A changing world?

Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Chicago area, predicting up to 18 inches of snow. The city of Evanston deemed it serious enough to declare a snow emergency, although Northwestern University remained open today (from where I sit here typing this J)

Snow or no snow, Rusty still needs to get out of the house three times a day to relieve himself. So, this morning we braved the weather to get out and also check the “damage” outside.

Rusty snow

The snow was thick, but not as scary as I thought. I think Chicago has experienced far worse blizzards. I think we survive this one quite well.

Rusty though was jumpy and anxious. It was not the cold, for he was the least interested in heading back to our warm apartment.

As I observed him further, it dawned on me that the world could look different for him. The usual smells are now blanketed under heaps of snow. As we walked along the footpath, where it was unshoveled he had to jump and hop a lot, and where it had been shoveled the shoveled snow formed huge piles on each side. I was curious how the world looked like for him, so I bent down to take some pictures from a dog’s eye view.

Snow terrain

Seeing these “dog’s eye view” photos, I began to empathize with his experience. I could imagine why he might have been so jittery walking along these same paths that we must have walked hundreds of times. For him now, it may feel like a different place, perhaps like walking around in trenches and not knowing whether friend or foe might pop out at every turn.

Snow terrain 2

I tried to assure Rusty that all was fine, and the world has not changed. But the poor boy could not be placated. If dogs could talk, his cries and whimpers might sound something like, “But Daddy, you don’t understand! The world has changed! Everything has changed! What I used to know, I don’t recognize it anymore! I can’t tell where the dangers are!”

To little Rusty, the world has changed drastically. In fact, it must have looked different to him each time we go out. He is stressed, anxious, and he is mounting a huge effort to make sense of it and find new bearings.

As human beings, we know the world has not changed overnight. At least not in the way Rusty thinks it has. We have a different vantage point to realize that despite the changes, nothing has really changed. We might even have a good laugh watching him running around like a headless chicken.

Could there be an interesting parallel here with what goes on in our organizations and workplaces? On one hand, increasingly we hear leaders and experts declare that the world is changing at a faster and faster rate. Complexity is growing and we must adapt even more quickly! On the other hand, employees are increasingly overwhelmed and fatigued, perhaps not so much by the changes in the external environment, but by the internal (organizational) responses to that.

What if amid all the complexity and change, some things have not really changed? Some of us may have laughed at Rusty just moments earlier, but what if in our own ways our behaviors are not too dissimilar to his?

As the world around us changes, do we focus only on what has changed? Or do we also look for what perhaps has not changed?


To all the Dads and FurDads out there…

Stanley Rusty

I grew up in a conservative society with many societal expectations. For example, there are social norms about when you should date (not when you are in school!), get hitched (of course you must get married!), how many kids you should have (in the 1970s and 1980s, not more than two; after the 1990s, three or more if you could afford it), what kind of job you should have (one that brings 5 Cs: career, car, condominium, cash, credit card) etc.

At Chinese New Year gatherings, birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, daily casual conversations, people ask insensitive questions: when are you finding a girlfriend (or boyfriend)? When are you getting married? When are you having kids? When are you having your 2nd kid? When are you having your 3rd kid? Did you kids top their class this year?

The funny thing about being in a culture is that it is often subconscious. When you are part of it, you think and act in certain ways because that’s how others think and act, and “that’s how things have always been done around here”. (The same is true for organizational culture.) It’s when you don’t quite fit in those quirks and behaviors that you become more conscious about it.

Some years ago, Fern and I invited Rusty into our hearts and home (or perhaps, he self-invited :P). To us, he’s our darling boy and will always be our first kid. We had no doubts seeing ourselves as his parents. From time to time though, we would get strange looks and sniggers from some people, “Of course it’s not the same…”, “How can a dog be a kid?”, “Don’t waste time, quickly get your own kid!”.

They probably mean well, but it’s still mean words no less. But we take it in our stride.

Today, as I celebrate Fathers’ Day with my Dad and Dad-in-Law, I also reflect on what it means to be a dad:

  • A dad is one who loses sleep over his kids
  • Fusses over them, cleans and grooms them (sometimes even when they are all grown up)
  • Peers over their puke and poo when they are ill
  • Teaches them, scolds them, yet takes pride in their achievements no matter how small
  • Celebrates each of their milestones as they come (and thinks that they grow up too quickly)
  • Puts their interest before his own
  • Makes sacrifices for them that he wouldn’t do for himself
  • Looks out for their safety at the expense of his own
  • Loves them unconditionally regardless of who they are and what “flaws” they may have

When I look at this list, I feel privileged to have been on the receiving end of a doting and caring dad. At the same time, I also feel privileged to be able to give of this to my furry boy.

