Counter Culture, Counter Intuition: Sometimes it makes sense


One of the cases in my dissertation study offers two important lessons, or principles: 1. the weakness of strong ties, and 2. the competitive advantage of being the first deviant. “First move advantage” is easy to understand, but conceiving that “first” isn’t so easy. Some people undertake an unconventional move out of desperation, and many who strategically create something new bear the “high risks” to hopefully gain that “high reward.” But “first move advantage” is not guaranteed; we award the “advantage” label in retrospective rationalization of those attempts which succeed.

The particular case in my study was about how a single Chinese mother, Yien, who revamped her ordinary little eatery in a major metropolitan Chinatown to become one of the best cafes, not just in the Chinatown but in the city. Yien’s endeavors did not start with a clear vision, strategic planning, methodical plotting, or neat execution. She had ideas that gradually unfolded as she learned from experience. Along the way, there were strong forces in her Chinese family and social network that made her life more difficult rather than being helpful.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

The barista always makes such coffee art look easy.

Yien was compelled to turn around her restaurant, which was a hole in a wall on the edge of this city’s Chinatown. It could seat about 40 people, and served three meals a day with equal emphasis on coffee between mealtimes. A few years before I stumbled upon her café, she went through a divorce, and her then husband was the only cook. The end result of her divorce was that she gained the custody of her three young children, but lost her cook. What’s more (or, rather, less), her ex-husband couldn’t provide much alimony. The restaurant at that point was a typical decent Chinatown restaurant. On her own, Yien had to do something dramatic to increase her income. Her history degree from a Taiwan university was not likely to be of much help and her English was just adequate.

First, Yien had to secure a chef, a perennial headache for all restaurant owners, but particularly thorny in Chinatown owing to fierce competition. Once she managed to hire a good chef, she had turning-point in her thinking. She said, “When I looked around at the Chinatown restaurants, all menus looked alike, busy and confusing, with more than 100 dishes to offer! I decided that I wanted to simplify the menu, make fewer but good dishes, and offer something unique. I wanted to make the coffee stand out. I also decided to replace all the ugly serving ware.”

chow mifenShe bought a coffee system from Taiwan that’s based on an elaborate siphon system. She invested in Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and exquisite teas for the new menu. The replacement serving ware was simple but elegant, and all teas and coffees were served with a bite-size sweet, all presented on a personal-size tray. The food menu combined Taiwanese and mainstay Chinese dishes (such as dumplings), with some elements of Japanese flavoring and presentation.

Most importantly, she doubled her prices. I dimly remember that the Blue Mountain coffee was $7 a cup. 90% of her Chinese customers disappeared. However, her American customer base grew and younger Chinese became some of her regulars.

For a few years, all her three children helped in the café, but as they grew up and moved on, Yien had to find alternatives for help. In the fiercely competitive Chinatown environment, her counter-cultural practice was initially the target of tongue wagging, scorn, sabotage, and eventually, envy. Some people mistook her quiet and reserved mien as weakness. While Yien might not speak much about her strong feelings, she was determined and steadfast (or, stubborn).

My dissertation topic focuses on networking, and Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” provided a foundation for my research approach. As his title implies, we gain considerable insight and assistance, whether for job hunting or innovation work, from the weak network ties that connect us to others who might not have otherwise been available. When we hang out with similar others – and the majority of us do all the time – we don’t easily get many wildly different ideas and perspectives. Those in our network whose shoulders we only tap occasionally, the weak ties, have vastly different networks than our own. And sometimes, these “weak ties” connect us to the right people at the right time and at the right place for the “ah Ha!” breakthrough.

