As organisations grow, there’s inevitably a lot of time caught up in meetings and processes to keep people informed, to synchronise and align things. During my time in government I probably spend more than 40% of my week in large team meetings that quickly consume 5-8 man-hours just trying to coordinate activities or update bosses.
I experience that process of bloating as I journey with growing organisations I’ve been with. And I often feel helpless about it. It seemed to me as though the bureaucracy inevitably comes no matter how much we are able to delay it. Technology tools can help to a certain extent but it also creates the convenience and reduce the excuse of coordinating more frequently.
In my perspective, there is this continued struggle between coordination, management and actually getting things done. The bigger and more complex a project is, the more time and resources gets devoted to such work. The question is, what are big projects and such grand scale for? Why do we always focus on scale economies without recognising the downside it has on productivity of our people? Is scale really to capture economies or to feed egos.
There was a time when I gave very indirect feedback. Especially when it comes to negative feedback. It was probably an artifact of my work in the government where people are just way too afraid to offend. And often, the boss could be the one making a mistake and no one wants to embarrass him/her. So it was perhaps a big change for me when I joined a French firm. The french were known to disagree passionately about things; and also give pretty direct negative feedback.
Fast forward 2.5 years at the firm. I got feedback from fellow countrymen that I was too direct in giving negative feedback. Upon reflecting and scrutinising the way I gave feedback, I think it wasn’t so much an issue with the directness but how far I was criticising the work rather than the worker. I might not have been delicate enough to recognise this. Going forward, I’d have to pay more attention to structuring these feedback. And there’s a model I came up with which I’d like to share. It follows this framework:
Start by discussing expectations and standards
Then bring up observations on the work done. Note, it is the work and not the ‘performance’ of the individual
Get the individual to compare and share what they think are the gaps
Discuss how you can help them with the gap
It is not easy to follow this framework. Because we are quick to start sharing our observations and how things can be better. What is missing is the point about standards and expectations. Even if those are implied and not made explicit, there has to be some way of aligning it.
I’ve been based out of Australia for almost three months now. The transition was smoother than I had expected and as a Singaporean who have studied abroad both in the US and UK, Australia is an easy environment to fit into.
Yet there is one cultural element in Australia that makes it so radically different from most of the other places I’ve been and lived in. It is the respect and remuneration that is given to heart and hand labour. Vocational skills, trade skills are properly valued. Plumbers, technicians, work men are well respected and rather well compensated. It is a place where I have seen the most female construction workers at work sites. The work environment for these people labouring with their hands are generally good.
Same goes for heart labour. The caregivers; the nurses, those social workers. They are given great deal of respect and these jobs are not looked down upon. It is markedly different from Singapore in that sense. Last year in Singapore, Lawrence Wong made a speech about valuing heart and hand labour more in Singapore. The government was concerned about pay gap and inequalities but as a culture, there is a lot to learn from Australia when it comes to respecting the trade skills.
One could argue the prices would rise; food in Singapore may no longer be cheap. And it might cost way more to get someone to deliver goods or to fix stuff around the house. Well, we do pay a lot more to our corporate workers, and we do pay a lot for tuition teachers – why should head labour necessarily earn more? The government could lead the way by setting higher standards when it comes to some of these trade work. They can also pay more for the services they procure in the heart and hand sectors.
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.
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.