Monday, December 31, 2012

Internal Drive Theory - Book Review

Life as a parent of schooling kids isn't a bed of roses.
After a hard day's work, you've got to become teacher, coach and mentor to your precious ones. You need to find ways and means to nurture in him or her the joy of learning while fighting fatigue. Exams. Tests. Music. Dance. Sports. CCAs. The list appear to never end.

And then, of course, there is the dreaded four-letter word - PSLE - to contend with.

What can parents do to ignite the passion of their kids to study?

Enter Internal Drive Theory: Motivate Your Child to WANT to Study. Blending theories in human motivation with practical tips and personal anecdotes, the book by motivational parenting blogger Dr Petunia Lee provides strategies to help parents motivate their kids to study. Armed with a PhD in Business Studies and years of experience in management consulting, Dr Lee's approaches are rooted in the fields of organisational psychology and behavioral economics.

Trademarked the "Internal Drive Theory", the methods described in Internal Drive Theory instructs parents to raise their kids' educational game from "level 1" (I study because my mother wants me to) to "level 3" (I study because I enjoy it). Collectively, these techniques seek to raise internal drive, motivation and energy levels for kids in studying.

According to Dr Lee, emotional support is critical. It is the source of emotional energy that helps one's kid to overcome difficulties during the journey. This is highlighted in the chapter on "Emotional Connection".  

Having a strong emotional bond with one's kid allows one to strengthen his/her self-efficacy (the ability to resolve issues using one's own strength), overcome difficult victories, and learn to see failure as an opportunity for learning. It also helps one to nurture and develop a positive "self concept" in one's child, and stretch him or her to set and achieve seemingly "impossible" goals.

To reinforce desired behaviours, we're encouraged to use Random, Intermittent and Variable Reinforcement (RIVR) ie unpredictable acts of intense expressions of love when a kid does something good. The flip side is RIVP - Random, Intermittent and Variable Punishment - when your boy or girl fails to follow through. Research shows that such interventions work better than anticipated ones.

In the chapter on "Structured Choices", we're urged to give our child a work goal choice, allowing him or her to make an unconscious commitment to focus on that goal. This has to be finely calibrated to the age of the kid and his/her prior training while providing lots of support.

We're further taught in other chapters to "focus on study process, not grades", as the right process accompanied by specific "informational feedback" helps a child to do better over the long run. Here, it is important to control one's emotions and not flare up if a child's results are poor so long as he/she adheres to the process.
The final two chapters focus on the need to "specify and magnify" incidents of positive behaviours (as opposed to fixating on the negatives), and to allow one's kid to engage in "physical movements" that help him/her to receive that shot of endorphin and feel recharged during gruelling sessions of study.

Written in an easily digestible first person narrative, Internal Drive Theory was a godsend for frazzled parents like my wife and I. What I especially like about the book are the personal anecdotes showcasing how Dr Lee inculcated internal drive in her son (codenamed "Little Boy").

An especially memorable story was the one where Dr Lee "psyched" her son to memorise 2,000 word Chinese essays during the school holidays, helping him to overcome his natural weakness as a "potato" child. Another anecdote exemplified how she helped Little Boy to erase his negative self concept of being a "poor student" to one who eventually topped his class.

While the lessons contained in the book are targeted at primary school kids, its universal principles can probably apply with older or younger kids. With their roots in HR and organisational psychology, I believe that such concepts can easily apply in the office.

To purchase a copy of the book, check out this link from Dr Petunia Lee's blog

Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Service Leaders Innovate

Sentosa's WAVE ensures that guest centric values are instilled in all employees (courtesy of Sentosa)

What distinguishes service stars from other establishments? Is there a magic formula?

Well, the answer is less to do with rocket science than with investing in people.

As a judge for the Singapore Experience Awards 2012, I was recently invited to the Singapore Experience Conversation organised by the Singapore Tourism Board. There, I had the privilege of learning from two of the tourism industry's brightest stars - Sentosa and the Lo & Behold Group (an F&B group comprising Loof, The White Rabbit, Overeasy, Tanjong Beach Club, and Extra Virgin Pizza). 

Speaking informally about their experiences, Sentosa's Lim Suu Kuan (my fellow exco member from ASA) and Lo & Behold's Andrew Ing provided many useful and practical insights.  Let me share some of the key highlights.

Investing in Good Staff

Awesome guest experiences begin from the people delivering the service. As such, it is paramount to invest heavily in staff. Training and equipping employees with the right skill-sets is key. Remuneration frameworks should also be geared towards talent attraction and retention.
At Lo & Behold, a radical idea is currently being explored to pay a lot more money to good staff, but work with fewer of them. This strategy may attract more Singaporeans to join the Food & Beverage industry and improve retention (high turnover is a huge bugbear in the trade). To do so, the feasibility of such operations needs to be carefully studied. For instance, it may be more practical for front of house operations rather than the kitchen.

Rewarding Service Excellence

Current reward systems for service staff are disproportionate to the value they provide. As such, it is necessary to tip the balance such that they take greater ownership of the guest experience. Greater mutual recognition of the service rendered would also be useful.

At Sentosa, both revenue and customer service targets are used to determine staff bonuses through a company-wide game. The quantum can be half a month's pay or more, depending on whether "stretched" targets are reached. To qualify for the "service bonus", it is compulsory for staff to attend a service-related course. This further perpetuates the value of service on the island.

Treating Customers as Guests 

In Andrew Ing's book, customer service isn't just about scripts but what people can do. One should think of one's customers as guests to one's home. Consider how you should serve them to make them feel comfortable and at ease. Such principles are embodied in a service credo (codenamed PASSION) for the Lo and Behold Group.

Collecting and Using Customer Feedback

All service businesses should proactively collect and use feedback. This includes scouring social media sites and responding to complaints strategically.

Onsite surveys and interviews can also be extremely useful. An example was a casino in Las Vegas which discovered that increasing the length of stay of a guest resulted in an increase in money spent.