Most Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs, by default, have to rely on their relatives and best friends to establish their starting businesses. And often, they stay on the same track for decades, copying each other’s business practices. Yien broke away from that tradition, paid a social price in the Chinese community circle, but gained respect elsewhere. However, it was particularly disheartening for me to learn the negative impact on her business and social life inflicted by some family members and other Chinese. Her own mother’s insatiable material demands alone caused years of financial struggle for Yien. Her children did not always appreciate the challenges she faced. After she established the reputation for her café, and managed to stabilize her financial situation with the price increase, many Chinese did come around to welcome her back into their circle, albeit often with hidden agenda.

jiao zi

Yien would be the first to admit that when she began on her new direction, she had no crystal ball to assure herself of the success of this direction. I contend that not only is it difficult to go against the prevailing trends, but also it is especially grueling to proceed counter to the strong bonds in the Chinese community and culture. I considered Yien, then, and still now, to be enormously courageous. Yet, she’d correct me, “I didn’t have much choice. I just had to close my eyes and keep plowing on. It’s not courage; it’s desperation.” Don’t get me wrong; Yien has many flaws, some almost ruinous. I had my “quiet quarrels” with some of her ways (within my internal dialogue; after all, I was doing research), but she taught me many valuable lessons. Besides, were it not for Yien, I might still be searching for that one more Chinese for my study.

Today’s entry begins my journey on “innovation and creativity” that may take the next few weeks.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Those Little Annoying Things In Our Daily Life Can Add Up

For instance, if the phone computerized recording tells me, “Remember, you must first dial ‘1’,” why couldn’t a program have been written that just inserts the “1” automatically? Or, when I key in my library ID number, with spaces as it appears on my card, I get, “please do not use space.” Then, why do you issue the card with the spaces (or, why not program to accommodate or ignore the “spaces”)? I am computer illiterate, so I am sure I miss nuances about programming. However, from a user’s point of view, my queries stand.

When reaching the programmed temperature, my hot water dispenser merrily plays a bungled Bach tune. How cute! But when we want something with an automated function, wouldn’t we want to be left alone? Isn’t that the definition of “automation?” My refrigerator beeps at me if I leave it open longer than it’s programmed to tolerate. The car beeps at me for numerous reasons, significant or otherwise; the washer and dryer beep at me. Gmail informs me every that I can “activate notification.” Why?! If I forget to put the gearshift in “P” as I get out of my car, it beeps. Someday, we are going to ask each other, “Can you hear that beep in my head?”

No confusion for what to do with these delicious.

No confusion for what to do with these delicious.

Modern technologies certainly have given us plenty of conveniences, but also seem determined to deprive us of peace much of the time. For a little while, I was enamored with Apple products. Currently, I still have “i” of everything made by Apple. Given my woefully inadequate computer background, I am very thankful for my resident computer guru; however, he has now more than occasionally sworn, “No more Apple!” Not that he thinks other brands are necessarily better.

Recently, my guru decided to authorize all our Apple products under the “cloud” feature. In the process, we learned that we had to update this rig and that device. So, we did. But then, our desktop Apple was deemed so old that the latest OS would not be available unless we purchased it. The price for OS is a pittance compared to the cost of the hardware. However, the point is: Why is that decision made by the corporation? And not by the customers? A couple of years ago, when we brought our desktop to the Apple store for what should have been a minor repair, the Apple “genius” commented that we probably should update our computer soon. Really? Of course, in the Apple universe, everyone can afford it. The point is: Shouldn’t that be the customer’s decision, without being forced by all the updates?

This week, I found out that in order to use my new SD card for my camera, I had to update the “raw camera” program in my Photoshop. My laptop is new enough to have the latest OS, but not our “old” desktop. We finally raised the white flag and ordered the latest OS for our still sleek-looking Apple desktop.

Hard to say how many complaints about Apple products are “out there;” evidently not nearly enough to so disturb Apple as to actually address them. So, I have another fantasy. If we can organize a consumer boycott, postponing all purchases of Apple products by just one month with the message that the company really needs to zap away all these annoying bugs… A loss of, say, 5 million purchases a month would surely catch the company’s attention.


Strandbeest  (check out this link on “Strandbeest”…wonderful design, very complicated, but oh so inspiring, and it works.)

Someday, maybe, only maybe, someone can finally figure out that for a truly superior software system, every update means less storage space required, faster operation, no need to learn additional features that you didn’t want in the first place, total compatibility with other software including everything that ran under the older operating system. Oh, and a truly superior software system should need updates only very infrequently. And not require you to spend more money.

