I don’t want to call them big oil or big coal, or big gas anymore. They are big on fossil, fossil fuels. And they have a chance to make the future a better place; one that we all want to be part of. They have the opportunity; enormous opportunity to create the products and services that people need and want which will be good for them, and good for everybody else, not just good for the big fossil companies.
But to take advantage of this opportunity, they need to recognise people are not demanding for fossil fuels. They are demanding for energy, for access to energy, for cheaper energy. But that form of energy is fossil fuel, big fossil might retort. It is not. Fossil fuel is not cheap. It is not cheap because we all are paying in the form of greater natural disasters, in facing once-in-a-hundred-year floods almost every decade, in having to pay even more for heating during winters and cooling during summers. Fossil fuel is not what the world is demanding for.
Big fossil can ignore the NGOs, they can ignore the activist investors or the climate activists, and even government. Heck, they could buy out those sitting on the fence. They could even subsidize all manner of appliance, infrastructure, systems that entrench fossil fuels further. But they cannot ignore climate change; they cannot ignore the fact that we are not destroying earth with carbon emissions. We are destroying ourselves. And for what? Profits? What good are profits if that’s just creating a future no one wants to be part of?
One of the interesting arguments coming out of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con is that because consulting firms are reliant on a continued stream of business from their clients, there is a conflict of interest as they would not be interested to help clients build the capability to solve problems by themselves.
I’m concerned about this argument because that argument can be made in many other situation such as a lawyer not wanting to help client get out of legal trouble or doctor not desiring his patients to recover, etc. It opens a whole can of worms and at the end of the day, boils down to a matter of professional ethics and the standards we need to uphold within the industry and sector.
the need to motivate and retain his good employees as well as
to uphold the interest of his client base.
There may be inherently some industries that are better off for the customers if they were not subject to complete free market type conditions.
Perhaps consulting firms should all continue to stay in the form of partnerships and not allowed to get too big. Likewise, financial advisory might be better off as an industry of freelancing individuals. They can be subject to strict industry and professional body standards rather than be firms operating with huge overheads.
Whether you’re in a law firm, accounting firm or consulting firm, as you rise up to Partner status, your major contribution to the company is deemed as sales. Nevermind you’ve accumulated lots of experience and is able to solve very tricky issues for clients, if you fail to bring business in, you have failed at your role. This is a challenging thought and it made me wonder whether the end point of growth in professional service and being able to serve clients well is just sales? Or is that all a false dichotomy to begin with?
How can we set up sales situations such that it is less adversarial, where we can be really win-win rather than see it as a zero-sum game. In some sense, it is true that a client can still get some kind of service from another firm, a competitor whereas when they walk away from you, your firm gets nothing. So it is very easy to see it as a win-lose kind of deal. And moreover, the client will be putting in process and structure to try and get the best deal out of their vendor. That is simply the way the mature market economy is set up. Can there be really different rules and different ways of working to contextualize situations in ways that are less tense and difficult?
Can sales be driven by the desire to serve and not to profit from the client? How can sales be set up such that the joy of service pays and profit is just a byproduct? I think the missing piece in the puzzle is really around the purpose and the conviction of the service to be rendered. When one is truly able to deliver superior service and product, with a strong faith that it will satisfy the clients’ needs, then the sales situation will be more of a win-win deal. The client loses out by walking out because you are the one who is able to bring the solution to the client.
The question is how do you know? Perhaps that is for another day.
As you might tell, I’m back to in the mode of thinking about the nuances involved in problem solving. The reason is in part because I’ve been interviewing candidates for various roles in my company across four different offices in APAC. That forces me to start considering what are the attributes I value highly and what really demonstrate those attributes. Some of these are really so nuanced and difficult to really describe or pinned down – mostly uncovered through questioning and observing responses in various circumstances.
