Friday, October 29, 2010

Divergent and Creative Thinking

There are two modes of cognitive reasoning that are universally defined: convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the one that is more frequently employed at work, in schools, and often at home. It is a form of thinking employing deductive reasoning, which looks at bringing together information that is focussed on solving a problem. Often, convergent thinking is useful for situations where a single correct solution exists. Such modes of thinking are commonly employed in scientific, engineering, financial and other analytical fields (like much of Police work).


Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is a more freeflowing process of generating as many possibilities as possible from a common theme. It is closely associated with spontaneity, random thoughts, non-conformity, creativity and thinking "out-of-the-box". Edward De Bono's concept of Lateral Thinking falls into this area. The fields of artistic endeavours like visual art, dance, fictional writing, and music fall into this category.


If you look around you in the office, at school, in Church, or at home, it is apparent that convergent thinking is far more prevalent than divergent thinking. Most of the people that you meet prefer to adopt a logical, step-by-step approach in solving their daily dilemmas.

We are so hardwired to accept a standard, tried-and-tested path to life, love, academic and career success that we cannot accept anything different. Other than the 5 "Cs" - career, car, condominium, cash, and credit card - we also hanker after model answers and "Ten year series" to feed our need for certainty.

Unfortunately, the world is transforming at a remarkably quick pace, and the cliche that "the only constant is change" (by 500 BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus) is more true than ever before. Against such a backdrop, we cannot merely stick to the status quo and hope that textbook based solutions are good enough.

So what can we do to encourage more divergent thinking?

For individuals, find delight in experimentation and embrace divergent ways of solving personal issues. Walk to a different place for lunch each day, take a different route home, and pick up a book that is totally different from your regular fare. Pick up a new hobby, learn to draw, or embrace a new dance.

For families and groups of friends, adopt a "do a different thing each weekend" idea. Try exploring different places on all corners of the country, and tease your aesthetic senses with new colours, scents, sounds and tastes. Embark on new group projects that add value to others.

For organisations, create opportunities for innovation and spontaneity that transcend traditional divisional boundaries. Hire "left wingers" who are different from you, and encourage unconventional thinking. Encourage brainstorming sessions and freewheeling dialogues that are targeted at specific corporate challenges.

Entrepreneurial solutions and risk taking should not be unduly penalised. Instead, introduce safeguards that allow projects to "fail often, fail fast, and fail cheap" by minimising potential fallout.

To conclude, let me share this brilliant video by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based on Sir Ken Robinson's talk on Changing Paradigms. Sir Robinson gave an excellent expose on what's wrong with the education system in general, and why we need to embrace a different paradigm to encourage more divergent thinking.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why You Shouldn't Eat the Marshmallow...Yet

Don't eat the marshmallow and get two later! (source)

In an age of utmost convenience, instant replies, and quick fixes, one may be lulled into thinking that whatever's fast to cook is good to eat. The inconvenient truth, however, is that many of the best things in life do not arrive merely at the snap of one's fingers.

Rome (Disney or Microsoft) wasn't built in a day. Similarly, major endeavours take months and years of blood, sweat and tears before arriving at the dizzying heights of success.

The key behind building the qualities needed to slog through good times and bad?

Delayed gratification.

By putting aside notions of pleasure to much later, one is able to achieve higher levels of success and hence enjoy sweeter rewards when the deed is done. This is also a test of one's self control, will power, adversity quotient and discipline.

Joachim de Posada, a well known motivational speaker and author of the book "Don't Eat the Marshmallow Yet" shared an interesting lesson in delayed gratification through real life examples with kids. Watch the TED video below and see how he communicates this invaluable principle, peppered with wit and humour.

Berto Meister's blog shared an interesting story on how delayed gratification can have lifelong consequences:

In the 1960's, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what seemed to be an ordinary experiment: to see whether and/or how long children could refrain from eating a marshmallow in order to receive two marshmallows later.

Just about every kid gave in and ate the marshmallow, but some lasted more than others before giving in. Mischel followed up with his original subjects years later and came to realize that his seemingly trivial marshmallow experiment had become the greatest single predictor of future life success, from SAT scores to domestic and professional satisfaction. The key to this puzzle has to do with discipline, self control and will power.


Self discipline is one of the greatest lessons in personal success that can ever be taught. It isn't easy in an age of instant plugged-in entertainment, available 24 by 7 at the click of a mouse button. However, it is an important principle that must be reinforced again and again, not only in one's home but also in one's workplace, social club or other environments.