I wonder, do airlines pilots have to respond to “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” “Are you sure you want to raise the landing gear?” before the software responds to their command? Hopefully pilots don’t have to respond repeatedly, but then why do the rest of us have to repeatedly reassure our computer’s operating system before we can even shut it off?

And I have naively thought that the “free” market is supposed to provide customers what they want.

Now I feel little better. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Adaptive vs. Technical – Framing for change

Computers are ubiquitous at work these days, especially for office work.  And computer security is, understandably, among the concerns for management.  Yet…

Here is a case for you:  You are a lower-rank manager and are told to make sure your direct reports, all 40 of them, be security-conscientious and not leave their computers unlocked while away from their desks.  What is your response, to yet more requirements and training sessions for everyone, including you?  And what solutions would you recommend?

I will lock my computer when I leave my desk.

I will lock my computer when I leave my desk. (Photo credit: theleetgeeks)

There is a currently available technology that a computer can use to detect whether the user is still sitting at the desk or standing at the workstation(some prefer standing while using their computers).  Imagine if you just get up to stretch your legs a bit, or use the restroom, and you are shut out and have to log in again in another two minutes when you return. For those who have a private office, they could leave and just lock the office door.  But most people work in cubicles these days.

Or, you can rely on the old technology, i.e. constantly remind people to lock the computer keyboard when they leave, even for just two minutes.  How long did it take you to recognize the flaw in this approach?  Yup, people forget from time to time…even if you give them a big poster to put above the computer.

Either of these strategies is by nature adaptive, tweaking the status quo a little to satisfy the latest demands, the situation on the ground, or to buy some time.

A permanent solution would be, for lack of better term, technical, actually altering the nature of the operation, and hopefully bringing some relief to the burden of requirements that people must remember.  For instance, you can get fingerprint recognition in the mouse.  But how useful is this particular type of mouse if you can only unlock the computer but not lock it?

Think about it (I actually did have to think hard on this):  When you step away from your desk, you probably have a dozen items on your mind, and locking your computer is not a top priority.  (If this were your organization, would you want this to be a top priority?  Wouldn’t you rather your people were wrapping their minds around bigger problems?)  When you come back to your station, you don’t need to be reminded to unlock the computer if it’s locked, you just have to remember how.  The unlocking phase imposes much less distraction and stress on people and their organizations than the requirement to remember to lock – each time, every time.  So, why not have the technology be commensurate with typical human behavior?  Maybe teach the mouse to recognize the absence of recognized fingerprints, or design other more clever ways to lock the computer.

One could argue that it should take only a few minutes to learn to remember logging out or locking up.  Really?? Remembering that a dozen times a day, adding these interruptions to the work flow or the creative flow, competing with remembering the 10 more points you need to make in the memo you’re drafting when you get back to your cubicle?  When I write, I step away from my computer at least a couple of dozen times per article.  If I had to log out and log in e-v-e-r-y single time, I would likely go through computers very quickly, and someone would find many computer carcasses in the dumpster.

Broken Computer

Broken Computer (Photo credit: miss_rogue)

Of course, I am not arguing against defending our national security or industry secrets.  But remember the Third Law of the Thermodynamics?  You cannot, ever, reach 100% safety and security without sacrificing 100% of everything else.  And each additional measure, when implemented, will consume exponentially increasing amounts of energy.  People will spend ever more of their precious time and mental bandwidth complying with the safety and security codes, and ever less to real productivity.

Now I understand the points made by one of my readers in his entry on “Whatever happened to modern thought?” 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Of Mice & Cheese, And Little People: Resistance, action, and change

Many years ago, when I was working for a diversity office, my manager excitedly asked me if I had read this wonderful little book “Who Moved My Cheese?”  I was, and still am in general, very dubious about these popular trendy “how-to” books that pop up on the mass market.  They can offer a few gems and some wisdom, but like motivational speeches, readers and listeners may feel “good” about certain messages for a while.  But passage of time would dilute the enthusiasm, unless there is follow-up with actions.  Nevertheless, after the inquiry, I felt obligated to read it; it was a quick and easy read. Overall, I didn’t take to it, and it took a while for me to be able to verbalize my disquiet feelings.

