Complexity & Bureacracy

We all want to work for good companies. The brand names, the recognisable ones that makes the relatives go wow and continue conversation about what you do during Chinese New Year gatherings. Or maybe actually we just want a good boss who can give us that sense of mission, offer appropriate advice at the right point and empower you to operate independently.

One of the big challenges at large corporations or organisations is bureacracy. They use it well too; such as to relieve employees of certain administrative duties and make respectable specialisations out of them. In fact, for some specialisations, you might be really performing optimally only in large organisations with the structure for you to utilise your potential.

But all of that generally builds upon complexity. Bureacracy generates complexity partly as a product of layers but also because complexity tends to justify bureacracy so it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Do you want to be part of that, to contribute to that complexity, or do you prefer to pursue simplicity?

Growing in commoditised markets

Do you have a set way of thinking about innovation in business? These days, governments are heavily involved in funding research and development in a bid to help their economies lead the way in one area or two. These are all good except when people come to think of it as a one-size-fit all approach to business problems.

When a product or market becomes commoditised and competition reduces pricing power, the prescription tends to be about differentiation and “innovation”. The nature of the product or service is important to consider what kind of innovation there can be. A lot of commoditised businesses are simply cash cows: mature and cashflow generating but not growing.

The optimal way to grow with less risk is not to try and change the product. It is to consider consolidating the market slowly and one at a time. Find niches to acquire and gain scale, focus on optimising costs to enhance profitability and then use that to make more acquisitions. This is basically what is known as “roll-up” strategy commonly practised by private equity firms.

This sort of innovation is less visible but more profitable and meaningful for those companies. Maybe you won’t be poster child for being a company who went through “transformation”, but that’s okay!

Being helpful

Say your colleague approaches you for help and you offered some directions which he or she has tried. The colleague retorts “Hello, I’m not stupid”. How would you respond?

Not that it happened in my workplace but I brought up this question because I’m thinking about the spirit that drives us to be helpful. Whether it is about being able to solve a problem, provide the psychological comfort (“you’re not alone”) or just to be liked. Almost definitely a combination of all but the litmus test is probably whether you’ll help the colleague again in the above situation – if you’ve proven to be useless and unappreciated on all fronts.

On the other hand, when you ask for help, what are you expecting from the person you ask? Are you hoping for identification, for problem-solving or relationship-building?

Humans are such fascinating creatures.

Public or Private Sector

I once had a lunch at a friend’s place and her Dad simultaneously praised public service jobs for being good, stable places to be (he tries to get her daughters to join) while being critical about the work of public servants (“what do they do?”). I cannot be sure when he was being serious but one thing for sure, our views of public sector work is muddled and often confused.

Likewise I have someone in my family who used to think private sector is bad. Because it’s all about the bottom line and profits. I often say, well, you could also see that public service is often about meeting KPIs, which isn’t that different even if those KPIs are to drive some underlying good for the public. The chase for numbers and quantifiables is evident and taken as a natural product of “scientific management”.

Having been in both I think it is important to see that a large bureacratic private organisation can be not so different from a ministry while a newly set up statutory board can be not so different from a start-up. Often the skillsets valued would not be too different even when they place different weights on the specifics.

So it boils down to what you want to grow in. Public sector work will be more big picture from day 1 while private sector may involve greater dive into details and big picture work only later in your career. These generalisations are not super helpful and as I already made it clear, there’s a need to look at a specific job role and organisation in order to make the decision. Public or private itself is more of a label that tells very little to someone who has not any experience of either.

Feedback & Criticism

Being candid without reproaching people is a skill – it is subtle but somewhere along our upbringing we come to associate people with their actions and/routines as much as we allow those things to be part of our identities.

Habits can be changed, personalities can be transformed. It’s not just about believing in yourself but appreciating how the environment you allow yourself to be in, the things you read or watch, the people you interact with have an impact on you. That means when someone criticise your work or actions you can simultaneously take responsibility (knowing you can change and improve), whilst also not letting it assault your identity (seeing that your work is not actually a direct reflection of your whole self).

I think the something along our upbringing is when we try to nudge our children, peers or friends to change by giving the warning about their identity (rather than a perception of it). For example, we say to children don’t be a smoker rather than don’t take up smoking. We say people are geniuses rather than saying they have a genius (which by the way, is the original way of expressing the concept).

Seen in that light, our inability to give honest negative feedback without feeling/acting like we’re assaulting someone is the same thing as when we receive those sort of feedback. We think we’re assaulting because we feel assaulted. We think it’s being judgmental because we feel judged. Being able to do these well are not “soft skills” – they are life skills.

Social Narratives

I was reading this interesting take on the woke meritocracy by Blake Smith. The similarities to Singapore is uncanny not least because we have similarly competitive systems that have evolved to take into consideration academic grades and a myraid of criteria for university admissions.

What is more similar, despite cultural differences in our preferred kind of leadership, is the narratives expected of our elites and accordingly engineered into the social consciousness. The point has become to narrate one’s background in such a way as to simultaneously acknowledge the existence of inequality but to subtly suggests the system of meritocracy is still being able to pull up able members of those seemingly disenfranchised groups.

The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.

Blake Smith

These stories are no doubt powerful and casting skepticism do not help with building up the social fabric. But what I want to point to is the fact that we ought to have a more objective view of the meritocratic system and be more aggressive in combating the downside of the system.

One of the key assumption of the system is that merit as defined by the prevailing narrative and system is independent of your access to resources and opportunities. That is just patently untrue. If the inequalities are actually perpetuating structural inferiority amongst the disenfranchised, then how are we dealing with that?