Tapping Employee Knowledge and Insight

It is imperative for lifestyle businesses to harness the knowledge of one's frontline employees in any visitor experience strategy. At Lo & Behold, a staff suggestion programme is in place to gather any ideas for improvement. Staff are also given a budget to experience how service is like at their different outlets, and to suggest ways to improve them.

At Sentosa, employees are given the afternoon off four times a year to experience the island's many attractions from the guest perspective. This is further supplemented by an 8 week programme (3 hours per week) attended by staff where they design a process to enhance guest experience on the island. This provides a tremendous lift in their ability to sense how things are designed from the perspective of the guest.

Working with Multi-Disciplinary Groups

Having a multi functional team helps to provide different perspectives on the guest experience. In the case of Sentosa, both front-liners and corporate staff undergo the same training programmes in guest experience. Many incremental changes bubbled up from the staff involved in such programmes regardless of their functional expertise.

Deploy Technology Prudently

Technology is costly and legacy systems may cost millions of dollars to replace. To circumvent this, Sentosa opted to use whatever is available in the market, for example EZ Link technology to gain island entry. This helps to reduce guest inconvenience.

To further raise fascination amongst guests, Sentosa will deploy technology for guest engagement over the next few years. It will introduce a design thinking methodology to ensure that there is guest centricity in everything that they do - from the architecture of their buildings, customer processes, to staff-guest interactions.

Awesome Rallies and Talking Shop

At Lo & Behold, daily briefings called "awesome rallies" are conducted for staff on all its restaurants to share tips and insights while encouraging mutual learning. This spirit of communal learning helps ensure that good practices are disseminated amongst the team. Andrew also makes it a point to praise one of the staff everyday, using the principle of catching them doing right (as opposed to doing wrong) as a motivator.

In Sentosa, the service quality team meets staff to garner feedback from both frontliners and their supervisors in "talk shop" sessions. These cover areas such as the pain points of customer experience and ideas for improvement. Feedback from such sessions have led to the introduction of more water coolers, prayer rooms and cheaper food (fast food outlets) on the island.

Surprising and Delighting Guests

At Loof (a Lo & Behold establishment), staff has the discretion to reward a customer with a complimentary food item if he/she spends more than $50. Happily, such practices lead to the guests spending more money and time at the outlet. This apparently was a bottoms-up idea from a staff.

Naturally, the question then arises whether certain customers may take you for a ride. While that possibility may arise, Andrew felt that it was unlikely that the five out of 2,000 guests who do that will kill one's business. One has to be bigger than that.

Are the Customers Always Right?

An interesting discussion ensued on whether all customers are equal. Suu Kuan observed that in the US, guests are more forthcoming in saying thank you. Such a respectful attitude leads to a virtuous cycle of better service being provided. While Singapore service standards are comparable, our guests are far more demanding. Leading from this, what's needed was perhaps a campaign to educate and engage our guests and customers to be more realistic about service.

In the case of Singapore Airlines, a list of blacklisted passengers whom they do not want to fly is developed for its global operations. A similar practice is in place at Sentosa to ensure that staff are protected from abusive customers. At Lo & Behold, only guests who were a great nuisance would be banned.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

18 Minutes: A Book Review

"Time is the only element in the world that is irretrievable when lost.

Lose money and you can make more.

Lose a friend and you can patch up the relationship.

Lose a job and you can find another.

But lose time and it's gone forever."

So says a paragraph from Peter Bregman's volume of personal mastery and time management titled 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done. Author of a highly popular personal leadership column in Harvard Business Review, Bregman's book is liberally splashed with personal anecdotes to help you master the golden sands of time.

To embrace the principle of 18 Minutes, one should consider four basic steps.

1) Pause - Hover Above Your World

First, one should "slow the spin" and take a step back, freeing oneself from limiting beliefs, habits, feelings and activities. A brief pause allows one to re-orientate one's direction in life, recharge and rest to fuel one's mind and body, and to see the world as it is while coming to terms with who one truly is. It also allows one to tap deeply into resources that may have been forgotten, and to be open to the extraordinary potential of one's true being.

2) What is this Year About? - Finding Your Focus   

This next phase involves four key elements to narrow one's focus for the year ahead, namely:

a) Leverage your strengths - Play the game that is perfectly suited to your strengths. A classic example is how David beat Goliath by tapping on his speed, ability and aim to kill the 8 foot warrior using stones in a slingshot.

b) Embrace your weaknesses - Rather than avoid your quirks and eccentricities, you should find ways to make use of these "obsessions" such that they'll be an asset instead of a liability.

c) Assert your differences - Don't waste time trying to blend in. Instead, assert your unique points and capitalise on them as a competitive advantage.

d) Pursue your passion - You should also home in on what you love doing, perform activities that are so enjoyable that they feel effortless, and focus on things that have specific meaning to you.

Finally, you should channel your energies to just five impactful areas during the year. This segues nicely into the next part.

3) What is This Day About? - Getting the Right Things Done

The core component of the book suggests that one should plan for one's day by creating an "organising map" of to-do lists comprising the five key areas as well as another section called "The Other 5%" (nice to haves but less essential items).  Choosing what to ignore is just as important as choosing what to focus on.

With the organising map of 6 boxes in place, one should schedule one's priorities on the calendar for the day, making sure that things are not left on the to-do list for more than three days. The plan is summarised in the form of an 18 minute daily ritual which goes as follows:

Step 1 (5 minutes): Your Morning Minutes - Planning ahead in the morning before turning on one's computer by scheduling items in one's calendar.

Step 2 (1 minute every hour): Refocus - Setting a watch or phone to beep every hour as a reminder for one to take a deep breath and refocus on what one needs to do. This helps one to re-orientate throughout the day and to check to see that each hour is productively spent.

Step 3 (5 minutes): Your Evening Minutes - Reviewing at the end of the workday on how it went, what one learned about oneself, and whether there is anyone one needs to update and communicate with. 

