Monday, November 29, 2010

Freakonomics is Freaky Fun!

Want to know why drug dealers live with their mothers?

Curious to uncover what dishonest schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?

How about discovering the perfect panacea for parenthood?

The answers to all the above and more are found in Freakonomics, a wacky, wicked but wise (grounded in robust research, according to the authors) look at social phenomena like crime rates, the Ku Klux Klan, real estate agents, and more. Revolving around subjects of intense social interest like crime, education, parenting, and racial prejudices, Freakonomics offers four key ideas as follows:

1) Incentives and disincentives are the main ingredients which determine human behaviours.

2) Don't believe what the others are telling you, as conventional wisdom can be mass folly.

3) Unexpected causes can exert significant effects on seemingly unrelated matters.

4) Information can be an extremely powerful disruptive force (we already know that), especially in the hands of "experts".

Seiving through mountains of data in American states like Chicago, New York, California and more, Steven D.Levitt and Stephen J.Dubner weave a compelling narrative which uses microeconomic strategies to explain everyday life. Citing history, sociology, criminology, psychology and politics, Levitt the economist and Dubner the journalist detailed how a "rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything".

Embracing minefield topics in a non didactic and preachy manner, Levitt and Dubner tackled sensitive topics like race, income, education and family background in their intense investigation of the human condition. Real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan were both painted negatively as groups that employed information asymmetry to their advantage, the business of drug dealing (largely staffed by blacks) was painted as a poorly paid profession (hence many still live with their mothers), and cheating amongst white collar employees, Japanese sumo wrestlers and teachers were often attributed to how incentives were dished out.

Quoting a US Department of Education's monumental study called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), the authors also debunked common myths about parenting. According to the ECLS, the eight factors that correlate most highly to school test scores were related to who the kids parents were (high education, high socio-economic background, mother 30 or older at the birth of first child, involvement in the PTA, child has many books at home) as opposed to what they did (move to better neighbourhood, bring the kid to museums, spanking, television viewing, or reading to one's kids). In other words, during the early years of a child, nature (which purportedly exerts 50% influence on personality) triumphed over nurture (the other 50%).

Perhaps the most remarkable and blood chilling story in the controversial compendium is that of how the true cause of the remarkable dip in crime in the United States was due to abortion. Citing how the federal legalisation of abortion in the US in the early 1970s resulted in plummeting violent crime in the 1990s, the authors propose that the additional kids who would have been born if abortion remained illegal are more likely to be criminals in their late teens.

By allowing would-be mothers in trying circumstances - teenagers, unwed mothers, as well as alcohol and drug abusing women - the right to choose abortion, the American authorities have inadvertently averted youths with a higher propensity to commit crime from being born. While this approach is rife with moral questions, the authors stated clearly that they do not take any high ground in their approach.

In summary, Freakonomics is a wonderful intellectual romp which overturns what you often thought of as the gospel truth - often in the most delightful way. I'm certainly looking forward to reading the authors' part two called Superfreakonomics. Meanwhile, do follow the Freakonomics blog if you'd like to be posted on the "hidden side of everything".

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Don't Make Them Go Uphill

Don't make your customers go on an uphill battle (Source)

As I was running this morning, I've noticed a very interesting observation at the jogging track on a little hillock near my home. This was the same place I've gone for my regular exercise for close to 8 years. Its a little loop which goes for about 680 m per round.

Almost everybody was going in the same direction (except me - I've got a thing for running against the human traffic...;)). What's more, they were all IGNORING the directional signages painted on the track which said "START" and "END" along a certain path.

Perhaps what's also pertinent was that the human flow has always been in that same direction (and I've always been the 'naughty' one). Nobody really bothered about the newly painted signs and indications.

This led me to wonder two things and their relevance to marketing:

First, almost everybody is a creature of habit. I believe that many moons ago, the pioneer batch of hillock track exercisers must have followed a specific path. More and more people followed that direction and this led it to become the 'default' way to jog.

In a similar way, advertising and marketing should look at what people are comfortable doing and find a way to blend into their lives. While there may be occasions where creative products and services could become game changers, the likelihood is that most seek to solve an existing problem or provide a current need. Don't try to go against the grain of conventional human behaviour, unless you're willing to invest sufficiently in that exercise.

Second, people are intimidated by high humps and barriers. In the jogging track, the preferred direction has gentler uphill climb compared to the other direction which has a steeper terrain. From the starting point at the bottom of the hillock, it appears that one way to start could be easier than the other.

Likewise, effective marketing should garner low hanging fruits initially so that consumers are lured into the bigger business proposition. Don't make it so creative and mind boggling for your potential target audiences that they ignore your initial messages - unless of course your target audiences love them. Any pioneering efforts should be easy enough to understand, appreciate and adopt.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ship Ahoy! Aboard the Legend of the Seas

Courtesy of MaritimeQuest

At the kind invitation of and Royal Caribbean Cruise, I had the chance to glimpse into the jetsetting - or rather seafaring - lifestyles of the rich and famous on board the "Legend of the Seas". It was a novel and eye opening experience considering the number of things one can do on board (you can check out the virtual tour here too).