Financial Burdens and reference groups

As we step into adulthood, we begin to realise how financial burdens starts to weigh on us just at a point when there’s supposed to be more financial capacity and independence. You look around you and see what you have been working for: being in a good job, wearing the nice suit or dress, driving the car you always wanted, even living in an apartment location in the neighbourhood you want to be associated with.

Yet at the same time, there are concerns about the future: retirement, rising cost of living, cost of raising children if we ever have them, ageing parents who would be faced with high healthcare costs while not having been insured. These concerns will weigh on this ‘freedom’ we believe we have.

The reality is that the modern society we live in have hone its ability to generate wants and demand for goods and services. And that is causing the anxieties. What Juliet wrote in The Overspent America applies as much in Singapore: we live in societies where we are comparing ourselves within reference groups. If our classes were seggregated, the society will be even more divided but our social mixing can impose a huge cost on the mental health of the society as well.

And here is how: in every product we own, we probably have a clear sense of what is the product that is just a little better, faster, classier that we can pay a little more for. When we are in the same schools, camp, office as the people who are of higher income groups, we take reference off their consumption habits as well. We desire to go to the same restaurants, send our kids to the same schools, ensure our kids have the same branded stationery as their classmates.

That is where inequality can hurt our society more than we traditionally think. The middle class who are mixing with the upper clsss, able to get themselves into debt to match the consumption patterns of those in their reference groups suffers the most. So when we think about the issues of inequality, it is not just about the ones at the lower end of the spectrum suffering. Even the ones in upper classes are trying to catch up and move further up the ladder.

We need to sharpen our thinking about the true cost of inequality and the design of our societies, having already did such a terrific job designing the physical space of our country.

Dyad of boss and bossed

Seth Godin have been talking about the concept of enrollment and deepening it for years. Which is why some of his thoughts are really worth looking into, dissecting and pondering over. His influence is really at the level of marketing so to speak- he gives you the incentives that appeals to being human to act in alignment with the ideas he discovers.

Anyways, I want to talk about the concept of the dyad of bosses and bossed which he mentioned really briefly in that brilliant blog post.

Sometimes, this evolves into a mutually beneficial entanglement between the boss and the bossed. The enrollment turns into a desire to please, a figurehead-focused loyalty and dedication that often ends poorly because there’s nothing beyond the dyad. Without external signposts, solipsism and dittoheads result.

Seth Godin

The idea of external signposts point is interesting because most of such pairings he mentioned continues to operate and do not “end” per se as the boss tends to have certain requirements to continue perpetuating. Either because bosses needs to please their bosses and the top is looking at the stock market (which serves as an external signpost) or that they are indeed looking at some external signals.

The “dyad” tends to result more perhaps in a situation where organisations have less resource limitations (eg. Huge MNCs, public organisations, well-resourced donor-funded organisations). Those are situations when the bosses can truly relish so much in being pleased that she/he allows that mutual entanglement to take place.

The issue is how far removed those external signposts are for each one in the organisation. If only the boss cares, then clearly, solipsism and dittoheads will still result. Some people do prefer to be in those context either due to cultural conditioning or just plainly inertia.

But once you are aware of that, the question is whether you want to see that change.

Moulding the Future

To what extent are our educators encouraging students to discover their interests and passions, and embracing them? How much time is spent discovering the potential of our youths and giving them guidance on achieving them?

You can fail at what you don’t love, so you might as well fail at what you love.

Jim Carrey

The precious lessons on failure aside, I think that once we have attained a basic level of our needs, our life satisfaction can come from taking appropriate risks – often not so that we get the success society confers upon us but that we had a shot at things we love. Jim Carey said the above because of his father who gave up a music career he loved for accounting to “feed” his family but became bitter when he lost the job in 51.

The thought that you compromised for the society’s narrative of success and then did not get what you were “promised” is so real especially in the world today where jobs are no longer stable and there really isn’t a real “career” with a single company.

How is our education system preparing our students for such a market? And how are we not setting our students for such failure of expectations?

Underinvestment in capital

Singapore is a small island state. We have no natural resources besides our strategic geographical location, as well as our manpower. And therefore, most of the value that we can try to create comes from being able to drive productivity growth from our manpower. And productivity growth cannot be seen as isolated within industries or sectors, but rather, integrated as a cluster of activities.

The mistake of looking at construction sector, or cleaning sector and say that productivity growth is lagging behind that of financial sector is the fact that investment trends in these sectors are different and quality of labour may not be evenly distributed. More significantly, as a result of those conditions, the bargaining power of labour vis-a-vis capital is also much more imbalanced. This sort of productivity slowdown cannot be easily dealt with through skills training.

Think about the incentives from the capital-side of the equation. With little competition from international capital to compete in the domestic sector (due perhaps to limited size and scale of the market), the businesses will tend to use labour as a means to put off capital investment as that helps improve returns on existing capital stock at the expense of labour productivity. Once you factor the uncertainties around return on capital, that will start to appear as a sensible move.

If this is the case of underinvestment in capital, then how would skills training improve the situation? What is being encountered is a labour force that might be worn out from poor quality capital being deployed (poorly maintained machinery, version 1.0 of an equipment for which version 10 is already available, etc).

Then moving on to my point about productivity cluster. Should the cleaners of a bank earn more than the cleaners at the construction site? With outsourcing, competition being encouraged at every segment of the value chain, this probably would not happen anymore. But is this really a good outcome? Because there will always be industries that are growing faster and extracting more profits from their activities, the supporting activities should also be entitled to a share of that windfall. This helps to speed up the expansion of growing sectors in an economy. This sort of cluster helps facilitate more real trickle-down effects.