Transdisciplinary thinking and more with Craig Ashhurst

May 10, 2023



A podcast with my new friend Craig Ashhurst where we discuss a number of things including wicked problems, why there is no such thing like normal, the importance of transdisciplinary thinking in risk management, why we should take our dreams seriously but most importantly, despite such diverse backgrounds how Craig and I ended up working, living and being something so similar.

Further information


Nippin Anand, craig ashhurst


Nippin Anand  00:00

Hello and welcome to embracing differences with me Nippin Anand, founder of novellus, a podcast series dedicated to understanding different perspectives about how we as human beings, or rather social beings make decisions. The podcast series draws from different disciplines including religion, mythology, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, biology, neurosciences and stem, making it truly transdisciplinary meaning transporting, or rather travelling across disciplines. The idea is not to claim that one method or discipline is superior to the other, but to hold competing disciplines, competing values, diverse perspectives, intention. And when that happens, we create space for doubt and reflection.


Nippin Anand  00:56

The idea is to enjoy travelling and the ambiguity that comes with it. Experiencing dissonance, discomfort, how else do we learn? Hello, everyone. Sorry, I’ve been quiet for a while. Because of lots of travels. past couple of months have been busy. First, I travelled with Eric to India. And then with Rob long, we’ve been doing some work with a shipping company there. And it’s been busy. I also travelled to Helsinki in Athens and back home again now for a few days. And I can tell you one thing that it is so fascinating. It’s so refreshing to think about how we observe and listen, when we learn to see the world poetically and semiotically. visually and verbally, with particular attention paying to what cannot be measured, what is non measurable, because that’s where much of our lives is left. And we are so busy, we are so engrossed in measurables that we miss the essence of life. Anyways, this podcast is special. It is a heartfelt conversation with my new friend Craig Ashurst, who’s based in Canberra. I don’t know how much you know about Craig, but I met Craig through Rob long. And they are both great friends. And we’ve had such a wonderful first conversation. I don’t know how to describe this conversation. It’s an introduction to this person’s world is amazing. Here, we talk about so many things, including our own biographies, wicked problems, why there is no such thing like normal. Hmm, a really, really good question. At a time when the industry is asking questions about novel work, I hope you will get some inspiration from here. The importance of trans does disciplinary thinking and risk management, and why we should take our dream seriously.


Nippin Anand  03:04

But most importantly, even if we come from such diverse backgrounds, such different work experiences, how can we ended up working and living something so similar?


Nippin Anand  03:17

So let’s get started. Yes, how are you Craig?


craig ashhurst  03:25

I’m pretty good. I’m in a singlet, because we’re 30 degrees down here. And I’m in the room that’s facing almost west. So the sun’s almost down, but it’s still fairly warm.


Nippin Anand  03:36

Where are you based?