On a practical level, how does one apply these precepts?

First, adopt a long-term mindset and practice visualising the long-term future for yourself, your family or your organisation. While the occasional low hanging fruits are necessary to be harvested - and an important principle of motivational management in itself - do not forget to cast your eyes on the longer horizon.

Next, you should try to minimise distractions wherever possible or set aside ruthlessly imposed time windows for recreation or pleasure. For example, after two hours of hard work at whatever you are doing, you could give yourself 20 minutes of "iPad time", tuck into Haagen Dazs most sinful flavour, or watch your favourite "Family Guy" video.

Finally, consider exercising on a regular basis or to practise meditation so that you can be more focused. The physical demands of exercise coupled with the endorphin rush thereafter helps you to quieten your restless spirit and to concentrate on the task at hand. Similarly, the discipline of meditation requires you to shut out all the disturbing noises in your head.

To conclude, just remember that postponing one's pleasures to a later date can result in a bigger and more satisfying reward. For sure, you should take short breaks now and then if you're truly fatigued. However, don't veer off the course so much that you lose your bearings in the long road to eventual success.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Importance of Building Consensus

Source of image

One of the most critical skills I've learned working in large organisations is this:

Strategy, like charity, begins at home.

In other words, if you want your latest (and greatest) ideas to work, remember to consult internally FIRST before anything else. There is little point in developing a gameplan to its penultimate stage if you do not have any players.

The true measure of corporate success isn't about conceiving the most radical out-of-the-box schemes alone. Rather, it is about how well that plan has rolled out, how much support it has gained amongst employees, and its overall net impact.

To me, where it starts isn't important. I don't need to be credited with sparking off a new initiative so long as everybody else feel that they own it. What's far more important is where it ends and what it has accomplished.

How does one get internal consensus, joint ownership and a shared vision for new initiatives? Here's what I'd propose:

First, be clear about your own goals and outcomes. What do you hope to achieve with this new initiative? How will you get there? When do the different members of the team come in and how do they contribute? Without clarity of purpose, it is difficult to excite and enthuse others to join your crusade.

Second, try to be as explicit about your plans when communicating them to others. While a hastily scribbled idea on a napkin may work on a plane trip, it scarcely works as a way of getting mutual buy-in from a large group. Use the tools of technology to lay out what you intend to do, and seek to be as transparent as possible (subject to security and sensitivity concerns).

Third, seek everybody's views and opinions through multiple channels. This can be through both official and unofficial platforms - meetings, lunchtime chats, tea sessions, watercooler conversations etc. Be open to constructive criticism and take whatever feedback that you have garnered seriously when cobbling together your plan.

Fourth, publicly credit contributors of ideas and suggestions. Generating internal goodwill pays tremendous dividends and helps ensure that you have more "allies" on your side - an especially useful tactic when you are launching a somewhat controversial project.

Finally, have a specific point of view about how you would go about achieving your objective, but don't be an ass about it. Ultimately, one has to hold on to a position in order to get any serious work done. Where possible, try to convince the unbelievers in your most charming "win-win" tone of voice, but don't cave in to pressure.

Getting internal buy-in is one of the most important skills in any organisation. It is also one of the hardest things to achieve. However, the time, energy and emotional resources spent in convincing team members to jointly own a project is well worth it as the eventual chances of success will be far better than a solo operation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Push of Psychological Sways

Written in a style reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, "Sway - The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour" by Ori and Rom Brafman explores how seemingly irrelevant psychological influences impact human decisions. Peppered with anecdotes and experiments from social psychology, behavioural economics and organisational behaviour, Sway tells us why much of our decision making is more often subjective than objective.

Citing fascinating examples from the Israeli Army, US's Supreme Court, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and the anthropological fraud known as the "Piltdown Man", the Brafman brothers' weave a compelling narrative in the slim volume. Backed by scientific research, the case studies help to illustrate various psychological phenomena throughout the book. They include:

1) The Diagnosis Bias - our inability to reevaluate our initial diagnosis of a person or situation despite changing circumstances. Think about how labels have stuck with people, often unfairly, despite the significant changes they have made at work or in life. A good example of this are job interviews, where often a large proportion of the questions asked have nothing to do with the candidate's actual performance on the job.

2) Loss Aversion - our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid perceived losses despite how small they are. The tragic story of Captain Jacob Van Zanten and the ill-fated KLM Flight 4805 of the Tenerife Airport Disaster is an example of how trying to shave off a couple of hours in flight delays resulted in a catastrophe.

