On wasting time

Last week-end, it felt like I had more piled up than I could possibly do: PhD confirmation coming, a full project plan due for my new role, a language event to co-design, and preparing for two weeks away.

On Monday, I cleared up the noise. I spent all Tuesday at a Red Cross Hackathon. Yesterday, I went out to work by the river, took a long walk, made time for a long Skype call with a former student in London, pitched a project at the Red Cross, and went out to a function. I just spent a couple of hours talking with a friend about her experiences in the Chinese cultural revolution. I stuck to my daily translation and writing routines. And I am on schedule for my presentation tonight. Preparing it didn’t take that long.

When I was in high school, whenever exams were coming or essays were due, my classmates would boast-complain about how late they went to bed. At the time, this always struck me as a sure sign of stupidity. I had consistently better marks, watched a lot of TV, and never stayed up late for an assignment. As I entered a more and more competitive environment, and after migrating particularly, I faltered for a while. People seemed to find me hyper-productive, but I always suspected I was lazy, or maybe they were lying about how much time they spent working.

Spending longer than needed on a task strikes me as profound and inexcusable waste. Stendhal wrote the Chartreuse de Parme in three weeks, and it’s one of the best novels in the French canon – not the most flawless, but possibly the most alive. Speed of execution might have to do with it.

Today, I read an article on how to prepare for a Ted Talk – or public speaking more generally. Three main options exist: completely wing it, improvise from a set structure, or deliver a completed text. The first usually fails, the third only comes alive if the text is perfectly memorised, the second is always the least boring, and requires very little effort – all it takes is a small measure of courage on the day, and ongoing practice over years.

Perfectionism mingled with fear is a deadly poison. As much as I could, I have tried to stay far from it. But here’s a good antidote. I’ve always cultivated multiple interests, and each came with different settings, people, opportunities, and deadlines. I had to juggle, but realised over time that, as with integrated agricultural models, I was consistently productive: things feed off each other, the soil stays fertile. Little is wasted. All it takes is balance.

 

On procurement

We seem conditioned to value the visible result over the long preparatory process, the house over the foundations, the gain earned – no matter how trivial – over the pain avoided – no matter how great.

A friend from China used to work in supply chain management. She has exceptional procurement skills, and saved her company millions of dollars. Her achievements barely received acknowledgement. Meanwhile, when the sales team brought in a few hundred thousands in contracts, everybody cheered. Eventually, she quit.

A balance sheet has two sides, income and expenses. Yet the dominant wisdom I absorbed from business people is, focus on income. The Business Model Canvas presents elegant symetry between cost and revenue structure, but most of the tips and case studies I read celebrate clever ways of bringing in more money.

In our age of abundance, we do not value temperance. There may be reason for it. After all, a danger avoided offers no chance for heroics. After complex research, modelling and bargaining, we did not incur a certain sum – but were we ever going to pay that much? The risk did not manifest, was it through complex strategy, or pure luck? And who can tell if it was ever even present? My sale, however, the crisis I solved, the monster I slayed, that’s concrete, and should be dutifully rewarded.

Prioritising

I started a new productivity routine lately that’s working very well for me – and I thought I might share it with the world :-). It’s a simple three-step process. First, every morning, I write a list of the things I want to get done during the day on a new page in a journal. I try to frame these things as activities rather than results – sometimes adding a time limit, e.g. 30 minutes of writing business plan, or writing xx story. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I found that focusing on the goal can freeze me, or cause me to spend way too long on a task, trying to reach a level of perfection beyond what’s required. Conversely, focusing on the process relaxes my brain considerably, and leads to better results in shorter timeframes.  Then I prioritise these activities, labelling each 1, 2 or 3. I work different jobs, PhD research, running a non-profit, personal writing, and incidental other tasks, and I try to balance these components of my professional life – in particular, I make sure at least one writing activity gets priority 1. This, again, has a relaxing effect: it allows me to give myself a large number of tasks for the day – visualising high productivity – but eases the pressure to get everything done, and more, to perfection. I’m only strictly accountable to priority 1. Finally, during the day, I check up on my task list – tick what I’ve done, half-tick what I touched on. Before lunch and again at 2pm, i refocus and, if I haven’t attended to them yet, ensure I complete at least my priority 1 tasks. This is particularly valuable for my writing: now I no longer find myself tired, at the end of the day, feeling sorry that, yet again, I got caught up in things and didn’t take the time to progress a story or edit a blog post.  Let’s see whether this keeps working over time – for now, I love it and strongly recommend!