Inaugurated on 16 May, 1995, the sizable passenger liner could take a full load of 2,074 passengers. Measuring close to 300 metres and weighing in at almost 70,000 tonnes (some of those in Europe are twice as heavy), the massive cruise ship provides endless entertainment through indoor and outdoor facilities like a rock-climbing wall, outdoor pool and jacuzzi, miniature golf course, bar and lounges, glass-walled dining rooms, a mini shopping mall and a casino (of course).

Ready to embark on a vicarious tour of the Legend of the Seas? Get ready to set sail!

Legends of the Seas
Eager beaver bloggers awaiting their turn to check in. It was quite a wait in view of the recent heightened security measures.

Legends of the Seas
Thematic artworks like these featuring Neptune (or Poseidon?) could be seen throughout the ship.

Legends of the Seas
Go ahead and drink like a sailor (only if you're a ship guest)!

Legends of the Seas
A magnificent 3D installation artwork adorned the cavernous atrium of the vessel.

Legends of the Seas
No excuses for not dressing up for tonight!

Legends of the Seas
At the Anchors Aweigh lounge, we were briefed on the details of the blogging contest where real trips (our ship was actually, er, docked to the shore) of up to a 7D5N fly cruise of the Mediterranean could be won.

Legends of the Seas
Shop till you drop as the Great Singapore Sale can be found here everyday.

Legends of the Seas
A golden globe showing the seven seas.

Legends of the Seas
Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream! For those thirsty and tired moments.

Legends of the Seas
We next peeked into the cabins, disturbing the housekeeping staff amidst their chores.

Legends of the Seas
Here's a standard, no-frills room with just a bed, bottles of mineral water, and a tiny TV of the ancient variety.

Legends of the Seas
As we "upgraded" from room to room, you can see more furniture - and happy bloggers - in the rooms.

Legends of the Seas
See what I mean!

Legends of the Seas
At the top notch Royal, Rembrandt and Owner's suites (the staterooms), the bathrooms were gorgeous too.

Legends of the Seas
Hardcore geeks can stay connected at these internet enabled PCs...

Legends of the Seas
....bookworms can sink into a sofa with their favourite tome at the library...

Legends of the Seas
...while gamblers can have a game of mahjong, poker or bridge at these tables here.

Legends of the Seas
Next, its food glorious food at the Windjammer. Unfortunately, we can only stare and salivate...

Legends of the Seas
Shiny happy and satiated people were abuzz with conversation. I figured most of them were Indonesians going by their accents. "Apa kaba?"

Legends of the Seas
Those with tiny tots can deposit them here at a children's playroom. Of course tired parents and adults could also park themselves here.

Legends of the Seas
Finally, a view of the deck, complete with swimming pool, jacuzzi, whirlpools and deck chairs.

Legends of the Seas
9-hole mini golf for those who wish to practise their putting (not too far dear, as the ocean doesn't need golf balls to thrive).

Legends of the Seas
And of course, a rock wall for those who wish to live life to the edge.

Legends of the Seas
The best part of the tour was the friends whom I've made and caught up with, plus the food at the Romeo and Juliet restaurant.

Legends of the Seas
Bon appetit!

For the full set of photos, check out the slideshow below:

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to Keep the Flame Burning

Creating Exhibitions @ Science Centre
Flames like this YOG one require lots of work to keep going (at Singapore Science Centre)

Perseverance and "stick-to-itiveness" are vital virtues in any personal, social or professional endeavour. Almost anybody who has accomplished anything substantial in any undertaking would share that age-old adage. Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" spelled that well with the "10,000" hour rule. You must have also heard of how Rome wasn't built in a day.

However, gritting your teeth and slaving to the grind isn't the easier thing in the world. There are multiple sources of distraction, both online and offline, that may conspire to rob you of your resilience. After all, we now have multiple MMORPGs, marvellous movies, mile-long malls, and of course lots of makan places to check out.

How can one stick to the long, convoluted and occasionally difficult course in any project, job, or hobby? Are there ways to build a "thicker skin" and to improve our adversity quotient?

Here are some practical tips that you may wish to consider:

1) Stick to a regular daily or weekly schedule. Human beings are creatures of habit, and we tend to return to activities that we are familiar or comfortable with over the long run. For me, I've always made it a point, no matter how busy I am, to put some time and energy aside to compose a post for my blogs (this, and another more light-hearted one here) and to do this when I'm most fresh in the morning (which can be as early as 5 am).

