Interview: Mark Turrell

From election monitoring to military tips, Matthew Reisz meets the man who uses systems thinking as a force for good

November 20, 2014

Source: Sebastian Gabsch

Pick a subject, any subject: if Mark Turrell has time, he is happy for his lectures to continue for hours and he is willing to have ‘a conversation on pretty much any topic’

Mark Turrell, now an associate professor at the Hult International Business School, describes himself as “an extreme problem solver” who “can pretty much fix anything”. In 2007, he continues, “I gave myself a purpose that I exist to change the entire world for the better, ideally without anyone knowing it’s me, because that makes it harder”.

“I just like fixing really, really hard things. For me that’s intellectually stimulating. I don’t do things for the money, but I do things where the money tends to come anyway, so I don’t have to care about it.”

His first test came in 2008, when he says opposition leader Arthur Mutambara asked for his help in ensuring the fairness of the Zimbabwean presidential election (which in the end was mainly contested by Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of a separate faction of the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change). There were only five weeks to go and no budget available, while laws against “harming Mugabe” meant that secrecy was essential.

Turrell therefore proposed what he claims was the world’s first example of crowdsourced election monitoring, where 1,000 people stood at selected polling stations with charged-up mobile phones. They photographed the results briefly posted up on the doors and sent the images through to a website in South Africa so a press release could be sent out to international news agencies.

Turrell points to this as a major factor in Mugabe’s being unable to claim that he had won, so that a further run-off was required. This may not have changed the entire world, Turrell admits, but he had done something significant to “change the fate of a whole country”.

Since then, he has been involved in a dizzying range of remarkable projects. He has helped to develop systems for recording local levels of air pollution, so that citizens armed with better data can put greater pressure on their governments to take action. He claims to have provided details of “the Libyan investment authority’s management accounts, snuck out of a bank in Benghazi” to help the charity Global Witness in its campaign for greater transparency in oil and gas contracts.

He also claims to have used “citizen-sourced information” to provide the British, Dutch and French military with intelligence on “where tanks and civilians were” so as to minimise casualties during the 2011 Nato intervention in Libya. And he has acted as a consultant on the Global Teacher Prize, announced by the Varkey Gems Foundation in March, which will award $1 million (£638,000) to someone voted the world’s best schoolteacher.

“I saw it was a tremendous opportunity for good,” he explains. “We can have more credibility for the teaching profession and create better role models for teachers and parents. But there are problems. The prize goes to the teacher, so what happens if the world’s best teacher gets a million and stops being a teacher? The prize criteria didn’t originally ask what people would do with the money, whether they would buy a Ferrari or set up a special unit for blind children within their school.

“I desperately wanted to get involved because I saw that the naturally occurring evolution could lead to potential catastrophes: if the first teacher buys a Ferrari and leaves teaching, it basically means that no one can do this again for 10 years [because it would discredit the very idea of a global teaching prize]. But, because I didn’t like the outcome, I could change it.”

Seeking the truth

All this might make Turrell sound like a somewhat unusual academic. After two master’s degrees, he went on to a PhD on information management at the Cass Business School, while working in parallel at tech company Intel, and so never faced “the problems students and academics have in eventually getting connections to corporates”.

He became a pioneer of using server log data to see what people actually did with their computers, rather than what they said they did in interviews. He says he thereby gained the nickname of “the Fox Mulder of bootware” (after the character in The X-Files television series), “because I knew the answers were out there and we just had to get more data”.

He also discovered that “people were lying all the time! They would say they loved an IT system and I would be able to prove they had never touched it.”

He has now developed a broad range of problem-solving, innovation and change-management tools that he has set out in a book (co-written with Menno van Dijk) called Scaling: Small Smart Moves for Outsized Results, as well as discussed in guest lectures, TEDx talks and presentations to the World Economic Forum. At Hult, he uses interactive lectures for his master’s and MBA students that “bring in leading-edge thinking to accelerate their start in the workplace”.

“It’s exposing them to a new way of thinking,” he says. “It’s not just: here’s the lecture, here are some notes, here’s the exam with a multi-checkpoint box. It’s teaching people how systems thinking works. It’s how you get people immersed in this philosophical change.

“If I’m free, I don’t stop [the lecture]. I did a session that went on for four hours and I’m quite open to having a conversation on pretty much any topic. I’ve had some bizarre ones come up. There might not even be a place in the academic agenda where students can pose questions of work-life balance, but I’m quite happy to answer the questions. I’ve even had relationship questions in the middle of a lecture…”

On the familiar problem of how academics can make what students learn in business schools more relevant to the real world, Turrell also has his own distinctive take. “If I decided to be evil,” he reflects, “I’d be very good at it, because I understand how all the tactics work. Yet many of the people who try to do good in the world don’t believe that evil exists, that resistance exists, and so don’t plan for it.”

In order to teach his students some realism about the world, Turrell has therefore introduced an exercise called Play Bad Guy, where they “work through the likely reactions” of interested parties to developments that affect them. One recent discussion, for example, explored “how the tobacco industry could thwart the plain-packaging initiative [for tobacco products] in Australia”.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

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