Getting stuff done with nothing.
Getting Stuff Done With Nothing
Tuesday, 21 April 2009 06:51 Hrs
❝ Hello, my name is Peter. My talk is called ‟Getting stuff done with nothing”.

Quick Intro

I retitled the talk on the day to ‟Kick-starting Volunteers”. It not only made the title shorter but placed the talk into a bigger context. The ideas I used to solve problems on Black Saturday could just as the ideas I used to solve problems on Black Saturday, could just as easily be applied to volunteers or Startups.

I presented this quick talk to an audience at Trampoline on Saturday, 28th March, 2009. Before I started I read out a few key words and explained the format of the talk. You can also look at a manga version of the talk.

Operation SHUTZ / JENNY

Hello, my name is Peter. My talk is called ‟Getting stuff done with nothing”. Before I begin I’ll tell you something about myself. My first computer was a ZX-80. I don’t get out much and I haven’t been to a meeting for a long time. I’m one of those Gen-X slackers, I went to school for almost 20 years and worked mostly in Startups and software. So you could say I’m a bit of an expert on the topic. Well at least one.

We (my brother, sister, her bloke, myself and a good mate) undertook two distinct operations. The first, ‟Operation Genny”. The objective: to deliver power in the form of a generator. The second, ‟Operation Shutz”. The objective to deliver clean water supply tanks up to three litres with one tank capable of being put on a ute. We completed both. We had feet on the ground within forty eight hours of the fire occurring and delivered the generator. The water supply followed some two weeks later.

None of this would have been possible if emotional sister and determined brother used speed to the fire zone within couple of hours. The reward, a pass to move through the police road blocks. Had it not been for this quick thinking. Nothing we planned would have come to fruition.

Getting stuff done with nothing

❝ How is it that people with no authority, few resources can make such a difference?

Why is it that some individuals adapt to change faster than others? The ideas I want to explore has its roots in the slow decline of volunteering, the unfolding financial crisis and the 7th February 2009. A day we now know as Black Saturday. How do you avoid sabotaging yourself trying to help? How do you get stuff done, with nothing?

Black Saturday

It was forty six degrees that day. I’d thought about going to Dads about seventy kilometers from where I live. But with a total fire ban and hot conditions, I chose the pool instead staying close to home. It wasn’t till I got home about six o’clock that evening that I got a call from a distressed sister saying Dad was, ‟fighting off fires” at his property in Kinglake West and his phone was going flat. Later I got another call at around eight o’clock to say the house had survived, but he was still fighting. [0]

❝ I knew that if Dad survived the first two hours with house intact — as long as he kept his wits about him, he would survive.

I was seventy kilometers away, it was getting dark so I drove to the nearest place I could see the range, snapped a few shots and uploaded them to Flickr. My brother and sister who lived closer shot up to Whittlesea trying to get into the fire-zone to help. Foolish maybe, but it was to have positive implications later. [1] So I started planing, writing and collecting any information I could to see if I could help out further down the line.

Forty nine days later

It’s now forty nine days since the fire and work is still going on. A casual comment by a CFA volunteer on my Flickr account [2] suggested that for the next major fire a site might do exactly what I was doing — collecting information and acting as a clearing house. This was going to be initial idea for my talk, ”How to apply technology and solve the communications and logistic problems” I encountered with the fires. Maybe it could be applied to other relief efforts. What about the recession? Could it help people who loose their jobs to re-train? Get new skills?

But thinking about it more, it turned out to be the wrong question to ask. I don’t think technology is the problem. [3] I think the real problem is much more fundamental. I think it’s people and how they tackle obstacles. I don’t want to get bogged down in theory. What I want concentrate on something practical. How to apply some quick hacks that anyone can master in times of need.

1) Controlling emotion

Emotions effect the way we make decisions. Emotions come in many forms as we react to stress. Each person reacts slightly differently. Limiting your emotional reaction, lets you move forward to make decisions. It’s a trait that only you can control. Some sort of control is an advantage over none. No control over you emotions can let fear control you.

❝ Fear is by far the most damaging emotion.

Fear paralyses you into in-action. In-action is not only counter productive but it’s also the fastest way to sabotage yourself. Fear is also contagious. If you are fearful, it has a nasty habit of rubbing-off onto others. I don’t know the solution to avoiding or controlling fear but I do know you should be aware it exists. You should try to negate it’s side effects. The better control you have over fear, the more effective you can be. [4]

2) Listening

How well you listen greatly effects any outcome to try to achieve. Not listening is one of the quickest ways to fail when you encounter external hurdles. Not listening you miss details.

❝ If in doubt ask someone ‟on the ground”. They know things you don’t.

Details that could mean the difference between knowing what is required or taking a risk and guessing. A requirement achieved is a form of measurable success. Guessing simply wastes time. Listening now saves time and effort later.