2) Do not be enslaved by your communication devices, but make them work for you. I find that "always on" communicating platforms like push-email and Instant Messaging is good to get a quick pow-wow every now and then. However, they can also trap you into a endless spiral of low productivity and ceaseless gossip if you don't control them. Learn when to log off so that you can focus on longer periods of concentrated work.

3) Take time to immerse yourself in knowledge acquiring activities for at least an hour or two each day. This can be as simple as reading a good non-fiction book (I'm almost finishing "Freakonomics" now), attending a lecture on an inspiring and interesting topic, or discussing an intellectually stimulating subject matter with experts. Remember to re-fuel your mental and emotional batteries with the right kind of stimulation.

4) Keep away all distracting thoughts/influences when focusing on the task at hand. Other than switching off or logging out from your multiple screens - both mobile and desktop - find a place where you can concentrate 100% on the key task with minimal external interruptions. Is there a room that you can use for such a purpose? If not, consider waking up an hour earlier (or sleeping an hour later) so that you have extra time to focus on that long-term pursuit.

5) Finally, and very importantly, remember to rest. The best way to maintain your mojo amidst the cares and turmoils of this world is to take a break now and then. Get away from the screen, take a long slow walk, or just lie on the bed....and... sleep! If at work, see if you can walk somewhere close to a garden or park for a bit of "me time" while emptying your mind for a while. Doing so would help you to recharge and keep those cylinders burning for the longer haul.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Makes Social Media Producers Tick?

We are weird creatures! (source)

One of the advantages/disadvantages of being an obsessive-compulsive blogger is that I not only dig the various theories of Influence 2.0, but live them on a daily basis too. While not all bloggers are alike - just as not all mothers, students, pastors or criminals are - there are certain traits which make us hardcore content producers who we are.

To make it easier for you to remember, let us term them the five Os of social media content producers.

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of such a person is their relative OBSESSION with getting fingers to keyboard/button/touchscreen. True blue social media content producers love to tweet, update their Facebook statuses, blog, email, or jot down little notes of wherever they do. Many are also extremely trigger happy with their cameras - just notice how many photographs a typical blogger takes on any occasion!

Coupled with the first trait are the usually pronounced powers of OBSERVATION which go with the territory. Like the citizen journos/reporters/online diarists that they are, social media producers have a keen eye for the smallest details - a poorly written signboard, a peculiar person walking on the street, or a (God forbid) accident complete with flames and fumes. Nothing is too trivial for a roving eye equipped with a mobile camera phone with 3.5 G connection!

Naturally, social media content czars can also be OBSTINATE at times. I mean this in both a positive and a negative sense, being such a person myself. Equipped with a strong sense of activism, bloggers occasionally model themselves as champions for consumer rights, alternative preferences, or environmental causes. Many also have a strong and distinct point of view.

As online columnists and opinion leaders/shapers - be they to a crowd of 10, 100, or 10,000 - social media producers view themselves as somewhat ORACULAR in nature. We love to offer our opinions and insights on any situation that we report on, occasionally teasing it apart and breaking it down into its component parts. Again, this is related to the previous point on being an analytical or moral voice for various positions and situations.

Finally, as most social media content producers are doing it on their own free time, we need to consider that they are doing it during the OTHER 8 HOURS. What this means is that bloggers, youtubers, flickrers and twitterers are often doing what they over and on top of their regular 9 to 5 (or sometimes 9 to 9) jobs. The key drivers for them are thus passion and interest, and we all know how strong those qualities can be. As they usually don't make a living out of this, their motivations are slightly different from paid journalists or producers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Do Women and Geezers Have in Common?

Give up? The answers, according to uber guru Tom Peters and Martha Barletta in their slim volume Trends are oodles of cash, purchasing power and huge influence.

Written in Peters' no-holds-barred, rant-heavy and straight talking narrative, Trends provides lots of facts, figures and anecdotes to show that women and Baby Boomers are probably the two largest blindspots in the eyes of marketers everywhere. With a steely-eyed determination to tear down age-old prejudices against the "weaker sex" and "old geezers", Peters and Barletta described how myopic views of catering largely to "White men in the 18 to 44 age group" have resulted in organisations neglecting huge markets worth "trillions of dollars".

Consider the following facts and figures (in the US, as of 2005) about women consumers as cited by the authors:

1) Women constitute 43% of Americans with $500,000 or more in net worth.

2) Women account for a mammoth 80% of all spending decisions in US households, especially in big ticket items like home furnishings (94%), vacations (89%), kitchen appliances (88%), new homes (75%) and healthcare (80%).

3) Women buy more than 60% of new cars, and 66% of new computers (yes, the new geek is a girl).

4) American women account for "earth's largest economy" at a whopping US$7 trillion in total!

