Managing cuts

There will be a time cuts come when excesses are deemed to have gone overboard. This applies to overstocking, overhiring, and having the wrong structure to deal with a problem. At some point, what is deemed as a correction occurs. Question is how did things get derailed or misaligned? Why do we not know? Should we think something is amiss when governance mistakes can be buffered by growth?

Maybe something to think about as we go through a period of layoffs, cuts and sense of rising prices and real rates trying to make a comeback. As we manage the cuts that has taken place, it would be useful to ask ourselves to what extent do we want to enable growth irresponsibly.

Fast and mindless growth can hurt twice. First when they forsake and leave some behind. Second when they end up with cutbacks that might leave some folks worse off than if it hadn’t happened.

Gestating for scale

I loved my laksa example when it comes to talking about scale and growth. How long do you think a concept or idea needs to gestate before it experiences mass adoption and succeed? And does success mean growth and scale? Or can success mean mastery towards perfection?

Take Toast Box; they took the simple breakfast fare of the Southeast Asian chinese, created a system to deliver it elegantly, and scaled in it a big way. But how long did it take for the kaya toast and half-boiled eggs to gestate in the cultural environment before they were ready for this Toast Box model?

When something is gestating, there is growth as well. The growth may be of a different quality and require a different environment. Just as the pre-mature foetus won’t be able to survive the environment outside the womb independently. This may sound like the “infant industry” argument but perhaps different – I’m advocating that we don’t apply the same standards to evaluating business growth across all kinds of businesses or business ideas.

At the end of the day, it is a question of what capital is seeking. To replicate and produce more of itself without care for the impact to the world, or making a difference along the way

Feedback and aspirations

I had some time thinking about feedback; and those who read my writings more regularly would see that I’ve previously championed “giving and receiving feedback” as key skills to be taught in schools.

And it probably take a lifetime to properly master this because both giving and receiving feedback are really hard. Most people can go on defensive when you offer to give some feedback. And the praise sandwich is kind of yucky an approach for some to adopt. There are those who advocate “giving advice” instead.

One of the best way for behavioural change is actually to ask the person who needs improvement for advice on the problem you observed. Surprisingly most people knows the solution to overcoming their weaknesses. So once they discover that they actually have certain problems they’ll get to work fixing it.

Either way I think a large part of the equation is also on receiving feedback; how we are able to process feedback and deal with it matters. That’s why I personally like the approach of making it an encouragement rather than a feedback. An encouragement toward particular aspiration. That way, it is not something you lack but more about moving towards a destination.

Finding talents

Why is it that we are complaining about the shortfall of talents and then laying off people at the same time? What makes talents talented? What exactly is this all about? I thought about how we as humans have been trying to overcome our own constraints by using machines and automation but then strangely we subsequently have to justify how much better we are compared to machines.

Isn’t that a rather miserable existence?

What about this elusive group of talents that employers are looking for? What is being asked of them? And how much if it is possible? What makes talents hard to find and why are those attributes difficult to replicate, duplicate or scale?

Anyways is it not the very reason they are unscalable that makes them well sought after? Money may well attract talents but what fuels them? What keeps them going the way they do? Perhaps those are the more important questions for employers to ponder over rather than wondering where to find them.

Slow fashion

Lululemon had a “We made too much” sale ongoing. It is nothing new. All fast fashion brands tend to make too much. Because the strategy for fast fashion and the culture we created is to push out the latest design into the market, make it as widely available as possible in the shortest time pricing with markups that makes construction contractor mouth water and then just deal with the leftovers later.

So how do they deal with leftovers? Sometimes they discount, which is not the most common approach because discounting damages their relationship with customers. Customers would begin to expect cheaper price later and most of them would learn to wait. That is bad for margins and future profit. So the fast fashion brands dump their clothes into other markets which don’t carry their first-to-market goods, and then eventually just dispose of the clothes.

Precious cotton and fabrics that can be used to clothe someone else goes to waste. The world is not better for it but certainly there are people made richer by this model. And so it goes on. The focus on sustainability within the fashion industry is just beginning and hopefully gets to a level when it can start snowballing properly.

So what is the alternative? How about slow fashion that focuses on classic, proven designs, that uses materials in a sustainable way? Where the cost is towards improving material traceability, better sourcing and exploration of newer, shorter supply chains? Instead of fattening corporate wallets and perpetuating the fast fashion culture?

Layoffs and humanity

There’s been loads of news of layoffs in tech and it coincided with huge investments made in Artificial Intelligence as well as the launch of a beta version of ChatGPT that somehow took the world by storm. The recency effect led people to think that the layoffs somehow might have something to do with the fact that AI might be taking away more jobs and so on.

