“Bean counter” is an expression in English language referring to “a person, typically an accountant or bureaucrat, perceived as placing excessive emphasis on controlling expenditure and budgets”. There are people who are mission oriented by focusing on the vision of a future but there are also bean-counters who are obsessed with measuring along certain identified metrics without recognising whether the metrics make sense or not. And that is the problem with our relationships with KPIs.
Let’s start from school. Today, we have more students than ever who are going through education system just to get a grade – not out of curiosity or a zeal to learn, but full of anxiety about a devastated future due to missing the grade. Why is the grade even an indicator and what is it indicating? Have we taught our students what the grade really mean? What an award or a prize really do to them? Thinking meta is important – and I’m definitely not referring to the metaverse.
Then businesses. There’s more than financial disclosure and accounting these days; there’s a lot around climate and impact related disclosures. At Enea, we help some of our clients navigate the requirements but more importantly, we advise our clients from first principles how to think about their business’ impact and interaction with the environment so as to report meaningfully to their stakeholders. Yet there are always consultants or companies who are focused on just taking a KPI which is popular out there and then using it – even cherry-picking the ones that look more favourable without a clear sense of what those measures are actually for.
Finally, there is the government, focused on giving a good report card to their political masters to show constituencies. There is still the traditional obsession with GDP and the growth figures, targeting job creation and so on. In fact, the term ‘statistics’, have more to do with the state than to do with the concept of numbers. Policies will really need to better articulate why metrics adopted are a good representation of the policy objectives and that results are not just reported when they look good, or for metrics to be chosen only after results are in. Being mission-focused is also more important than just sticking to a set of metrics. Because Goodhart’s law still applies.
Are you recognising the bean-counters amongst you? Those who are overly obsessed with the numbers without really appreciating what they mean? It’s probably worth focusing first on the parents who are obsessed with their kids getting an A.
I was listening to the first part of Barry Nalebuff’s interview on ‘People I mostly admire’ and it turned out to be pretty cool and insightful, particularly that very rapid sharing of his thinking that developed Honest Tea. It reflect how important simple ideas were when taken seriously and scaled up. And it also helped to demonstrate how an economics (and strategy) professor use his intellect to take calculated risks in entrepreneurship.
He was probably oversimplifying but considering Honest Tea as a product that basically makes use of three simple economic principles:
Diminishing marginal returns/benefits (on sugar or the taste of sweetness)
Principle of maximising the value of the content of a fixed cost container in order to maximise the overall value of the bottled drink
Navigating trade-offs on the marginal utility curve: Convincing people to trade off the lower sugar for the fact that the drink had lower calories
That is pretty brilliant as a way of thinking about a market and a product; those ideas are simple and yet profound precisely because the world had not evolved solutions around a combination of these ideas prior to Honest Tea.
For new readers, you might not have realised that I have a coaching practice. I call it career coaching but it could well have been performance coaching, or work coaching, or whatever you might call it. I’m now working with an coach to help me with English for business but I’m essentially being coached to align my messages more with my communication objectives. At the heart of coaching, is the ability to help our clients identify and crystalize their objectives, and then focus their attention and resources on meeting them.
Meeting our objectives often require us to take a series of actions or adopt certain behaviours to maximize the chances of the outcomes we desire. We may not be too sure ourselves and so we hedge our bets; we prefer not trying than to try and fail. Coaches help to reduce incidence of that thought by helping us reframe and focus our attention on the work that needs to be done rather than fretting over the outcome that we cannot control directly.
So it is on my career coaching practice; I work with you to identify and crystallise your career objectives and then work out what actions or behaviours are necessary to get there. We then try to focus on developing those behaviours and undertake the actions that maximises the chances of you getting there. Even when you might think it could be a waste of time, or if you’re afraid the investment of effort would not pay off. It’s not about the immediate returns on your investment, but recognising that investment in yourself is a case where the returns come through from yourself rather than from the job you find. In fact the job or role you eventually take on, is merely a means by which you contribute your value to this world.
When I was studying in London and the States, I always thought that working and earning an income in those countries beat being in Singapore and earning the low salaries that starting graduates were given. In fact, I was paid so much in my gross salary during my internship at a bank in London that on market exchange rate basis, I only got back to that same level of monthly salary in the 5th year of my scholarship bond. Even if my salary was stagnant for 6 years at the bank and I was paid like an intern, I would have earned more.
But would I have been able to earn more in terms of disposable income? How about disposable income minus the critical expenditures like rent and the premium for food that I didn’t have to pay in Singapore? How about the high level of taxes in those countries? Now, people may say that after doing the Math, they realised that as a percentage of the total income, the cost works out to be roughly the same, and so you save the same percentage of your income.
