Metric and outcomes

A metric is a good way to hold one accountable for certain outcome. And if you want to set some common indicators of performance that people can agree on, then you can get on with focusing on achieving some degree of the outcome.

The challenge again is Goodhart’s Law where setting a particular measure as a target for certain outcomes make the measure become a poor one. This tends to be rather pronounced in economics, whether you’re thinking about GDP, interest rates (specific ones like LIBOR), even CPI for inflation and so on.

When businesses are measured on their success by profit metric, we forget that they are there to serve the community, to provide goods and services people need and demand for, to improve people’s lives and give them more choices. Those are the outcomes we want. The ability to generate profits merely allows them to continue generating good outcomes.

Likewise, we want to make money to be able to support our families, our (reasonable) lifestyles and maybe free up more time for leisure. But when money becomes tied to your identity, like the way profits have been tied to the identity of businesses, then your ability to provide for your family cease being a good measure of what you’re trying to achieve in life.

We need to focus on the outcomes and ditch the metric when the time for that comes.

Enjoyment & collection

When I was young I collected stamps. And I think I still have a massive stamp collection lurking somewhere. I’d collect lots of stamps from my family’s mails, and my relatives, even distant ones would know I was collecting and give me a whole bunch of them. I wasn’t so discerning and I collected a lot of repetitions, and they looked good when I lined them up.

I’d spend hours soaking, extracting them from the paper they were stuck to, and then drying them out in the sun. I figured it was easy to process when you can stick the wet ones on a plastic sheet and leave it out to dry. By just twisting the plastic sheet when the stamps are mostly dry, you could take out the dried stamps easily. And that process itself was interesting. Never mind the actual stamps. They were nice to look at, the designs were interesting but I never did study them so much in detail – I did not know the history of each of those series, nor how they intertwined with history of the countries they were from. There were commemorative editions which helped me discover things about foreign lands and culture. But that was all the curiosity I had about my stamp collection. I was enjoying it; there wasn’t a checklist I was benchmarking myself against and hunting for that ‘rare stamp’ or to complete a particular ‘collection’.

As far as I was concerned, my collection was always complete, and never complete, at the same time. The thing about us in the modern world today is there’s always something more we want to complete our lives, that we forget to enjoy our lives for what it is today. I need to consider more of my stamp collecting days.

Getting better or feeling better

I was listening to No Stupid Questions and for some reason I just couldn’t recall and capture the specific episode and reference where I got this from but Angela was mentioning that she is working on a paper that looks at some of the kids in school doing some kind of activity. And the conclusion was somewhat related to how they deal with the particular experience, whether they approach it with the desire to feel better about themselves or to improve themselves through the experience.

I thought that was a very interesting dichotomy; and I’ve never really thought of experiences being set up this way. But indeed, as we go into various experiences, that intention lurking in the background is important. There can be mixed intentions but there will likely be a dominant one; and that can affect our functioning.

If we go into an examination thinking of it as a means for us to be sorted into different boxes, to be defined and ‘caught out’ for the level of proficiency we are at, we are going to enter it with a negative fear. That’s when we think the exam is there to make us feel good or bad about ourselves rather than help us get better thanConsider an alternative where we see the exams as a means to look at how far we have progressed and to uncover our weaknesses so we can work on them. There will be nervousness from anticipation but not that overwhelming kind of negative fear. It will also define how we approach the exam papers when we get them back – whether we just check the grade and toss it aside or mine it for the gold of identifying how we can improve.

Is our education system set up to bother about this? To inculcate the right attitudes? How about the parents? Are parents imparting the right attitude towards test-taking?

Problem Solving Apps

I was amongst the audience to a couple of pitches by youth entrepreneurs and this archetype of “we found this problem, and we created an app / website to solve it, we need money to scale this solution now” kept recurring. Defining and highlighting the problem is a significant step to identifying the solution – but the inherent elements of the problems that allows it to be solved using information technology has to be related to information.

The nature of problem solving is such that it should be mostly about the problem and less about the solution. I find it useful when people are able to characterise problems so clearly and well that the solution becomes almost a no-brainer. That’s really the value of most consultants because when we have problems, we tend to ask ‘What’s wrong’ but we don’t really observe the situation well. We are not going down enough into the way the problem distracts us from our end goal – rather, we focus on the phenomena we want to address rather than the mission we hope to accomplish.

I think before we articulate problems, we should first consider what is the mission in the subtext of the problem statement. Then draw out clear implications and consequences of not addressing the problem before diving into solutioning. And each part of the solution should speak to that subtext, and continue helping users get back on their feet to go about what they had wanted to do.

Too many solutions in the world are actually not about solving problems but about giving users new missions instead of old ones. They are more about distracting them from the root of their challenges. Take cosmetics for example; they pretend to deal with image when self-image is the underlying issue to be address. Imagine a beauty company that focuses on psychology as a solution. Won’t that be truly innovative?

Staying Small

When I was in secondary school, I was part of a debate team that had to argue against the house during a round of debate where the motion was ‘This house believes that size matters’. It was a truistic motion; there was no way we could argue against it. The proposition simply has to define size in a way that is broad and all-encompassing including physical, or any other measurable metric, and size matters – not just when it is big but also when it’s small.