4) What is This Moment About? - Mastering Distraction

This last section teaches us how to reduce distractions through three key ways:

a) Mastering Your Initiative: Creating an environment that compels you to do the things you want to do, using fun as a motivating factor, deploying fear and pleasure as catalysts of change, developing a good story about yourself, and choosing a "fantasy world" in your mind that supports you.

b) Mastering Your Boundaries: Resisting the temptation to say yes to others too often, being firm in saying "no" and meaning it, making good use of your transition time between activities, and scheduling specific times during vacations to take care of work related things (if at all).

c) Mastering Yourself: This final portion teaches us to use positive distractions to keep fear from disabling us, avoid multi-tasking (or switch tasking) due to its inefficiency, and embrace productivity doing things step by step rather than perfection. By getting things half right and involving others to complete them, the chances of success - and buy in - may be better.

Overall, 18 Minutes is a useful guide to those of us harangued by the endless list of chores that accompany modern day living. With its highly readable prose, the book helps us to reflect upon what's truly important in our lives and provides a practical way to reach our ultimate goal.

The challenge, of course, is having the discipline to apply what it preaches. This is especially difficult in an age of endless digital distractions.

Special thanks to Geraldine Kan for the review copy!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The 12 Leadership Principles of Jesus

The Nativity Cusco School from Brooklyn Museum (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Christmas is a most wonderful time of the year.

For some, it is a time of feasting, partying and making merry.

For others, it is a time to catch up with our long lost friends, renewing our ties of friendship.

For those in retail, F&B, and tourism, it is a super-peak period where oodles of cash can be made.

Of course, the real reason for Christmas is that it commemorates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ more than 2,000 years ago. His immaculate conception has been immortalised by the nativity scene - one of the most powerful emblems of Christianity.

While the birth of Jesus is a great cause for much celebration and cheer, it was His life, death and resurrection which truly impacted lives. Jesus was a wonderful leader, manager and entrepreneur, blazing new trails in spirituality which few could emulate.

As we celebrate the yuletide season, let us consider 12 powerful leadership lessons from the life of Jesus. 


Born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus grew up in austere beginnings as the son of a carpenter and his bride. While he knew from a young age that he was the Son of God, he did not behave in a manner that is befitting of royalty. Instead, he shunned the company of the rich and powerful or even the religious, preferring to mingle around with the "riff raff" of society. By becoming "one of the guys", Jesus was able to lead powerfully and influentially. He did not simply preach from the pulpit with exhortations that sound good but mean little.

Mission Focused

From the start of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) to the end, Jesus has always spoken about his ultimate destiny. He knew that his life's purpose was to fulfill God's will and to save the lost souls in the world, and lived guided by these principles. By focusing single-mindedly on his mission, he was able to overcome temptations, torture and all manners of infliction to achieve his goal.


Of course, Jesus paid the ultimate price by dying for our sins on the cross. He did not flinch from the pain and shame of being associated with murderers and thieves despite being unblemished. While his death on the crucifix would cut short his career on Earth, Jesus knew that the bigger picture of achieving his mission here would be achieved.

Kindness & Compassion

Throughout his stint here on Earth, Jesus demonstrated great compassion for the people. He healed the blind, sick, and lame, and even brought the dead back to life. While preaching to a group of 5,000, he worried over their welfare and fed them with five loaves of bread and two fishes. By caring for the needs of his followers, Jesus amplified his message hundredfold.


Jesus knew that the best way to reach ordinary folk was through stories. Few could forget the stirring illustrations of the Kingdom of God told through the Parable of the Sower, the story of God's forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and of course how neighbourly love is demonstrated by the Good Samaritan.

Leading by Example

While Jesus was a great orator, his ability to influence wasn't due to his ability to teach alone. Instead, his entire life was one of leading by example. In the gospels, one could see that Jesus consistently showed how it was done by performing miracles and making constant references to the Word of God. Such acts provide a powerful testimony for others to follow.


In the Bible, we read that Jesus took time to fast and pray, seeking God's direction and strength. So great was his resilience that he managed to overcome the devil's temptations in the desert despite being considerably weakened after 40 days of fasting. Jesus also urged his disciples to lead lives that were worthy of God, keeping themselves free from the snares of sin.


One of the most vivid examples of Jesus serving his disciples was seen in the act of washing their feet over a meal one day. By doing so, Jesus showed that being a leader isn't always about commanding others. Instead, it is also in helping one's followers and "staff" to do better. Often, it also requires one to roll up one's sleeves and do the "dirty work".


Despite being a public figure, Jesus knew the importance of spending time alone, meditating and seeking God's will. He withdrew now and then from the crowd so that he could reflect upon his ministry. Such a lesson is especially timely in this day and age where we're constantly bombarded by "noise" from multiple offline, online and mobile sources.


Naturally, Jesus preached and demonstrated how to give by offering his life as the ultimate gift. He also urged his disciples to give away their possessions to the poor, and to forsake materialistic gain in favour of eternal pleasures. This lesson is shown by how loathed tax collector Zacchaeus transformed his life from miserly hoarding to generous giving after being touched by Jesus.


Perhaps the most famous management lesson from Jesus is that of evangelism. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus charged his disciples to "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost...". Also known as the Great Commission, this charge to spread the gospel message has obviously succeeded very well. 


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus' life and career was all about love. It was love which prompted God to send His only son Jesus to become a human being like the rest of us. It was also love that compelled Jesus to do the unthinkable act of enduring a painful death on the cross. Such passion propelled Jesus every step of the way, and underscored his teachings and miracles.

Let me now end with the most famous Bible verse of all. One that truly encapsulates the true meaning of Christmas.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:16

Courtesy of The Way Out There

Friday, December 21, 2012

7 Lessons from the Life of Pi

Few movies have impacted me as much as Life of Pi directed by Oscar winning Lee Ang based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel. With breathtaking cinematography, hyper realistic CGI and compelling acting, the movie was a visually spectacular work of art.

The basic premise behind the film goes like this:

Shipwrecked by a horrendous storm, a tiger (named Richard Parker) and a boy (named Pi) drifts away in the Pacific Ocean on a life boat. They weather thunderstorms, searing heat, and bone chilling nights, tormented by the endless waves. Through Divine providence, they manage to sustain themselves. 

