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Charles Duhigg podcast: Productivity is about staying in control through the chaos

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on October 18, 2017

4 min read

It turns out there’s a science to productivity, and it can be boiled down to three key attributes — innovative thinking, focus, and motivation — that we can master, according to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author Charles Duhigg, by forming habits that make us feel in control.

Duhigg dedicated the majority of his closing keynote address at Telstra Vantage 2017 to explaining and illustrating this idea.

He pointed out that we are in the midst of a technological and economic revolution as profound as the agrarian and industrial revolutions. The world is changing quickly and fundamentally, and it’s easy to feel powerless against this wave of change — the rise of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, machine learning, big data, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and more, all occurring at the same time, reshaping every facet of society and business.

But Duhigg said that if you look at the most productive people throughout history — people who changed the world like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and so on — you’ll see that they were anxious all the time. Many of the greatest innovators, Duhigg explained, were anxious that they didn’t understand the change coming.

The difference with these great innovators, however, is that they found habits to keep them in control, which in turn kept them motivated, while they openly questioned everything and they went to great lengths to find the connections between seemingly disparate ideas or things.

Innovation as a way of thinking

Duhigg told the story of how West Side Story was created by three ambitious young men who wanted to transform theatre, but who nearly missed the mark. Their script was too radical with its street gangs uttering made-up words like “cracko jacko”, at least until choreographer Jerome Robbins made it more relatable at the last minute by incorporating classical dance clichés and familiar ballet routines into the performance of these teenage street thugs — thereby grounding it with a careful blend of the old and new, the familiar and the unexpected.

Duhigg also offered a more tech-driven example: a design firm spent two years in the 1980s trying and failing to create a new kind of helmet that could protect kids on bicycles, then a boat builder hired as a favour made a suggestion. Boats start with ribs and everything goes off those so that when the boat hits a rock it remains stable. The same principle birthed the modern bike helmet.

The key to thinking differently like these innovators, Duhigg explained, is to form habits that force your brain to make the connections. Innovative thinking comes from this mental labour.

Focus comes from visualising what ought to happen

Duhigg also considers habits critical to focus. The modern office is nothing but distractions that push you into a cognitive tunnel, he said. When you are in a cognitive tunnel, you don’t think; you react.

When a pilot safely landed the plane with a hole in one of the wings, uncontained engine failure, and 12 key systems down, he did it by recognising that he was losing control of the situation and he told himself a story that made it feel like he was in control. He changed his mental model of the situation and pretended he was flying a Cessna rather than an Airbus A380 because then he could focus on what needed to be done. Then he could make decisions.

The takeaway here, Duhigg argued, is that you need to both visualise what ought to happen and also find ways to constantly challenge those stories inside your head.

Productivity is about staying in control through the chaos

The most productive people — innovators like Jobs and Ford and Jerome Robbins, and other people like the pilot — find ways to be in control in a world where everything is constantly changing, Duhigg said.

“This conference is a testament to how quickly everything is changing around us,” he concluded. “And it’s easy to feel terrified and anxious, and all of us do… But we also know now how to build the patterns, the cognitive routines, the habits of our lives, that put us back into control.”

And that, he argued, boils down to telling ourselves the stories that matter so that we can focus on innovating and “making the world an amazing place.”

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Anousheh Ansari podcast: Let our choices reflect our hope — and not our fear

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on October 13, 2017

4 min read

When engineer and businesswoman Anousheh Ansari was a little girl, growing up in Iran in the 1970s, she loved to sleep outside and stare at the sky wondering, “What’s out there?” Could it be that somewhere, on a distant planet, there’s another girl looking up at the sky thinking about the same thing?

Ansari dreamed of going to space, and it was that dream — and those moments when she watched the stars at night — that gave her peace as her country underwent a revolution she couldn’t yet comprehend and then entered war with neighbouring Iraq. During a keynote presentation at the Telstra Vantage 2017 conference, Ansari said that her imagination saved her during those terrifying moments.

She called imagination “one of the most precious gifts we have as human beings,” as it allows us to change what we don’t like in our lives and to think about things that don’t exist — then make them real. It starts with the spark of an idea. For her, that spark was space travel. She drew pictures of herself visiting alien worlds in rockets. The adults around her thought it was an unrealistic dream and a phase she’d eventually grow out of and forget. But her stubbornness prevailed.