I am reminded to be grateful for the experience I gathered while working within the Singapore government as part of what was known as International Enterprise Singapore and also Infrastructure Asia. In both instances, I had to work across cultures in Asia which forced me to be sensitive about culture differences and made me pay more attention to the manner we can communicate better. It was also a very collaborative environment that involved a lot of coordination, across departments, government agencies, teams and across various levels. I had the opportunity to with ministers, very senior public servants and observed the way leaders approached problems and manage delicate situations.
And because early on in my career I dealt with a lot of issues where I had to own a problem statement without having the full solution to it but rather, coordinating and managing teams of people, often with different interests to get to the solution, I came to be comfortable with project management. It wasn’t something I had consciously picked up but it was emergent through the themes of various work I did.
Often, what earns us the right to serve our client as consultants is really the ability to take hold of, and own the problem statement that you’ve determined alongside your client. It is not the mastery of content or topic or expertise in particular subject matter. All of that should come along but there will always be someone better than you out there. The ability to take responsibility and do what you can to harness and gather the resources towards solving a problem is the more valuable attribute.
In a previous workplace of mine, there were a lot of strong, capable people who were good at problem solving and very oriented to that. However, they were not always good at identifying the right problems to deal with nor defined the problems well. So they went on and hack away at problems that were poorly defined and ended up not solving much. A lot of resources, energy and efforts were squandered on poorly defined problems.
To give an example, we could think about it from the perspective of an observation first. Say, there is a cat which is on a tree and meowing. Objectively speaking, it is not clear if there was a problem. It might be a problem to the flat owner on the second storey who is annoyed by the noises made by the cat. A cat lover might think the cat is stuck on the tree and unable to get down. The one who planted the tree and lives on the ground floor might think that the problem is that the cat might scratch and damage the tree. Now if you want to help, you need to define the problem in the context of someone’s perspective.
While there seem like a ‘straight-forward’ solution which is to remove the cat from the tree, if none of those people I mentioned saw it as a problem, then it would not have been considered a solution to begin with. If we contextualise the problem as the meowing, then the solution could just be to get the flat-owner to put on earplugs or insulate his flat from external noises better. Without the other stakeholders in the room, the solution set actually expands.
Problem solving is just the last stage of a repertoire of skills we need in the modern workplace. Being able to identify, define and contextualise problems can be just as, if not more important.
Our spray bottles for cleaning the kitchen counter, pump bottles that come with our body foam, as well as that shampoo bottle are all going to outlast our use of the fluids stored within them. They can be reused – and in reusing them for the same applications, we are reducing their usage. Good for the overall economy in terms of saving resources, for our pockets and also the environment. Except that it is in the interest of the fossil fuel companies to churn out more plastics, for the consumer goods company to create more new packaging and mark up the price of these products, for logistics companies to handle a consistent set of quality, new containers rather than re-used, non-standardized ones.
We’ve created incentives, built our economies around sheer wastage and environmental destruction. Can new business models be created, alongside the harnessing of forces to drive change in consumer culture and consumption practices? Grist reports on some interesting examples recently.
Indeed, we already have vending machines and public water fountains. Why not make soda fountains where people pay for soda that goes into their water bottles? Scoop Wholefoods already tries to retail all kinds of products by having customers bring containers into store where they are filled up.
Laundry detergent, hand soap and all can definitely be sold in bulk dispensed from big containers into the containers brought by the consumers. During the Covid pandemic, Singapore had deployed vending machines and various physical outposts around community centers where Singaporeans could bring their containers to refill and get alcohol-free hand sanitisers. Why not make that the norm?
It will be difficult for the market capitalism as we have evolved it to stomach and put up with all these changes. People want to carry on with proliferation of brands and ‘choices’ – they want to make different containers and so many different kinds of detergent, soaps and handwash that makes it hard to retail all of these in bulk.
Would you rather have more options of soap and less possibilities of a future we would want to be part of? Or less option of soaps so we can choose better futures to exist in?