craig ashhurst  03:38

I’m in Canberra. Are you also


craig ashhurst  03:40

have I left school at 15. And I’ve done something different every couple of years since then. And I’ve about to turn 61. So that’s been a lot of different things. So I’m very much not an expert in anything. But that’s been really helpful for just having been in so many different groups and situations of seeing how much a particular group is just content. I wouldn’t say complacent, but they are unaware that how they’re viewing something is different from everybody else. And it’s only by moving from group to group that you notice that, you know, oh, hang on a second. Now I’m with a group who are saying this is normal. And yeah, and part of the issue for the PhD. So before I did the PhD, I did a master’s on wicked problems. And it was with a research group that’s been a couple of years going all around Australia looking at the reasons behind low numeracy in low socio economic groups. And that got me into the wicked problem stuff. And one of the things that all of the at that time, literature on wicked prop Things were saying was you had to have a shared understanding, and you had to build a shared understanding. But my research showed that no, you don’t, you don’t actually create a shared understanding, because each group holds on to its understanding. And some of the better research showed that in fact groups polarise back to their own group. So that in a given problem, you might end up with five different perspectives on it. And each of the groups as the problem gets worse, retreat back to their own group. So that was what kicked me towards the PhD on looking at, I want to look at Wicked problems, or at least very complex problems. But I want to look at this whole myth of why do we think there’s a shared understanding? And if there isn’t, what do we do about it? And that again, so my other background is as a Christian, and certainly lots of very strange and what I would call miraculous, but certainly very unusual things occur, one of which was to land the perfect group for the PhD, which was the federal attorney general’s department. And I happen to land with a group that we’re doing a one off never happened before in Australian history, year long research into reconceptualizing access to justice for all Australians. And they approached me because I’d done some stuff on wicked problems. And the woman hitting it up said, I think I’ve got a wicked problem. And in talking with her, and then she basically said, Well, you have to join the team. And so in the end, the compromise between the Attorney General’s department and VA knew was that I wouldn’t charge them for any of my time. But they would give me access to everything from the head of the department right down to the coffee shop, guy. So, and at the same time, I happened to luck out with my supervisors, which included the head of the department of Fana, but also the woman who’s probably the preeminent person in the world, on wicked problems, and so on. So it was just this wonderful collection of stuff that I didn’t really do anything to create, but other people when we, you know, PhD students talking to each other, and they’d say, How the fuck did you manage to do that? And so yeah, so that was, that was fantastic. And it really helped, because it was so practical, to actually see it in action. And to be able to end the PhD that came out of it was to just see all the different things and that all the different disciplines would select their own group to explain it. So you know, whether it was paradigm or social group, or whatever it was, and that was part of the thing that came out of it was that I created this term collective coherence, because I couldn’t find any other term that wasn’t captured by a particular discipline. And I thought, they’re all excellent. I didn’t have a problem with any of them. But the hassle was that if you put the lens of the psychologist on, you only saw the psychological bits. And, you know, the same with any of the groups. Whereas for me each, if you went from the point of view, and the way that chapters in my thesis are done, is that I’ve identified a collection of collisions between groups. And then I’ve asked which framework best explains that type of collision. And so each chapter is a different disciplinary framework, because each collision related best to a different discipline. And so that collision didn’t even exist for various things. And Rob has always been supportive, even though it doesn’t, at first glance, appear to have connection to risk, but he obviously saw it does because as soon as you’re in an organisation, as you’re saying, you look at a ship and you look at an accident. And there are actually different groups of people who have a whole different way of looking at stuff, but the investigations or whatever, only from one person’s perspective. And I one of the many things I’ve done was to be a reporter. So I’m also used to the idea of looking for the salacious and that sort of stuff. So you can also see the media and why they only look for certain things. So in the end, Rob’s stuff on risk takes up about a third of what I do. And he and I have known each other for over 30 years. So he was when I was a student teacher, he was my supervising teacher at the school that I went to. And that’s how I met him. But my company’s been going on well, actually. So it must be closer to 40 years with Rob, because my company has been going on for about 30 years. And so when Rob started his own, then we got involved. So that’s my ramble.


Nippin Anand  10:26

No, that’s, that’s great. That’s great. I, I will be in New Zealand. This year later this year, I’m publishing a book, actually. So I’m promoting the book around in Australia as well. So it would be lovely to meet you.



Yeah. That’d be great.


Nippin Anand  10:44

So Craig, I don’t know what we can achieve. In this podcast. I’ll leave that to you. If even if you want to continue with doing a podcast today. Oh, you want to do it another time? Because? Yeah,


craig ashhurst  10:57

very good. Okay.


