Ponder explores, understands, explains and thinks strategically about complex things.
We share practical techniques for policy and strategy design, and we use them to explain and explore complex issues of enduring public interest.
Contemporary thinking for contemporary challenges

Why Ponder does and why

The 21st Century is throwing us many challenges – from entrenched problems to exciting opportunities.  But the world is complex and we need to think strategically, creatively, critically and analytically to achieve outcomes. Ponder shares practical techniques for understanding and thinking strategically about complex things. And we apply those techniques to explain and explore complex issues.

We hope our contribution will be to make it easier to think about, talk about and go about grappling with contemporary challenges, and, to encourage more informed opinions, conversations, strategies and decisions about important issues. It is a contribution that we believe passionately in because, we think that if we all ponder things that matter a bit more, we’ll shape a better future.

More about Ponder

At Ponder, we believe that a broad range of skills – the ability to think strategically, analytically, creatively, and critically, is not only useful, but necessary, for grappling with 21st Century challenges.

We’ve compiled a collection of very practical techniques for building a deeper understanding of complex issues and thinking more strategically about them.  Together they provide provide a systematic but flexible, rigorous, adaptive and design-oriented approach for grappling with a complex issue.  We share those techniques through our seminar series Navigate Complexity – 20 questions for policy and strategy design (and techniques to help answer them).

We also use these techniques to explain and explore complex things.  We can delve into topics that interest you most, through our facilitation and consulting services, or, commissioned analysis and reports.

You can also read (and contribute to) our articles which explain and explore important issues of public interest, read our interviews with interesting people, subscribe to our newsletter, and, explore our resources page.

THE GAP WE'RE TRYING TO FILL

Its not easy to achieve outcomes in a world where things are interconnected in messy, dynamic and often counter-intuitive ways, and where ideas are contested and the future is uncertain.

Often there doesn’t seem to be a ‘right’ answer, and its very easy to waste time and money with very little progress to show for it.  Problems can become entrenched.

Because of the complexity, it becomes easier to defer to partial analysis and view issues through limited lenses, and to focus on political arguments at the expense of nuanced policy deliberation.

This is exacerbated by the 24/7 news cycle, short election cycles, and information being transmitted in tweets and soundbites.

Many people have called for deeper thinking, less political gossip, more longer-term thinking and considered policy deliberation.  There are compelling speeches, papers, and treatises which describe at length, but somewhat abstractly and discursively, what could and should be done.

While they are rich in concepts and ideas and frameworks, they lack practical guidance on what, specifically, it is that we should do.  What do we actually need to do, to think more strategically?  What do we need to actually do to deliberate more wisely?

That’s the gap Ponder aims to fill.  There is a pattern to the questions we should ask ourselves when problem-solving is complex and difficult to navigate. We’ve captured that pattern into 20 questions for policy and strategy design (and practical techniques to help answer them).  The 20 Questions don’t give you the answers or do the thinking for you, but they remind you of what you need to think about.  They prompt your thinking, and they prompt the discussions that need to be had.

For more information you can read our article Complexity. And Why it Matters, and, you can visit our 20Q page for more information about the 20 Questions.

OUR OBJECTIVE

Ponder aims to be a trusted source of balanced, comprehensive information about, and techniques for deepening our understanding of, complex issues of enduring public interest.

We intend for our work to be used by a range of people in official and unofficial capacities, for informing their decisions and opinions, and for contributing to the discussion about issues that matter.

We hope that our contribution will be to help restore the balance between political commentary and policy debate, and to revive the art and science of explanatory communication.

OUR APPROACH

Ponder’s 20 Questions for policy and strategy design (and techniques to help answer them) draw on a broad set of skills and techniques from different sectors and disciplines spanning the hard-soft spectrum and the analytical-creative spectrum.

