Owning the problem statement

As you might tell, I’m back to in the mode of thinking about the nuances involved in problem solving. The reason is in part because I’ve been interviewing candidates for various roles in my company across four different offices in APAC. That forces me to start considering what are the attributes I value highly and what really demonstrate those attributes. Some of these are really so nuanced and difficult to really describe or pinned down – mostly uncovered through questioning and observing responses in various circumstances.

I am reminded to be grateful for the experience I gathered while working within the Singapore government as part of what was known as International Enterprise Singapore and also Infrastructure Asia. In both instances, I had to work across cultures in Asia which forced me to be sensitive about culture differences and made me pay more attention to the manner we can communicate better. It was also a very collaborative environment that involved a lot of coordination, across departments, government agencies, teams and across various levels. I had the opportunity to with ministers, very senior public servants and observed the way leaders approached problems and manage delicate situations.

And because early on in my career I dealt with a lot of issues where I had to own a problem statement without having the full solution to it but rather, coordinating and managing teams of people, often with different interests to get to the solution, I came to be comfortable with project management. It wasn’t something I had consciously picked up but it was emergent through the themes of various work I did.

Often, what earns us the right to serve our client as consultants is really the ability to take hold of, and own the problem statement that you’ve determined alongside your client. It is not the mastery of content or topic or expertise in particular subject matter. All of that should come along but there will always be someone better than you out there. The ability to take responsibility and do what you can to harness and gather the resources towards solving a problem is the more valuable attribute.

Hunting for problems

In a previous workplace of mine, there were a lot of strong, capable people who were good at problem solving and very oriented to that. However, they were not always good at identifying the right problems to deal with nor defined the problems well. So they went on and hack away at problems that were poorly defined and ended up not solving much. A lot of resources, energy and efforts were squandered on poorly defined problems.

To give an example, we could think about it from the perspective of an observation first. Say, there is a cat which is on a tree and meowing. Objectively speaking, it is not clear if there was a problem. It might be a problem to the flat owner on the second storey who is annoyed by the noises made by the cat. A cat lover might think the cat is stuck on the tree and unable to get down. The one who planted the tree and lives on the ground floor might think that the problem is that the cat might scratch and damage the tree. Now if you want to help, you need to define the problem in the context of someone’s perspective.

While there seem like a ‘straight-forward’ solution which is to remove the cat from the tree, if none of those people I mentioned saw it as a problem, then it would not have been considered a solution to begin with. If we contextualise the problem as the meowing, then the solution could just be to get the flat-owner to put on earplugs or insulate his flat from external noises better. Without the other stakeholders in the room, the solution set actually expands.

Problem solving is just the last stage of a repertoire of skills we need in the modern workplace. Being able to identify, define and contextualise problems can be just as, if not more important.

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.

Labels and bullshit

I think that schools and parents should spend a lot more time teaching kids to read labels and discern marketing from science and verified statements. One of the problematic trends that emerged from our market economy or highly marketised, monetised society is the rise of wildfire marketing. You’d think that lies or wrong claims would be quickly discovered but often, verification takes time and money and has the nature of a public good so no one invest in them.

Yet the interest of the marketing departments and companies to make claims that can get them customers is so much more. So there is no prize for guessing who would put more resources into the activity and who emerges as winner, at least in the short term.

Question is why has our market economy created such short-termism? The people at marketing departments are measured perhaps by the short term sales figures. The management is assessed based on short term profit and loss or worse, share prices. No one within the transactions have any long term stake other than the consumers.

Besides strengthening consumer bureaus, you will have to strengthen the consumers through education. And that has to start whilst young; and these are extremely long term investments that will pay off for the broad society.

Virtue & values

Virtues are qualities of excellence that may be moral or intellectual; and once, the pursuit of virtues was the making of a purposeful and good life. Yet increasingly, as we welcome new cohorts of adults into our midst, the pursuit of a good life had become more material – especially in the culture amongst the newly developed countries and markets. Despite all the talk about ‘woke’ cultures and all, there is this foundation of material that underlies the material ability (or even authority) to criticise. To the extent that virtue itself is even criticised as ‘bigotry’.

Yet if you really reflect upon what virtues really are, they can hardly be considered bigotry. Someone who values certain character doesn’t necessarily have to judge the lack of it. One who is constantly in pursuit of that excellence and tries to uphold a high standard knows more than anyone else how difficult it is. Bigotry is more the sense that high standards should come easy for everyone and hence look down upon those who do not exhibit those standards.

To those who quietly recognise that the good life is meant to be lived and not ‘earned’ through material possession or collecting achievements. Thank you for soldiering on and showing the way.

