Sunday, January 22, 2017

Farm-gate and consumer food prices - a need for genuine analysis.



What is it that we want our agriculture to do? 

Australia agriculture continues to put food on the tables three times a day.  It continues to innovate and contribute to the nation's prosperity.  It continues to eke out efficiencies in the production system. Though much is to be lauded, much needs to change.   

Modern agriculture is grounded on the belief that the primary objective of the industry is to produce as much food and fibre as possible for the least cost. 

These twin goals have long shaped farming, and underpinned agricultural research.  But with evidence that food is wasted in developed countries (and in developing countries), that food security is a now accepted as a major global issue, and issues of environmental degradation and health problems such as obesity, we need to define what it is that we want contemporary agriculture to do. 

And in doing so, we must be prepared to pay for the “qualities” we want in our food – ethical production, environmental values, animal welfare, safe products – not just accept to dictum that food is too expensive.  Farm gate prices would suggest we are not paying the full cost of production to the quality standards we expect.  The wholesale/retail sector makes big margins -  supermarket drive the price to consumers down (or so they say) but seemingly not at the expense of profit.  There is little transparency in the market trail – consumers do not really know what they are paying for, and for producers it is even more opaque.

Social media abound with comment, much ill-founded on food and food security issues. Parallel with this, we see heightened interests in food and cooking, and in urban agriculture/vegetable growing.  Then there is health - over consumption of energy rich food, imbalanced diets and obesity. 

There is a sense we are missing the big picture. 

Is modern agriculture about producing cheap food? What other values might apply to agriculture, such as preserving landscape and countryside? Can we change the profitability of the system? What should the drivers be for a new agriculture? What is prosperity in contemporary agriculture?  What is the value proposition for all players in the market?

Engaging in public debate on these issues and acknowledging their complexity will help define the shape of future agricultural research and our farm and food systems.

There is nothing new in this.  In recent reading I re-discover a couple of paper in my files from  David Fraser, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia:
  • Fraser D (1999) Animal ethics and animal welfare science: bridging the two cultures.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65: 171-189, and
  • Fraser D (2001) The “New Perception” of animal agriculture: legless cows, featherless chickens and a need for genuine analysis.  Journal of Animal Science 79: 634-6411
The second title relates to an often-cited quote in animal welfare literature about a (disputed) claim by an animal geneticist that his organisation was attempting to ‘breed animals without legs and chickens without feathers’.

The quote highlights, however, concern felt in some quarters over the direction of modern agriculture. While gene technology is poised to deliver many benefits to agriculture in the fight against disease, reduced environmental impact and enhanced food nutrition and quality, it could fancifully be argued that the technology might one day be equally capable of delivering a legless cow.

Nowhere in modern agriculture is the polarisation of different viewpoints on the direction of animal agriculture more evident than in the fields of gene technology and animal welfare.
In these debates and others, such as the growing divide between production and sustainability science, a far better analysis is required of complex issues to answer the questions of what we want agriculture to do.  

David Fraser describes the polarised views on modern agriculture in terms of the ‘new perception’ and the ‘neotraditional portrayal’. In the new perception, agriculture is regarded as detrimental to animal welfare, controlled by large corporations, motivated by profit, causing world hunger, producing unhealthy food and harmful to the environment.  It is a dichotomy between a negative view that we are “Future Eaters” (as in Tim Flannery’s book with the same title) or the more constructive view that we are “Future Makers” (as argued by David F Smith, in his paper In Praise of Exotic Species”, Quadrant February 2014).

At the other end of the spectrum, Fraser defines the neotraditional portrayal of the industry as beneficial to animal welfare, mainly controlled by families and individuals, motivated by traditional animal care values that lead to profit, augmenting world food supplies, producing safe and nutritious food and not harmful (often beneficial) to the environment.  

Literature from both ends of the spectrum tends to provide information that supports one of these polarised viewpoints while often failing to acknowledge the complexity of the debate, or attempting to establish a middle-ground.

Research undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington indicates that the demand for animal protein will double within 20 years. This demand is being propelled by urbanisation and increased income, particularly in the developing world.  It is common knowledge now that we are heading for a world population of 9 billion, so projections in demand are entirely credible.