After what seemed like an eternity, both boy and beast were saved. Many years later, Pi regaled the heroic tale to an author who went on to write about this saga at sea.

(Of course the film was a lot more than this - go watch it if you haven't done so!)

As I thought about the key themes of this "coming of age" fantasy adventure, I realised that there are some useful life lessons that we can distill here. For ease of remembrance, let us call them the 7 Rs.


As a polytheist, Pi's beliefs probably wouldn't gel with many of us. However, what was special about him was that he had a strong set of universal morals - an anchor which kept him going come hell and high water.

Having something to believe in is critical in keeping us going during both good times and bad. It helps us to weather the storms of life and provides comfort and guidance when we're afraid or lost. 


When Pi knew that his family was lost with the sinking ship, he wept profusely. However, his grief did not overwhelm him to the point of incapacitation. Instead, he quickly adjusted to the new reality of his circumstances and took whatever measures needed to stay alive.

Having both feet firmly planted on the ground is an important trait to have for all of us. While we should dream big dreams and unleash our imagination, we mustn't also forget the pragmatic realities of our situations.


From the time he was a little kid till the time he became a proud father, Pi's always demonstrated resilience. He overcame being teased and tormented due to his name and could withstand the tumultuous life of a castaway. 

It is important for us to overcome the adversities in our lives by gritting our teeth and bearing it. As the saying goes, tough times do not last, but tough people do.


To keep himself and his feline friend Richard Parker alive, Pi had to invent ways to feed both of them without becoming dinner himself. He created a makeshift raft to keep himself at bay from the tiger in the boat. He also found ways to fish for food when supplies ran dry.

While our circumstances are unlikely to be as life threatening as Pi's, it is always useful to consider Plan B (C or D). In an increasingly unpredictable world, being able to come up with alternative is a key trait to success.


In the movie, Pi eventually became "friends" with Richard Parker in a somewhat uneasy relationship. From the initial period when the tiger helped to dispatch the ravenous hyena to the latter moments when Pi fed him with fish, one could see that a certain bond was being formed.

The principle of reciprocity is an oft-preached one, but its application is fairly universal. In every negotiation that you do with another party, always consider how it can benefit the other party while not belittling yourself. Doing so would help ensure better outcomes, especially in dicey situations.


One of the ways in which Pi kept his sanity was his habit of keeping a journal. By scribbling on a little notebook, he thought through his experiences and was able to remain calm despite his adverse circumstances. This routine also kept him busy when the hours went by.

Being able to reflect is a key virtue for all of us. While some of us may keep a diary or a blog, others may want to simply take time off to ponder their encounters. Doing so allows us to analyse our faults, purge our fears, and steel ourselves for the road ahead.


Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Pi was able to bounce back to life. Despite losing his entire family, wealth, and even his carnivorous companion, Pi didn't bury himself in despair. Instead, he got back into the swing of things and managed to live a somewhat happy life in his new homeland.

In the same manner, we should escape from our emotional shackles and not be held back by our failures once we've crossed the hurdle. While we should learn from our mistakes, we mustn't be too caught up with our feelings that we get mired in the quagmire of despair.

Are there other lessons that you have learned from a recent movie that you've watched?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To Consult or Not To Consult?

Don't hire a consultant who doesn't look good in a suit (courtesy of consulta panel)

Are consultants a boon or a bane? Do they really help or hurt your organisation?

This is the question I've been asking myself lately. Tasked with improving things in the organisation, my mind reflected upon the pros and cons of hiring management consultants.

On the positive side, external advisors can help us to drill down to the real concerns surrounding an issue. Tapping on their years of experience, they can more easily diagnose the root causes of our problems.

Unhindered by organisational politics, consultants can speak their minds more freely.  This is especially important when dealing with loaded issues such as manpower rightsizing, business process re-engineering, and outsourcing.

With their breadth of knowledge in multiple fields, consultants are also able to mix and match the right strategies for one's corporate ills. They can widen our vistas and propose novel solutions - ones which we're too blinkered by our corporate lenses to consider.

Consultants can also equip us with the necessary skills through coaching, training and mentorship.

Having a third party examine your issues allows you to be one step removed from the action. As the saying does, a prophet often isn't welcomed in his hometown. Employees may also be more comfortable sharing sensitive views with an outsider relative to an insider.

However, it isn't all rosy.

Unlike the guys who have slaved away at the shopfront, consultants may not be domain experts in your field. They may not understand the intricacies and complexities unique to your trade.

While consultants can propose surveys, focus groups and ethnographic interviews to better splice and dice your customers, nothing beats having to deal with them on a daily basis at the frontline.

An over reliance on consultants also inhibits an organisation from developing its own point of view. Instead of looking towards their staff, executives end up seeking directions from an external advisor. This has two drawbacks:

1) The person may not understand the nuts and bolts of the business;

2) You end up alienating internal stakeholders who feel that their views are not valued.

Consultants are also not implementers. Hired more for their brains than their brawn, these wizards of flowcharts and spreadsheets do not have to live with the outcomes of their recommendations. Unlike employees, they do not have the burden of overhauling an archaic business process.

As a former boss of mine used to say, consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time.

How then should we engage consultants?

I believe that consultants are only useful if you're certain where you're going - at least in the broad sense. The clearer and more specific you can be, the better.

Organisations that are unsure of their own footing may want to first do a deep internal reflection. They need to ask themselves the difficult questions, ponder the possibilities in their heads, and arrive at some consensus of where they should be headed to before bringing in external experts.

One should also consider hiring consultants to augment rather than replace one's talent pool. Costing an arm and a leg (or more), consultants should only be leveraged on in circumstances where specialised expertise and skills are required.  

Consultants can only help you to draw the map and to chart the course. It is the leaders of an organisation and its crew that will land the ship safely onto the promised land.

What are your views on engaging consultants? Any stories to share?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The 3 Players in Content Marketing

Want to reach that guy staring at his laptop in Starbucks?

How about that lady furiously thumbing her smartphone?