We are women, hear us roar (even in the Muslim world)! (source)

Focusing on women for the first three-fifths of the book, the authors give evidence of how women operate differently from men. Citing differences in gender culture, the authors listed out a whole barrage of "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" pointers:

- women tend to think in terms of "we" (peer) while men think in terms of "me" (pyramid)
- women want trust, while men want respect
- women affiliate while men differentiate
- women laugh with, while men laught at (quite a strong assertion in my view)
- men connect through competition, while women connect through commonality
- women seek understanding while men seek solutions
- women get personal, while men stay detached

...and perhaps the most incriminating 2...

- women do it all at once (multi-task), while men do only one thing at a time
- women maximise while men prioritise

To solve this huge divide, several solutions in marketing to women were proposed. Instead of thinking "pink" for example, marketers should look at the various stages of the sale (ie initiation, research, interaction, maintenance, and post-purchase aftermath) to see how they can tell rather than sell to women (WOM is short for Word Of Mouth, but its also the first 3 words in WOMan). Time saving and family convenience are also critical qualities for women, who not only have to work but manage the bulk of household and child rearing chores.

With their higher people orientation, women customers are also most receptive to advertisements showing real people (not supermodels) and adopt context rather than features (eg a car that you can drive to office, home or school, as opposed to its horsepower and torque). Retail outlets should also be designed with women's smaller physiques and need to multi-task in mind (eg having banks, florists, tailors, laundries alongside grocery stores).

In the remaining one-third of the book, Tom implores you to reject "It's 18-44, Stupid!" and to embrace "18-44 is Stupid, Stupid!". Once again, there are trillions up for grabs, with statistics showing how powerful the 50-plus silver generation can be:

1) 79% own their own homes;

2) They buy 41% of new cars and 48% of all luxury cars;

3) They account for US$610 billion in healthcare spending, and for 74% of prescription drug spending;

...and yet, according to the authors, they are the target of only 5% of advertising dollars!

Who says we're too old to party? (source)

Paying special attention to the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the authors (whom themselves are boomers) assert that the mature market is no longer a niche relegated to retirement homes and wheelchairs. Through education, fierce independence, and raised expectations, baby boomers in their golden years would like to live life with a far greater vengeance and the good thing is that they have BOTH the time and the money to do so.

As a matter of fact, seniors accounted for about 5% of 8.5 million plastic surgeries conducted in the US alone! Women 65 and older also spent US$14.7 billion on apparel in 1999, which is almost as much as that spent by 25- to 34-year-olds.

The holy grail of marketers as cited in the last chapter are women aged 50 and up - what Barletta considers PrimeTime Women. Unlike how the mass media (and Hollywood) paints them to be (poor, sad women whose children have left home!), mature ladies are said to be in the happiest stage of their entire lives.

Other than controlling a higher percentage of disposable wealth (91% if Baby Boom women enjoy financial management responsibilities in their households), PrimeTime Women also have greater levels of testosterone than their younger selves. This interesting nugget results in them being more assertive and confident than ever before (ie Goodbye, SUV. Hello, Lexus or BMW or Ferrari). Being more intuitive and less calculative than men of the same age, PrimeTime Women couldn't care less about celebrity endorsements and are instead, more concerned about leaving behind a positive legacy.

Martha Barletta is an example of a Prime Time Woman herself

Overall, the book was a refreshing read and provided much food for thought. While some of the strategies appear more relevant for the American rather than Singaporean market - many of our seniors here spend their time looking after grandchildren - there are some truths that one should behold. It is also critical to consider them in light of our fast greying population.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lessons from an Infinitesimal Microbe

Be like the bacteria which killed these obnoxious aliens! (source)

If you've watched or read "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells, you would have known that it wasn't a nuclear bomb, powerful phasers, or anti-matter guns which decimated the seemingly omnipotent aliens. Instead, what swung the odds in our favour were the microscopic bacteria which overcame the foreign invaders.

Indeed, there are lots to learn from the tiniest yet most insidious organisms on Earth. From plasmodiums to fungi to bacteria to viruses, these parasitic life forms are so hugely successful that they have spawned the multi trillion dollar global healthcare and medical industries.

Despite mankind's valiant efforts to fight and eradicate these numerous hidden enemies with the latest and greatest of science, medicine, engineering and even holistic healthcare, they appear to effortlessly turn the odds in their favour, re-emerging with newer and more virulent strains.

Are there business lessons that we can learn from these influential (and irritating) life forms? Let us consider the most potent (pun intended) of them all.

Spread Your Resources in the Right Places and Channels

A major reason for the massive spread of microbes is that they are omnipresent. Almost every habitable niche - air, land and sea - have these microscopic denizens (perhaps save for freezing cold or burning hot climates). Having said so, these pathogens are not stupid. While spreading themselves far and wide across different natural and man-made regions, they are selective in where they eventually land and seed themselves. Often, they employ the help of the right vectors of disease like mosquitoes (for malarial plasmodiums) for instance. An example is the heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) as shown below.