Underpinning all of it however, are three important points.  The first, is a recognition that things are interconnected and dynamic – there are nested, multiple and mutual (feedback) cause-and-effect relationships everywhere, and these change.  We can think of the world as a ‘system’ (with many sub-systems).  A system has many interconnected parts that produce a certain ‘behaviour’ when they all come to life, a bit like a car’s parts are all interconnected in a certain way so that when they ‘come to life’ they produce a certain behaviour (a moving vehicle that can transport things).  The parts of a system and how they are interconnected is the system ‘structure’.  What the system does when it comes to life is its ‘behaviour’.  When we are designing something, we design the parts and their interconnections so that they produce an outcome (or behaviour) that we want.  Social and policy systems can be thought of in the same way, though there are many more different types of parts, not just mechanical and tangible parts like those of a car).  There are humans and their feelings, incentives, goals and information flows for example.  But the principle remains the same.  All the right parts need to be there and interconnected in a certain way, to give the outcome (system behaviour) that we want.  If we don’t design the ‘system’, then a system will exist anyway, and whatever system is in place, will determine what the resulting outcome or behaviour is.  So that’s Ponder’s first underpinning principle.  We take a systems approach – designing the system structure to give the behaviour we want.

The second point is the recognition that systems change over time. They are dynamic.  They are largely unpredictable, for several reasons – we don’t know how all systems behave, we don’t know in advance the random and chance events that will occur to affect the system, and, the world is very non-linear and sometimes chaotic.  So any strategy to influence the system cannot be simply designed and then implemented.  That’s pretty much guaranteed not to work for complex areas of policy.  Strategies need to be designed iteratively, so they can adapt to things that change and to what we learn along the way about what works and what doesn’t.  It’s not as hard as it sounds.  We just need to recognise it and work with it.

The third point, is that we believe that in order to understand and influence complex things, we require a capacity for higher-level thinking. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley cites critical thinking (or higher-order thinking) as what being ‘smart’ entails. Its not simply the the ability to memorise facts, but more importantly, the ability to do something useful with facts, learning to solve problems, to reason, being able to think for oneself.  She concluded that in the countries who scored amongst the highest in standardised tests for real-world problem solving (Norway, Poland, South Korea), “there was a consensus …that all children had to learn higher-order thinking in order to thrive in the world”. Embedded in Ponder’s 20 Questions are prompts to help us think creatively, critically, strategically, and analytically.  They draw on different thinking techniques such as systems thinking, design thinking, futures thinking and behavioural insights.  They are not the type of skills that are widely taught in many of our educational systems, but we hope one day they will be.

OUR PRINCIPLES

Ponder’s work aims to:

  • inform, offer new insights and prompt new ways of thinking
  • be very high-quality (in research, style and substance)
  • be rigorous and comprehensive in breadth and depth
  • be impartial and balanced
  • be relevant, useful and practical

In our articles, Ponder does not adopt a particular viewpoint, or assume any ideological perspective, rather, we aim to provide the range of viewpoints, the arguments and counterarguments, the trade-offs and the what-ifs.  Ponder asks lots of questions and tries to find answers, to better understand complex issues and then we share that understanding.  The audience is left to form their own opinions, but hopefully with more understanding and insight to draw from.

OUR AUDIENCE

Our seminars are designed primarily for public policy analysts, advisers, strategists and decision-makers, from government and non-government organisations, from the most junior to the most senior levels.  While the techniques are useful for all kinds of strategy (private and public sector, even our personal lives), the case studies and examples are structured around public strategy topics.

We hope that anyone who has an interest in public policy and strategy will find our articles interesting and informative – decision-makers, policy-makers, analysts and advisers, from government and non-government organisations, and anyone else who is interested in being informed about these issues.

OUR CLIENTS

Our clients include people and organisations from the public sector, including Commonwealth and State/Territory government departments as well as non-government organisations, including NGOs and the university sector.

Contact us for more information about how our services can be tailored for you or your organisation.

OPPORTUNITIES

Ponder hopes to grow!  If what Ponder does resonates with you, then let us know. We’ll contact you if an appropriate opportunity comes up.  You don’t need to be based in Canberra.

Founder's Profile

Jane MacMaster

I started Ponder in 2014 to help improve how we understand and think about complex issues. I’ve worked as a systems design engineer in the aerospace sector for most of my career, but that was after a couple of years in management consultancy, and before postgraduate studies in International Relations, which then led me to work in public policy in the strategy unit of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for six years.

As an engineer I learnt how to design things that work. At PM&C I learnt about true complexity and where our highest priority challenges lie.

Ponder is the culmination of those seemingly quite different, but in some ways similar, parts of my career coming together. My aim is to help make progress with improving problems and grasping opportunities by thinking more deeply about them using techniques that have been around for years as well as new, emerging ways of understanding the world.

Jane MacMaster

Jane has tertiary qualifications in engineering, international relations and training and assessment. See her LinkedIn profile for more information on her background, qualifications and experience.