Simple pictorial on the Iran nuclear deal

The New York Times created a useful pictorial to the Iran nuclear deal – click to see more of the pictorial.


Great example of explaining complexity in more simple and accessible ways!

If only someone can create a pictorial to also explain the support and opposition to the deal, and why. Now that would be cool! :)

Image source: New York Times


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?

Power and Responsibility – Two Sides of the Same Coin


There is a popular quote in the Spiderman story, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

A common understanding of this quote is that power is in our hands must be used responsibly. This is huge in an age where so much power (economic, military, social, or otherwise) lies in the hands of so few. Much can be said about this, but I want to focus on other aspects of the power-responsibility relationship.

Recently, I had a chat with a friend about delegation. We all know that leaders cannot (and should not) do everything on their own. They need to learn to develop others within the organization and delegate duties appropriately. My friend asked whether it would be any different for regimental systems such as the military. (How) should a leader step in when he feels that things are not going the way he thinks it should?

One way to look at such issues is to see power and responsibility as two sides of the same coin – we cannot have one have one without the other. As much as it is dangerous to give people power without responsibility (i.e. the Spiderman logic), it is arguably just as bad to give people responsibility without the corresponding power. One, this sets people up for failure. Two, when we give others responsibility without the power, we end up holding that power ourselves but without the responsibility (i.e. the same Spiderman logic)!

Think about a situation where the boss puts you in charge of a project. He tells you the project is important and puts the responsibility on you to deliver it. But along the way he micro-manages and gives you instructions all the time. When the project fails, the boss tells you that you have failed in your responsibility.

What has happened? If power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, we can look at where the two separated. First, it is useful to note that leaders make decisions all the time on how to distribute power and responsibility. For example, a leader can choose to do the work himself, or he can delegate it. He can decide how and who to delegate it to. This is a prerogative and power of leadership, and it also comes with the responsibility to make the right choices. Often, when certain appointments fail we like to look at the people in those jobs. For me, I like to also ask who had put those people in those jobs in the first place.

Next, when a leader puts responsibility on his staff, does he give them the right power to do the job well? If he does not, e.g. the leader still wants to make the day-to-day decisions, then the responsibility has not left the leader. Likewise, if he meddles or micro-manages, he effectively takes power away from the staff, and so, the responsibility reverts to the leader.

Once we see how power and responsibility are kept together, or kept apart, we can make sense of many dysfunctions in organizations. If we are serious in wanting people to take on more responsibilities, we must be prepared to give them the corresponding powers to do so. So, whether a system is regimental or not, is not the main issue. The main issue is whether power and responsibility go hand-in-hand. In a system where the powers must remain centralized, the responsibility is also centralized, and the leaders should have no illusions about it. We cannot have it both ways e.g. centralized power but diffused responsibility.

A similar logic applies to societies. Today, more Governments are realizing that they alone cannot solve the problems of society; they must involve the people. And so, there are more calls for people to step up to take on more responsibilities. This invites the question, what power will the Government give to the people? In societies, power can come in various forms, e.g. formal authority, process power, financial power, information power, influence power etc. This is where it may get awkward and uneasy. If power is “the ability or right to control people or things” (source: Merriam-Webster), then sharing power or giving it up may make people (incl. Governments) feel vulnerable. For many societies, this is the real deal, the elephant in the room. It is difficult to talk about active citizenry without a corresponding talk about power.

Spiderman popularized our thinking about power and relationship in one way. I think it is important to also look at the relationship in the other direction, that is, “with great responsibility must come great power”.


Photo credit

Marvel comics

Dog, Cow, Monkey & Man – Part Two

This is not an original story – others have shared it before (for example, here). Someone shared it with me recently, and we have a Part Two to it :)

The story goes like this.

One day, God decided to create Dog, Cow, Monkey and Man.

God gave Cow a lifespan of sixty years. Cow was to work hard all day in the field under the sun. He would provide man with milk and calves, and he could only eat  grass. On hearing this, Cow requested to live twenty years and return the other forty years to God.

God gave Monkey a lifespan of twenty years. Monkey was to entertain man, perform tricks for man and make him laugh. And he would eat only bananas. On hearing this, Monkey requested to live ten years and return the other ten years to God.

God gave Dog a lifespan of twenty five years. Dog was to sit at the door of man’s house, and bark at those who came along. He would eat only what was left over from man’s meals. On hearing this, Dog requested to live fifteen years and return the other ten years to God.

Finally, God gave Man a lifespan of twenty years. Man was to sleep, eat and have fun all day. He would not have to work and would only need to enjoy life. Man really liked the deal, but felt it was too short. He had an idea – he asked God to give him the forty years that Cow had returned, and the ten years that both Monkey and Dog did not want. In all, Man would live eighty years. God thought about it, and agreed.

And this is why we spend the first twenty years of our lives eating, sleeping, playing and enjoying ourselves, the next forty years working hard like a cow, then the next ten years entertaining our grandkids like a monkey, and finally ten years nagging at others like a dog.


This is where the original story ends. Many people find it an interesting parody of life, and laugh it off. Some may even wish that man had kept his mouth shut and just enjoyed his twenty years.

Come to think, is it such a bad idea to take Cow’s forth years, Monkey’s ten years and Dog’s ten years?

I actually think it is a blessing to be able to work hard for forty years (Cow’s) to help make the world a better place, to spend ten years (Monkey’s) helping others find happiness in their lives, and ten years (Dog’s) taking care of others’ interests.

Often, we focus on the WHAT, but not the WHY. If the WHY is meaningful, then the WHAT doesn’t matter so much.