Setting aside whatever cultural norms you may face, if you have been on the giving or receiving end of some of the above acts of love, you have been abundantly blessed, and may this be a special day for you and that other :)

Happy Fathers’ Day!

Lessons from the (melted) snow

The arctic cold that hit us earlier this week has passed!  The last few days has been much warmer (around -5’C to 2’C), thanks to a warm front.  And that is good! :)

With the warmer temperatures, the snow is melting (when it gets warmer) and at times refreezing (when it gets colder).  And that is not good! :(

Why not?

For friends back home who’ve not experienced winter, when snow melts, it turns into water (i.e. liquid).  We know how liquids have smooth surfaces (picture the surface of a lake).  When this smooth surface refreezes, it becomes a thin but hard layer of ice that’s very slippery (because it’s extremely smooth!).  There’s a name for it, called “black ice“.  It looks something like this:


Black ice is so slippery that wife had a fall the other day, and she is hurting :(  I had a few near falls too :(

At the same time, I was puzzled how the locals could walk quite easily on it.  It can’t be the shoes, because wife and I have good quality boots (that have good grip).  So we thought, maybe they are just more experienced walking on ice…?

This afternoon, as I walked Rusty I decided to try a different way of walking.  What if, rather than fight the slippery ice, we stop resisting and instead go with it?  That is, we S-L-I-D-E.

Turns out, sliding is a lot easier than walking on ice :)  Well, this is not a new discovery: when we go to a skating rink, we skate (i.e. slide). But when we encounter ice on the road, it is less intuitive (at least to folks like us) that we can slide on it.

I need to think more about why it is easier (and perhaps safer) to slide rather than walk on ice, and it’s probably down to physics.

But my instinctive thought is that it’s probably easier because we are not trying to apply an old method in a new environment.

When we walk, we are using mechanics that work well when the ground is full of friction.  On a slippery surface, where the friction is low, we need to put in a lot of effort to try and “find the friction”.  When we expect to find friction but do not get it, we slip and fall.  However, when we slide, we do not expect to find friction. We expect to go along with the slide, so there are no surprises!

The same may be said with some other things we encounter in our lives or in our organizations.  Often, we become used to old and familiar ways that worked, that when the environment changes we end up “slipping” and “falling”.  We find ourselves using a lot more concentration and effort just to get by in the new environment, almost like walking on ice.  But if we stopped fighting the environment, stopped seeing it as an enemy but instead as a friend, if we learn to “slide” we may do much better.  And have fun at it too ;)

Sometimes, we may feel that it has become a lot more difficult to do the same things.  Perhaps another way to look at this is: It is not more difficult, it is just… different!

Lessons from the snow

Experiencing snowfall is new for me, having grown up in tropical Singapore.  Even though I have lived in London and California for a few years, they were never cold enough to snow big time.  Small flakes, occasionally, but never enough to accumulate and stay frozen on the ground.

After a night of snowing, the sight that greets you the next morning is a pretty one.  When all the details and complexities you always see are covered up by fresh white snow, everything looks simple and neat.  Perhaps that’s why snow is so mesmerizing.

But snowfall creates its own chaos too.  How do we walk with so much snow around?  How do we drive without skidding?  If the thought of shoveling your driveway is tiring, think about the miles of roads and highways blanketed by thick snow, which can easily be a foot (about 30min) thick or more?

This was the feeling I got when I woke up on New Year’s Day and took Rusty out for his walk.  It was early in the morning, and the streets were empty and quiet.  Looking at the thick blankets of snow (which had not been shoveled), the first thing that came to mind was, “How are we going to remove all this snow??”

snowed in

We often have a similar feeling when we face challenges in our organizations.  At times, there are so many issues to address it feels overwhelming.  Almost like having to shovel the whole city (and the miles of roads and highways) on your own.

The first thing about shoveling is that we are never tackling all the snow.  We are only clearing those paths and roads we want to use, moving snow from where we don’t want it to where we don’t mind it (at least for the time being).  Still a tough job, but not as bad.  Somehow, the task is more manageable.

Likewise, in organizations if we have to solve all the issues at once, we would be overwhelmed.  Many of us feel that way.  What if, like shoveling snow, we know which critical issues we need to clear and which issues we need not  tackle right away?

The other thing is that it’s easier to shovel snow when it is still fresh.  When the snow is less than a day old, it is fluffy and light.  But if you wait too long, and people walk all over them, the snow melts, refreezes, and becomes solid and hard.  It becomes a lot harder to shovel.  The same with organizations.  It is easier to address issues earlier on, than when they have sat around and festered, or worse, become connected to other issues!

