been referring to as part of my MBA studies.

For those not familiar with the acronym, MOOC stands for ‘Massively Open Online Courses’ – a burgeoning trend that is shaking up traditional academia worldwide. Some MOOCs are totally free, and hope to stay that way through the backing of philanthropic individuals and organisations. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, among others, is a big supporter of the philanthropic model. Other MOOCs are exploring potential revenue streams, such as charging for assessments and certifications while keeping the courses (largely) free.

It will be interesting to see how the MOOC model evolves over the next few years.

MOOC your way to broader horizons
MOOC your way to broader horizons. Photo Credit: Iaurizza via Flickr.


Here’s an intro to the more conspicuous MOOCs, in no particular order:

A joint venture between Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and UC Berkeley, edX has begun offering free online courses. There are 7 courses on offer as of today, on subjects ranging from chemistry and quantitative methods to computer science and artificial intelligence. The delivery model is not ‘access this course anytime’ – you need to sign up, and then step through the course from start of term to end of term.

Coursera has a model similar to that of edX, but the number of universities participating is much larger – 33 at last count – and includes institutions from the United States, UK, Europe, Australia, Canada, Israel, and Hong Kong. The 198 courses currently offered cover a wide range of subjects, including business and finance, the life sciences, maths, and the humanities.

Khan Academy

Having secured backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, Salman Khan’s free educational video venture is already the biggest MOOC of them all in the sheer number of lectures delivered – approaching 200 million this month. The hundreds of courses on a diverse variety of subjects are offered in 22 languages, with more on the way following additional grants from philanthropic foundations in Europe.


In addition to the 14 courses available on the site, Udacity offers an online community of thousands to share and discuss, and to seek help and advice. The revenue models being explored by Udacity include paid assessment through certification centres worldwide, and recruitment consultancy (they offer to distribute your resume to potential employers).  Founded by a group of Stanford roboticists, Udacity has some pretty ‘heavy’ courses on offer, including advanced-level AI and Applied Cryptography.


Open Courseware from leading US universities

Some of the top universities in the US have made available online for free large chunks of their course materials, including video lectures, lecture notes, presentations, etc. While these are not as comprehensive as courses from the likes of Udacity, Coursera, or edX, they may be used to complement interactive ‘brick and mortar’ classes that you take at traditional institutions.

Below is a selection of the leading opencourseware sites.

MIT Open Courseware

Open Yale Courses

OLI @ Carnegie Mellon University

Tufts Open Courseware

Useful non-MOOCs

Additionally, for those interested in online resources for innovation, ideas and/or startups, here are a few sites that I like and recommend:

Springwise uses a global network of ‘spotters’ to aggregate, review and publish on the site information on thousands of new entrepreneurial ventures and ideas. I’ve found it an excellent site to get the grey cells into ‘innovation’ mode.

A very interesting site that weaves together philanthropic ‘bets’ with socially relevant long-term predictions. Again, like Springwise above, has a similar effect in triggering sparks in the brain’s ‘new ideas’ region. and

My two favourite crowdfunding sites.

Many, including yours truly, have found with varying degrees of shock and frustration that the secret ideas that they’ve been waiting to reveal to the world at the right time are already out there, and securing crowdfunding.

Excellent sites to get the entrepreneur’s head abuzz.


A Phrase Steps Out of the Past

Was trawling through my messy old notebooks from the mid-80s last night, and came across this intriguing little phrase on the margins, attributed to ” – me”:

“Life is an urge of the Universe to understand itself”.

Have been trying — unsuccessfully so far — to recapture the past angst encapsulated in these few words.