Likewise, one should explore various niches and platforms in business. Do not place all your eggs in one basket if you're uncertain about the viability of that venture. Instead, seek ways to ameliorate that risk by ensuring that your products and services are placed appropriately, and that your advertising/publicity messages are in the right channels. However, do ensure that these channels will work for you and study the environment well before investing and expanding.

Leverage on the Power of Crowds

Micro-organisms by their individual selves are extremely weak and fragile. However, their advantage lies in their abilities to multiply quickly and spread forth, both within their victims and when infecting a new vector. Their net effects of potent biotoxins and cellular transmutation (particularly for viruses) help them to enlarge and expand their colonies, occasionally eliciting such major damage that they end up killing their hosts.

In the business context, one should also spread one's network far and wide in the right media and channels. Like the microbes, find ways to "transmit" your message as far and wide as possible, from one person to the next. I guess everybody knows where the inspiration for the word "viral marketing" and "influence marketing" (from influenza or flu) comes from. :)

Harness External Resources

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about micro-organisms, particularly viruses, is their ability to use their host body's own genetic and cellular material to generate their own. If you study the life cycle of how viruses replicate, you will marvel (and perhaps shudder) at how they inject their own viral genetic material (called Ribonucleic Acid or RNA) into the host cells which result in their victim's cells becoming factories of new viruses.


While I'm not suggesting that businesses should be parasitical in nature, there is a grain of wisdom in leveraging on external help when expanding one's enterprise. Other than the more obvious capital that one can seek from investors or banks, one could also explore various forms of partnerships and alliances with kindred businesses. These can be suppliers, vendors, distributors, agencies or other channel partners. Of course, while the viral mode of expansion is often malignant, business partnerships should (theoretically) be benign and symbiotic in nature.

Fail Fast and Fail Cheap

Unlike anthropomorphic depictions of bacteria or viruses, most do not have familial connections or feelings. As you would have guessed, gazillions of microbes get exterminated each minute, be they through the body's own biochemical defences or the latest patented superdrug. Despite these losses, these virulent organisms are still around, with the fittest in the family surviving the attacks and passing on ever stronger genes to the next generation of germs.

In a similar fashion, do not hesitate to let your most pathetic products or services die a natural death. Cut losses when you see that a fabulous new item on the menu is no longer fabulous, the latest technological invention appear to be flailing, or when a popular outlet becomes deserted. Sentimentality doesn't get you anywhere when pitted against the scourge of a hypercompetitive marketplace.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Outliers - The Story of Success (Book Review)

In a similar vein to earlier titles like The Tipping Point and Blink, acclaimed nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell spins a fascinating tale on what made people remarkable in Outliers - The Story of Success. Part sociology, part psychology, part genealogy and part history, Outliers presents a central thesis about success, which I quote from the book cover:

"'s as much about where we're from and what we do, as who we are - and that no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone."

Obviously some of the lessons in the book are not new, especially in the first section on Opportunity.

For example, the fact that one has to slog buckets to achieve anything great - an idea that is elegantly captured by Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule". Almost everybody cited in Gladwell's book, from Bill Gates to Bill Joy, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, to Joe Flom are obsessively hardworking, putting in numerous hours to sharpen their craft.

The other point - that child geniuses not given the right opportunities in life may fail to succeed - is also common knowledge. Two whole chapters were spent elaborating this point, citing how MENSA superstar Chris Langan ended up being a bouncer on Long Island. I've seen this happen in my lifetime too, when old primary school mates who topped the class have fallen off the wayside later in life.

Others, however, were downright mystifying. One of them was how birthdates played a key role in determining success in sports and early "gifted" programmes. Kids born at the start of the year (say January) tend to be bigger and more mature compared to their peers at the end of the year (November or December). They thus have an advantage over their counterparts from the onset in the current academic system, especially if the selection process (in Singapore, we call it "streaming") pigeon holes them into different classes.

What's especially disturbing in this case is that the extra hours of training, practice and lessons coupled with the opportunities provided by better teachers/coaches tend to widen the gap. Gladwell felt that such practices of premature selection may do more harm than good as it leaves out an entire talent pool.

The more controversial second part of the book dealt mainly with cultural legacies. Here Gladwell dictated how ethnicity and family histories played major roles in personal accomplishments.

Tracing the socio-cultural and economic backgrounds of American immigrants - from Jews to Southerners to Asians - Gladwell argued that plane crashes, family feuds, and success in maths were outcomes of socio-cultural and hierarchical practices in different hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.

As an example, he cited that the high power distance between different ranking staff amongst Colombians and Koreans led to a greater percentages of commercial plane crashes relative to a cockpit staffed by Americans or Australians. The reason for this was due to the lower willingness of first pilots to voice out their concerns when the captain was in the pilot's seat.