Probably for the first time in the history of my personal blogging, I’ve brought together all my writings under a single site. Since migrating kevlow.com to a self-hosted platform (though you probably won’t be able to tell), I’ve pulled in some of the even older pieces of writing I’ve put out on the internet. This includes blog entries written from as far back as 2005.
Looking through my entries, there was the period of 2011-2013 when I wasn’t so active probably because I was busy in LSE. It was probably a bit of a shame because those were some really formative years as well in terms of the development of my academic thinking and also integration of my faith into my intellectual identity. Perhaps I had wanted to keep things a bit more private. I would like to point out that those were also years when Tim Keller’s writings engaged my mind so much more.
The focus of my writings has certainly evolved significantly especially with the addition of topics around energy and climate. My passion for education and learning was more dominant earlier in my writing though I wouldn’t consider it to have died down from then. My interest in other topics had expanded.
I could have continued to keep my writings in different niches and have them separate but I realised that in some sense, they were reinforcing one another and were all products of my principles and conviction that drove me. After years of refinement, my conviction is still towards this broader theme of trying to create a future that we all want to live in. Whether it’s energy, education, sustainability or economic development, I am future-oriented and all for investing in what is to come.
We’ve been seeing on the news that 2023 will probably go down in history as the year oil majors backtracked on their promises towards the climate transition, and continued their trajectory of emissions as the demand for fossil fuels continue to grow.
This is exactly the kind of behaviour that makes it easy for people to keep painting them as the enemy. As a matter of fact, they risk painting themselves out of the low carbon future when they allow their “core” fossil fuel business to continue cannibalising their renewables business. Yes you heard me right; in refusing to see their core business as that of providing the world with sustainable energy, they are rapidly destroying a market they want to be part of.
Instead of seeing it as demand for fossil fuels, the oil majors need to recognise that there’s demand for energy – and it is growing. The opportunity to convert their customers to green users, energy users of the future rather than keeping them in the past. Their behaviour will at some point push the authorities to act even more aggressively against fossil fuels. The trouble right now is that they think the world needs them to go on spinning.
Biomethane (or upgraded biogas) has a challenging reputation in some markets. It is chemically indistinguishable from natural gas which is a fossil fuel. It burns identically and emits carbon dioxide when combusted. However, it is considered a low-carbon fuel because the carbon content from biomethane is actually the short-cycle carbon dioxide. It is great because you can combust and generate power or heat using a conventional gas turbine or other gas appliances with it without having to retool or change the equipment.
Biomethane is a clear pathway to support decarbonisation of gas and yet it is being shunned by critics. Part of the reason is that the fossil fuel companies are getting involved and could extend the lifespan of their fossil fuel assets and infrastructure using it. And some people are unhappy that they even receive low-carbon funding for the gas infrastructure.
When we see fossil fuel companies as enemies, then anything they do will be wrong and things that continues driving their asset base even tangentially related to fossil gas seem like a problem.
But if the enemy is carbon emissions, then those companies need to be given a chance. We need to demarcate some boundaries: for example, they could set a profit margin cap on themselves and commit all the funds above that towards clean energy investments. Or even better, they could funnel those funds into a ring-fenced facility which then dole out the resources towards anything proven to be low-carbon.
Ordered something and there was something wrong in the order? Delivery delayed? Put in a complaint and got a voucher code? What was the promise from the company when you first made an order? Was that promise broken?
Service promises have been escalating under the competitive pressure in the consumer markets. But these promises are increasingly costly to deliver consistently and cheaper to break.
Think about these platforms – they probably make about 10-20% margins so giving you a $5 voucher might cost them only $4 but you will end up spending $10 more potentially which allows them to cover another $2 and end up costing only $2 for the broken promise rather than having to invest in better systems or pay their service staff more to serve you better.
In long run, it does mean you pay higher prices, continue to get poor services and allow these business to remain in that bad cycle.
If we start taking promises by businesses more seriously, be less tolerant of poor delivery of service promises, we might just be able to create a better culture for business and for our future generations.