However, if we are going to increase livestock production, for example, to double protein production, major changes will be required in how we produce our product. If we increase per animal productivity two or three-fold, then we would also have to reduce environmental impact by a similar amount, accepting present community expectations.  While this may be technically possible within a reasonably short timeframe, is this what we want agriculture to do? How do we want to use the resource?

The agricultural production sector is often criticised for not meeting the triple bottom line (social, economic and environmental) yet by the same token we, at least in the developed world,  continue vote in the supermarkets for cheaper food.  

This not only challenges the viability of farming, it also means that much of what we do as societies is at cross purposes.  There are many questions to be asked, such as:

  • ·       Will we accept that profitability of farm enterprises, and especially family businesses, is a legitimate aspiration?
  • ·       Will we enact the market and price reforms, and equity distributions, need to achieve this?
  • ·       Will consumers accept the harvesting of native species, such as the Red or Grey kangaroo in countries like Australia, as an ecologically sustainable source of meat? 
  • ·       Should we be paying more for food and consuming less in the interests of less energy intake and lower obesity?

There is even the question of “What is food?” 

For example, rather than seeing beef just as a staple in the food system, could our mindset change so that we also think of beef as producing zinc and iron that can be injected into diets at critical times in human development – for example, in early childhood for brain development and early teenage years to combat iron deficiency. (Zinc and iron deficiencies appear to be two major nutritional issues in both the developed and developing worlds.)  In doing so, we change the whole value proposition for meat, and the prospect of better returns to producers, and enhanced benefits to consumers.  For those who are just after the eating experience, nothing changes.

These are myriad challenging questions to be asked, questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but must be debated vigorously by a range of stakeholders in the public arena.  An effective response will be systemic.

Critical is a need to somehow re-connect consumers with the processes of food production. There is some hope that growth in the urban agricultural sector will enable more people to understand the complexities and vagaries in producing food - but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consumer confidence in science has been shaken in recent times by issues relating to food safety and diseases, such as bird flu.  To avoid misrepresentation, scientists have at times been reluctant to acknowledge any potential risk to food safety for fear that such an admission will distort the debate. Yet, with uncertainty comes awareness and planning for any potential unforeseen consequences. We cannot remain silent ( see https://www.crawfordfund.org/news/news-what-happens-when-we-remain-silent-january-2015/).

Risks can be managed effectively without raising public concern if potential risks to the food chain are acknowledged and a system of surveillance, monitoring and detection put in place that enable quick remedial action to address any problems that may arise.

Scientists should not be isolating themselves from controversy because the technical complexity of issues we are dealing with in the community now is such that we need to participate in the public debate – we need people who understand the science to engage.  Nor should other members of the community ignore the requirement to engage openly and responsibly in that debate.

Undoubtedly, we need more simultaneous research at all levels – from sub-cellular to ecological – to develop a greater understanding of issues at the boundaries of science and social and community impacts.  We also need parallel efforts to explore how to reform our markets and to give better price signals and financial returns to our farmers, and to educate consumers about the true cost of food.

We need a public debate too - an informed debate and based on genuine analysis.  

And we must accept the urgent need to do this.

What is it that we want our agriculture to do? 



Monday, January 16, 2017

Leadership: A grandfather reflects on walking the talk

I often reflect on this small piece of writing from Max De Pree when I am concerned about how I should be doing my job.  I hope you enjoy it too!
 
Esther, my wife, and I have a grand-daughter named Zoe, the Greek word for “life”.  She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulders.  The neonatologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living three days.  When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in her isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, she had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth.

To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born.  Realising this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions.  “For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father.  I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger.  While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.”

Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and, of course, on my behalf as well), and without realising it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader.  At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice with one’s touch.

 
Foreword in  Max de Pree (1991) Leadership Jazz (my edition was published in 1991.  ISBN 1 86350 101 0)

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

All business is a journey not a destination: Stop Planning and Start the Journey.

A business plan is a necessity for any business. It is the result of painstaking thought and analysis, translated into a strategy and action.

Many advisers will tell you, quite rightly, that simply having a plan is not the path to success. They will tell you that to execute your strategy you will need to be continually planning, and taking operational or tactical decisions as you are sure your objective.