3) The Chameleon Effect - our tendency to take on characteristics that were assigned to us, often arbitrarily. A startling example was how folks who constantly expressed negative and external stereotypical feelings of old age actually physically aged faster. In other words, if we're told that we're stupid when we're young and we believe what we're told, it may become a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

4) The Swamp of Commitment - how we often stick to a decision made and refrain from veering from the course despite changing external circumstances. Combined with loss aversion, commitment becomes a powerful force that seems irretractable. The dynamics of auctions, and America's dogged determination to stick to both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, are prime examples of this.

5) The Influence of Incentives - how compensating people for tasks can actually backfire when the pleasure centres of the brain are triggered and overrides the altruistic component. This is why the act of sponsorship and donation is often more successful when approached from a charitable (help save more lives) as opposed to a commercial (gain greater publicity mileage) angle.

6) Dissenters and their Roles - how "black hats" and devil's advocates help to make the process of justice and decision making more equitable and fair. Challenging the norm can be beneficial for one to escape from the above psychological scourges, and thus should be encouraged when a group makes a joint decision.

In concluding, the Brafman brothers encourage us to escape from these influences by adopting the long term view. Think about financial investments over a longer time horizon and how holding on to a seemingly loss making stock - with sound fundamentals - may be preferred to selling it altogether or increasing one's stake in it. Embracing a Zen-like approach of mindfulness also helps one to escape from the distortions of value attribution. Similarly, one should recognise that first impressions may be wrong.

Remaining flexible and examining issues from different perspectives is also key. Termed "propositional thinking", one should keep one's evaluations tentative rather than certain, and seek complex and contradictory information before arriving at a conclusion. The imposition of a "cooling off period" is a prime example of this, compelling people to wait until the heat of emotional reactions dissipate before deciding on major big ticket purchases.

Overall, a highly recommended read for fans of pop psychology who want to make better decisions in life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Guerrilla Marketing "Bearly" Making It?

Courtesy of STOMP

Are we Singaporeans too straight-laced to stomach marketing gags? Do we like our advertisements to be plain, direct, and in-your-face?

More importantly, are guerrilla marketing campaigns doomed to a hairy end?

By now, everybody would have heard, seen and spoken about the sighting of a "bear" rummaging through rubbish bins at Ulu Pandan. This was caught on video by a concerned member of the public and posted online (see below).

As expected, such an escaped "animal" generated ripples, waves and even tsunamis of public alarm and media attention. It triggered off a "bear hunt" comprising a team of some 12 Zoo employees and animal activists from ACRES storming the area armed with tranquiliser guns to bring down the "creature".

Several PR experts have joined the fray. Almost everybody interviewed had a negative opinion of what Phillips and its agency the Secret Little Agency has done. The police are also probing the incident, and mulling over the possibility of imposing a S$1,000 fine on Phillips.

This brought to mind an earlier "vandalism" campaign by Singpost which also went awry. Held in anticipation of the then upcoming YOG games, it stirred complaints from the public, and even prompted a member of the public to think that a defaced signboard in Mount Faber was done in the name of guerrilla marketing.

Artwork or graffiti? (Source)

Fortunately, guerrilla marketing did have some successful local cases (at least from the awareness point of view), like the GMP Raffles Place Ghost. It not only garnered advertising and PR awards, but resulted in greater mindshare and top-of-mind-recall for the recruitment agency, with significant exposure on multiple media channels.

In case you've missed it, I attach the video below for your viewing pleasure.

Another earlier example which involved the launch of unconventional soft drink brands "Anything" and "Whatever" has also enjoyed fairly enduring success after the hype of the campaign was over. The company Out of the Box Pte Ltd is still peddling the drinks, despite suffering from an initial public health backlash.


What does this say about the success (or failure) of guerrilla and viral marketing efforts in Singapore? I've got some thoughts here.

First, it'll be interesting to see if the effects of bad press are truly detrimental to such campaigns. Whichever way you lean, you've got to admit that the buzz generated by the media has catapulted relatively unknown companies into the limelight - albeit for the wrong reasons. I do sometimes suspect if some of these "negative" outcomes were intentionally orchestrated by the perpetuators in the first place. Hmmmm...

Second, it is important for companies and brands to ensure that there are positive correlations between a marketing stunt and the brand's unique value proposition. Is there a link that the consumer can derive between a bear and a new brand of shaver? I like how "Anything" and "Whatever" did it, as their offering (serendipitous drink flavours) sit in well with the messages put forward in the campaign.