Being a person of Chinese ethnicity and a Singaporean, I was especially intrigued by the chapter on rice paddies and mathematics. The basic premise was that the "meaningful" work (if you can consider it so) of cultivating rice on paddy fields coupled with the efficient and systematic way in which numbers are used in Chinese have helped us East Asians to be superior in mathematics. Of course, the long backbreaking hours (3,000 hours for a rice farmer versus 1,000 hours for a Western wheat farmer) have also fostered an almost indefatigable work ethic in us Asians.

Unfortunately, this is where I differ in view. While Singaporean students have constantly topped international Mathematics and Physics Olympiads, it is a far stretch to attribute it to our rice planting culture since we never really had one in the first place. Moreover, mathematics like almost every non-language subject here, is taught in English using Hindu-Arabic numerals (ie 1,2,3,4,5 etc...).

Ending the book on a personal note, Gladwell depicted how his mother's own mixed ancestry have resulted in a positive family legacy, skillfully weaving all the different threads in his thesis into a fairly coherent argument.

The moral of his story is that it takes a village to raise a winner, and despite what Frank Sinatra sang, nobody who succeeded in life have truly done it "My Way".

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Blending Interestingness and Intensity

Interestingness is often found in the world of art (source)

Anybody who is plugged into the new world of marketing knows that the centres of gravity have shifted. With the gradual death of the "hard sell" marketer, consumers are increasingly attracted to a new breed of advocates and influencers. This new generation of opinion leaders and shapers are found both inside and outside today's organisations. While some are cultivated and groomed, many are accidental rather than intentional.

These new group of influencers have two things in common:

Interestingness and Intensity.

The first quality Interestingness, according to the Free Dictionary is "the power of attracting or holding one's attention (because it is unusual or exciting etc.)"

Interestingness is the state of being unique, fascinating and attractive. Other than differentiating oneself from the hoi polloi, being interesting also requires one to be endearing to one's followers/readers/fans. It means daring to challenge conventional wisdom, not just for the sake of being different, but with the intent of finding a niche that people will care about.

The next quality highlighted above is Intensity. By now you would have learnt that success in any endeavour doesn't just happen by accident. Those who are able to attract huge groups of followers are highly focused on their craft, honing, refining and improving whatever they're doing, post by post, video by video, photo by photo.

Think of the most popular bloggers out there and notice how much effort they put into each and every post. Like good producers of content in any other media, social media influencers pay special attention to the way in which their photographs are taken, the way in which their blogs are designed, the frequency of updates, as well as ensuring that they are thematically consistent.

Being a good blogger, flickrer, and youtuber is bloody hard work!

Like a well respected professional, influential content producers are well regarded in their areas of specialisation - business, food, fashion, art, knitting, gardening or lifestyle. But wait, there's more. Influencers can also be specialists in the more kooky and unconventional arenas like slapstick humour, political parodies, bitching about life, bikini babe pics, or even "partying till you drop".

The thing is that you need to have an area of depth, expertise and knowledge and to stick to it. Oh, and make sure that people care enough about it - there is an antonym to interestingness called boringness, by the way...

As arbiters of taste and style in a specific genre, influencers are usually thought provoking in the way they tackle specific topics. Very often, they're au fait with the latest and most widespread tastes, wants and needs of their followers. This can of course be rather idiosyncratic, and vary widely according to the tastes of their followers.

The next time you consider ways to build up your personal or corporate brand, consider embracing both interestingness and intensity in producing, filtering and disseminating content. Through this dual approach, you can position yourself or your organisation as a thought leader, taste maker and trend setter in specific domains. This is especially critical in areas that you or your organisation makes a living from.

Who knows, you may hit upon something big - or at least have fun doing it!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Insights from an Invading Alien

Singapore's Most Common Bird - the Javan Mynah (courtesy of Taking Up The Challenge)

That bird above, the Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus), is the most common bird species in Singapore. You can see its black feathered wings with dashes of white fluttering everywhere around our island.

The Javan Myna has an amazingly liquid voice that allows it to imitate a range of calls into its repertoire, emanating through its characteristically yellow beak. It nests practically everywhere - on buildings, on trees, in padi fields, in drains, in roofs - and is abundantly successful in almost every habitat.

Pecking at practically anything and everything - scraps of meat, leftover food at hawker centres, worms in wet fields, insects, plant seeds - the Javan Myna is omnivorous and opportunistic. It is such a voracious species that it is fast displacing its conspecific cousin, the ironically less ubiquitous Common Myna.

Perhaps the most startling fact is that the Javan Myna (as its name proposes) is an invasive species. In other words, its an alien...

OK, maybe not this kind of invasive alien! (source)

What lessons can we learn from this successful avian alien?

First, be opportunistic and look for hard-to-access niches. Unlike some of its more reticent feathered foes, the Javan Myna is extremely adaptable and seeks all kinds of niches for its home. To be successful, we need to be equally adaptable and look for market spaces that are unfilled, or be willing to embark on new ventures that may be shunned by others. By looking for the inaccessible or specialised spaces, we can reap rewards that are less apparent to others.