I’d like to suggest a different way of looking at this.

Everybody in business will tell you that they often encounter barriers, unexpected obstacles and difficulties on the path to their ultimate goal. Having a means to navigate through this environment of uncertainty becomes critical.

Navigation, as commonly understood (or misunderstood), requires us to know where we want to go. Often in business however we are more like explorers who have no idea what we will find along the way, or even what it looks like when we get there. We are driven by a vision of the future, and often one we want to create. The most important question on such a journey is often “where are we?”

It’s the navigator’s job to answer that question.

Do you know where you are? Have you defined your purpose adequately, so that at any point on the journey you can determine if you are fit for purpose? Do you have the necessary information to assess the health of your business? Do you have the cash flow to keep going? Have you been filling in the details as you go so that you can test the continued validity of your business plan? Or are you pursuing the journey in the hope that the ship is in shape? Do you know where you are, or are you just assuming that you are where you want to be?

Think of your business journey as a journey of discovery. As a navigator does, you not only chart the course, that you continually scan the horizon and monitor the weather, and make adjustments to sail around the storms or to avoid the rocks and reefs, or to take advantage of favourable winds. Just as the navigator calls for course changes to avoid hazards, and then for re-corrections to come back on track, so too you can manage your businesses.

How good is your information, your understanding, your analysis of experience, and your scanning of the business horizon? Where are you getting your advice?  Who do you turn to for assistance to navigate through the morass?

At any point in the journey that is your business life you must be able to answer the question “where are we?” and then assess whether you are still on track or off course.  And then you can make the informed decisions necessary to keep the business viable.  Execution is strategy.  Navigation enables execution.

And all business is a journey, not a destination.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to respond.

I don’t know the exact origins but for many years now I have often said to colleagues that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth, and that is the proportion in which we should use them. The management literature abounds with entreaties for us to listen better, to develop listening skills, to be reactive listeners, and to listen first before speaking. But have we learnt the lesson.

I would like to thank the people at Swish Design for the post from which I have taken my title. Finding it was an OS!M[1].

Yes it is true.

Often we are waiting for the gaps, or the breaks, or when we think the speaker has finished (or had enough time) so that we can inject our piece of “communication”.

Often we break the sequence of discussion, or inject content of little value, or just say the same thing again.

We listen to respond. We build our own ideas, not necessarily creatively building on the ideas of others.

Our behaviours are less supportive and more directive. We miss messages, and opportunities. We just fail to listen. Our agenda not theirs.

As Kelly Exeter from Swish Design (http://www.swishdesign.com.au/category/blog/) says:

I think any of us who are in client facing roles have experienced this – that thing where we spend most of the conversation formulating our reply to the person we’re speaking to. So much so that we forget to actually listen to them.

Which in turn prevents us from understanding what their actual problem is …


[1] Oh Shit! Moment

Saturday, January 16, 2016

innovation is the poster child of the mantra that there are no rules

One of the myths of business is that only new companies implement innovations.  Another myth is that only established companies do research and development.

In reality, new firms need to invest in research and development to gain market share. And, established firms need to invest in innovation to lead the market or to protect their slice of the pie.

But what type of research and development? How do we classify what will work and what won’t? There is no straight answer to the innovation mystery.

Innovation is a complex process that has become a confused concept in recent times. The challenge with complex concepts is converting them into the simple.

Jim Euchner, the vice president of global innovation at Goodyear, several years ago proposed  set of innovation types:

Innovation that feeds the existing profit engine
Process innovation
Faster, better, cheaper product innovation
New feature (incremental) innovation

Innovation that creates a
New profit engine
New product innovation
New business innovation
Disruptive innovation

Experience shows that organisations seem to find it harder to become successful as they move down the list. Success in the latter categories, although harder to achieve, leads to greater profits.

Euchner also suggests that we pay more attention to the context or the circumstances – generally business circumstances – in which the innovation is situated, effectively matching the type of innovation needed to best suit the situation.

The key is to recognise that innovation is not a standard process. As the context changes, so does the approach to innovation. And as approaches change, so does the need for different types of innovations.