Cow, Monkey, or Dog, are all great lives if we know how to live them meaningfully :)

Signs that say a lot about their organizations

Values are a huge thing for many of us. In an organization, consciously or not we are always comparing the values of the organization (and others in it) to our own values. If the values match, we feel that we belong. If they don’t match, we may feel out of place or out of sorts.

When the values don’t match, a few things that can happen. We may alter our values to suit those of the organization, or we may influence the organization’s values to mirror our own. If neither works, we may leave the organization, or we stay on but act indifferently.

This is a huge thing, yet many organizations don’t pay much attention to it. Interestingly, these may be the same organizations that try very hard to create a positive external image. They pay huge sums of money to branding professionals to “design” their organizational image, and buy expensive ad spaces or air time to market themselves.

Some of these marketing efforts do work. Maybe that’s why companies continue to allocate huge budgets for marketing.

For others though, they portray their values in a different and (less costly) way.

They live those values.

As an organizational development person, it strikes me how powerful it can be when organizations live their values i.e. when their internal and external values are consistent. For example, if employees live the organization’s values day-in and day-out, customers will experience those values through regular interactions. These things speak louder than any marketing campaign.

Here are two signs I saw recently:


This sign appears in every Pret A Manger store and speaks volumes about Pret’s identity:

  • Pret is committed fresh food.
  • Pret uses its unique identity and assets (i.e. fresh food) to meet the community’s need as a responsible corporate citizen.
  • Pret even manages to take a dig at competitors who sell old bread!
  • Finally, and I think this is the powerful part, Pret emphasizes that this is the right thing to do. It is a statement of Pret’s values that speaks to both external (i.e. customers) and internal (i.e. staff) stakeholders. Pret employees also better understand why they have to report for work so early every day – to bake new bread and prepare fresh food on site.



This sign appears in all Starbucks stores and it speaks volumes about their commitment to employees. Many organizations also invest in staff development, but Starbucks takes it further by communicating it openly and linking it to their value promise to customers. Effectively, Starbucks makes a few statements with this message:

  • Starbucks cares about their customers.
  • Starbucks cares about their staff. And this makes the statement above even more compelling.
  • Starbucks models the same set of values to its employees, as it expects them to model those values to the customers.

The beauty of this is that Starbucks is acting consistent both internally and externally.

We may think that what Pret and Starbucks have done is a clever trick that many others can adopt too. However, I would advise organizations to think it through carefully before they jump at it. Public commitments like Pret’s and Starbucks’ can be powerful, but they also work both ways. If Pret publicly says that these are the right things to do, but it does not honor them internally, you can bet their employees will be one huge cynical lot. (And you the customer will sense that). Likewise, if Starbucks does not really take care of their baristas, their baristas will take cue from that to determine how to treat customers.

Many organizations fret a lot over their branding and image. In my view, it need not be complicated – simply live up to the same values internally as they would presented them externally. Having said that, just because it need not be complicated doesn’t mean that it will be easy to achieve ;)

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!

Looking for Spring

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 6.14.45 PM

As Winter turned to Spring, I took many pictures of Spring, but haven’t had the time to write.

With Winter, I loved its peace and tranquility. I enjoyed my snow walks (and runs) with Rusty :)

With Spring, it’s a different experience. Spring fascinates me with its limitless potential for life. Almost overnight, lifeless looking trees burst into full bloom and greenery. The photos below were taken a few weeks apart – it was not long ago that shoots were just beginning to peek from the ground and in a hurry they have become so luxuriant it feels as if Winter was never here!

Spring - Comparison

As I look at these transformations, I can’t help but wonder: What gives life?

Some would say, it’s the warmer temperature and sunshine. We didn’t have much of these in Winter. Some might add that all these result from the tilt of the earth, which affects how much sunshine we get.

Also true, but perhaps less obvious, is that the potential for life comes not only from the sun but also from the roots and seeds that lie dormant through the Winter waiting for Spring to come. After all, if the roots and seeds contained no life, nothing would grow.

There are some similarities to teams and organizations. Most of us can tell a lethargic team or organization when we see one. Likewise, if a team wes full of energy or bursting with life we will know it right away.

When an organization is sluggish, a common complaint is that people are not motivated. A common suggestion is that people need to be more motivated. I often find that strange – it’s like telling a dead seed to be more alive, or ordering trees to flower in Winter!

I don’t think this is the right way to look at things. What if instead, we choose to believe that just like seeds people have an inborn and limitless potential for life? The issue then is not that people should be more motivated, but what we need to provide to unleash their dormant energy.

Some organizations try to create the “right” conditions. If plants need warmth and light, we can build a greenhouse to get them to grow. The equivalent in organizations is to introduce systems and incentives (sometimes, penalties). While this may work for a while, unless the change is organic it may not be sustainable. A greenhouse may help plants to grow in Winter, but when it is removed the plants won’t survive long. Furthermore, can we build enough greenhouses to recreate Spring in Winter?

Perhaps what we need instead is a natural climatic system that only Spring can bring. I think the equivalent in organizations is values and culture. Just like the tilt of the earth, values and culture may be subtle but they can have far reaching effects. When the values and culture are set right, demotivated people bloom into life, they instinctively know what to do, they require less supervision. A thousand flowers can bloom without having to build, or tinker with, a thousand greenhouses.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 6.16.09 PM

What gives life in an organization is not the schemes and incentives (though they may help), but values and culture. Organizations that go for the former set rather than the latter one, may find themselves running against a slope all the time, much similar to how we might feel if we tried to artificially “create” Spring in Winter?