Second, don't be too fussy (at least from the onset). A key survival strategy of the Javan Myna is its ability to survive on an almost universal diet. It exploits different forms of food - hawker centre scraps, garbage remains, insects etc - and is willing to eat whatever rubbish others leave behind.

In a similar fashion, we shouldn't try to aim so much for perfection that we miss the low hanging fruits in life, love, and business. Whatever does not kill us will only make us stronger as we build our personal or professional enterprise, brick by brick, morsel by morsel.

Third, crowdsourcing works! Considered one of the most gregarious creatures, Javan Mynas often flock together when feeding, roosting or making a public nuisance of themselves. There is power in doing things in a group.

Likewise, trying to do it alone on your own steam may be difficult without the support of your community. Working with your family members, friends, colleagues, or club mates may be profitable than slogging it out alone as they can help you to look for blind spots, alert you to dangers, and combine their resources.

Fourth, venture boldly into new territories and don't be shy. Study how Javan Mynas behave at hawker centres and coffee shops and be amazed at their temerity. Darting in and out of tables, they seize every chance they can to grab a strand of noodle or an uneaten fishball despite the clear and present danger.

In a similar fashion, success is often predicated on one's willingness to break out of the mould and be noticed. Stand proud in front of an audience and fight your bashful monster. Fading into the background won't bring you recognition.

Finally (hat tip to Zoologist Sivasothi for this!), it is useful to note how the Myna also thrived when its biggest and baddest bully, the house crow, ended up inciting specific culling from the authorities. When its natural enemies were removed, the Javan Myna flourished in the landscape.

In a similarly Machiavellian fashion (although the Javan Myna's fortune wasn't entirely its own doing...), one could perhaps devise one's strategy around the saying "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". Find ways to eliminate the competition by forming alliances with folks who can help you to get rid of them!

It is interesting that so much life lessons could be gleaned from a morning having breakfast at a coffeeshop observing these birds!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Head or Heart? Dilemmas in Management


One of the most difficult and perplexing challenge facing leaders and managers today is the trade-off between using one's head and one's heart. Should decisions be made purely on a bottom-line basis, or should they be done in the interests of all stakeholders?

As you would have guessed, there are no easy solutions to this, considering the dynamics of the modern organisation and its multiple demands.

First, a survey of the two schools of thought amongst business gurus.

The former are what I would call the "Headmasters". To them, leadership and management is a rational, logical, analytical and structured proess. Strategy follows a clearly defined path, and the job of board members, executives, managers and employees is to adhere as closely as possible to this. Flow charts, boxes, maps and network diagrams are absolutely musts here, and everything follows a step-by-step pathway.

Embracing much of the textbook literature in MBA classes, purveyors of this approach usually hail from a more systems thinking background. They include Michael Porter (whose Five Forces still stand today), E. Jerome McCarthy (the famous inventor of the 4 Ps in the Marketing Mix), Philip Kotler, Robert Kaplan and David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard, Michael Hammer (of the infamous Business Process Reengineering which led to massive downsizing in the US), and of course W. Edwards Deming, the earliest perpetuator of the Quality Movement.

On the other side of the metaphorical management fence are what I would call the "heart and guts" management thinkers. While statistics and facts are important to this second group, they are usually adopted in a selective fashion to fit an existing hypothesis which they already have. Much of the gurus in this category use behavioural economics, psychology, socio-cultural studies, and history for their ideas.

Many of the inspirational writers/speakers, social media proponents and pop psychologists fall into this category. They include renowned Purple Cow author Seth Godin, bestselling journalist turned thinker Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point and Outliers fame), Daniel Goleman whose famous Emotional Intelligence ideas received tremendous traction, Nassim Nicholas Taleb of the Black Swan theory, and of course Anthony Robbins (Unlimited Power) and Stephen Covey (of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame).

(There are of course a lot more ideas and a lot more gurus, but you get the drift...)

In the increasingly complex modern workplace, traditional lines between departments, functions and personnel are fast blurring. The boundaries between office work and home life is also fast breaking down, with telecommuting rising to the fore, flexible workplaces, and of course the demands of a "24 by 7" customer. All of this adds up to more uncertainty, more changes, and of course added stress.

While this occurs, leaders are still held accountable for business results and performance. Whichever way you lean, it is undeniable that cash is still the blood that fuels organisational growth and health. The recent subprime mortgage scandals which led to the current great economic crisis (still playing in many parts of the world) has led many government legislators to impose new and more stringent measures of corporate and fiduciary governance.

Balancing the two spheres of influence is a complex issue that cannot be easily answered. Ultimately, every person who works in an organisation has to serve the interests of that organisation. While roles can be fluid and flexible to some extent, principal deliverables and responsibilities must still be made clear. At the same time, one should spend time listening, understanding and being empathetic to emotional concerns and feelings.