Or that cute kid endlessly swiping a tablet?

The answer? Create great content.

In a world of endless screens large and small, compelling content will be key that unlocks doors. In developing content, however, one must consider the perspectives of three key players in the game.

I will go through each of these in turn, beginning with the most important.


Customers, like content, are also kings.

The world doesn't revolve around your enterprise and what it does. Nobody (beyond perhaps your chairman, CEO and Marketing Director) is interested in reading a "how great thou art" digital brochure. Corporate drivel is about as exciting as watching a tree grow.

Instead of piling on more press releases or accolades, why not focus on your customer's needs, wants and desires? Provide content that entertains, informs and helps your customer. Build communities that address issues which are related to your products or services.

A cooking oil manufacturer could offer healthy recipes and cooking tips. A grocer could provide ways to maximise one's trip to the supermarket. An accountant could supply tips on managing one's cash flow.

Opening Ceremony of Singapore YOG 2010

The keyword here is relevance. Is your content meaningful and useful to your customers?


The next stakeholder you have to consider are the connectors.

Also known as the influencers, these are the media owners, forumers, bloggers, YouTubers, Facebookers, and Twitterati who shape opinions. They are the "sneezers" who can help to trigger waves of influence to your target audience.

It is critical to create content that will carry weight with these influencers. Provide a reason for them to spread the word in their respective digital and physical real estates.

Develop fresh hooks and newsy developments that are buzzworthy. Consider how you can make it easy for them to share your content. Use images, videos, and sound bites to make it more multimedia.

Courtesy of Business2community

Most importantly, however, you need to ensure that the content resonates with these influencers. You should also cultivate relationships with these stakeholders such that they're more willing to help you.


Last, but certainly not least, consider how your content relates to your business.

Sure, it'd be great to churn out tips on fixing your home appliances or cooking a great pasta dish, but what relevance does it have to an insurance company? Sexy music videos of the latest K-pop stars are swell in generating traffic, but have little relevance to an education provider. On the other hand, they may be great for a retailer of MP3 players or other mobile entertainment devices.

A great example of a company with good relevant content is Blendtec with its unforgettable "Will It Blend" videos. Through the clever use of entertainment, humour and a little shock appeal, Blendtec has made its blenders stand out from its competition while showcasing their prowess in pulping anything under the Sun.

Like Blendtec, ensure that your content generates a return to your business. Creating great viral content isn't enough if it does nothing to drive interest and eventually revenues for your business.

Spend some time today understanding the motivations and needs of your three primary stakeholders. By doing so, you'll be able to generate content that is meaningful and relevant to your customers, resonate with your influencers, and profitable to your business.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Weird, Quirky and... Successful?

OK, maybe Lady Gaga's meat dress is a little too weird (courtesy of Crushable

Eccentricity isn't a liability. Run-of-the-mill is.

Think for a moment about the most successful rock stars in history.

Michael Jackson. Madonna. Lady Gaga. The Beatles.

What was the one thing which defined them? Well, they're all...err.... weird.

Ditto for corporate chieftains like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and Richard Branson. Each and every one of them are out of whack one way or another.  

Indeed, there is something to be said about obsessive-compulsive behaviours that transcend normality. Andy Grove (former CEO and Chairman of Intel) sums it up with his book title "Only the Paranoid Survive".

The truth is that being outstanding requires you to be a zealous, idiosyncratic and perhaps slightly lunatic extremist. You need to be so focused on being remarkable in your chosen domain that you shut out the rest of the world. At times, even eating, sleeping, and showering (ok maybe not showering) takes a back seat.

Art doesn't come from ordinary Joes working nine to five. It comes from those who are borderline insane.

A similar strategy applies in organisations. Those that distinguish themselves often have a cult-like working culture, with values, ground rules and norms that embrace a disproportionate focus on one or two things. This can be in providing extreme customer service (like Zappos) or in developing a perfectly designed product (like Apple).

If you want to be great, you need to make your own rules. You need to set yourself or your organisation appart from the hoi polloi. You need to be different, albeit in a meaningful way.

In other words, don't be strange just for the sake of being strange.

The moral of the story is this: If you can't fit in, don't.

Instead, embrace your inner weirdness and choose to make your crazed passion a point of strength. Focus on your uniqueness and make a point to excel in it.

Even if it gives others the heebie jeebies.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Dynamics of Social Ecosystems

In the age of the ubiquitous social web, business as usual is broken.

Empowered by social technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, consumers are sharing their brand experiences - good, bad or ugly. They are no longer content to "grin their teeth and bear it". In such an environment, companies can ill afford to bury their heads in the "mass marketing" sand.

What should we then do in this avalanche of channels, content creators and communities?

First, we need to understand the dynamics of our social ecosystem.

More than the sum of its different parts, a social ecosystem comprises the relationships and interactions between an organisation, its influencers and its communities on the social web. It is affected by the powers of different players in the social sphere, their relative interests (and disinterests), as well as the enabling role of social technologies.

One way to consider how these elements interact with an organisation's different functions is represented visually by Forrester's Nigel Fenwick below:

Courtesy of Nigel Fenwick

When thinking about one's social ecosystem, it is important to consider the new dynamics of the social web. Gone are the days where a company can monopolise its point of view using mass media channels like TV, radio, newspapers and outdoor media. With everybody staring into their screens, influence is now contained in a 2" by 3" device in the palm of your hand.

This democratisation of information and shift from organisational broadcasts to individual interactions can be represented by the diagram below:

Courtesy of Intersection Consulting

Against this backdrop of the social ecosystem and the new dynamics of influence, companies wanting to play in this space need to understand several fundamental points:

1) Cultural differences plays a huge role in generating social influence. While social technologies and tools may be somewhat similar from Seattle, Seoul and Singapore, the topics which catch people's interests are vastly different.

2) Key Influencers exert a disproportionate impact relative to other content generators. However, one should consider if these bloggers, Facebookers and Tweeters are relevant to one's product or industry. As it is, many "A list" bloggers already endorse multiple brands.