craig ashhurst  11:01

Well, certainly the thing for me that the core issue that I keep running into is teams of experts, all acting in goodwill, but running into conflict, because they’re unaware that they’re living in different worlds. So they think, and each group just projects on to everybody else. This is normal. And the problem is that each person’s normal is completely different to the other people in the group. So that I guess it’s the core of my PhD, but also the core of my work. And it comes out in risk, but it even comes out just even in strategy, and things. So a large part of the rest of my work that isn’t in risk is strategic thinking, and so forth. So one of the groups that I work with, had a very good client, who was the CEO of BHP in Indonesia. And he quite cleverly at the time, told me to come and live with him for 10 days before we had a series of meetings on their country strategy. And I didn’t think about it at the time, I just thought, okay, that’s what you want to do. That’s what we do. But it meant that as soon as we actually had the strategy meetings, and people started to revert to saying the correct thing. I could say, Hang on, guys, I’ve been living with you for 10 days, you don’t believe that. And it was just great, because one of the things that came out was that bhp has all these financial things for how you’re meant to do strategy. But what became clear, and we went to different islands, and various things happened, and so forth. And, you know, one of the things that came out is Indonesia is incredibly corrupt, you know, from from top to bottom. And so that for if you’re even looking at creating a mind, all of a sudden, you have to say, well, are the police actually part of the local mafia. And we were doing a thing that I was facilitating in Balikpapan. And it came up about not for profit organisations or NGOs, non government organisations, and the local. So we had translators in everything, and the locals are getting a bit toasty. And finally, I said, What, what, what’s going on? And they said, Well, it depends. And we had to go from NGO to white, grey and black NGOs. Because you could actually have an NGO that actually wants to help. Or you could have an NGO that’s basically pirates, that I get to enslave your children or, or whatever. And we had some in Australian bhp, people whose jaws were just on the ground, because they were used to doing, we have our ethical system. And so you have to follow the ethics of x, and it just didn’t match any of the reality of what was happening. So yeah, for me, that sort of thing that in academia, we’ve tended to, and I don’t, where I differ from Rob, is, I don’t think it’s the social psychology of risk. I think what he’s tapping into is the transdisciplinary, of risk, of which the socio social psychology is the dominant one. But there’s a whole lot of other ones as well. And things like that, then, of it could be almost any discipline that’s different from the dominant one in the situation. That’s making you actually say in this situation, hang on a second, what is actually going on? So like you said, even just briefly, of, alright, the media has got involved. Well, that means if the media’s got involved, the politicians have got involved, which means the collective coherence of the politicians. What’s the major currency, not getting embarrassed? So then what’s going on? Yeah, so all that to me flows on so it’s a Have a reality of multiple worlds overlapping. Whereas for many people, and particularly for engineers, there’s a single world operating. And so it’s all nice and straightforward until it doesn’t actually follow.


Nippin Anand  15:16

I really like the idea of what you spoke, and it makes so much sense. When you talk about the transdisciplinarity, of risk of decision making of understanding who we are as humans, because


Nippin Anand  15:34

the book that I’m writing right now, yes, you know, there is, and there is a huge element of anthropology and social psychology in that. But, you know, there is a, there is a whole lot there about labour markets, deregulation,


craig ashhurst  15:50

your economic background, and yep.


Nippin Anand  15:53

And also being a ship captain being able to do this, of course, you know, you come with the baggage, but if you can deal with that baggage, if you can be a little bit critical about your ways of thinking, I think there’s a huge lot in there to understand even the flowers in the engineering discipline. Yeah. And, and you’re so right, not everything can be explained, because then you become very multidisciplinary, which is counter to what what we talk about. So one needs, you know, I’ll give an example. For example, the labour markets, if if you don’t study the labour markets, and if you don’t understand how the the company’s strategy towards skill development, skill enhancement, you end up in a situation that it’s all about psychological safety, that the people in the junior ranks are not able to speak to people in higher positions. But as you start to understand the dynamics of how the labour markets work, you know, you see, in the case of Boeing 737, for example, you have, we have the the latest two accidents, Ethiopian Airlines, airlines and the other one, you see that you have literally you have a co pilot who who is a student sitting next to a pilot. And that’s interesting, because on the face of it, yes, you know, cockpits and shapes have always been hierarchical in nature. But we are seeing a very different configuration of hierarchy here. And that hierarchy where one person is super, super God or superhero, and he has got ample experience sitting with somebody who is literally a student. And one could argue that that’s, you know, there’s nothing wrong with it. Yes, there is nothing wrong with it. But when you talk about resilience, and you talk about no trading systems of the future, ultra safe systems, where is the balance? Yeah, where is the balance, and you cannot explain this unless you appreciate the transdisciplinary nature of how the world works. And,


craig ashhurst  17:51

and to me, what you’re picking up here, too, is the the flexibility to look for, which is going to be the most useful discipline to explain the issue at the time. So similar one back when you had various Asian airlines who were having crashes, and in that stage, it was an I can’t remember his name, but he’s been very much looking into the differences between different cultures internationally. And one of the things he talks about is that the hierarchy of the distance in authority, and so part of the problem was that you didn’t have students you had fully, you know, whatever. But within that culture, they couldn’t question that person. And so that was effective, that they actually knew, you know, what was going to happen, but they weren’t in a position culturally to question what was going on. And so in that case, again, it wouldn’t be economics, it wouldn’t be anything else, it would have to have been and as this guy did an international study of differences in different cultures and where that fits


