Mobilise Kiwi Ingenuity

Bill English says there's no silver bullet to rescue the New Zealand economy and put it on the road to recover. Perhaps he's right. But there are plenty of people who think they have "the plan" which if only people would follow it, would result in miraculous amounts of prosperity for all.

Roger Douglas as a Minister in the Labour government, and then in ACT, was forever sketching plans on a whiteboard to show that the paths to prosperity and electoral success were simple.

Zealous thinkers believe that if only others believed what they "know to be true" then nirvana would be achieved in their lifetimes, and probably within the term of the then current government.

We've had other gurus: Michael Porter with his theory of the competitive advantage of nations, and we applied the lessons where we thought we had an edge. We did well with dairy and tourism, but it's difficult to see how we could now double or treble their value and volume.

Likewise wine is now worth close to a billion dollars a year in exports but it's still dwarfed by agricultural commodities. There's fashion, IT, biotech, and many other useful contributors. Helpful but not the solution to achieving prosperity.

There have been advocates of clustering and of concentrating industries in one place (the Silicon Valley model) but issues of scale and capital seem to have prevented any one New Zealand location booming in the same way. Several cities have their incubation clubs and centres of excellence, but no one is claiming a billion dollars in annual sales is close.

Productivity expert Gary Bartlett has contributed to the debate beginning with a critique of government moves to boost our sad performance in the area of productivity.

He's got a corporate planning system, which he claims works for companies, and therefore it should work for countries. And he's told the PM so.

He says that targeting a three percent annual increase in national productivity is "ludicrously unambitious."  He's adamant that we can achieve a 30% increase within three years.

The key ingredient is ingenuity, which he says New Zealanders have in abundance, and is easy to awaken.

So what do we do - well, here's the jargon bit. "Focus on stimulating and rewarding ingenuity by creating an outcome-driven framework." There are two parts to it, he says, cultural change and investment strategy. 

"Instead of starting with where you are and thinking of the next step, start with where you want to be and think backwards from there, by listing successive prerequisites.  Then work out how to meet the prerequisites and implement the intervention in short, fast cycles."

The investment strategy is a variation on the same theme. Bartlett would invite sectors to compete for investment funding based on the predicted return. "Then release funding in small batches based on progress achieved against the prediction."

"Progress-based releasing of funding-batches keeps people focused and productive, increasing investment returns and reducing capital requirements and risk."

He calls this the Kiwi Ingenuity Technique which begins by articulating a highly ambitious goal and then reverse engineers the prerequisites and intermediate goals to success.

Bartlett runs a company called Productivity Solutions and claims success with a number of New Zealand companies including TelstraClear, Metrowater, Sovereign Insurance and Fletcher Aluminum.

He proposed a campaign called Orchestrated National Integrity to take productivity strategies from a company level to the national stage. It aims to increase productivity dramatically by mobilizing and orchestrating ingenuity, "which by definition is counter-intuitive."

The campaign of Orchestrated National Integrity would be led by the Prime Minister with a team of Ministers and private sector leaders to apply the Kiwi Ingenuity Technique in all businesses in all sectors, public, private and voluntary.

Bartlett claims many benefits from the adopting of a single approach and a uniting behind a single technique to mobilize the population: a more productive economy, greater investment confidence, a virtuous cycle of growth and re-investment.

He's even got a brand - the Ingenuity Revolution, which would replace the outworn paradigm of the Knowledge Economy. Wow. All we have to do is believe it, for the government to fund it, for everyone to get behind it and then to do it. Our problems will all be sorted by lunchtime.


Published in the In Pursuit of Prosperity column in The National Business Review of 2 October 2009