3) Different topics have different momentum and resonance. While luck and chance often plays a role in determining what spreads (and what doesn't), it is also paramount to understand the interests of one's influencers and communities.

4) Increasingly, everybody needs to be an organisational advocate (or at least not a deviant). In a hyper-connected social ecosystem, the audience is constantly watching and listening. As long as you're out in the social sphere putting up status updates, tweets, or posts, you're "live" on stage.

5) Transparency becomes a norm as information spreads easily and quickly amongst different players. While there will be trade secrets and confidential information which cannot be openly divulged (eg staff performances or R&D findings), the bulk of one's discussions can and should be open to the widest denominator.

6) More than ever before, relationship and reciprocity matters. Immensely. The chief reason why certain organisations and individuals can virtually do no wrong (while others get constantly castigated) is reflected in the investments they made into the emotional bank accounts of others.

7) Finally, and most importantly, everybody owns a piece of you. In other words, an organisation is no longer just represented by its assets, resources and people, but by its wider relationships, networks and nodes across the social web.   

Saturday, December 08, 2012

6 Reasons Why I Love Japanese Food

This platter of sushi and sashimi tastes every bit as good as it looks! Oishii desu ne!


Meaning "Welcome!", that ubiquitous greeting at Japanese restaurants everywhere immediately sets the tone for a unique gastronomic experience. You know that you're all set for an enjoyable encounter, and more often than not, you walk away satisfied and happy.

Food in Japan is big business. Just look at the number of F&B outlets, concessionaires, bento box retailers and snack outlets across the country. They surround the labyrinthine rail network in Japanese cities, and are a major export factor for the country.

Visit any major city around the world. Chances are that you'll find numerous Japanese restaurants sprinkled across the region.

What exactly makes Japanese dining so special? I believe there are several lessons here that we can learn from:

Awesome Aesthetics

Few cuisines around the world are as beautifully presented as Japanese food. Presentation and packaging takes on major importance here, as seen from how beautifully laid out dishes such as sashimi, sushi, udons, ramens, and rice dishes are made.

A case in point are the ornate bento boxes that are presented so lovingly that you feel bad for "destroying" the artwork!

Takeaway bento boxes are laid out like displays of art

Even breakfast at our homestay in Kameoka is presented so lovingly. Aren't these sausages and hash browns kawaii?

Superb Service

Naturally, this is a no-brainer. In Japan, practically all restaurants and cafes offer great service regardless of their sizes. They can be as tiny as 20 seater sushi bars or noodle joints to huge sprawling restaurants. Other than the enthusiastic greeting which welcomes you when you enter, waiters and waitresses are generally attentive to your needs. Many a sushi chef will also cater specifically to diner's request, subject of course to meeting their quality standards.

Kana Kana restaurant in Nara served great food with excellent service (with Yosuke and his lovely wife)

Theatricality and Drama

Japanese dining isn't just about taste but food theatre. In most of the Japanese F&B outlets that we patronised, the kitchen is always placed upfront in plain view of diners. This applies not only to Michelin starred restaurants but equally to small snack outlets. Food is prepared with much flair and aplomb by trained chefs, wowing diners with their culinary prowess.

Okonomiyaki chefs "performing" at a food court outlet in Odaiba

The streets of Dotonbori in Osaka is like entering a theme park for food!

Attention to Quality

Who hasn't heard the story of sushi chefs who wake at 4 am to purchase the freshest fish at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Or apprentices who had to slave away for years before being allowed to create a dish for diners.

In Japan, the quality of food, the way its presented, as well as its packaging is of utmost importance. Sadly, such qualities aren't necessarily translated into Japanese restaurants overseas.

Only the freshest ingredients are used for takopachi in Osaka's Dotonbori area

State-of-the-Art Technology

From conveyor belt sushi to food manufacturing, design and packaging, few countries in the world can beat Japan in the use of technology. Having said that, technology is used only for the dimensions of food where a human hand isn't needed to ensure taste or quality. Notice in the case of sushi restaurants that the slicing of the fish, cooking of the rice, and making of each sushi is still done by hand.

Our host family's kids using the touch display in a 110 yen sushi restaurant

A Japanese pancake manufacturing machine in a small snack shop in Asakusa

Packaging and Shop Design

The final dimension of Japanese food which makes it stand out from many others can be seen in the way it is packaged. Artificial "samples" of their food can be found in the glass display cases in many restaurants, while the packaging of snack foods are often exquisite and elegant. Special care is taken to ensure that shapes, colours and designs fit perfectly in a symphony of tastes and textures.

Sushi outlets often have enticing displays like this

Snacks are delicately presented in displays and packages like the ones here in Daimaru

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Great By Choice: Book Review

Why do some companies succeed in turbulent times while others fail?

Is there a "secret sauce" to enduring corporate performance?

I found the answers to these and more in Great by Choice, a highly thought provoking business book by bestselling Good to Great author Jim Collins and his partner Morten T. Hansen. Backed by nine years of rigorous and meticulous research - the book has more than 50 pages explaining their methodology - Great by Choice provides a nice blend of insightful analysis packed with intriguing anecdotes.

According to the authors, the secret of resilient companies which thrive under pressure is what they term as 10X Leadership. These protagonists were able to build enterprises that beat their industry averages in the stock market by at least 10 times (hence the name). Unlike lesser mortals, 10Xers do not believe that luck, chaos or any other external factor can determine their destiny.

The three core behaviours of 10Xers that differentiate them from comparison companies are highlighted below:

Image courtesy of Leader's Beacon

1) Fanatic Discipline - 10Xers are extremely consistent in action, adhering to strict values, goals, performance standards and methods. They are relentless, monomaniacal and unyielding in focusing on their quests.

Such organisational attributes leads to what is called the 20 Mile March. A good 20 Mile March has the following characteristics:

- clear performance markers;
- self-imposed constraints;
- are appropriate and specific to the enterprise;
- are within the company's control to achieve;
- are bound by a timeframe - long enough to manage, short enough to have teeth;
- are imposed by the company upon itself; and
- achieved with high consistency.