Shoveling is easier when everyone does it, or at least everyone who has a footpath in front of their house.  I received a notification the other day from the city council reminding everyone that shoveling your footpath is the neighborly thing to do.  When everyone does their small part, it is easier and everyone else benefits.  The same with tackling issues in organizations – more hands make lighter work.

Finally, while we may curse and swear when we have to shovel snow, it helps to enjoy its other aspects.  As these next pictures show, along with the hard work and inconveniences, also come pretty sights and cute formations.  It is a reminder that in life things may not always go well, but it doesn’t mean we always have to be miserable  :)

snow beauty

Winter Break Post

Happy New Year! :)

It has been a nice winter break.  I spent more time with Fern & Rusty, and caught up on a few things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t find the time to do so.

Winter 2013

Which included, four pieces of writing.  It sounds odd to be still writing while on break, but I guess it’s different when you choose to write vs. you have to write :)

I also read Michael Sandel’s “What Money Cannot Buy”.  It was a farewell gift from a friend, and a provoking read.

In short, Sandel discusses how we have monetized and applied economics think to more and more things.  Drawing from wide-ranging examples, such as paying for the right to pollute, cut queue, pick up kids late from the child care center, buy live organs, and even personal things like professionally scripted best-man’s wedding speech, Sandel argues why this can be troubling.  He draws his arguments from two main objections:

  • One, it is unfair when things go to those with the most ability to pay.  For example, paying for someone else’s live organs.
  • Two, monetary values can crowd out and corrupt other non-monetary values such as loyalty, tradition and sanctity, among many others.  For example, turning National Day Parade tickets into a business.

This is not a book review, as I’m not good at such things.  Besides, there are many people who do it better than me, and you can read one here.  But I would like to share quick thoughts on a related issue.

As you know, my interest is in nonprofits.  In particular, nonprofits’ adoption of market concepts, models and practices that emerge from the for-profit world.  The parallel to Sandel’s point is that while many of these concepts, models and practices can apply just as well for nonprofits, some many not be so.

One example is the use of financial incentives to achieve goals.  Increasingly, more nonprofits are using financial incentives to achieve quick wins, but this may be at the expense of larger mission goals.  For example, I know of some nonprofits who have explored paying for volunteers (despite the oxymoron!).  We are also seeing novel (and sometimes seductive) ideas such as market based pay for executives and social impact bonds (i.e. where investors pick and choose social projects to invest in, and earn a return).

The intent is not to write off such ideas.  For the nonprofit sector to flourish, I believe it needs to keep an open mind to all possibilities, even those that we eventually conclude to be inappropriate.  At the same time, nonprofits need to be mindful how such concepts and models could potentially shape (or even corrupt) their mission and values.  To do so, nonprofits will need to start out with very clear ideas and understanding about their unique purpose, role and identity.

So, much as there are some things that money cannot buy, there may also be concepts and models that do not benefit nonprofits.  In principle, I think most nonprofits would agree with this, but in practice it may not always be obvious until perhaps they get too deep into it.

Natural Destruction

It was mayhem in the Midwest yesterday.

Tornadoes swept many cities, with the nearest one only an hour away.  Unlike the recent typhoon in the Philippines, the casualties were low, thankfully!  But many homes were destroyed, with winter fast approaching.

Tornado 2

Last night, when Fern and I took Rusty out for his night walk, the night was unnaturally quiet.  The sky looked too clear and serene to be true – it belied the havoc a few hours earlier.  As we stood in the peace of the night, it was hard to believe that hours away some families lost everything and will spend the cold night (and the next few winter months) in makeshift shelters.  Hard to believe, but it’s true.

There’s no reason why the tornadoes could not have headed our way.  Sometimes it’s hard to fathom why terrible things happen to large swathes of good people.  Amid such madness, the discomforting truth is that sometimes the fine line that separates those affected and those spared is simply a matter of luck.  When disaster comes within touching distance, we can’t help but feel blessed and thankful to be spared.

In a world that has grown so unequal and apart, a natural disaster reminds us that there are many things we still share in common.  When nature strikes, it does not matter whether we live in a hut or a $10mil mansion.  Our fates are joined, and we are the same community.  It fades the sense of self, and you just want to do something nice to help someone else.

Many of us live blessed lives.  Particularly so in Singapore, where we have never experienced natural disaster.  The closest we experience is tremors when there is an earthquake in Sumatra, and sometimes we get calf-deep flash floods when the rains pour hard.  But nothing devastating or earth shattering.  Yet we are always complaining and unhappy.  There are so many things to be thankful about.  We really should count our blessings in life…