If one looks at new companies as they grow and mature you often find excellent examples of innovation that changed according to the situation. Often the company starts out as a ’new kid on the block’, its product offering could be classified, for examples,  as a ‘process innovation’. The business and its business model matures, and the ongoing innovation now falls into the ‘faster, better, cheaper’ category.

So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you have to be open to change and new points of view. Innovation is continuous.

Successful innovators and entrepreneurs all embrace change and the risks that they pose. In fact, innovation is the poster child of the mantra that there are no rules. Only by trying out new things, by failing, by discovering what works and what doesn’t, do you gain answers to the innovation question.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Entrepreneurs go against the herd!

 Humans are essentially social animals, and go along with the prevailing majority.  But entrepreneurs, by nature break free; rebel; don't conform; write new rules; even reject the data.

In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read today when I found then thinking about successful entrepreneurs. Not surprising, my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).

The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.

A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.

My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”

1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.

2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.

3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.

4.    Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.

5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.

6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.

7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.

8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.

9.    Don't unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.

10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.

11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.

12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to do leader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.

13.   You as a leader can't really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.

14.   Don't delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.

15.   You can't copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.

Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.

Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why are so many countries questioning the quality and effectiveness of their leadership? Some thoughts from business

Why are so many countries questioning the quality and effectiveness of their leadership? Is it a lack of preparedness?

This blog examines some issues relating to responsibility, ethics and power in leadership.  I have drawn on some older material to help my reflection, and suggest that we seldom consider how we should prepare for success as a precursor to good performance.  None of this is new, but has it been forgotten?

Leadership has been described as a serious meddling in the lives of others (De Pree, 1991:7).  This implies that leadership embodies a responsibility of leaders for, or toward, those who are led.  

Yet a common scenario in modern business (since the late 1980s) is:

... good, respected and successful leaders, men and women of intelligence, talent, and vision who suddenly self-destruct as they reach the apex of their careers.  (Ludwig and Longenecker, 1993:266).


An Australian newspaper article from that time (Barker, 1995:14) reported that a concern for ethics in business is:

... a response to what is now called “ the excesses of the eighties” - the economic damage done to the nation and individuals by greedy, irresponsible and often corrupt business people who were feted as national heroes.

Ethics in management is a significant theme in the recent.  But why is it that leaders get caught up in a downward spiral of unethical decisions?

Ludwig and Longenecker (1993:266-267) seek to:

... debunk the notion that ethical failure of our leaders is largely due to lack of principle and/or the tough competitive climate of the 80s and 90s. (Equally, we could say the same for the more recent past)  Rather, we would like to suggest that many of the violations we have witnessed in recent years are the result of success and lack of preparedness in dealing with personal and organisational success.

Other evidence (Barker, 1995; LaBier ,1986) supports this contention that little attention is placed on preparing people to deal with the trials and dilemmas associated with success in modern society.  As success is the goal of every leader (Ludwig and Longenecker, 1993:270) it is surprising that it does not rate more significance in management and leadership literature.

The biblical story of David and Bathsheba is used to outline four potential by-products of success: 
·      lose of strategic focus;
·      privileged access;
·      control of resources;
·      inflated belief in personal ability to control outcomes.

Ludwig and Longenecker (1993:267-269) write that “... the good and successful King David of Israel, believing he could cover up his impropriety, took Bathsheba to his bed while her husband was off in battle.”  

David is not where he is supposed to be (loss of strategic focus), he “delegated, then ignored what was happening”.  David had time on his hands, and a viewing position atop the palace roof to view Bathsheba at bath (privileged access).  David then manipulates the situations (controls resources, and tries to control outcomes) sleeps with Bathsheba who falls pregnant, brings her husband in from battle in the hope he will sleep with his wife and cover-up David’s impropriety, and eventually causes the husband to be killed.  The manipulation is exposed.  “David, in short, chose to do something he knew was clearly wrong in the firm belief that through his personal power, and control over power, he could cover up”.