When Ansari moved to the US in the mid-1980s and saw, with some disappointment, that Star Trek had not become reality, she refused to let her dream end. She became an engineer and built up a successful career in telecommunications and technology, and in 2001 she sold her company.

A few years later she met engineer Peter Diamandis, who had since 1995 been seeking funding for his XPRIZE concept — a competition for non-government organisations to build a reusable vehicle capable of flying a pilot to the edge of space. He’d been turned down, repeatedly, but Ansari and her brother-in-law were impressed by his passion and decided to underwrite the competition. It became the Ansari XPRIZE in May 2004, with participation from 26 teams from 7 countries. The first US$10 million winner was a rocket-powered aircraft called SpaceShipOne.

Richard Branson and Virgin subsequently partnered with SpaceShipOne makers Scaled Composites to design and build rocket planes based on that concept to provide suborbital spaceflights to tourists.

Ansari said the prize helped spur innovation in an area where it had been sorely lacking. She noted that private space technology is now a $100 billion industry, and that it’s now even possible to build and launch low-cost nanosatellites for special communications and research purposes.

Ansari achieved her dream in 2006, aged 40, after training as a backup for a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station, when Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was disqualified for medical reasons. She became the first woman and first Iranian (and fourth overall) private space explorer, and she lived aboard the ISS for eight days — during which time she conducted experiments for the European Space Agency and published the first ever blog from space.

Ansari said that she’s excited about the future, but the pace of change is now so fast — and new technologies have become so intertwined — that it’s hard to predict what lies ahead. She likened it to taking 20 steps on the stage. If they were linear steps, she might reach the end of the stage or a little beyond there. But it would be hard for anyone to imagine 20 exponential steps, which would actually send her around the Earth 125 times.

She argued that it’s important to be prepared for change and to be ready to adapt. To prepare, we can look at the trends: she said 3D printing may transform food, medicine, textiles, and more, and it will make it possible to build habitats on the Moon and Mars; gene editing may cure diseases or grant us new abilities; and augmentation will enable us to regain capabilities lost or to gain entirely new ones.

“Technology is just a tool,” she said, “and how we use it and what we use it for will determine if it’s a good technology or it will actually be a harmful technology.”

The most important thing, Ansari said, is that we let our choices reflect our hope — and not our fear. The future is what we imagine it to be, she concluded, so she implored everyone to “march into the future armed with our hopes and positivity.”

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Telkomtelstra uses in-depth local knowledge in a growing Indonesian market

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on October 11, 2017

3 min read

The Country Managing Director for Telstra Indonesia, Erik Meijer, gave a short presentation at Telstra Vantage 2017 about Telstra’s work in the growing Indonesian market through Telkomtelstra — a joint venture between Telstra and Telkom Indonesia.

Meijer pointed to Indonesia as a huge growth market in the technology industry. It has a population of 262 million people — 10 times that of Australia — and a fast-growing Internet penetration of 55 percent. Technology adoption is on a steep rise, too. Most people skip older, more established technologies, such as fixed-line broadband, in favour of new wireless options. Indonesia now has 370 million active mobile subscriptions, which is how most Indonesians access the Internet, and two-fifths of the population is active on social media.

The Internet has become a central part of life for many Indonesians. Average Internet use per day per user is three hours, and — while there are only eight million credit cards in circulation — over 100 million people, or 41 percent of the population, have bought something online.

This digital savviness of the consumer market makes it increasingly important for businesses in Indonesia to follow suit. Indonesia is maturing into a global economic powerhouse. If the current GDP growth rate of 5 percent every year continues, it will have one of the 10 largest economies in the world in 2020.

Older Indonesian companies are lagging behind consumers in take-up of digital technologies, however, and brick and mortar stores have traditionally seen online as competition rather than an opportunity for growth. This presents international companies with an opportunity to expand into Indonesia, especially if they can connect online and offline worlds.

Meijer said the big growth areas at the moment for business are in financial technology (also known as fintech), e-commerce, software as a service (SaaS), and on-demand/service marketplaces. And the main trend is a move into cloud connectivity, although this is more complicated in Indonesia because of regulatory restrictions on data sovereignty.

Telkomtelstra is currently the only company that offers a hybrid cloud service to businesses that’s in line with these regulations. Telkomtelstra can also manage a company’s data and network security and infrastructure, and it can provide managed unified communications (a complicated thing in a country of 17,000 islands), SaaS customer engagement solutions, and vital insights into the Indonesian market that help forecast risk for expansion into the territory.

