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?


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.

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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?

Spring is coming! :)

Looks like the polar vortex is returning for the 3rd time! :\

However, I’m feeling optimistic that it won’t be as bad this time, because there are many signs that winter is winding down and spring is on its way! :)

The days are certainly getting longer. We have long pased the shortest day in winter (22 Dec), when sunrise was 7:14am and sunset was 4:23pm (in Chicago). Today, sunrise was 6:32am and sunset was 5:36pm. And we have seen more sunshine days these two weeks :)

And the trees are starting to bud! I couldn’t resist snapping this picture on my way to school. In this day and age, we like to believe sophisticated technology and sensors can predict everything. However, I’m someone who believes that Mother Nature knows far more than we will ever do, and nature offers clues to many of our most complex questions. So if the trees are budding, spring can’t be too far away. And I trust the trees :)


More signs of nature! Fauna is out and about as well. So Rusty’s “enemies”, the squirrels, didn’t freeze in the winter. In fact, they are starting to appear in numbers again! I spotted a few, but wasn’t fast enough to snap them. But I did catch a number of these swans happily nestling in the sun! :)


And if you’re still not convinced that spring is coming, here’s a view from the treadmill at the sports center – it was breathtaking!


So, even though it may get cold again later this week, things are definitely starting to look up! Yay! :D

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

The Spirit of Christmas

I was busy the past few weeks, as the quarter was ending and many team projects were due.

But, with the winter break, I’m glad to have had more time to relax and read :)  And I’ve been reading a great book this past week, Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”, which I will write more about in a subsequent post.

With Christmas around the corner, wife and I decided to send packages home.  Somehow, the idea of receiving a package in the mail seems quite exciting (at least we think so!), regardless of what’s in it.

Having said that, choosing a gift can be a challenge nowadays, given how global we have become.  There are very few things that one cannot find back home in Singapore!

Fortunately, we did find some local chocolates and cookies which we’ve never seen back home, so we promptly built up a stockpile of these to send as Christmas gifts.  And we spent a whole afternoon packing and sealing these, and writing notes and cards for them.

This morning, we headed to the post office to mail them.  The post office is always packed with people during Christmas season.  The queue was long, but we figured it should not take more than half an hour.

When we reached the counter, we were told we had to repack all our gift boxes because the postal service does not accept the masking tape that we had used to seal all our packages!

So…  We had to take all our packages to a corner of the post office and take them apart, and repack them in the USPS postal boxes and seal them with the USPS packing tape.  It took a long time to do so, including filling out many sets of custom forms.  End to end, we spent 2 hours at the post office!

The postage didn’t come cheap too.  I estimate it’s 4 to 5 times the cost of the chocolates and cookies?  In fact, the lady at the counter jokingly remarked, “These must be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever!” 

And she’s probably right! :P

I was reminded about something I read in Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”.  It was about Christmas and gifts.  Sandel writes that the most economically efficient gift is cash, because people can use it to buy the things they value most.  However, sending cash makes many people feel “degraded” about the Christmas experience, so a new industry has emerged around gift cards (e.g. Amazon, iTunes).  Somehow, they are more acceptable as gifts, than cash.

I contrasted the Christmas gift card idea and our experience.  The gift card would have been swift and neat.  You key in the receiver’s details and click send.  You can probably settle it in 5 minutes or less.  And the economists would also consider it highly efficient, because $100 in gift card value would translate to $100 worth of products that our friends would choose to spend on.  Contrast this to the amount of time we spent shopping (and possibly buying something people don’t want), spending an afternoon to pack and seal them the first time, only to spend two more hours at the post office queuing, repacking and then paying 4 to 5 times in excess of the value of the gift.

Sounds like a whole lot of money and effort relative to the actual dollar value of the gift that our friends would receive?  To this, I would agree.

Yet this seeming irrationality may be explained by a Chinese saying, “千里送鹅毛 物轻情意重”, which translates literally to “sending goose feathers over a thousand miles – the goods are light but the meaning is heavy”.  In this case, the meaning and the spirit of Christmas is also about the trouble we take, and the inefficiencies we go through (money and time).  If these turn out to be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever, maybe that’s what make them special!  In an age where money can buy almost anything, what we go through is something that money cannot buy.  And if we bothered to go through all that trouble and expense to honor some great friendships, those are also cherished relationships that money cannot buy :)