Archive for the ‘Change’ Category

A Surprising Encounter with Globalisation

In Change, Globalisation, No Readymade World on 2010/10/14 at 12:51 pm

It was a regular sunny Saturday afternoon.  I drifted rather uneventfully to a cramped motor parts shop in Alexandra Village (Singapore) to look for replacement wiper-blades for my Honda CRV.  Not exactly something I look forward to, but one that can blow out of proportion by the upcoming annual vehicle inspection for all cars older than 3 years.  Based on a scenario that my Mandarin and dialects were undependable to ensure I leave with the right thing, I removed one of the blades to take with me as the sample to match.  I remember thinking that it was the smart thing to do since the folks in these shops were unlikely to have the capability of knowing all about makes and models — “first gen”? “pre 2001”? etc. What happened next caught me entirely flat footed.

The “towkay” (boss) of the shop took a quick look at the blade that I confidently presented to him, nodded, and sternly asked me for the other blade.  Still in a confident posture and tone, I questioned the need to.  He slowly lowered his chin, raised his eyes to glare at me over the brim of his oversized reading glasses, and said firmly (in Hokkien) that they are not always of the same length.  I felt my intelligence challenged.

Surely all wiper blades come as identical pairs, I thought to myself.  They always had been, and there was absolutely no reason in my mind why they would be otherwise.  The save-the-planet in me thought that the world might even be a better place if all wiper blades for all cars were identically mass produced.  Less material wastage.  And, no time wasting too in hunting and arguing about blade sizes…

Whilst I was still affixed there with my ‘high’ thoughts, the “boss” went into an even higher level of attack that I never saw coming. He gave me, and several of his workers who had by then gathered around, a long lecture on globalisation.  He spoke (in Hokkien, still) with gusto of why we can no longer continue with old assumptions, such as lengths and types of wiper blades, where they were made, distributed (globally), and sold (online).  He concluded by saying business is no longer the same and we all must be prepared for change.  A deep silence followed.

I wisely decided not to up the ante, and made the longish back-track in the hot sun to fetch the other wiper blade.  I grudgingly removed what looked like a pretty identical piece to the other I left with the “boss”, feeling it was a waste of time and hoped to be vindicated.  When I handed it to him, he proceeded to hold up a blade in each of his out-stretched hands, and, with some drama, brought the two together side-by-side.  And, boy, was he right! The outer blade was actually more than two inches longer!  I humbly conceded defeat and complimented his commitment to keep up with change.

Every time I reflect on this incident, I am reminded of the person in the encounter, and not so much the particulars of the case, such as the difference in lengths of the wiper blades.  What kind of a person lives on the edge of change?

Choosing to be Painfully Generous

In Beating the Odds, Change, Education, Transformation on 2010/07/14 at 7:37 pm

Real generosity demands costly sacrifice, but has the power to change lives.  The contrary default costs little and yields correspondingly low impact and may even stifle.  It is an intentional choice to be painfully generous.

Let’s look at the easy default first.  My son’s secondary school principal told us in a matter-of-fact way that it is ok to have a “normal” kid who will not make university. She said, “after all, Singapore needs menial workers”.  We refused to believe her, pulled him out of her school, and tightened our belts to send him to a private college instead.  He graduated from university ahead of his “express” peers, and has recently received performance bonus and early promotion in a Singapore Statutory Board.  Generosity is critical to enhance unlimited human potential.  There is no excuse for principals, teachers and parents to doubt this.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of a lady who lost her husband and four others in a horrific accident on the Malaysian North-South highway recently.  She unhesitatingly forgave the driver of the lorry that had crashed into their MPV.  I reflected long and hard on what I would have done in a similar tragedy.  The default would be to seek “justice”.  It seems obvious, logical, and expected; not unlike the need for menial workers.  But she chose instead to break the cycle of blame and escalating the tragedy.  She was painfully generous.