In the three years since telkomtelstra began operation, the joint venture has grown to manage about 13,000 business sites for more than 100 customers. Meijer said there are 130 Telkomtelstra employees on the ground in Indonesia to help serve business customers. Besides on-site support, they have a cloud contact centre, a network operations centre that runs around the clock, and a customer portal that displays the status of all network components in real-time.

The real value of all these services, Meijer emphasised, is that they allow businesses to “outsource all your boring stuff” on the technology side so that IT teams can focus on innovation and on driving the business forward.

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Why Cyber Security needs to be seen as a business risk – not just an IT problem

Telstra Vantage™ Cyber Security

Posted on October 10, 2017

4 min read

It seems like almost every week now there’s another high-profile and highly-damaging cyber security breach. In May, we witnessed a massive global ransomware attack that impacted thousands of businesses, for instance, while a breach of US credit rating agency Equifax exposed sensitive personal information from nearly half of the US population.

Security through obscurity is no protection, with malware and ransomware constantly disguised as legitimate business emails and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks often affecting large numbers of small and medium-sized businesses that share the same Web host platform.

Telstra’s Cyber Security Whitepaper research found that some 59 percent of businesses across Asia and Australia detected business-interrupting security breaches on a monthly basis in 2016. Another survey, by the Ponemon Institute, found that an organisation has a one in four chance of experiencing a material data breach over the next two years, with the average total cost per breach at US$3.62 million. And these breaches often occur within minutes of an attack starting, according to security company Palo Alto Networks.

It’s no surprise, then, that cyber security factored large at the 2017 Telstra Vantage.


Numerous exhibitors were showcasing secure public and private cloud services, while a few focused on DDoS protection and several others offered platforms and tools built around network security and/or managed security services. There was even a company offering facial recognition solutions for automated staff time and attendance reporting (and other internal business things that could benefit from biometric security) and real-time analytics for customer insights and personalisation.

There was a big stress across the show floor on automation — on automated network monitoring and threat filtering, to whittle down several hundred thousand potential threats to a manageable subset of half a dozen that require the attention of security staff, and on automated provisioning of security certificates, among other things.

But the main trend on show was for a shift to secure cloud-based data and applications with managed network security and tight collaboration between the customer, the government, and the service provider’s security operations centres.

Collaboration is key

Cyber threats have now reached a scale and magnitude that’s beyond any one organisation to manage. Vigilance is no longer enough, Telstra’s Asia Pacific Chief Information Security Officer Berin Lautenbach emphasised during a talk at Vantage. You can’t just look for virus signatures and other known threats; the danger now lies in the unknown, the unusual activity and unrecognised software and infrastructure exploits.

The future of cyber security is collaborative — everyone sharing their security knowledge with the government and working together to rapidly identify and respond to threats. Telstra is looking to be a leader in this space. In August, Telstra officially opened its first two Security Operations Centres — one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne, with additional locations around the world planned for 2018.

Managed security services are traditionally the realm of large enterprise and government, but Telstra hopes to bring mid-sized companies into the fold in order to develop a kind of cyber herd immunity — to reduce the risks for everyone by gaining more data points and learning more about the strategies and techniques used by cyber criminals.

Cyber security risks start inside a company

All of these security measures may be moot if the people working for an organisation become lax in their security practices. The Ponemon Institute’s cost of data breach study found that 25 percent of data breaches were caused by negligent employees or contractors.

It’s not just about educating the core workforce, either, but also the senior executives and board members of an organisation — who need to see that security is a business risk.

Lautenbach said that IT staff around the world have twice failed to get this idea across. The first time, more than a decade ago, they went too technical, while the second time they dumbed it down to something along the lines of “it’s scary and you need to give us money.” This time, he explained, we need to make it about asking the right questions — beginning with “what’s important to the company?”

By getting every level of an organisation on board with the same cyber security strategy, Lautenbach stressed that it becomes easier to manage risk. Not only in preventing breaches but also in responding to them, at which point consistent messaging becomes vital to retain customer trust.

The opposition works as a team, he said, so it’s incumbent on technology companies to do the same.

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Stephen Dubner: Turkeys and why data is useless without experimentation

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on September 27, 2017

6 min read

In a wide-ranging talk at the 2017 Telstra Vantage conference, opening keynote speaker Stephen Dubner — an acclaimed journalist and co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics — used stories of poultry farming, hand hygiene compliance in hospitals, and even rat plagues to illustrate the importance of good data and experimentation in an ever-changing business world.