3) Mindset

If you have a rigid mindset. If you cannot adapt quickly enough. You risk not only failing to achieve the things you set out to do. You will also be susceptible to blunder. A blunder is when the action you take, results in a worse situation than when you start. Blunders have many causes. But the most likely culprit is a fixed or rigid mindset.

❝ Are you undermining yourself because you have a rigid mindset?

Mindset is the combined effect of ₃how you react emotionally to current events” and ‟the decisions you make as a result”.

4) Empathy and imagination

Can you walk in the shoes of another person? Can you identify their problems and solve them? Empathy and imagination are an effective antidote to blunders, rigid mindsets and cognitive traps in thinking. [5] Don’t just try and blunder your way through a solution. First put yourself into the situation you are trying to improve. Then use your mind to to project how you might make the current situation into a better or best situation. [6]

5) Communication not Info-mania

An ‟info-maniac”, is someone who misuses information. If you hold onto information, shun or avoid the source or nature of information. You are self sabotaging. You need to collect enough of the right type of relevant information.

❝ Don’t worry about the having too much information.

You will be surprised what people might be looking for or find. [7] Working as a team has its own challenges. When communicating to more than one person make sure they have the right mindset and ensure they are communicating together to get the job done.

6) Thrift and resources

Up till now, the focus has primarily been on, ‟the how”. Little thought has been given to ‟cost”. If you have few resources and need them quickly, it is up to you to work out how important they are. Weigh the costs of buying verses loaning. Don’t buy if you can help it. The time honoured ‟Beg, borrow and ask” works, well some of the time. A simple solution is to hack what you already have and see if it can fit the purpose.

❝ A roll of fencing wire and duct tape may work wonders, but not miracles.

This is where you have to get creative. A good resource can be friends or people you know. It may even be complete strangers. In some cases you will have to pay cash. Before you do check with people on the ground if they really need this item. If you pay cash it might be better to accept a higher price for a receipt instead of trying to negotiate a discount. This avoids disputes. Pay a bit more to avoid potential conflict. [8]

7) Speed

We are often told to do things ‟fast”. But saying and doing are two different things. Where do you start? Well start at the basics. The basics of life are ‟food”, ”water” and ‟shelter”. So for a given situation concentrate first on the basics. Be able to say with certainty you have reliability. Day in, day out. Every day. Speed is also about getting real results without wasting unnecessary time and resources. Any lack of the above qualities will hinder your efforts. So I think the measure of speed is about delivering the basics. Then using a combination of listening, empathy and imagination you can move your way forward.

❝ Speed alone isn’t enough.

It’s a constant. What you really want is acceleration. What forces can you use to increase the accelerate the rate you do things? Well the answer to this and a potential road-block is probably a more information, not less. Collect enough information on problem at hand and you get a data glut and as long as the relevance of the information is high someone can probably find the right information. The trick is then to get the right people to take notice.

❝ We got ‟feet on the ground” to Dad in less than 48 hours.

We Delivered a generator and some essentials. Yet I was shocked took another 48 hours for support teams to touch base in Flowerdale a mere twenty-six kilometers further north. [9] This changed quickly when Pete William started writing the ‟helpflowerdale” blog. Things sped up when the information flow, sped up. [10]

8) Search for simplicity

KISS or Keep it Simple Stupid. Easy to say, much harder to do in practice. The advantage of simplicity is it helps keeps you focused on what is achievable. Focusing on simple outcomes is also cost and time effective. Complex things consume resources. How do you find simple solutions in real-life complexity?

I have no real answers. But I did get a few valuable insights trying to work out how to solve the problem of water. After the fires, I knew delivering the basics was going to be a big problem. And the most important basic is water. But how do you source, deliver and maintain a clean water supply more than seventy kilometers away?

❝ How did I simplify the problem?

Well first I had the right mindset. I knew in the middle of summer in remote areas that damaged water tanks, no pumps and when the power is down there will be no reliable water. I also knew speed was of the essence. The simplicity hack I applied was knowing that water being a basic was required quickly. I confirmed by ringing up people on the ground that water storage was a problem. Then spread the news around this is what was required. It just so happened that other people where already thinking along the same lines pre-warned because of the information I spread, ‟empathised” and offered help. The actual situation itself is complicated and I couldn’t tackle this problem myself. I got a call from a good friend who is an expert in logistics and just happened to have a water solution in the form of a Shutz. By chance I also got access to various forms of transport.

Is this a case of good luck or searching for a simpler way? I’m not sure. I do know that by knowing this was a priority and using resources I secured the water containers and got them delivered. [11], [12]

9) Follow through, re-evaluate

What you start you finish. Don’t leave loose threads. Then quickly re-evaluate. Do you really need to continue? Communicate together. Is someone else doing this?

❝ Are you going to let your mates down?

Check with someone on the ground again. Then continue. If you promise to do something, do it. No one else is going to do it. It is up to you.