Nippin Anand  19:03

with the Hofstede Hofstede index. Yes, that’s the guy. Yeah. And what’s you know, just just to build on what you said, even if you look at things from power distance perspective, which is which is half studs, it is interesting that how often on the bridge of the ship that that dynamic itself is so fluid, because in one occasion you are navigating the ship, and you are getting trying to get somewhere. So this is a team of subordinates and Captain. Right. So that’s that’s the power dynamics on the bridge. On another occasion, it’s an open day at sea and the captain said, Okay, today we’ll spend some time teaching and learning and suddenly the same place becomes a classroom All right. And if you come from a culture where, you know, for example, me where you never actually challenged the, the the educator, the teacher and the pupil is just so you can see very quickly what assertiveness means in different situations what speaking means in different situations, it’s never going to work until you understand the fluidity of power dynamics.


craig ashhurst  20:27

And the metaphor, so one of the things I do is I’ve got a unit that I help to teach. And part of what I do is get them to talk about so this is a, a complex environmental problems inaction. So it’s a final year student thing at the ANU. And we do a bit of theoretical stuff, but they actually have to go out and actually work for an organisation and help them with something. And so one of the things I get them to do is to talk about what is the metaphor that’s in their head, when they go to work with these people. Because what becomes clear is that some of them have a metaphor of steel being a student, some of them have a metaphor of being whatever, and but we don’t think about it, it’s just we fall back into that metaphor, because of our collective coherence, and because of what we think, but that, as you’re saying, then affects both not only the power differential, but also all sorts of other aspects about how we relate to people and how we relate to the situation and so on.


Nippin Anand  21:38

Absolutely. And then the more the deeper you go into it, you see that there are so many different dimensions, even to our different frameworks to look at a very, very simple issue with the same set of people. And you don’t even have to bring new people in with the same set of people things will keep changing. And just one more example along the lines that yes, it is a place for corporate is a place for, for for navigating a cockpit is a place for educating people. But a cockpit or a bridge of a ship is also placed for paperwork as people say this is a place where and that’s interesting because administrative work in a collision in this been so many Collisions at Sea where somebody was doing paperwork or the back of the computer, and the ship went and collided. And when you ask these people it’s so normalised in their view that that’s what we do. That’s what we always have to there’s so much administrative work, there’s so much paperwork, they say they don’t try to do it


craig ashhurst  22:39

sometime. It’s sort of like we’re on autopilot. It should all be fine. Now’s a good time to do this.


Nippin Anand  22:45

Right? It is. And if you think about the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life from government is one of the really good work. So how many different hats you wear? And yes. So how many different hats you wear, being a sailor in the same place each day, every day. And it’s fascinating is so


craig ashhurst  23:04

and again, the hats change, depending on who walks into the room. And as you said, depending on the circumstance, because which is the other problem I have with risk is that it’s because the hat is legal. It assumes a universal nature, which says, in legislation, we’ve we’ve narrowed down all the possible circumstances. And so which one of these does it fit? And you’re saying, well, it doesn’t fit any of them? Because it’s not like that, you know, in reality, this happens, and then somebody brings in coffee, and so we actually have a social environment.


Nippin Anand  23:44

Absolutely. Wow. There’s you. It’s 830 in the morning and nine o’clock movie, in my mind is I’m happy is such a wonderful conversation. To talk. How do you want to conclude this discussion, this wonderful discussion? Of course, it’s not a conclusion. It’s just maybe


craig ashhurst  24:03

it is an introduction. And I think maybe it’s an introduction of of two accidental transdisciplinary people. Because I think both of us didn’t set out to go, oh, I need to be transdisciplinary. But because of what we’ve gone through, we’ve gone through different disciplines and seen the value in each and then the lack of value in each. And I think that’s part of it, which if it’s reflected in risk, or if it’s reflected in other things, because I would imagine there’s as much in what you’re looking at that is helpful just for people that are on a ship. And that uh, you know that a captain’s because it’s validating to captains to hear, you know, rather than the usual risk stuff of if you get it wrong and crafted this ship, you know, you’re gonna end up you know, raked over the coals or whatever but of no, the bridge of a ship is a very complex place.


