Delays and promises

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.

Specific thinking

I wrote about the holistic thinking that was characterised by western researchers of Asian’s approach towards persuasion as contextualised by Erin Meyer. I had the chance to reflect a bit more on specific thinking as I begin to observe it more and more at work in western workplaces and cultures. There are no right or wrong and the good and bads can only be appreciated from particular perspectives or lenses.

Specific thinking parcels out bits of work and various tasks, having more of a tendency to operate in silos even when coordination is excellent. This can make things difficult to change and also individuals becomes less sensitive to the overall workings of the system they are part of. It can be good in that it reduces the anxiety around being unable to bring about the intended collective outcome because one can just focus on delivering one’s part and leaving the rest to others. Being specific in thinking also encourages focus on the smaller specific outcome that is within one’s control.

However, specific thinking may mean that there’s less ability to navigate situations that are far more complex where clarity does not come instantly. For example, during a business development meeting, one may not yet figure out if there’s chance of collaborating or working with the prospect when we are still in discovery phase. Specific thinking can lead one to try and force a result and be counterproductive, or to give up too early.

Specific thinking may also render us unable to genuinely celebrate collective wins as one becomes overly focused on the parts they are ascribing to themselves to the extent they ignore other parts of the system they are part of.

Just some observations and muses on my part.

Training programmes

During my time in public service, I’ve attended lots of different training programmes. There were a lot of training on writing minutes, professional reports and trip reports, as well as some on professional etiquette in a wide range of situations including during presentations, business meetings, business meals, cross-cultural interactions and so on. I won’t say all of them stuck with me and in fact, the elements that stuck were the ones I found useful on the spot and decided to make it a point to adopt. If they didn’t stand out when I first received them, the chance of them being useful to me was really low.

So the notes I took during those courses were at best museum artifacts of professional training I had received. The greater learning was done actually observing how my seniors, my managers and bosses behaved in those various settings, what they deemed important and asked questions about in reports and minutes. Those standards and disciplines were cultivated in that manner rather than through a couple of hours of training. In fact even days of training won’t cut it.

So is training a good way to enforce standards and uplift them across the people in an organisation? I think it can be if it aligns well with what is being practised and expected in an organisation to such a level that the senior management is practising them already. As David Maister rightly pointed out, training doesn’t work if it’s designed to change the juniors or frontline staff while the senior management or middle management is allowed to be set in their old ways.

Expert vs advisors

I’ve been reading the ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker’ by David Maister. I think very highly of David’s crisp thinking in the manner he approach strategy and the manner in which he cuts through issues and topics. He simplifies the concepts to the core of the subject matter without ignoring the human elements in them.

One of the interesting ideas he introduced is the idea of expert vs advisors when it comes to serving in professional services. A lot of consultants claim to desire to serve customers as advisors, as trusted partners but in reality they want to be treated as the expert, to have control and defend their expertise rather than to build strong trusting relationships with their clients.

In essence, from my perspective, the expert cares about the topic and the subject matter more than the client’s problem. And as a result, the client can benefit from the expertise but more as flat information or knowledge than actionable insights.

The advisor may not be the expert but he gains his authority to consult with the client through his deep understanding of the client’s problem. And that allows his synthesis of insights gathered from other parties, especially those who consider themselves experts.

A client can decide what he needs is an expert but he can never expect the bespoke synthesis to come from the expert. He or she will have to take responsibility for that.

Ready-made solutions

Just add hot water to instant coffee and you get your morning cup of coffee. Boil some water and pop the noodles and powder in, or even better, just rip the packaging and put it into the microwave, pressing just a few buttons then wait – and you get your meal. Bring a packet of ready-mix cement and mix in water, and you can have some of the bonding materials for your brick building. Or you can start paving the road.

So why can’t you just order a report and instantly know everything there is to know about a market? Or to pay someone to give you all the answers to entering a market for your business? Even better, pay someone to enter the market, run the business for you and then you just reap the business success benefits? The challenge of having instant, ready-made solutions in some parts of life is that we start expecting all parts of life to be like that.

And worse still, we allow the market to grow into crevices of our lives expecting it to deliver but it never does. Professional service can deliver a report but won’t be able to ensure you learn all about a market. You could get someone to develop a strategy to enter a market for your business but you’re the one who would eventually have to follow through with it. And moreover, the less you’re involved in co-developing the plan, the less you’ll be able to actually execute it.

There are just so much work that is better, more beautiful and meaningful because they involve co-creation and where you’re paying for someone to partner with you to make a new thing happen. The reason you’d pay them for it is because you will eventually reap the full benefits of the result while they wouldn’t have been working to partner with you otherwise. And in this domain, there are no ready-made solutions for you to purchase; you will have to do the work if you want the success. And it won’t be guaranteed.

Mission of energy transition

The market has a role to play in the energy transition but the market is not responsible for the transition. Technological improvements and our sense of purpose or mission does not come from the market – they are exogenous inputs. What is challenging about the market is that it does have a life of its own and there are always entrenched interests pushing against the direction of the mission that the world is on. It is not just about gaining buy-in to the mission but unraveling the interests vested in it.

That is a serious conundrum especially when we need to transition fast. The bigger the vessel, the harder it is to steer and change directions. So it is with the market economy. The most vested the market is with the status quo, the greater the reach of the tentacles of the market through the system across areas of life, the harder it is for change to happen. Or at least directed, meaningful change.

