Wednesday, January 24, 2007

It's the little things that lead to bigger ones

Two posts from Kevin caught my eye:
  • One of the links featured here lead me to this animated Wikipedia entry on how Pi is derived. Upon watching the animation my first thought was, "So that's why Pi is 3.14..."; the second was, "I bet I'd be more engaged in Math class if I was shown something like this". Over time I realised I'm more of a visual-learner, so animated stuff definitely helps me retain information better.
  • From this post I learnt about the student blog (where there are lots more links to the students' blogs) and where Kevin had his students posting their reactions to the videos shown in class.

Some might say the animation and student/ lecturer blogging aren't particularly earthshaking or cutting-edge. Sure, I agree they aren't. They are "little things" by themselves.

But they're not meant to be earthshaking or cutting-edge.

I don't know exactly how the animation on deriving Pi, and getting students to blog could possibly lead to "bigger things" for the people involved or viewing it. In most cases, nothing directly attributable might come out of it. But I believe that it's the "little things" combined that would lead to some greater good, which often cannot be measured reliably in the empirical sense (well, I think you can but it would be very expensive to collect and analyse the data).

I suspect that more often than not, the little things don't materialise in the first place. Or if they do get noticed, they might be put down and dismissed (like blogging was in its early days). There was, and probably still is, a general reluctance by organisations to explore and experiment with them.

"It's not our Core Business", they might say. Or, "What is it's ROI?"

I don't know what is the ROI of a little animation to illustrate a math concept, or a bunch of comments by students. I'm not saying those aren't valid questions (they are). What I'm advocating is the willingness to experiment and let employees PLAY -- a sort of Skunkworks if you will (although it's the concept rather than actual secret experiments that I'm referring to).

A possible reason for not allowing skunkworks is that they are perceived as expensive (staff time, development/ R&D costs), or implied to be -- which then naturally leads to the ROI question. But we've reached a stage where the technology to engage in experimental works is cheap and even free (think 'Blogs' and the like). If development costs are kept low, then money should not be an issue.

Which leaves us with the costs of staff time, i.e. real and opportunity costs away from "real work". But I'd argue that real work involves engagements in creative and collaborative/ cross-functional activities. If nothing comes out of that 10% or even 20% of the employee's time, can the organisation not take it as costs incurred in keeping some of its employees (particularly those with the inclination and proven work record) motivated and passionate about their work?

I know this is simplistic but why can't we keep things simple?

Not all the "little things" result in "big things". But I'm convinced that great things are achieved through incremental ones.


  1. It all boils down to culture, habits and openness....and wanting to write.

    Corporate blogging is taking off in a big way in the US as it is a matter of course for Americans. From young, they were taught to speak up for themselves and to express themselves freely. Corporate cultures there have always been more free-flowing and less hierarchical. Challenging the status quo, expressing an alternative viewpoint and asserting individual rights seem commonplace.

    On the other hand, Singaporean companies and bosses tend to value conformity and obedience (although I must report that things are slowly changing here too). People usually just follow instructions issued from the top, and innovation and original thinking tend to be less prevalent.

    The other point is that reading and writing isn't very common in most Singaporean households unless its part of a paperchase (an earlier point of mine). If they have to read something a little deeper than 8 Days or Her World, many would start groaning.

    Writing becomes even more of a chore. Making it part of their job scopes is a double-edged sword if one isn't naturally inclined to write. Sooner or later the inspiration and ink will run dry.

  2. Walter, to add on to your statement re: "innovation and original thinking tend to be less prevalent" -- seems to me sometimes when organisations try to adopt initiatives to encourage innovation, they might inadvertently implement processes and requirements that stifle creativity and original thinking. Sometimes the staff is encouraged to be creative and innovate, but they get signals that it doesn't fail (which is contrary to spirit of innovation). I know these are just general statements. I'm not pinpointing any specific examples, and I'll just keep it at that : )

  3. I know exactly what you mean by the statement on systems and processes that are supposed to encourage innovation but with a caveat - that they must show the right KPIs! ;-)


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