Size matters, and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with being small and refusing to scale. Not scaling is different from not growing. A. business can grow in different ways and it’s not just about size. Revenues can grow through pricing up and providing more value for the services rendered to the same client base. Profits can also grow if the products and services can be delivered at ever-increasing efficiency.

Sometimes businesses stays small because the potential client base they are good at servicing is just that group and the business sustains well with healthy margin without forcefully growing. I think we have to understand and appreciate that even from an economic development point of view. This is contributing to diversity and richness in an economy. There’s no need for every business to be like a Starbucks, MacDonalds, or IKEA.

Effort in vain

Does success teach us anything? What can we learn from success if we try to examine the elements of luck that is incorporated? A whole load; it is important for us to recognise whether we are studying success to retrospectively tease out our brilliance or to really examine which part of our efforts actually contribute our success.

One of the problems I notice about people used to achieving success and smart about hacking ‘wins’ is that they want to optimise effort and they hate it when effort is squandered along the way not towards the success they wanted. Yet learning doesn’t work this way. Learning, being creative, solving problems, trying things out is always about applying effort in vain towards the ‘goal’.

But if you notice that your goal is instead is to be a better person, to grow your skills, to deepen your experience, to serve others. Then, detours are just opportunities. And ‘failures’, won’t be in vain. Your efforts are gifts to the world and they are never in vain.

Chats & meetings

I realised how important the social glue of interactions before and after meetings are. There is the ability to just pull someone aside to say something that doesn’t take more than 45 seconds. Or to pay attention to actual visual cues of other people while someone else is speaking. Or to just be a little more fuzzy with time and disappear somewhere when things ends early. Now, in the world of video calls and packed schedules, we need to be deliberate about all that. We also need to be deliberate about creating breaks between meetings, the fake ‘commute’ across buildings or just between meeting rooms.

And the kind of ‘tap on the shoulder’ conversation. It now feels weird to be ‘going to someone’ just to say one or two thing – ie. give them a call on the phone or video conference software – must no longer stop us from doing so. Now it’s less efficient to call together 5-6 people together and get them to chip in for a birthday gift to a colleague compared to just shouting out in the office when that birthday guy/girl is away. Yet if this is the only way we can go about it, we just have to do it this way.

Technology has improved tremendously to allow for deeper, better social interactions and they continue to advance. Sure, they might ever beat the actual, in-person interactions. But for someone terminally ill to meet his/her son/daughter who is miles away in another country, technology makes a huge difference. A video call could bring incredible amount of closure. We simply must look to these substitutes to achieve the results we need. It’s going to be important for our mental health.

Turn off notifications

Do you want to know a secret? Notifications are designed to get our attention: the drop-down banner, or the red badge, or the alert on your lock screen, the little 2 syllable sound that tells you that you need to check your phone. Or that vibration in your pocket. The problem is that it keeps coming.


“Where are you”

“Hi Kevin”

We underestimate the stress and anxiety it create in others when we have messaging etiquette that just spills out messages like in a conversation as if the person should respond to you. Yes the messages are sent instantly. But no, you’re not supposed to expect instant replies.

Want to reduce your daily stress? Turn off notification. Don’t bother checking for stray messages except in time you allocated and scheduled to check. And make sure you schedule them during periods where you have the headspace to actually deal with them. If it’s urgent, let them call you.

Rising expectations

If we take stock of the advancement in living standards over the course of the last 3 generations, the improvements have undoubtedly been phenomenal. Yet the average experience of life as perceived subjectively seemed to have barely become more joyful.

If anything, our generation seem more disappointed, emotionally worn and exhausted than the previous. I’m afraid it is entirely because out expectations, our hopes and dreams have continually outpaced the improvements we experienced.

Every time something genuinely gets better, our expectation rises by so much more. And it seems, we have come to associate expectations with having standards that it is a bit toxic on our mental health. We have to learn to clean up our thinking about standards we uphold for ourselves and the kind of expectations we put upon others. Making others responsible for our happiness is pretty much a sure route to unhappiness.

Purpose on a platter

The fresh grads entering the job market and other young adults still finding their bearings in the market often want to be paid well and also have a sense of purpose in their career. They sometimes fantasize about the sense of purpose in fields they did not enter: medicine, teaching, psychology, etc.

On the other hand I’ve known cynical doctors, wearied teachers and exhausted psychologists who knows their purpose but are so worn out by work they wonder how things square. Then there are banker friends who made tonnes of money and think they need to do their part for the world and hence, get involved in sustainable finance (which honestly have mixed track record and credentials).

Purpose does not come with a job; at least not served on a platter. The story that runs in our mind about our work gives us the sense of purpose. Of course the story must compel us positively and move us forward in the direction the career tend towards. This alignment is not to be taken for granted. One can be promoted into misalignment because the career progress doesn’t fit the story of greater purpose – it can become diminished purpose.

That is why I care so much about stories. Especially the stories we tell ourselves; and this is why I enjoy coaching others especially on careers – the alignment (purpose), the planning (strategy) and the tactics involved. I’m writing an eBook which I hope to share with my readers. Watch this space for more details to follow.