Yet that is not exactly the same. The same percentage of a higher income at market exchange rates implies that you do have a higher amount of absolute savings. And this is where it starts to matter because capital markets are largely global and the pricing is consistent across the world. This means that if you’re able to amass a higher absolute amount of savings at market exchange, you have greater purchasing power for public securities and other financial products. The advantage of being able to enjoy lower costs of living does not outstrip the disadvantage of a lower absolute savings.
Thomas Curran researches elements of psychological impact of our society’s perfectionism. While we tend to admire people who are perfectionists and pushing themselves up higher and higher standards. In his interview with Adam Grant in the WorkLife Podcast, he talks about the deficit thinking of us being inadequate is consuming us and damaging us.
In his talk at TED MED in 2018, he criticized the dangers of performance metrics which pushes people to do better but also foster that sense of inadequacy that characterises so many of out high potential youths today.
I think this problem plagues the Singapore society especially; the creation of insecurity, amplification of imperfection and continual emphasis on appearing perfect. Our search for mental wellness must address this obsession with perfectionism that we as a society has been nurturing, or it is doomed to fail.
I saw a man signing to his phone over a video call happily and suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a great sense of gratitude for what we all enjoyed for centuries that those who are deaf and mute could not – the telephone.
I took for granted that people of all ages, background and identity could pick up a phone and speak to someone else miles away. That we could enjoy a familiar voice in the comfort of where we are, or feel a sense of someone listening to us as we speak into a phone while alone. This is why the Good Samaritans hotline works, or that companies hire armies of customer service officers to handle customers in a call center.
Yet not everyone had that. It was only in recent years that video calls became widely accessible and broadly used. Without the smart phone, video was virtually impossible or just plain crappy on a mobile phone. Without mobile data, video calls would be prohibitively expensive.
So maybe, when we are really lost and sad, for whatever reason, we want to ask ourselves: what are we taking for granted?
What is your positioning? What is your strategy in this application? I asked my intern who was applying to certain colleges. I’ve been called upon to put up a reference for this young colleague and I really wanted to help, as best as I can.
So me being the strategy consultant I am, asked those questions. It drew a blank. And of course, it was a little confusing for someone fresh out of A Levels to think of “strategies” around college applications. Or maybe not if you’ve so much help and advice from those who have gone before you. That, I feel, is exactly what those families with resources are able to equip their younger ones with.
Maybe I was wrong, that we need a strategy or positioning because the only positioning should be to be ourselves. It will take more excavation of ourselves and asking who exactly are we rather than artificially creating a persona we must fit into. In being able to “position” our application as much as possible as being true to ourselves, might be the most precious thing you can give to the college admissions office.
Lifeforms on earth are mostly about carbon; mostly made up of it. The problem with our economy is not that we need carbon to get things going but that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as “value” in the economy is created. That is only natural to the extent that we as humans burn similar fuels and produce the similar byproduct. It almost seem like we cannot really escape from that.
We have been moving energy around from one form to another in order to get work done since prehistoric times. In some sense, the fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at higher concentrations really cause so much potential catastrophic harm to life on earth is a demonstration that perhaps the “work done” by humans is too much.
Perhaps it is time for us all to just pause, and recognise how much we truly really need in this world. Have we recognised that our attempts at relentlessness in the wrong direction can turn really disastrous?
My latest break away from work lasted about 2.5 weeks. It was a time of disconnecting almost completely with work. I think the whole cycle of disengaging, disconnecting deliberately and then re-engaging is a natural cycle of things. And the rhythm that our biology needs.
The cycle of waking up and sleeping, the seasons, the waves of busyness and then lull. These are patterns etched in nature, patterns we should be honouring.
There is no question that when you’re driving in the opposite lane from the design of traffic that you’d eventually end up in an accident. But unfortunately we are not clear about how we should be honouring our bodies and our minds. Consider what is stopping us from taking a genuine break, one that is not accompanied by anxiety or guilt or the compulsion to be “productive”.
I rarely talk about stuff on the media because I typically don’t consume so much entertainment through the mainstream media. It has become incredibly splittered though. Thanks to Netflix, Disney Plus and other streaming services that are all now starting to create their own content and populating their own channels.
So I was watching The Mysterious Benedict Society which at first appeared like a show with quirky characters, turned out to be extremely delightful and well executed aesthetically. The thought that went into the script and the manner the mysteries unfolded step by step was brilliant.
What is interesting is that so much of it of course covered very universal themes of truth, friendship, what intelligence meant and philosophy around independence. Children books and stories always tend to have such amazingly deep and yet simple truths it’s a waste that not more adults read them.
Some similar titles I’d suggest would be The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time.