Nippin Anand  25:07

So much to think about. Yes. It’s it’s a wonderful, wonderful discussion. I, by the way you came in my dreams last night and I take my I just wanted to end with that it was it was a very young Craig Asher’s. This was not clearly here and sitting with all the sophisticated technology in the world, you had three computers on display, and you had a very sophisticated sound system. So I was a little bit intimidated that this is not what I was expecting. And I can’t remember every bit but the other way that I remember is that I asked you so what do you want to talk about? And you said, I don’t have much time. But so let’s be very, very specific. This getting everything done. You see, the shadow is projecting here. So the second thing you said, Well, let’s talk about reproducing. What is social reproduction? And you start? And I can’t remember anything after that. But it’s so that was my dream. Yes, yes. Well, I


craig ashhurst  26:10

also take dreams very seriously. I think seriously, both within whatever our own unconscious is telling us, but I’m also happy for things to come from elsewhere. My the company name niche thinking was originally niche multimedia. And it was very much the introduction of the internet and technology and so on. So I was a technology. I was a developer in residence for the ANU and UC and I was a technology advisor for the education faculty. So that and I have always been a an audiophile. So I have a very wonderful sound system that I have always loved. So I find those little elements. Interesting. But the particular thing, so remind me again, sorry, I’m social reproduction. Yes, has always been from when I was about 16. Probably a central issue for me, which I’ve rarely ever mentioned to anyone. So it sounds like a good topic to pick up. And,


Nippin Anand  27:24

yeah, I mean, I always always thought I was I was dreaming about Pierre Bourdieu. The French Philosopher. Because that’s he talks about, you know, class reproduction and and habitus and so on, but to get that,


craig ashhurst  27:38

okay. Oh, wow. So, yeah, so he, I


craig ashhurst  27:44

found, I didn’t know anything about him. And one of my supervisors said, you just sounding like Bourdieu and I said, Who’s he? And so went hunting and a lot of similarity. Again, not totally, but a lot of really useful stuff. But I think the issue of reproduction is from really tiny to really big. So it would probably for me start with introducing Marty or collective coherence. And then more or less, back and forth between us as to what we mean by reproduction and reproducing what, and that sort of thing. And also, if you run into the annals, historians,


Nippin Anand  28:27

oh, you can’t? If you speak to rob for a year and a half, and you


craig ashhurst  28:31

can’t write especially Yeah, yeah,


craig ashhurst  28:33

well, that was one of our points of contact. And, to me, that’s another thing that I like is that they have their layers. So you, you know, for them, they start at the geological layer of stuff. So when you’re looking at reproduction, to me, you’re also looking at what are the layers, which are over time as well. So there are some bits of reproduction that are so deep, we don’t even think about it. And that the analysis guys would claim is being reproduced because of the geology and so forth. So yeah, I have to admit, it’s not a topic I’ve talked about for probably 20 years, but it’s always been central to my thinking. So sounds like fun.


Nippin Anand  29:21

Sounds like fun and sounds like, you know, dreams have a lot of meaning. Oh, yeah. They do. Yes, I firmly believe in that. Great. And so thank you very much for your time. Yes. Lovely to meet you. Likewise. Bye. Bye. Bye. What did you think?


Nippin Anand  29:45

I hope you enjoyed this podcast as much as I enjoyed chatting with Craig, in case you want to get in touch with him. You can go on his website niche thinking. One thing I would suggest is reading his PhD wonderful PhD on wicked problems, and I will include a link to that PhD in this podcast.


Nippin Anand  30:06

Now, a couple of announcements to make. First is we’ll be in New Zealand from 14 until 29th of August doing if you like for lack of a better term a road show, but it’s really about bringing SpoR  or social psychology of risk to New Zealand. So I will be stopping in various locations and this is all facilitated by and sponsored by New Zealand Institute of safety management. So you will more hear more about it in a few days. I will be in Canberra with with with Rob from 30th of August or to second of September. We’ll be in Singapore in the first week of September. And finally there is a workshop being organised in in Norway in Stavanger. In social psychology of risk Foundation, as well as leadership and culture in October and early October dates will be announced very soon. And I think what we want to focus on in this workshop is that why organisational culture is so important to understand and why leaders cannot afford to ignore cultural competence in today’s world. Again, very practical, full of play and fun, because that’s how we learn. You will find all about it on our website soon, which is novellus.solutions/events. And that’s it. Well for the next time I will be soon posting a podcast on safety culture. So stay tuned and I will see you soon.


It is worth reading Craig Ashhurst’s PhD: https://novellus.solutions/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/One-Team-where-worlds-collide-Ashhurst.pdf