Holistic Thinking

I’ve been reading Erin Meyer’s Culture Map. And I even did her survey on her website that would cost you a bit to get some results. Anyways, I realised as a Singaporean that my results lacked 1 dimension, and it was on the persuading scale. It was only when I had results not benchmarked to my country’s norm that I realised there was a dimension missing!

Only then I realised from her book that she claims the East Asians tend towards a ‘holistic thinking approach’ where they focus on inter-connectedness and inter-dependencies. I found this pretty interesting being a Singaporean and essentially East Asian descent. I’m not exactly sure how this drags us out of that Persuading spectrum of ‘principles-first’ vs ‘applications-first’ because I do find myself on the scale as well and I’m inclined towards ‘principles-first’. I attribute it to my western upbringing but I also think that holistic thinking is more compatible with the ‘principles-first’ approach to reasoning.

East Asians are also logical; even if they might not have a standard structure of approach. The holistic thinking perhaps just cause us to reach out farther to consider more marginal connections to the core topic. This could mean that in using the ‘principles-first’ approach, holistic thinkers are drawing from even broader principles that may at first sight, have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

For example, I was recently having a conversation with a renowned East Asian expert in the bioenergy field and in talking about the advantages of biofuels over e-fuels, he started by considering the efficiency of electrolysing water, and then the fact that most locations rich in wind or solar power tend to be scarce in water supply, and eventually the land required to support the power generation that is required to produce just a small amount of renewable e-fuel. Then he went on to talk about growing crops on some of these land, how they might help the habitat, the robustness of particular crops. Finally, that the crop residues can be processed to produce biofuels; allowing the land to be used for multiple purpose of food and energy – especially if the right kind of crops are grown to ensure more cycles of harvest.

The point about biofuels being superior to e-fuels was made somewhat indirectly and through a detailed explanation about something way beyond the issue of energy – it was about resource-intensity in terms of land-use and perhaps water. So he was drawing from a principle about resource intensity to produce the required fuel essentially though the manner he had approached it starts with considering linkages between the subject and other concepts.

For me, I am relatively comfortable with that sort of conversations and being patient for the point to be made; and even if the point is not really made clearly, I often give benefit of doubt and draw the connections by myself. Perhaps being East Asian in heritage, I rarely have an issue drawing the actual connections that the speakers are getting at. Indeed, perhaps persuading an East Asian will require more appreciation of the importance of connections and inter-dependencies or relationship than a linear approach to logic.

Planet, people and profits

Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?

What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?

Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.

Con-sulting II

The role of language in business varies from culture to culture. And as the economy goes through greater prosperity, marketing takes hold at generating more interest and demand, even for goods we don’t fundamentally “need”.

Just recently, while in a bookstore section where they sell little gifts and trinkets, my wife mentioned to me “the thing I love about bookstores is this section where they sell such beautiful things”. To which I responded “that’s exactly what I dislike because they have such nice little things that makes you feel like buying them but they are completely useless!”

We had spoken perhaps too loudly because the lady beside us let out a huge laughter and said, “Spoken like a true man!” We all had a big laugh together and I proceeded to the books section. Where I picked up The Big Con.

Part of modern capitalism is marketing and it can have the same effect as what Mariana Mazzucato is describing about big consulting firms “hollowing” out governments, creating dependencies and weakening the public sector capabilities. Modern consumerism “hollows” each of our lives out by getting us to focus on our ability to earn the most money, purchase or outsource everything else, stifling our abilities to seek and generate the very happyness we are pursuing that the economy tries to sell us.

The very thesis of Mariana can be generalised further into the other product and services markets. The question maybe is about restricting our purist economic thinking to only certain domains and not others.

Our memory is more like a web and less like a shelf

I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and my mind really strained trying to remember things. Most of the time, the harder I try, the more difficult I find it. Subsequently, whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.

It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me.

One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term.

Second, it gave me a method that increased my memory capacity as I learnt more. This requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.

Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.

In other words, we actually have a slightly mistaken analogy for our memories. We tend to think there’s some kind of limited shelf space such that trying to remember more things means we need to forget some old things or remove some of the existing memories from the shelf to accommodate the new.

After years of experience trying to deal with that poor memory of mine, I noticed that our memory are more like webs. When we don’t have much in our memories, it is as though there are many gaps within our web and most materials that comes our way just fly through these gaps rather than getting retained. But as you are able to catch hold of more using what you already have, then you naturally hold on to even more memories that allows you to capture more.

Our understanding and what constitutes deep knowledge from repeated practising creates new contexts for us to absorb further new information and knowledge. This is incredible because it means that our memory capacities are not being consumed but rather expanding. Capturing more and richer information enhances our ability to compress new information and knowledge further, drawing upon what is already in the mind.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A version of this article on the same idea was published in here a while back.