2) Empirical Creativity - Evidence shows that 10X companies aren't necessarily more innovative than their less successful competitors. However, they calibrate their creativity to a level of "threshold innovation", leveraging on empirical evidence (as opposed to hearsay or advice) to determine their courses of action.

Here, the principle of Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs apply. A bullet is a low-cost, low-risk, and low-distraction experiment that helps to empirically validate what works (and what doesn't). Based on the outcomes of that, 10X companies will then fire a cannonball, investing larger resources to enable disproportionate returns from concentrated bets.

3) Productive Paranoia - Always hyper-vigilant, staying highly attuned to threats and changes in their environment (even when things are hunky dory), 10Xers always assume that things may turn against them. As such, they prepare sufficiently through contingency plans, buffers and large margins of safety.

10Xers are not unyieldingly rigid. However, they are disciplined enough not to overturn their entire enterprise just because of changing circumstances.

A core philosophy of being paranoid is Leading Above the Death Line. 10Xers prepare for any unforeseen circumstances by building cash reserves and buffers (equivalent of oxygen canisters for mountain trekkers), bound their risk (death line risks, asymmetric risks, or uncontrollable risks), and practice zooming out, then zooming in

4) Level 5 Ambition (extreme personal humility blended with intense professional will) which is captured by the adoption of a SMaC recipe. SMaC stands for Specific, Methodical and Consistent.

A SMaC recipe is a set of "durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula". It is clear and concrete without fluff, precise in guiding an enterprise on what to do (and what not to do) while reflecting the outcomes of empirical validation and insight.

An example is Howard Putnam's 10 points at Southwest Airlines which includes cardinal rules such as the following:
- Remain a short-haul carrier, under two-hour segments;
- Utilise the 737 as our primary aircraft for ten to twelve years;
- Stay out of food services... and so on...

Tying up the above principles, the authors went on to conclude that 10X companies generate a better Return On Luck than their worthy competitors. Contrary to popular belief, these firms did not get more good luck or less bad luck than their comparisons.  By applying the leadership concepts above, however, they were able to survive better when hit with bad luck, and bounce back faster in times of good luck.

What I especially liked about the book was its effective use of adventure stories to bring forth key principles. They include Roald Amundsen's successful trek to the South Pole in 1911 (aided by an obsessive need for preparation); Malcolm Daly's rescue from Thunder Mountain in Alaska (positive return on luck aided by disciplined preparation); and David Breashears changing his mind about summiting Mount Everest at a critical moment to reduce his risk of failure.

These stories helped to flesh out the principles more vividly and to make them more memorable.

In summary, Great by Choice provides timeless management lessons that are especially relevant in an age of ever changing uncertainty and turmoil. Through empirical evidence and deep research, it reveals that that the most successful organisations adhere to sound timeless principles while retaining the flexibility to adapt to adverse situations. By staying focused and disciplined - a marathon rather than a sprint - these firms are able to thrive in adverse business climates.   

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

9 Elements of Japanese Aesthetics

I love Japanese art and culture. Almost everything about the country - from buildings to gardens, displays, products, advertisements, food, shops, train stations and people (especially people) - are enchanting.

While Japan does have its share of woes (don't we all?), few countries around the world are able to balance age-old tradition with modernity in such a harmonious fashion. This is especially true in the field of aesthetics and design, where almost everything in Japan is well conceived. You can hardly find an eyesore there!

After doing some research, I found this interesting post by Japan Talk on the "9 Principles of Japanese Art and Culture" and a similar entry on Wikipedia about Japanese aesthetics.  Reflecting upon my recent trip to Japan, I found that these precepts do ring somewhat true.

Let me now share these "truths" with some expansion, illustrated with photos from my trip.

1. Wabi-sabi 佗寂

The philosophy of Wabi-sabi is one of imperfection, impermanence and incompletion. In a sense, the very ephemeral nature of phenomena like Sakura (cherry) blossoms in spring or Koyo (red, yellow and orange leaves) in autumn are aspects of this value. Asymmetry, simplicity and modesty are also aspects of this value.

Tokyo Highlights (Nov 2012)
These masks in a shop at Asakusa reflect the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

The ephemeral nature of dazzling red and orange leaves of maple trees in Arashiyama are a reflection of wabi-sabi.

2. Miyabi 雅

Miyabi is about elegance, refinement and courtliness. It is about the elimination of anything vulgar or unsightly. Anybody who has visited Japanese toilets (don't we love them?) would appreciate how they sanitise the process of "cleaning up" so much more pleasant. The politeness, etiquette and helpfulness of Japanese people are also a reflection of miyabi.

Elegant ladies in their kimonos below a willow tree in Maruyama Park in Kyoto.

Isn't a sashimi spread like this the epitome of refinement?

3. Shibui 渋い or Shibusa 渋さ

The aesthetic ideal behind shibui is one of simplicity, subtlety and unobtrusiveness. Hayao Miyazaki's anime movies like Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service are a reflection of shibui, with their simple and subliminal storylines. Indeed, things that are less "in your face" are often far more pleasing and attractive than those that shout out loud.

This innocuous looking ticketing counter at Ghibli Museum (Mitaka, Tokyo) conceals a charming "ticketer".

Fallen red maples leaves in the former house of a Samurai in Nikko.

4. Iki 粋

Iki is often compared to its older and more universal cousin wabi-sabi. While it is about simplicity and temporality, iki is also about originality, uniqueness and spontaneity that is more audacious and unselfconscious while still remaining measured and controlled. If you think about the "Japanese punks" with their spiky colourful hair (yet mostly behaving themselves), they are a reflection of iki.

Creating your own cup noodle at Nissin's Ramen Noodle Museum is iki in action.

I've always found Nara's openly roaming deers a novel idea.

5. Jo-ha-kyū 序破急 

Jo-ha-kyū is the concept of modulation and movement. It is sort of like a tempo in how you do things and means that all things should begin slowly, build up quickly to a rising crescendo, and then up swiftly. This idea is used by Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremony and martial arts. Many Japanese movies and books (eg Haruki Murakami) build upon this aesthetic.