For a long time, human labour have been relied upon to move good around, help with loading and unloading from transportation, stock-take and do records by hand. These jobs have gradually been replaced by machines though in rare instances, having a human do the job is still more efficient or effective. Switching human labour for machines is nothing new. And it has been a good thing because machines free up human to take on more challenging kinds of problems.

This is how the ratchet of progress takes place. We invest time and effort in developing machine solutions which would eventually be able to replace human effort. And once the solution is adopted across the board, there are so many people who are freed up to work on further solutions and the ball keeps rolling. From a fundamental perspective, the world is progressing and civilization advances.

It is strange that our economic system, the market system that we have lauded and embraced do not exactly work in the same way. It creates incentives and competition towards progress but the result is a lot of stress, anxiety, and pain when new solutions are adopted and manpower is freed up. This is because firms and businesses are not adapted in our system to focus on innovation for progress but simply innovation for profits. And when this is the case, unemployment is a logical approach towards the adoption of new solutions.

When firms and businesses cannot think broadly enough to embrace what is fundamentally beneficial to society and mankind, then individuals, talents and smart people like you and I, will have to develop the courage to step out and do the work that the world needs. Because in many ways, that is what makes us human. That’s what AI cannot replace.

The slow start

As I grow older I begin to appreciate the value of a slow start. I’ve written about my bad memory contributing to my better learning. And more importantly perhaps, the people who actually keep reaching only for low hanging fruits fail to develop the skills and expertise needed to reach for the higher ones.

Ultimately, there is some degree of trade off between getting results fast and actually taking the time and effort to get genuinely better at something for the longer term. It’s almost the different between cramming for an examination as opposed to learning for mastery. Examinations were never to encourage or cultivate mastery – it’s just an industrialised version of education, of applying the principles of manufacturing line quality check on people instead.

The problem solvers we need in the future are not the ones who would invest into deeper learning and desire to gain mastery over merely getting good grades. And we need to start building systems and hiring habits that ultimately reflects that.

End of oil II

After penning the End of Oil, I was bothered by my switch of camp. In some sense I had become a new kind of neo-Malthus but yet I resist the analogy. I think the struggle we have today with carbon emissions is different from the issue of resource conservation like in the case of land or other commodities. And the reason has to do with the market system and price signals.

In the past when we are thinking about resource constraints such as agricultural land, we know there is a price on the resource. With subsidies they get over-utilised but overall, because the market system rewards greater productivity of those resources, all the micro-decisions in the economy will encourage discovery of more of the resources or greater efficiencies in utilisation. The economics is working against Malthusian ideas.

Nevertheless, with the carbon emission challenge of today, most emissions still remain unpriced. They rightfully require a negative price but tax systems and enforcement aside, governments around the world are reluctant to even design regulations to create proper carbon pricing. Without this pricing, economics will keep working against the climate change problem, and we can only rely on goodwill or sustainability marketing as motivation which will never be enough.

Rainfall & showers of blessing

It’s been a really wet Lunar New Year season. The downpour was incredible and yet it did not flood. My expat friends were quite impressed by our drainage systems.

Well, we have had episodes of “ponding” which were pretty severe before. And the government agency PUB had stepped up on drainage management. Things have obviously improved since and to be really fair, we are really capable of continously improving the system as long as we are not complacent about what we have achieved.

We often take these things for granted here in Singapore because problems are either solved even before they occur or done for us such that we don’t even notice. The difficulty is that we are no longer capable of dealing with the problems when they do come. For example, our contingency plans for transport disruption is atrocious partly because we had been able to keep things going well.

In the next stage of our development, we need to develop resilience not through anticipating challenges but learning to live through them and deal with them. Otherwise, we are developing a fragile population.

End of oil

Many years ago when I first thought about the study of Economics, there was the prevailing concern about oil reserves running out and the world running out of fuel. It was 2005 and the economist even had an issue where the cover page was showing the reflective colorful swirls of oil. The economists would argue that the world will never run out of oil because towards the last drop of oil left, the price of oil would be so high no one would want it. And perhaps many other alternative technologies which were not commercially viable would have become so before oil runs out.

Those were days when we technically already know about greenhouse effect and the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. And I was particularly fascinated with the recurring debates between the Malthusians (and neo-Malthusians) and the others weigh on the hope of technology (and possibly economics).

It is funny how more than 17 years later, I’m in a career to try and reduce (and eventually end) the dominance of oil. Not to promote an alternative technology, not to rail against the political power of oil but to create a future that we all want to step into. Because climate change is an existential danger for us all and the planet as we know it. And because I believe our current economic system can be superceded by one that works for the future and not the tradition notions of wealth and fortune.