Of course, as Stephen Covey would have shared, one should try to think "Win-Win". Are there ways to merge corporate thrusts with personal and personnel concerns? Can we go for a compromise solution if it doesn't hamper the original intents of the organisation? What is the best way to reduce conflicts, gain buy-in, and minimise defections when introducing a necessary but unpopular new measure?

Honestly, I don't have the solution to these questions, but I believe that there are ways to manage the tango between the head and the heart. It necessitates one to switch quickly and dexterously between two modes - the analytical, calculative, and logical self with the intuitive, feeling and compassionate self.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

From Concern to Influence - Stephen Covey 101

7 Habits of Highly Effective People for Ah Bengs (Courtesy of

One of the oldest lessons from the incomparable 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is to be proactive.

What does being proactive mean? Well, here's what Covey's website has to say about proactiveness and its antithesis, which is being reactive:

"Being proactive is about taking responsibility for your life. You can't keep blaming everything on your parents or grandparents. Proactive people recognize that they are "response-able." They don't blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior.

Reactive people, on the other hand, are often affected by their physical environment. They find external sources to blame for their behavior. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn't, it affects their attitude and performance, and they blame the weather."

While proactive people focus their energies and attention on the things which they can change for the better - what Covey calls their Circle of Influence - reactive people channel their worries on things which they have absolutely no control over (Circle of Concern). This metaphor is diagrammatically represented below.

Being proactive means increasing your circle of influence (source)

On a practical day-to-day basis, how do we live proactively instead of reactively?

For a start, be courageous in stepping forth to correct what you feel are wrongfully done. Complaining and whining incessantly about your country, your company, your boss, or your colleagues doesn't change anything. What you should do instead is to take useful steps forward that can improve things.

For example, if you are pissed that there is somebody who is constantly badmouthing you in the office, go and approach him or her and talk it out (nicely at first). Similarly, if you see somebody littering on the floor or smoking in a non-smoking zone, take the step to remind them (tactfully and courteously) that what they're doing is anti-social and inconsiderate.

Don't let cancerous cells fester - get rid of them as soon as you can.

The next thing one could do is to surround oneself with positive folks in a can-do environment. There are certain people who have a toxic personality, and who always chooses to state that the glass is half empty. For sure there is a time and place to speak out against what is wrong about an organisation, a family member, or a restaurant. However, one should do it in the right constructive rather than destructive spirit. Focusing on the negatives all the time will lead to an inevitable downward spiral which is neither productive nor useful in the long term.

You may also want to embrace a hobby or a pastime where you have greater control over the eventual outcome. Like anybody else who works for a living, there is a limit to what I can do in the office although I try to do what I can to expand my sphere of influence. However, I know that on this electronic canvas, I can influence others - hopefully in a beneficial fashion - and achieve some form of self actualisation through the power of positive influence.

What tips do you have on living a proactive, engaged and influential life?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Service Failure at a Supermarket

Supermarket shelves should always be full stocked (source)

While grocery shopping recently, my wife Tina experienced an inexplicable service failures at one of the largest supermarket chains in Singapore.

The story went like this.

My wife was looking for ingredients to prepare a clam-based pasta with white-wine sauce. To give it a nice finishing touch, it was recommended that fresh parsley should be added to enhance the taste.

Off she went to this major supermarket, looking for the particular item. Unfortunately, when she arrived there in the afternoon, she saw that the herb was missing from the fresh produce section.

Apparently, this wasn't the first time that this popular cooking ingredient went out of stock, as astutely observed by my wife. On several occasions, the same vacant space greeted her from the vegetable shelves.

Being the never-say-die person that she is, my wife went on to ask a retail assistant why that particular produce was (and still is) always one of the first to go. Shouldn't the supermarket replenish it quickly to cater to popular consumer demand?

To her bewilderment, the staff agreed that parsley has always been a popular item and was always 'sold out' by a certain time of the day. This wasn't surprising as it occurred fairly frequently. The other culinary culprit was lemongrass. The response was given in quite a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner.

When my wife next enquired how she can be assured of getting it the next time she visits, the retail staff shrugged her shoulders. Another customer told her that she should visit a different supermarket (a more upmarket 'rival' chain) as they're bound to have the item in stock.

My wife was so flabbergasted by her experience that she went on to fill up a feedback form to be directed to the management of the branch. Apparently, this was the only action that the staff can take.

It is surprising in this day and age of pinpoint accurate Point-Of-Sale (POS) systems, Supply Chain Management strategies, and wholly integrated ERP systems that such omissions still occur at sprawling supermarkets. What's especially ironical is when the service award winning staff informs you about this fact in a smiling and friendly manner!

Hmmm.... I wonder if this is a case of system failure, human failure, or process failure?