10) Motivation: ‟The mongrel factor”

The final personal quality is how much of the ‟mongrel factor” you have. No, it has nothing to do with ‟Blue Heelers” (the TV show) [13] but the mongrel breed of dog. How hard do you ‟snap” and ‟snarl” [14] to extract that last five percent effort required to complete a task? The difference between those who give up and those who succeed can partially be explained by how hard they are willing to push themselves. [15]

11) The future of Volunteers

I don’t think technology alone can solve the types of problems. You need intelligent application of technology. Instead we should look at how we as individuals respond using technology to amplify results. I also saw a complete change in community attitudes to ‟volunteering”. Before the fire, volunteering was a dirty word.

❝ After the fire people felt guilty not helping.

The fires may be over. But your chance to make a difference begins now. Black Saturday might be the fractal training run for the current recession. Lots of people, young people especially are now going find themselves without the opportunities to work and no path to improve themselves. What are YOU! going to do? Are you! (point to individual) going to let your mates down?


[0] Bootload, flickr, ‟You can read a summary and view pictures of the fires first hours here,”, [Accessed Thursday, 26th March, 2009]

[1] We (my brother, sister, her bloke, myself and a good mate) undertook two distinct operations. Operation Genny: objective to deliver power in the form of a generator. Operation Shutz: objective to deliver clean water supply tanks up to three thousand litres with one tank capable of being put on a ute. We completed both. We had feet on the ground within forty eight hours of the fire occurring, for the generator. The water supply following some two weeks later. None of this would have been possible if emotional sister and determined brother used speed to the fire zone within couple of hours. The reward, a pass to move through the police road blocks. Had it not been for this quick thinking. Nothing we planned would have come to fruition.

[2] miniopterus, Flickr, ‟I should have said, good job tracking the events. I imagine that next time we have fires, we might see something similar to your Flickr diary.”, [Last Accessed: Thursday 26th March, 2009]

[3] To technologists who forge and yield hammers every problem can appear to be a nail. In this case I don’t think a technology solution is applicable as tackling how people deal with decision making. You need intelligent application of technology. Instead we should look at how we as individuals respond using technology to amplify results.

[4] Fear is there for a reason. Men may perceive women to be inferior when it comes to emotion. But like the second law of thermodynamics, all that built up emotion is going to leak out some time in the future. So in the long run, I think women have an edge over men dealing with emotion. But in the short term it is men who edge women out with self control. There is a downside here. Apply too much control and you might emotionally overheat and become brittle when you cool down leaving yourself open to cracking. Hard objects become brittle and crack under stress.

[5] Zachary Shore, Radio interview with Zach Shore on blunders, ‟Blunder: even smart people make bad decisions”, [Last Accessed July 17, 2009]

[6] google, ‟enter ’from: kinglake west to: Flowerdale VIC, Australia” and view the maps tab. This reveals the distance from Kinglake West.”* [Accessed Friday, 27th March, 2009]

[7] ITConversations, Tech Nation, Zachary Shore, ‟Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions: Professor, Naval Postgraduate School”, [Last Accessed Friday 27th March, 2009]

[8] Sourcing the Shutz (ruggised one thousand litre, portable water container) I negotiated a price by quoting a friends name in cash. Then I get a phone call asking for more money. A quick call back to my referring mate sorted this out. But had I got a receipt I could have avoided this. In the end it worked out. But the risk was there. You can read more about sourcing the Shutz here. [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

[9] google, ‟To find the distance from Kinglake West to Flowerdale enter ’from: Kinglake West to: Flowerdale VIC, Australia” into google and click the maps tab.

[10] Pete Williams, blogspot, ‟Flowerdale - Survivor Spirit”, ‟A cry for help from the forgotten people of Flowerdale”, ‟The final straw for my sister in law came at 6.00am today (12/02/09) when those left fought to save one of the remaining houses that caught on fire overnight. They fought with no water, no fire trucks and no support from the Army that was in the area. They lost the fight.”, [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

[11] bootload, flickr, ‟flickr set: ’Shutz IBC 1000L’ where I order and collect the Shutz water tank”, [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

[12] bootload, ‟flickr set: ’Eltham to Kinglake West’ where we deliver the tanks”*, [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

[13] IMDb, ‟Blue Heelers, The Mongrel Factor”, [Last Accessed Friday 27th March, 2009]

[14] Australian Sports Commission, ‟Participating in Sport: Predicting sports suitability”, ‟Coaches who observe such testing sessions are assessing the ’mongrel factor’ which athletes show a doggedness to continue when the test becomes hard?”, [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

[15] Simon Britton, ‟Mongrel Nation”, [Last Accessed: Friday 27th March, 2009]

For Andy, James, Kev, Mum and Trace. They know how to get things done with nothing. Thanks Trace for reading the article and advising on the talk.


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