When kept within reason, privileged access and control of resources are positive and justified requisites for success.  Privileged access is “essential for comprehensive strategic vision” and control of resources is “necessary for the execution of strategy” (Ludwig and Longenecker, 1993:269).  Loss of strategic focus and inflated belief in personal ability are essentially negative (see Table 3)

Table 3:  Possible outcome experienced by successful leaders


Positive/Benefit

Negative/Disadvantage





Personal
Level
Privileged Access

Position
Influence
Status
Rewards/Perks
Recognition
Latitude
Associations
Access

Inflated Belief in Personal Ability

Emotionally Expansive
Unbalanced Personal Life
Inflated Ego
Isolation
Stress
Transference
Emptiness
Fear of Failure



Organisational
Level
Control of Resources

No Direct Supervision
Ability to Influence
Ability to set Agenda
Control over Decision Making

Loss of Strategic Focus

Organisation on Autopilot
Delegation without Supervision
Strategic Complacency
Neglect of Strategy

                                                                                (Source: Ludwig and Longenecker, 1993: 270)


The benefits of success to the leader and the organisation are obvious.  Less readily apparent is the personal “dark side” of success which revolves largely around three psychological issues outlined by Ludwig and Longenecker (1993:270-271).  These are:

·      Climbing the success ladder exposes leaders to negative attitudes and behaviours.  There may not be apparent, but nonetheless come with the territory of successful leadership.  Negatives that could be reinforced include unbalanced personal lives, a loss of touch with reality and an inflated sense of personal ability.

·      Leaders may become emotionally expansive - “their appetite for success, thrills, gratification, and control becomes insatiable”.  They can lose the ability to be satisfied.  They can become personally isolated and lack intimacy with family and friends, losing a valuable source of personal balance.  They “literally lose touch with reality”.

·      Other factors include stress, fear of failure and the “emptiness syndrome” (“Is this all there is to success?”)  An inflated sense of ego can lead to abrasiveness, close-mindedness and disrespect. 

Success does not necessarily lead to undesired behaviour as Ludwig and Longenecker (1991:271) are careful to record:

We are not suggesting that all successful leaders fall prey to these negatives that are frequently associated with success, but rather want to make the case that success can bring with it some very negative emotional baggage.

However, it is useful to recognise the seven lessons from David’s experience (Ludwig and Longenecker, 1991:271) provide a useful framework for reflection:

  •  Leaders are in their positions to focus on doing what is right for their organisation’s short-term and long-term success.  This can't happen if they aren't where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing.
  • There will always be temptations that come in a variety of shapes and forms that will tempt leaders to make decisions they know they shouldn't make.  With success will come additional ethical trials.  
  • Perpetrating an unethical act is a personal, conscious choice on the part of the leader that frequently places a greater emphasis on personal gratification rather than on the organisation’s needs.
  • It is difficult if not impossible to partake in unethical behaviour without implicating and/or involving others in the organisation
  • Attempts to cover-up unethical practices can have dire organisational consequences including innocent people getting hurt, power being abused, trust being violated, other individuals being corrupted, and the diversion of needed resources.
  • Not getting caught initially can produce self-delusion and increase the likelihood of future unethical behaviour.
  • Getting caught can destroy the leader, the organisation, innocent people, and everything the leader has spent his/her life working for.”

The important lessons for Ludwig and Longenecker (1992:272) is for leaders to recognise it could happen to them, and to be aware that:

Ethical leadership is simply part of good leadership and requires focus, the appropriate use of resources, trust, effective decision making, and provision of model behaviour that is worth following.  Once it is lost it is difficult if not impossible to regain.


Further Reading

Barker G (1995)  The glove that tempers the iron fist.  The Australian Financial Review Magazine. July. pp.14-21

Burdett  J O (1991)  What is empowerment anyway?  Journal of European Industrial Training. 15(6):23-30

De Pree M O (1989)  Leadership is an Art.   Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia.

De Pree M O (1991)  Leadership Jazz.  Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia.

Eisler R (1995)  From domination to partnership: The hidden subtext for organisation change.  Training & Development 49(2):32-39

LaBier D (1986)  Modern Madness: The Emotional Fallout of Success.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Ludwig D C and Longenecker C O (1993)  The Bathsheba syndrome: the ethical failure of successful leaders. Journal of Business Ethics 12(4):265-273


Peace W H (1991)  The hard work of being a soft manager.  Harvard Business Review. 69(6):40-42,46-47