Interview with ACT Australian of the Year: David Morrison - Part II

Nic Crowther
Wed 20 Jan

This is Part II of The Shaker’s conversation with David Morrison. To read more about the 2016 ACT Australian of the Year, click here.



A new political zeitgeist

In light of the recent times and the us-against-them stance that framed a lot of political discourse, how does Morrison read the current mood of the nation?

“To use a sporting analogy, the tendency to play the man or woman and not the ball was certainly amplified over the last couple of years. It’s something humans tend to do quite naturally whenever they feel threatened. Now, don’t get me wrong… I certainly believe in robust debate, and the thorough testing of ideas – it’s essentially the cornerstone of our parliament. If we need to debate the number of people that come into the country, the environment, or the correct settings to allow business to operate, then let’s go.

“These big issues should be discussed in an informed manner and reasonably politely. What happened recently was that much of the political discussion became shrill and dissenting voices were shouted down rather than being listened to or understood. When individuals were attacked for holding a specific belief or for doing the job which they were assigned, then we were all let down.

“Very recent times have seen the heat turned down and the focus retuning to analysis and I think that’s a very good thing.”


From the Army to corporate Australia

A lot of Morrison’s work in the Army centred around strategy. Preparedness is a key part of this, but there is no shortcut to building a resilient organisation.

“It’s bloody hard work. You need an eye for details and a deep understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of your organisation. If not, grand strategic plans and lofty dictum aren’t going to help you.

“If you have that understanding of the business then you definitely still need a plan. It’s essential to describe where you want to be as organisation cross the short, medium and long term. It’s certainly what we set out to do when I was leading the Army. We developed a number of building blocks to capability that we used along the way as the measurements: People, Training, Facilities, Operating Budget… there were plenty. They worked well in a military context but apply equally to the private sector. We then had a series of systems for collecting and measuring data to track our progress against the plan through these blocks.

“So, that was how we changed the business of the Army. When I came to the position of Chief of the Army I felt I was prepared for the role through previous jobs in the service, but I was late to realise that I wasn’t prepared for the cultural responsibilities under my charge.

“Now, my discussions with corporate Australia enforce the idea that you can have all the plans, metrics and systems as you want, but if you misunderstand the culture of the organisation and what it wants, then you will struggle to attract and retain the people and skills your business requires.”




Managing change (and change inertia)

While many organisations are prepared to introduce a program for cultural change, it’s essential to ensure that the inevitable backlash inflicted by those resistant to accept or engage with the new culture. Morrison has firm thoughts on this issue.

“Again, the first priority is to understand the prevailing culture. I have a shorthand definition of culture – and it’s not based on any anthropological qualifications – that it is the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. So, when you look at an army or a public service or a large company, you will see – almost immediately – behind facades and the front desk are the stories that the organisation also tells itself, and about itself. The next step is to ask yourself questions: ‘Are these stories inclusive? Do they celebrate diversity of thought? Is it encouraging people to join us and stay?’

“Once management is asking these difficult questions of itself, it will start to face some uncomfortable truths. The key then is to bring in the rest of the organisation and speak to the workforce as a whole to carefully explain the direction that you are all heading and the reasons why, but, importantly, it has to be in language that is appropriate.

“At the Army, I had to change from saying “Let’s ensure everyone has a ‘fair go’” to ensure that, “We recognise everyone’s capability.” The latter encouraged new ideas and let everyone know that their skills were valuable. Organisations that get this difference are making huge strides in terms of culture and in terms of what they are achieving against their aims.

“I wouldn’t have had these perspectives until five years ago, and they were tough lessons. Valuable… but tough.”




New tricks

Now outside of the armed forces and engaging with the corporate sector, there is still more to be learned. Morrison considers this exposure to be critical, and that it is importance to listen carefully to those with whom he works.

“I have had the opportunity to sit with some truly exceptional people and tease out some of these ideas and issues around inclusion and capability. People are genuinely interested in this area, and utterly committed to these initiatives. Through this engagement I learn a lot about what it means this kind of change means for upper management in very large companies.

The majority do it not simply because it is the right thing to do – and they do recognise that at its core these are the right things to do - but also because there is a cultural and fiscal advantage in adjusting a workforce to embrace these ideas. It’s shows up in their P&L.

“Microsoft, Rio Tinto, Kmart, Mirvac, Suncorp, many mining companies… they’re all on this page. This new way of thinking is going to change the way that business works in Australia, and how we feel about ourselves as a society.

“To me, that’s incredibly exciting.”




The 2016 Australian of the Year Awards will be announced at 6.00pm on Monday 15 January at Federation Mall in front of Parliament House, Canberra. Live broadcast of the event is via ABC television and radio from 7.30pm.