Context matters II

Notice you pay $1.20 for a can of coke at the neighbourhood shop, $0.70 at the supermarket and $4 at the salad place in CBD (why on earth does a salad place serve coke anyways?). As it turns out, prices and value of things are not intrinsic in a single product or service. The context for their purchase, use or subsequent consumption matters for the valuation.

Context forms part of the answer to “what is this for?” And that is why, when the same useless plastic ring is peddled around as a pet dog puzzle (for you to stuff food in the ring) increases its value. The can of coke, when consumed with a meal simply raises its value for the customer and hence allows the vendor to charge more.

Whether we are businesses, teachers, managers or parents, being able to create and set up the context to generate value is important. With the right context, people are able to make better decisions and work better. In long run, we all grow when the context is suitable.

Context matters I

It’s hard to disagree that context matters, and yet we consistently overlook it. My household has been fostering yet another dog – and his behavior gives the best example of how context can create a stark difference in “personality” and behaviour.

At home, he tends to be very wary of everything (even his food or drink bowl) and treads carefully as he walks around. He didn’t even play with his toys – consequently it also meant no destruction of furniture and fittings at our home.

But once he is out on his walks, he can be joyfully jumping around, dashing back and forward the path, sniffing everywhere and clumsily picking up nonsense from the grass to eat. He plays freely and wildly with tree branches, tearing through coconut husks of fallen coconuts, dragging large coconut branches or leaves around. Recently, he was even at the beach with us and swam.

Yet I’d still overlook that and try to play with him at home only to have him cowering in a corner with his tail tucked between his legs. I’d try to toss stuff for him to pick up when he’d just run away. I assumed he was capable of doing all that but I get disappointed when he doesn’t.

If you are a manager and boss, do you also experience the same challenges with your staff? What is the context that helps them shine? And what elements cause them to fear and underperform? It’s your job to figure out and lead with the right context and environment.

Mental breaks

My latest break away from work lasted about 2.5 weeks. It was a time of disconnecting almost completely with work. I think the whole cycle of disengaging, disconnecting deliberately and then re-engaging is a natural cycle of things. And the rhythm that our biology needs.

The cycle of waking up and sleeping, the seasons, the waves of busyness and then lull. These are patterns etched in nature, patterns we should be honouring.

There is no question that when you’re driving in the opposite lane from the design of traffic that you’d eventually end up in an accident. But unfortunately we are not clear about how we should be honouring our bodies and our minds. Consider what is stopping us from taking a genuine break, one that is not accompanied by anxiety or guilt or the compulsion to be “productive”.

Passage of time

I was back on reservist and had an interesting short conversation with one of the new friends I made there in camp. We were talking about the lack of seasons in Singapore and how that affected our sense of time. He talked about how when he was abroad, people were making plans according to seasons; taking a summer break, going skiing during the winter, visiting certain gardens in spring and so on. And in most cases, it was so stark for us to miss our catch-ups with family and friends when seasons were passing that we are extremely aware of the time that has past.

For example, as winter passes, there’s no way we can go skiing anymore until long later; so we know there are those natural deadlines for life. But in Singapore, the deadlines for work looms so much larger than other seasonal deadlines. For festivals or occasions, they are just that, and feels almost completely arbitrary with no clear sense of seasonal context. Christmas is at the end of the year but there are no snow, no coldness, no need for fireplaces or more lights to spruce up the place whilst the sun set earlier.

I found this a better way of understanding why the passage of time seem to pass so differently in Singapore than when I was overseas. It is easier for me to recall what I was doing towards the end of summer in 2012 (while I was in UK) than what happened in August of 2018. Seasons do really make so much of a different in our experience of life that we should perhaps learn to differentiate the subtle aspects of weather patterns in Singapore and get a better sense of appreciation for the passage of time we experience.

When plans are postponed

Being a highly organised person means that we often have to meet with the disappointment of certain arrangements being cancelled, postponed for some good reason (or we charitably interpret to be so). And then the question is whether our high level of organisation means we have the cognitive flexibility to use that time appropriately for something else or have we become so optimised with our schedule that such postponement feels like a threat to our plans.

For those who might be slightly less organised, the postponement can also be a relief; because we actually really needed the time for something else. Then the question is why didn’t we initiate that rescheduling in the first place.

Increasingly, I realised that most of the time we are not taking charge and organising our lives as we want it to because we are afraid of disappointing someone, coming across as being disagreeable or being the one who spoil the plans. But ultimately, we need to make a decision, whether we rather be that person who lives his own life or, one who is living a life others want him to live.