Third, consider the socio-cultural contexts of your customers and "publics" when launching a "shock and awe" campaign. Asian societies tend to be less forgiving of trickery, while a guerrilla marketing effort that tries too hard (but fails) is likely to be scorned in Western markets.

Finally, think carefully about the need for such initiatives in the first place. Most guerrilla, viral and buzz marketing endeavours have a relatively short life-span beyond their initial hype. Often, few would bother about them after the dust has settled - except perhaps for weird marketing and PR hacks like me!

What do you think?

Friday, October 15, 2010

I am Drowning and Need More Staff!


One of the most common cries in management - especially in a fast growing economy - is this:

"Help! I need more manpower! Without additional staff to do this and that and that, I'll be unable to deliver my project/targets/sales figures/etc!"

Time and again, the same impassioned requests have resonated in the chambers of many a HR or Finance Director's office. Staff are needed to grow new business areas, expand into wider markets, boost production output, or strengthen quality control. When push comes to shove, the common clarion call is to increase the headcount of a particular department.

While there will be situations where additional staff are needed - for example, when insourcing a function that has traditionally been outsourced - more often than not, creating additional posts isn't always the solution. It is often said that "easy" manpower may result in unproductive processes being propagated should the harsh sting of accountability be avoided.

Before agreeing to hire more team members, ask yourself these difficult questions:

1) Can this task be done more efficiently by an external service provider? Are suppliers and partners adequately educated and trained to provide seamless service to your organisation?

2) Are we providing sufficient leadership, management and guidance to staff? Do they have the right skills for the tasks at hand?

3) Is the current "peak period" which we are experiencing a seasonal or temporary effect? What will happen after the busy period is over?

4) Do we have a clear idea how the new hires will be groomed, nurtured, and developed to realise their potential? Is there a career development path and succession plan for them?

5) Are there ways to more optimally mobilise existing staff (without killing them or overstretching them of course)? Are existing employees being wrongly deployed in areas that do not maximise their potential in the first place?

6) Finally, are we juggling too many balls and doing too much? Can we prioritise the tasks at hand to focus on those that truly matter?

Having more hands on deck is often seen as the de facto solution in growing businesses and organisations, especially when existing staff are overworked and facing fatigue. Adequate staffing is certainly necessary to achieve the right balance of work-life balance and high productivity.

However, it may sometimes be useful to consider carefully if there are other ways to resolve an issue beyond increasing headcount. Intelligent organisations know that focusing on the few areas that yield the most benefit may not only result in a lower burden on one's staff, but improve overall corporate efficiency, effectiveness and morale.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Touring the National Art Gallery Open House

National Art Gallery Open House

Over the past few weeks, my colleagues and I have been pretty busy with the National Art Gallery Open House. An open invitation to all Singaporeans and visitors to explore our future home - the regal and sprawling City Hall and Former Supreme Court buildings - the event drew tens of thousands of visitors over two days. I was heartened to note the warm and enthusiastic public responses, especially in exploring the two buildings (which is why we're opening a second weekend for guided and self-guided tours on 16 and 17 October).

As is usual for large-scale events of this nature, temperatures did run high for some of us (both literally and metaphorically) but we're happy to be able to resolve most of the teething issues over time. There were tonnes of people who swarmed the buildings, and its heartening to see such a wide spectrum of Singaporeans and visitors - grandpas and grandmas, families of all ages, kids, teens, young adults and tourists. It was also great to see how art and heritage could be celebrated in so many different forms.

Key highlights for me included the following:

- The drawing of public portraits by talented artists from the Organisation of Illustrators Council (OIC)

- Hosting our friends from Barcamp Singapore for Barcamp 6, and participating in the talks

- Listening to the positive feedback of members of the public who went on the guided tours of both buildings

- Sampling delicious local fare from the Snack Fair like Kachang Puteh, Teh Tarik, Nasi Lemak and Charsiew Rice, and having my family join me for lunch

- Having a cup (or two) of Milo from the iconic Milo van

- Seeing a packed City Hall Chamber giving film maker Dr Ivan Polunin a standing ovation at the screening of "Lost Images"

- Being swept by sweet nostalgia when browsing through tin toys from yore being sold at the Flea Market, and feeling especially elated by the resurrection of the "Kalkitos" brand of children scratch-and-create art oriented magazine (and sharing that joy with my son)

- The warm pangs of pride after viewing the many happy, creative and positive wishes made by Singaporeans on the wishing board at the Visitors Corner

- Most especially experiencing the esprit de corps and camaraderie amongst members of the TNAGS family, working together to overcome last minute issues and challenges

It has been hard work and many sleepless nights for us, but we're certainly happy to be doing this for all of you out there. The lessons learnt and heartfelt interactions which I have encountered certainly resonated deep within me.

