Interview with Peter Nicholson AO
Peter Nicholson AO is an expert on defence and national security affairs. He is a founding director and the current Chairman of the Institute for Regional Security, a not-for-profit strategic think tank providing policy research and advice to Government and industry. He’s a former senior Air Force officer who has held several operational command and strategic level joint staff appointments. He has commanded the RAAF combat force, served as the Head of Strategic Policy and Plans, and as the Chief Knowledge Officer of the Department of Defence.
He talks to Ponder to share his insights on strategy in complex contexts.
Regional security and Defence are complex areas of strategy and policy. What techniques have you seen work, or do you draw on, to grapple with complex challenges in these areas?
Diversity of opinion is probably the most important thing to mention. By seeking many different perspectives, the strategy design process is properly informed, but this means there will also almost always be conflicting viewpoints – you’ve set it up to be this way. Diversity is essential. Seeking perspectives across different age brackets (given the relevance of the digital revolution to almost everything), and also across sectors, disciplines, and domains is critical to developing informed policy and strategy.
An environment scan to identify important contextual considerations and alternate futures is almost always required. And divergent thinking (to generate a range of ideas), followed by convergent thinking (to focus on and flesh out the ideas that have potential) is usually a useful approach.
Distinguishing between our desired ‘ends’ – our policy objectives, and how we’re going to get there (our ‘ways’) is important, but these elements are often confused.
When an idea is contested, with many conflicting viewpoints… what approach would you recommend taking?
It’s important to properly listen to all the arguments – it helps you to identify the consequences of each option. Then, it’s not just the options that need communicating to the decision-makers, but the consequences of the options. Often you are not trying to find the ‘best’ option, but the ‘least bad’ option – there will always be trade-offs.
I’d also recommend briefing a decision-maker in person wherever possible. This allows you to explain subtleties and ensure they understand the nuances and context of a strategy, which is not always possible to convey in a written report.
Many challenges are complex – interconnected, with complex cause-and-effect, uncertainty and many people and interests involved. What skills do you see being relevant now and in the future, to grapple with challenges like this?
I think several attributes are important for people who are involved in policy and strategy design: an ability to bring an historical perspective to each circumstance is important for understanding what’s worked, or not, before; an understanding of how your domain works, whether it be the private sector, public sector, or national and international financial systems, for example. Having a well-developed and coherent worldview and value system is important – this brings integrity and substance to a viewpoint, based on reasoned priorities rather than opportunistic cherry-picking of ideas. You need to be politically savvy to be able to translate a good policy idea into a good policy. You need to have sound research skills, and strong communication skills – written, oral and interpersonal. And, possibly the most important of all, you need to be able to listen to the arguments of others, and to put yourselves in their shoes. It allows you to build your understanding of the issue in a meaningful way.
You’re interested in making a difference to the world – achieving outcomes. If you could change one (or more) thing(s) to make it easier to achieve outcomes in your area of work, what would they be?
The most important thing is to improve the quality of policy advice that is given to decision-makers. We need the best people in policy and strategy areas and we need to nurture people in their careers so they have the capability to provide high-quality policy advice. We need to give people opportunities to develop their worldview, to broaden and deepen their knowledge base, and provide leadership opportunities to build their confidence.
Do you have any books, papers, people or historical examples which have particularly inspired how you approach or think about things?
There are no ‘textbook style’ books on policy and strategy design that I’d particularly recommend, but I am currently reading Strategy: A History, by Sir Lawrence Freedman. One of Freedman’s main points is that strategy needs to be adaptive because the real world is dynamic – with many different players interacting over time. We can never assume that a static plan will achieve the outcomes we want – it’s more dynamic than that. He makes the point that strategy needs to evolve, as its context does.
Using a rigorous historical approach, Freedman also demonstrates that the process of the development of policy and associated strategies has been remarkably similar over a long period of time and across a wide variety of different domains. Business strategy is not very different to military strategy.