Strategy & Tactics IV

I previously mentioned about this matrix introduced by a boss I used to work under. I’ve produced graphical representation of it. And I think this is an extremely elegant way of understanding the difference between strategy and tactics. You can be misguided by your abilities in one dimension and fooled into thinking that is the most important but both are as important.

Though in today’s world, people are biased towards paying more for people who are able to think strategically, it is likely because getting strategy wrong just puts you in such a mediocre position. On the other hand, if your tactics are mediocre while strategy is great, there might be some slim chance of doing fine.

Either way, the purpose of this post is once again to remind ourselves that strategy and tactics are both required and it’s important when we think about our careers, and job-seeking, that we not only try to beef up our CV, write nice cover letters and apply all kinds of tactics you can find online. But perhaps more importantly, you need to think through the strategy of the job fit and the role you actually want to do.

The framework I’ve developed for approaching this has been made free in my ebook; and please do head over to my coaching hub for more resources.

Scope of work

When I first joined consulting, I always wondered if we were being silly by specifying our consulting methodologies in the project proposals. If we could just clearly demarcate what we were going to do, and even the steps we will have to take, then what is stopping the client from doing it by themselves? Ultimately, it is a matter of the motivation behind the client hiring us.

A client might be hiring us to bridge the shortage of manpower; especially qualified manpower for the work that needs to be done. It could be a study or a report, but without the necessary staff with good contextual understanding, it would be difficult for them to find the information, put them together or generate relevant insights from them.

Or the client might be lacking the capability completely; even when they do have idling personnel, the overall company lacks a good understanding of the full subject matter at hand. And bringing in the consulting team helps to provide sufficient contexts for the management to decide subsequently whether to build up the capability internally.

Finally, the client may actually be engaging a consultant in order to get close to competition. This may particularly be the case when consultants are working for different players in the same industry. Of course, they ought to be independent but for certain neutral pieces of information, by hiring the same consultants you often ensure that you are accessing the same information. It’s almost a strategy for loss-prevention.

Ultimately though, you should be hiring consultants because you can’t do the work yourself, and should not imagine that you can. The challenge with the industry is that there are too many people willing to be labeled as consultants but just doing exactly what the client is specifying almost to the step that they hardly add much value. There’s a tension between having to maintain strong relationships with the paymasters while being sufficiently disagreeable in order to make sure the projects serve them rather than simply what they think they want.

Philosophy of engagement

After the thoughts around instant messaging, I’ve been thinking of a philosophy of engagement to define the types of correspondents I want to get involved in – at work or in personal life. We should leave some room for serendipity and surprising conversations.

  • We should stop replying to “lazy messages” where people initiate some kind of meeting without mentioning available timeslots or options.
  • We should probably not respond to emoji-based feedback/comments/likes.
  • Where messages sent are without context or clear communications, the onus should be on the sender to clarify. The receiver could ignore messages until clarification is made.

Now the biggest burden of the instant messages is that once you received the messages it feels as though the ball is in your court and replying relieves you of the tension so that it is out of your court. Developing these protocols for engagement effectively takes that tension away under certain conditions. If we just focus on the communications required at hand, we can develop and internalise these protocols to help us deal with further anxieties induced by instant messaging.

Prepare to fail

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.

Seth Godin

There is this sense that the world is about to fall apart with major crises (war, pandemic, climate change), and smaller ones that might creep up on us. It all sounds much like “The Emergency” in the Mysterious Benedict Society; where they characterised this sense that “there’s no one at the wheel”.

We are all bombarded by the negativity and sensational materials in the news typically designed to arouse us. And since it is easier to arouse us with fear and anxiety, that is what they do in order to keep us paying attention. The problem with attention becoming a currency in the modern economy is that a large part of the workforce have their attention taken away from more productive pursuits towards the superficial and trivial.

Do we want to continue to behave like this and allow our anxieties to indeed manifest as failures in reality? Or do we want to leverage that anxiety to drive us forward, away from freezing, towards a common goal of a future that we all want to be in?

Mysterious Benedict

I rarely talk about stuff on the media because I typically don’t consume so much entertainment through the mainstream media. It has become incredibly splittered though. Thanks to Netflix, Disney Plus and other streaming services that are all now starting to create their own content and populating their own channels.

So I was watching The Mysterious Benedict Society which at first appeared like a show with quirky characters, turned out to be extremely delightful and well executed aesthetically. The thought that went into the script and the manner the mysteries unfolded step by step was brilliant.

What is interesting is that so much of it of course covered very universal themes of truth, friendship, what intelligence meant and philosophy around independence. Children books and stories always tend to have such amazingly deep and yet simple truths it’s a waste that not more adults read them.

Some similar titles I’d suggest would be The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time.