Here are some photos from last Sunday for your viewing pleasure.


If you haven't already done so, do consider visiting selected spaces at both buildings next weekend (16 and 17 Oct) through a self-guided tour (sorry, the guided tours are all fully booked and we're really maxed out on manpower and volunteers).

Just download the brochure here, pick up your cameras and tripods, and go! Other than exploring spaces at both the former Supreme Court and City Hall Buildings, you can also view future perspectives of the National Art Gallery at the Special Exhibition Gallery on Level 1 of City Hall.

To find out more about the National Art Gallery, Singapore, do also check out and "Like" our Facebook fan page and to follow us on Twitter.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Why Do I Blog Regularly?

Does your reason for blogging fall into the above categories? (source)

There are many reasons why I still make it a point to blog fairly frequently despite having a rather stressful and hectic schedule at work. Let me list them down some of the more major ones:

1) It allows me to mentally unwind from the rigours of the workday, and to indulge my intellectual muse. With this digital canvas as my backdrop, I can play "guru" and dish out advice that hopefully can make a difference to businesses, companies and employees wherever they are.

2) It helps me to assert my own individuality, establish my own identity and develop my own personal brand. What I do here is in my own voice, expressing my views and opinions.

3) It disciplines me to build an online presence, post by post, picture by picture, word by word. Every blog post that I manage to push up is always a mini achievement to me, regardless of how badly written or poorly conceived it was. Well, at least I tried.

4) It gives me a platform to capture my thoughts, lessons learnt, books read, theories conceived, and other personal musings in a convenient and easily shared format. The blog functions as a "brain dump" where I can transmit whatever limited grey matter I have whenever I can muster the time and effort to put them down in digital ink.

5) It opens up new doors of friendships and relationships with folks from many different walks of life. Through the mutual sharing, discourses, retweets, shared links, and both virtual and physical meet-ups, my horizons have expanded tremendously both socially and professionally.

6) It functions as an open book which chronicles the times of my life, as well as the growing maturity - or senility - of my views as the years pass. I suppose these are probably more significant to my family members and friends than the others who read my blog.

What drives you to regularly produce content on a digital platform? Are you doing it for self actualisation, professional development, or just because you needed a place to vent?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Close Your Eyes and Don't Peek!

Magic shows always work because kids loved to be astonished

Have you wondered why kids like birthday or Christmas presents so much? Or why teens and youths enjoy watching the latest "Lady Gaga" music video?

I believe that it is captured in a single word: Surprise.

Surprise is the element which results in major news stories all over the world. It conquers headlines, breaking news, column inches and front pages.

Surprises can cause people to lose sleep, awaiting with eager anticipation what the latest discoveries will bring them. It is that mixture of trepidation and excitement, the butterflies in one's stomach as the moment dawns closer and closer.

Surprise - well pleasant ones at least - can also be an extremely powerful marketing tool. Companies that invest in amazing their customers in a delightful way know that unexpected gestures of goodwill go a long way. They are the stuff of customer service legends, of mythical employees who not only go the extra mile, but use their own money to create magic.

The enemy of surprise is standardisation. Follow the rules. Keep to the guidelines. Practice the policy. While some measure of consistency is important - you do not want customers to be shocked by a trishaw instead of a Ferrari - one should also be careful about nailing everything down to a "T".

Creating a culture of surprise requires several things:

1) Empowering your employees with the right levels of authority and appropriate training and guidance.

2) Enabling an open environment where staff members are motivated to think out-of-the-box and share their ideas. Endeavours in innovation should be pursued rather than dampened.

3) Exposing oneself to what's happening out there in the world. See how companies and businesses in other industries are pampering their customers. Reflect on how you as a customer are treated and jot down the learning points from personal experience.

4) Encouraging positive and reinforcing behaviours amongst staff. It all begins from the workplace. Learn to give people the benefit of the doubt and build a culture of caring and giving.

The crux of delighting customers lies not just in providing consistent and dependable service, but also in spontaneous acts of generosity, warmth and helpfulness. Let us all learn how to put a little jig into our customer's steps with a jolt of jollyness.