Neon coloured advertising billboards at Akihabara, Tokyo.

These okonimyaki chefs at Odaiba know a thing or two about jo-ha-kyū.

6. Yūgen 幽玄

Yūgen is a concept that values mystery and concealment. There is an element of profound depth with questions that may remain unanswered even as the plot unravels. The holding back of some of the answers is a common trait in much of Japanese theatre, movies, and books, and is quintessentially yūgen in practice.

A beautiful two-headed dragon partially buried in sand at Kodaiji Temple, Kyoto.

This deity shrouded in a satin red hood was found outside the main hall of Todaiji temple, Nara.

7. Geidō 藝道

This concept is embodied in the discipline, ethics and systematised approach to apprenticeship embodied in many Japanese traditional arts. These can be as varied as sushi making to Kendo and Sumo wrestling. Just think about the Japanese obsession with quality and high standards to see this in practice.

A takopachi chef in Dotobori (Osaka) displaying the fruits of geidō.

I've never seen people queue up in as disciplined a fashion as the Japanese at train stations!

8. Ensō 円相

Ensō is represented by a circle that symbolises a holistic form of absolution, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe and the void. This Zen Buddhism concept is represented by a form of minimalism common in Japanese design and aesthetics. I'd like to think that ensō is about achieving a kind of completeness in a circle of life which is ever flowing

The home of the Japanese imperial family in Nikko is a reflection of minimalism.

Kegon Falls in Nikko. Somehow or other, I find that nature embodies ensō very well.

9. Kawaii かわいい 

Naturally, this is probably the most well understood aesthetic element of Japanese art, culture and design. Meaning lovable, cute or adorable, kawaii is found almost everywhere in modern Japan and an integral part of Japanese society.  It is certainly one of the most prevalent qualities of modern day Japanese design, even down to construction sites!

Ice cream for sale at an inn in Nikko.

This little chick is apparently the mascot for Nissin Ramen noodles.

Temporary guardrails at a construction site in Kameoka City, Kyoto.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Return on Influence: Book Review

"I have become a number... And if you are even slightly active on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, you have become a number too..."

So begins Return on Influence - The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing, a slim volume delving into the world of social scoring. Written by marketing consultant Mark Schaefer, the book traces the origins of "citizen influence" on the social web, delves deeply into the world of Klout, and provides tips on how one can navigate this new digital landscape.

Increasingly, influencers matter more and more in the world of marketing. Luminaries like Robert Scoble (author of Naked Conversations and godfather of blogging) have caused spikes in web traffic through highlighting particular products.

Widespread global availability of free or low-cost web access, easy-to-use social tools, and algorithms by companies like Klout and PeerIndex have also resulted in an "influence revolution".

According to Schaefer, the rules of online influence are affected by several factors:

1) Authority - Individuals with greater access to information and power, and their ability to move content through the social networks.

2) Consistency and Commitment - A virtue associated with superior intellectual strength, logic, rationality, and honesty, which elicits trust amongst followers.

3) Likability - Social traits such as physical attractiveness, personality, conduct, and ability to form relationships.

4) Scarcity - The fact that an item which is "rare, banned, discontinued, sold out, or unavailable" make us want it more. Having a unique and irreplaceable niche helps.

5) Social Proof - This is a major factor on the web, and is predicated on "badges" such as one's number of followers, Klout scores, web hits and other indicators of social leadership.

6) Reciprocity - An age old principle on social media, where giving small (or large) favours help one to build up social capital and goodwill.

7) Content - Arriving in forms such as text, videos, presentations, images, audio, and micro-content (Facebook status updates, tweets, etc), content is a key driver of online influence. A power tip here is the creation of content that is RITE: Relevant, Interesting, Timely and Entertaining.

In the section on Klout, we learned how Joe Fernandez worked with developers in Singapore (yes I didn't know that!) to develop an algorithm for social scoring that is fast gaining credence. While marrying targeted influencers with product brands seems like one made in heaven, Klout isn't empty of controversies. These include the fact that it can be "gamed" by hackers, spammers and bots, fall prey to cheating by bogus account holders, and does not reflect offline influence.

Through the Klout Perks programme, companies such as Audi, Universal Pictures, Nike, Disney and other big brands have organised successful campaigns targeting powerful influencers in niche areas. They include introducing new products, including social proof in traditional marketing campaigns, building advocates outside one's traditional fan base (eg a high-tech car like Audi A8 and technology influencers), fundraising for nonprofits, coupons for high score influencers, prioritising customer service responses and more.

For companies to milk this, best practices include the following:

- Having a conversational brand
- Having a strategy
- Reaching relevant influencers
- Letting your partner do the heavy lifting (eg Klout)
- Keeping it real
- Keeping it legal
- Not becoming too specific
- Going local (by marrying geographic apps like Foursquare with Klout)
- Paying attention to one's perks
- Making the promotion shareable through hashtags and others

Perhaps most importantly for citizen influencers like myself, Schaefer offered three steps to improving one's Klout score. While the "secret formula" of Klout's algorithm is unknown to all, one should look at:

1) Building a relevant network - It isn't just numbers alone but the quality of one's followers which count

2) Providing compelling content - Content is king. Nuff said.

3) Systematically engaging influencers who are most willing (or least passive) to distribute your contents virally.

The concluding chapters of the book highlights the future applications of social scoring. Some of these ideas are rather scary, for example calculating a return on influence for every individual, adding a digital layer of Klout scores via augmented reality apps on smartphones, and having a score for every employee in a company.

Big brother is watching!

Ending on a philosophical note about the good and evil of social scoring, Return on Influence provides a good understanding of the new world of influence marketing and its implications. Speaking to a friend on Klout, I discover that the need to opt-in here in Singapore somewhat limits its application for marketers.

Despite this, I believe that the world of influence marketing is going to grow. To prepare ourselves, marketers and citizen influencers alike should understand the dynamics of this "new normal" in our work and everyday lives.