Place for incompetence

The industrial complex needs incompetent people. It takes unproductive people but creates a context and environment for them to produce and then pays them at the marginal rate which their next best alternative pays them so as to generate margins for the owner of the system. It is the ability to utilise and make productive these people that allows for profit.

But then you’d be stuck; there’s no need for greater competence than your place in the machinery. There’s no need for a cog to be different at different points of time. He or she just have to keep going. Ideally his or her emotions does not matter to the system nor affect its productivity.

So how do you get out? Do you need to become more important or less important? That all does not matter. The only point that matters is; do you want to get out?

Solving Problems I

Someone I was coaching was given some new responsibilities at work. And she was worried. About being inexperienced, and causing trouble or making mistakes. I don’t think this is unique to her and we too often think we are imposters.

First we have to recognise the sense of being an imposter never goes away. And second we want to see that organisations should not be valuing us for the outcomes which may or may not come from us; rather, they ought to see us for the process we bring, the leadership and attitude. Things may not be done “right” but that can only be from hindsight. And hindsight is possible because you survived.

So I’m writing this next couple of blog posts about some general approaches towards problems. It can involve framing the problem, the way to examine it, or eliminating it through perspectives. Stay tuned.

Iron rice bowl

Many people were ‘stuck’ in their jobs before the pandemic. Where are you still here? Because you are worried you can’t come back after leaving? But why do you want to come back? Because it is an iron rice bowl? What is the story you’re telling yourself about your relationship with your job if you’re thinking about the iron rice bowl story? Why do you need an unbreakable rice bowl if you don’t know how to grow and make rice for yourself?

The story of an ‘iron rice bowl’ starts with the notion of commoditised labour; that you are replaceable and that you’re a cog. Anywhere and everywhere. And when you get some kind of job with lots of benefits and it is hard for you to get fired, then that security is worth your being a cog. And so you’d conform, comply and keep the machinery going. It is not because you are irreplaceable but because the machinery is designed to keep you around, even if you’re just in a bag of spare parts, you’re still making a living.

As Seth Godin would ask, ‘why make a living when you can make a difference’. You can choose a different story about work, a story on being a linchpin; on never getting fired. It matters because if worrying about job security should not be in the domain of one who cares to make a difference, and is able to contribute a positive value.

Utility and markets

When I started my career at IE Singapore, I worked in a team that deals with companies in the ‘Environmental Solutions’ space. We were broadly looking at companies that deals with 3 big broad topics: Power, Water and Waste. They interact with one another in the environment but companies tend to focus on some aspects of the trio which leads them to be classified one way or another.

In terms of the maturity of these different markets, they are vastly different. Power tends to be a national, regional sort of market where electrons literally zip around at the speed of light. Water moves around in pipes at far slower speed, water networks are expensive to build and maintain so they operate at a more local level. Waste is an even more local market since they cannot be easily conveyed around through pipes. Product logistics plays a big role in the reach of a market.

And so do product uniformity. Electricity takes on a single form, whether it is consumed by households or industries. Maybe the industries require high voltages but that can be dealt with more easily. Water is a bit tricky as water quality requirements differ even within households; potable water versus water for flushing. And with industries, some require ultrapure water, others just distilled water, and the wastewater produced are also of different quality so treatment is different. Waste takes even more forms.

Demand structures are also different. Energy generally enjoy network effects. And some kind of feedback loop. The introduction of electricity can bring about more productivity which buys more electrical equipment and encourage higher electricity demand.

I once stepped into a market in Ghana Central region and saw a vendor selling a charcoal iron beside the Philips electric irons. I found it strange why they would be peddling such a primitive gadget when the modern version is available. I subsequently realised that there were significant number of villages and households which were not electrified and of course they would ask for the charcoal iron. Yet the electrical iron is superior in terms of weight, convenience, and productivity. It was something to aspire towards. So when people around you use more electricity and bring in products that use more, it can encourage you to adopt them too.

Water does not have such demand loops. There is only this much water each person can use. And new devices are designed generally to use less water than the older versions of them. Beyond certain per-person consumption, it’s almost pure wastage. Water is a more fundamental need than power so it keeps us alive rather than give us much more productivity.

Waste is of course far behind in both the supply and demand structures. Understanding these bottlenecks in markets help us appreciate why certain technologies can solve some problems and not others. Why some business models work better in some markets.

Back in Singapore

Over the past 2 years, due perhaps to the pandemic, and also maybe stage-of-life, a lot of my friends who have been working overseas are relocating back. Most of them either have already married and are starting families or are getting married. It’s great to back home and looking to contribute to the society back here.

Yet it isn’t easy to settle back in Singapore after spending a lot of time overseas. I’ve personally gone through it myself and I’ve also found it strange why having had a prolonged overseas experience always makes us feel a bit like a stranger in our own land.

For one I think when you live in a foreign land for a long time, you’d have been relieved of the social expectations from family and friends you grew up with. Sure there is some degree of social comparison with maybe university mates but that’s all. When you’re back in Singapore, you feel the weight of expectations on your shoulders again. Weekly meals at parents? Or worst, staying with parents and having to update them wherever I go.

To a large extent though, the expectations are from ourselves, our understanding of the context we grew up in, and expectations of how we should behave. That burden is greater in our home country. Perhaps what we ought to do is to lay bare these stories in our head and decide if we want to keep them.

Being intentional

Living, working intentionally is important. But being intentional is not necessarily about having a plan and executing it. It is about mindfully making choices and seeing the results unfold without being caught up with the outcomes you’ve been expecting.

One of the difficulty with human’s mastery over nature and ability to manipulate the environment is that we fail to grasp how little control we really have.

Life on autopilot

If life could be somewhat on autopilot, would you prefer that? Do you enjoy the process of living life or is it only particular outcomes, achievements and moments you relish with most of the process better off discarded?

Is it not the variations, the serendipity and the surprises that makes life more of life? Life is precisely beautiful because we are not robots, not automatons running programmes and having things run in a predictable course.

From a single dimension, with all that complexity in life, efficiency and productivity is sacrificed. But from the perspective of the entire system, it is enriched. God made the world with its multiplicity, colours and complexity so we may appreciate it for all its richness rather than to boil it down to a single measure.

Change story

Does change in the world put more pressure on you to review the status quo and push forward with change plans? Or does it cause you to give up entirely because “nothing you do matters”? What is the story you tell yourself about change, status quo and your agency?

Our old carbon-based economy is interlocked and we all need to rewrite our story around that and envision a different reality for our future. But because things are moving so quickly, one can either feel incredible pressure to change, to communicate something, or to think that others will do the job, I’ll just do the same. What we don’t realise is that the change we see, and feel are just a result of hedonic adaptation that causes us to miss out so much that is still in status quo.

Without a change story, it is hard for us to process and digest change. We get overwhelmed by it, and we shut it out deliberately to preserve our sanity. Old-school companies want to stay in their old ways and continue “business as usual”.

Communicating something, trying to tag on the new green buzzwords and “join the conversation” prematurely without thinking about the change story is going to cause trouble. You might end up getting lost instead, in the twilight zone between the comforts of status quo and leadership of change.

So take time, resources, capacity to consider what is the change story.

Life is kind of messed up

Do you live life or does life live you? People think of this general notion of the various milestones and pathways in the passage of living as “life” and “live that out”. We would take ownership of a life that was prescribed for us, constructed by others, expected by society. And we put upon ourselves more and more constraints. I’m not talking about actual commitments, just perceived ones.

Steve Job shared his perspective of this in a 1994 interview that was recorded and I think it sums up perfectly why it is important to rewrite our stories. Not just as an individual, but also as a generation.