Most of us default to the rational and logical most of the time.  We even refer, consciously or otherwise, to precedence and “best practices” at work or in life choices.  To be sure, progress and transformations in life can only come if we are strong and courageous enough to be painfully generous to help open the pathways of change.

The Changing Brief

In adaptability, Change, Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/23 at 5:59 pm

Wouldn’t you naturally feel disgusted if your design tutor or client kept changing the brief?  But then again, isn’t this the real world?  We seem to have no problem accepting and propagating change, so long as we are not the ‘changee’ — the victim of change.

When I was last in Penang, I was impressed by ordinary people who were adaptable to immediate change:

  • Our bus driver agreed to drop us off an unscheduled stop despite the inconvenience of manipulating the big coach in heavy traffic;
  • A coffee shop owner whisked around to rearrange several tables and chairs for a big group of us in a very crowded hour; and
  • A hotel barman zoomed around to look for fresh coconuts for us even though coconuts are not on the menu.

There is a precious simplicity in being able to give and receive spontaneous action.  In an increasingly mass-production and out-sourced world — where one size fits all, and good management means getting someone else to do it for you — it is good to be reminded of the value of the personal touch and spontaneous initiative.

A creative culture should not only be resilient to the changing brief, but thrive on it.  It should not expect the brief to be fixed nor fully formed at the outset. Many factors can suddenly change the brief — from a change of mind, personal crises, business competition, to external circumstances such as financial collapses, disasters, change of government policies and laws, etc.  A pro-active creative culture should engage in the development and evolution of the brief.  To be sure, this would be a messy and complex affair, but design and education in general would do well to inculcate the ability of creatives to think on their feet and not presume that the brief is like an exam paper.  The changing brief should be a regular exercise in design schools, and a pervasive mindset in design practice.

In Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon related a parable of two highly regarded watchmakers, one of whom prospered while the other declined, all because of they way they managed the assembly of their design. The successful one had a modular system of sub-assemblies that did not all had to be abandoned to start form scratch every time he had to answer the phone.  In the case of the unsuccessful one, the watch was a single entity that fell to pieces each time he was interrupted.  This is a lesson in managing complexity and a step towards managing the interruptions from the changing brief.

Alternative Value Propositions

In adaptability, Change, Creativity, Design, Leadership, Process, Strategy, Technology, Value, Vision on 2010/05/11 at 2:06 pm

Designers can do better than offer “professional services for a fee”. They can lead by alternative value propositions.

Many creative projects get axed prematurely by key performance indicators (KPI). KPIs are typically controlled by ‘creative’ bean counters (oxymoron?) who are clients or their agents.  They typically shun change and collaboration. Their standard tool is divide-and-rule. eg train stations are transport engineering infrastructure, whilst art and sculpture is culture; therefore there is no budget for the arts as part of station development. That is somebody else’s core business. Familiar?

Designers are in a good position to propose alternative value propositions. But they need to be laterally creative and not be so naive about how bureaucrats and bean-counters work. A creative win-win is often the only way.

Take the task of designing an Expo exhibition pavilion. The no-brainer is to put up a building simply for the duration of the Expo — closing both eyes to what happens after the show is over, and visitor-ship KPI is history. Better still, have the pavilion built by somebody else and “leased back” for only the exhibition season; this way it shows up in the books as rental and not a capital-intensive inventory item!

What if the Expo building is designed in the first place for a permanent use, even if it means designing a kit of parts to have the pavilion become a school building or library where it is needed badly, say in an isolated rural location or disaster-relief area.

The challenge for designers is to find a way to collaborate with the initial client to include stakeholders who can take over the kit of parts. In return, the emotional and social benefits of the cause can be a powerful differentiating feature of the pavilion’s presentation. In Expos such as the one in Shanghai now concerned with “better cities, better life”, such an action will speak louder than the words and demos so typical of those who only think of the Expo as only a glorified sales pitch.

Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!