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

The cost of low-trust: low efficiency

Last night I was invited at a dinner with Chinese people – entrepreneurs, angel investors, a TV producer. Too many conversations entangled for me to perform at my best – but my seat neighbour, fortunately, was considerate enough to speak slowly, repeat, and listen to my broken Mandarin.

At some stage – after much baijiu toasting and spicy thin sliced beef, our conversation rolled on Chinese workers’ efficiency. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I did hear, and observe, that Chinese workers are not efficient – but is there a cause?’ – ‘No trust’, replied my seat neighbour.

We then started pulling it apart – though my limited language skills, unfortunately, did not allow us to go quite as far as I would have wanted. If two people are joining in a business deal, or a work agreement, but there is no trust between them, then haggling will start: ‘you pay me first – you do the job first – no you first.’ This haggling, in and of itself, is a loss of time. And because it is not guaranteed that the pay will come – why do the job well? And because it is not guaranteed that the job will be done, why set aside the money to pay, or why offer good pay?

I proposed a piece of theory that I developed earlier: trust is the most fundamental element in any professional relationship. In a trusting environment, staff and partners are selected based on their competence – because everyone, a priori, can be trusted. In a low-trust environment, trustworthiness trumps competence: I’d rather have someone do the job slowly to a low standard, rather than pay for a competent person to do nothing, or worse. And trustworthiness comes with personal connection, habit, long-established networks. Hence nepotism and guanxi plays, and hence a perception that, ultimately, who you know matters more than what you know.

Lack of trust extends outside of the workplace, to doctors, teachers, politicians and the media – none of these, according to my seat neighbour – and others who since had joined our conversation – would be trusted here. This is not just a China story. We should take it as a warning, but also see the need and opportunity: Australia has built a relatively high level of trust. What happened? Is it replicable? And is there something we can do to help Chinese businesses, groups or councils increase the level of trust, and – to some extent – mitigate the negative consequences of this situation?

I will be thinking about this question further – and would very much welcome your thoughts!

Business Model

[This is a repost from the Marco Polo Project blog]

The first person to put this question in front of me was my friend Pearly, who works as financial advisor in Hong Kong. I was talking to her about the website, and she very naturally asked: “what’s your business model.” I was a bit embarrassed at the time that I didn’t have an answer. The second time I remember was during my interview with Jean-Michel Billaut, when again, the question hit me: “how do you make money from that?”.
The question’s not all that new. We’ve thought about it, of course. But for some reason, I kept pushing it away, finding it irrelevant. Yet people are asking, and I should give them an answer. So I’ve started looking at ‘business models’. As a former arts student, an educator, and a writer, I always find ‘business’ talk odd and alienating at first – but I’ve discovered it’s only new labels on standard ideas and concepts, and as a translator, I’ve come to accept that you must learn to speak other people’s language. So ‘business models’ are simply proposals about the way that an organisation will access resources and derive revenue from its activities. I can handle that.
I looked around, and soon discovered there was something called a ‘community model’ – wikipedia would be the best example on the web. In an organisation running on a ‘community model’, monetary transactions are kept at a minimum; most of the tasks are done on a voluntary basis, for intrinsic reasons, symbolic rewards, or because participants derive a direct benefit from working with the community.
That’s how we’ve been running so far, and that’s how we plan to run in the future. The Marco Polo Project is a very cheap organisation to run. We built our website, systems, database and community so far on 3,000 dollars, although the project also received a considerable amount of support – in the form of work-hours, advice and publicity – for a value much higher than this. Our only monetary needs are to pay for web hosting and government fees, less than $500 a year. So we could keep the Marco Polo Project running on a yearly budget equivalent to the price of an i-pad.
Now that is not entirely true. To reach a critical mass of users, and keep our existing community satisfied, we need new features on the website – multiple languages, better searching and sorting, a personalised user page, mobile compatibility – and this in turn will require more design and programming, which will have a cost. On a more ongoing basis, we need to keep editorial standards, both for choice of texts and translation quality control, and someone has to keep the structure together – making sure bills are paid, newsletters are sent and mailing lists are updated. But even then, the platform could be successful on a skeleton team of paid part-timers and interns working flexible hours with no set office. And it’s not impossible that we could raise enough money for such a team through donations, grants and sponsorships.
So that’s our business model: we won’t ‘make money’, that’s not our purpose. We design and develop a free tool for people to practice Mandarin and learn about China; we pick, sort and label a selection of quality Chinese writing; we maintain and engage a virtual community of translators and language learners. We bring together people across languages. It’s not expensive. We’re looking for grants and sponsors. And we take donations. Can you help?