Ex-Olympian turned director Tal Karp has a new focus: helping organisations make better decisions when the stakes are high.

    When former Olympian Tal Karp GAICD wanted to leave her 10-year career in law, people advised against it. Karp finished her law degree at the ANU in 2006, graduating with first class honours and joined King & Wood Mallesons in Melbourne. She worked at the High Court of Australia — including an associateship with Justice Kenneth Hayne AC QC — and then for the Sentencing Advisory Council, Department of Justice Victoria, Legal Aid Victoria and with the Victorian Minister for Women and Prevention of Family Violence.

    But after a decade, Karp was increasingly frustrated with the law. “It is quite reactive; you’re dealing with problems that have happened,” she says. “I was bursting to look at some of these problems in a different way, but the message I received from one particular employer was: ‘Be patient’ — which is code for: ‘Do things the way we’ve always done it, and wait your place in line’.”

    So Karp started Sixfold Consulting Group with long-time friend and regular bushwalking buddy Laura Douglas, to challenge old, flawed ways of making decisions. “If I’d listened to others, I wouldn’t have taken the path that was more risky,” Karp says. “I wasn’t going to give up. You have to back yourself.”

    Karp has faced hard decisions before. Born in Perth, she had moved to Canberra to attend the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). As a member of the Australian Women’s Football Team, the Matildas, she represented Australia at the 2003 World Cup and 2004 Olympics. Karp retired from the elite level at 23, the peak for many male footballers. “Football wasn’t a career [for women] at that time,” she says.

    So Karp finished her law degree, then headed overseas. She worked as a volunteer for the Right to Dream Football Academy, a not-for-profit helping young kids become footballers in Ghana. The experience instilled in Karp a passion for hands-on grassroots work, which she later pursued as a community lawyer with Victoria Legal Aid. Working directly with community remains critically important to Karp, but these days her energies are focused on facilitating broader systemic change.

    A new chapter

    After leaving the law, Karp took a short career break. In the wilds of southern Tasmania, during a six-day bush walk with Douglas, Sixfold was born. “In the course of being lost, wet, hungry, angry, do you reason well together, or does the sh*t hit the fan? We found we worked well together. We had a joint vision.”

    Sixfold is “in the business of improving decision-making”, but it’s easier said than done. Too often, consultation ends in conflict, not collaboration. Like any good facilitator, Sixfold’s teams guide the consultation process, but they have dispensed with “old-school” sticky notes and butcher’s paper in favour of a bespoke software platform. “There’s a real push for people-centred design, but I question the methodology. We use a tech platform that enables a dynamic whole-of-room conversation. We bring large groups of people together to resolve what are often considered ‘intractable’ issues.”

    For example, at an AIS forum in June, 200 participants from across all facets of high-performance sport contributed their ideas to develop an action plan to ensure athlete wellbeing is a core component of sport at the elite level. A “theme team” grouped the ideas and “beamed them back” to participants for comment. “We don’t rely on AI,” Karp says. “We highlight innovative ideas, cultivate themes and put the ideas and the words of participants underneath them. That enables a different kind of accountability and trust.”

    Karp’s mantra is: “localised solutions to local problems” — before making a decision, ask those affected what they think. Great idea. But the Sixfold founders know how easily great ideas get lost under day-to-day pressures, so they’ve put in an unusual governance strategy. “Our partnership agreement requires us to go on two hikes every year — so that we can see the wood for the trees.”

    In July, Karp began her second director role, with YMCA Australia. She had spent 18 months on the board of Football Federation Victoria before stepping down in October 2016. “I spent many years working for Legal Aid Victoria and in youth justice. Our criminal justice system sometimes feels like a revolving door, which can be frustrating. Real change requires acting meaningfully, earlier. It requires us to support, empower and invest in young people so they can realise their potential, which is what the YMCA is all about.”

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