To begin, Dubner pointed out that poultry consumption has vastly increased in Australia and the United States over the past half century. He wondered why, and while researching he learnt that turkey meat is the big riser and that most turkeys bred for consumption are now bred through artificial insemination. Looking deeper, he found that most chickens still breed naturally but turkey consumption habits have changed. Many people now eat turkey breast as part of their ordinary diet, whereas turkey used to be primarily consumed whole on special occasions.

In order to meet demand for turkey breast meat, poultry farmers bred turkeys to have larger breasts. Eventually their breasts became so large that they became physically incapable of breeding naturally — these big-breasted turkeys could not have sex with each other.

This story, Dubner explained, can help illustrate that you need data to understand the world. But data on its own has little use, especially today — when, contrary to 15 years ago, we don’t need more data so much as we need more people who know how to ask the right questions of the data.

In his experience working with businesses, Dubner said that “the people who are most comfortable with data in the firm are often the IT people, [but] the people who most need to unlock the mysteries of that data are in different departments”. Those two groups don’t necessarily communicate well with each other.

In the latest of our Telstra Vantage Behind the Mic series, Adam Spencer speaks to Stephen Dubner. Subscribe to the podcast via apple.

Look beyond the noise

Dubner explained further that the noisiest part of a problem is often the symptom, not the cause. Artificially-inseminated turkeys with gigantic breasts are a symptom of the agricultural revolution, which has for over a century repeatedly squashed arguments that we will run out of food to feed the world’s population. The US throws away 40 percent of food bought for consumption, he stated. The problem causing famine is not a lack of food but rather that political, social, and economic dysfunction prevents the food from reaching the people who need it.

The challenge, then, beyond asking the right questions to find the root cause of a problem, is finding the right incentives to fix the problem. Or as Dubner put it, “If you want to make a good decision, if you want to change someone’s behaviour, you have to understand the incentives that are at play.”

To illustrate that point, he next turned to bathroom hand hygiene and the difference between declared preferences and revealed preferences. He polled the audience: who doesn’t wash their hands after using the toilet? No hands went up. That’s people’s declared preference — the thing they hope to do, their expected behaviour. But his own efforts to measure this, by lingering at the sink at public toilets, have suggested that only around 70 percent of men actually wash their hands after using the toilet. That’s the revealed preference.

Hopes don’t always match behaviour, even among doctors at a hospital — who in one study self-reported hand hygiene compliance of 73 percent but were then recorded by their nurses as having an average compliance rate of only 9 percent.

Poor hand hygiene leads to bacterial infection, which is the most common cause of preventable death in hospitals. Doctors are the most educated people in a hospital, so clearly education is a poor incentive for good behaviour. Dubner talked about a committee for hand hygiene at a US hospital that tried to find the right incentive. First they hypothesised that it was a communication problem, so they issued a memo. Nothing changed. Then a subcommittee thought to use positive reinforcement — they hid in the room before a doctor arrived for his rounds, then if he washed his hands they jumped out, applauded, and handed over a $10 Starbucks gift card. Doctors loved the free gift and hurried to wash their hands whenever they heard the subcommittee was nearby.

But it didn’t change the overall rate of hand hygiene, either.

The winning solution finally came from a quiet member of the committee — “the best ideas often come from quiet people who like to sit in a room with their own thoughts” — who got everybody in the committee to press their hand into a petri dish and then got those cultured. Most returned covered in bacteria. The committee then took a photo of one of these palm-shaped cultures and used it as a screensaver on every computer in the hospital, with an explanatory label. Compliance leapt to 100 percent.

Be ready to experiment

“The moral of the story is that the incentives that you think may work don’t always work, [so you should] work hard to use data to find out what’s actually the behaviour and be willing to experiment,” said Dubner, who also pointed out that sometimes incentives can even backfire and produce the opposite behaviour — as was the case in a town that had a problem with rats eating people’s trash and spreading disease.

The government first offered free extermination, then when that didn’t work they offered free bins with lids. That also didn’t work, so they offered a cash reward. For every dead rat, they promised to pay the equivalent of about US$4. That then gave rise to a rat farming economy. Far from exterminating the rat population, people would breed rats to kill them and claim the reward.

“The next time you come up with a plan that seems perfect on paper, experiment, try it out, gather some data,” Dubner concluded, “because it may work brilliantly or you may just end up with a pile of dead rats on your doorstep.”

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