It is probably time to recognise that the market can help drive the demand for greener fuels and renewable energy if the incentives are put right. It is also critical to recognise that the economics around change can be arbitrary and a snapshot in time. Cracking the puzzle is not just about performing a cost-benefit analysis and saying whether to proceed with this or not. It is about identifying the pain-points, challenging the status quo, re-jigging incentives and rallying the champions.

We have done that before, with ushering more peace, with managing overpopulation, with feeding hunger, dealing with poverty. We can deal with the challenge of climate change and the transition of our economy. If we make it our mission to do so, rather than to wait for the market.

Market values

When you try to sell your house, you take reference off the market price. You determine essentially the ‘market value’ of your house and then try to sell your house for that price. When you do eventually meet an interested serious buyer who makes an offer, you then haggle until you agree upon a price. This price is of course somewhat anchored by the market value you seem to have developed but then it would likely be different, complicated by the specific situation you and the buyer is in.

Do you value your own home based on that market value? Does it matter that your neighbour bought his house at a certain price? What is the basis of that price? Ultimately, while we can deconstruct these prices into locality, the quality of the build and other attribute, it is still a bit of a mystery. Is the value of something based on our subjective eyes and preferences, or is it intrinsic to the thing itself?

When we pay an artist to perform for 1 hour; is it the performance that is worth the money or the time spent by the artist? Do we allow the market to value us or do we value ourselves? Which market are we talking about anyways?

Unintentional greenwashing

In this whole green wave there’s lots of hype and one of the dangers that corporates put themselves is being cast as greenwashers. The challenge is that some corporates might just be doing it unintentionally, without having realised the hypocrisy surrounding their brandishing of green credentials because they did not realise how much harm their business activities have been bringing to the environment.

The initial audit of the business is important from the ESG perspective but it doesn’t stop at just reporting because if the initial audit is all it takes to establish green claims and then allow businesses to carry on, it would have been a waste of opportunity. Corporate leaders need to recognise that subjecting themselves to these audits and scrutiny should not earn them any kudos. So they should not be patting themselves on the back if those reporting metric turns out stellar. Rather, they should be thinking about what approach they have taken to their businesses that enabled that.

And then they should be considering if there are blindspots or areas of their businesses where the right philosophy hasn’t been applied. The hypocrisy can often stem from the fact that executives are too busy gaming the reporting metrics as opposed to genuinely thinking through business processes and activities. That can still be unintentional but they can start making sure that their activities to gear the company towards green can be more intentional.

Green race II

There’s going to be a new kind of entrepreneurship; not necessarily one that is building businesses with an established revenue stream or for a current market need, but one that bets on the needs of a future that the world wants to be creating. And the upcoming green race might unleash this new breed of entrepreneur more strongly than before. In the post-pandemic era where people might have got sick of government stimulus allowing billions of capital to slosh around the system, risking inflation and simply making the richer rich, fiscal policy might be returning to the center-stage as the new means of keeping the public voting base satisfied.

The green race is going to drive new winners in the economy as entrepreneurs who have positioned themselves to make the critical investments needed for the economy. Especially the ones that going to create the very jobs that politicians plan to trumpet about. Being able to think ahead and consider the kinds of businesses desired both by the public sector in an economy that is highly pro-market will be rewarded. The risk is that the public sector decides to take on the direct investments themselves rather than to ‘incentivise’ the businesses to do so. This is why the pro-market orientation of the government is important.

For the markets where the government have the tendency to perform direct intervention or deem infrastructure investments way too strategic to be left to private sector, the green race may take those economy in a different direction. They may choose to create new state-owned and managed entities to make new direct investments or to use the existing ones. And the green jobs will be created within state-linked enterprises. Civil servants who are savvy in these areas will tend to gain within such systems.

Either way, there are going to be new ways smart people will be gaming the system.

Green race

The beauty of the market system emerges when there’s competition along the right dimensions just when we all need them. But competition doesn’t always require a market economy – there’s always limited resources, time and other constraints that requires us to somehow compete. There’s also reputation, attention of people and recognition that drives us to compete. In the 20th century, the space race during the cold war led to phenomenal technical and technological advances which powered the growth over the 21st century.

There was an alignment of political, and public interest. The economic interest was not entirely foreseen and only realised much later. But it seemed that entire economies of Europe, US and Soviet Union were engaged in this mission. It seemed like a conflict and perhaps competition of egos but eventually worked for the good of mankind.

Today we need to shift this mission for space to a mission for mankind on our planet. Developing a green race probably takes a good alignment of the public and political interest, as well as some kind of competitive tensions. We are beginning to observe this with first sound of the trumpet from US with its IRA focus on Clean Energy and climate transition last year; and then Canada followed with its own programme to fund indigenous clean energy projects. Australia’s announcement last week with a highly targeted programme focusing on hydrogen reflects the same sort of tension around the competition to attract the competent hydrogen players to develop required projects in their backyard.

As an energy transition consultant, I welcome this. As much as we might think the competition can result in duplicative efforts and inefficiency, it is what we need to align the incentives in the market with the interest of the overall society. Moreover, harnessing the public interest and pressure upon this topic through directing the workforce and human capital towards the low-carbon economy is much needed. The green race should hopefully create the necessary ecosystem we need to drive further changes and ensure the climate transition.