I read it again recently, just in case I might have come to a different level of appreciation.  There are indeed some good tips, and because it’s a short fable with a mixture of rodent and homosapiens (albeit in rodent size) using simple logic, it actually does invite readers to contemplate.  But what bothered me then, and still does now, is the whole premise that since changes are inevitably coming our way, we should just adapt ourselves in order to move on.  There is nothing profoundly wrong with this particular stance, other than the notion that we would be better off blindly accepting all the changes, especially, changes imposed onto us from the top.  Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I believe that there are times we need to question the premises of some changes.  Not all changes are threatening, and not all are inevitably progress for us.

looking down from 14,000+ feet

I guess I’d better give a quick sketch of what the story entails before plunging in further with my reaction and analysis.  The story involves two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two “littlepeople” in the size of mice, Hem and Haw.  These four beings worked in a maze to search for cheese.  After they located a motherlode, they made themselves comfortable and made a living off that hunk of cheese.  Sniff and Scurry definitely were very comfortable; they built a “home” thinking that they’d have the cheese for life, Hem and Haw were always on the edge, ready to move on.  After a while, as the cheese got smaller, the littlepeople noticed it, left that chamber, and moved on to find other food sources.  The mice regarded the move silly and continued their comfortable living…till one day, the cheese was gone.  The mice discussed the issue but thought for sure more cheese would appear.  After another period, mouse Sniff began to think differently about staying put while mouse Scurry felt that the cheese was owed to him and didn’t see why he should bestir to look for new cheese.  More time passed, and eventually Sniff decided to face his fear of the unknown out there and moved on; at each turn of finding no cheese, he had to battle against his mounting fears and doubts.  But eventually, he did find the new cheese, as well as the littlepeople.  While they all enjoyed the new find, they were also always in the “ready to move on” mode.  Mouse Sniff left various messages along the maze walls in case his pal, Scurry, would decide to join them…

Nice little story, which seems to have inspired many people to buy the book (and probably read it) and some have indeed followed the cheese trail and changed the course of their lives.  I don’t mean to belittle the power of this message, I just question the premise that mouse Sniff’s adopting the change is the only or the best way of facing changes in organizational life.

another view from the top

Here is an important distinction:  Sniff’s decision to leave his friend, his comfort zone, and to step into the unknown, while courageous, is nevertheless an adaptive strategy.  During the process, he did learn about himself, and discovered his core of being, willingness to question, tenacity, possession of some sense of humor, etc.  He didn’t really change his core being; what he changed was his behavior in order to survive and keep on living.  His buddy, Scurry, didn’t even bother to change his behavior; he just kept digging deeper into his professed principles, i.e. cheese was owed to him and it wasn’t his fault that the cheese was gone.

A “real” change to the core of being, in this case, the mice (or the littlepeople, whose significance initially escaped me) would/could have said something to themselves, like, “do we really eat only cheese?”  Or, “could we try to make our own cheese?”  “Is this maze (now, how would they recognize it’s a maze?) the only universe for us to locate cheese?  Might there be more space outside these walls to look for “others” or create something totally different?  “In what ways can we change our very being to pursue the next food sources?”  And so forth.  A friend introduced to me the concept of “technical change,” to be differentiated from “adaptive change.”  I am not quite settled on this term – something is still missing – but for now it’s a good enough distinction.

There are a couple of minor points that also bother me.  In comparison to the “littlepeople,” the mice did not pay attention to the diminishing size of the cheese.  “The mice did not overanalyze things.  And they were not burdened with many complex beliefs.”  Yet, later, Haw somehow developed incredible analytical capabilities to help himself understand the dire situation, visualize future possibilities, conquer fear with humor, and to keep himself moving forward by asking this question repeatedly, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”  That is a very wise question.  I know this is a fable, but when the logic doesn’t add up, it bothers me.

storm coming…

Another bothersome point is the lesson that “old beliefs do not lead you to cheese.”  But how does one determine the belief in question is “old”?  When does it become old?  By what criteria?  Did the criteria come from the same source that adopted these “old” beliefs?  Or, did the source at some point stumble upon, or intentionally acquire a new language or new set of frames with which to view the world?  And should “old beliefs” include religious beliefs?  My point is:  What tools do we use to compare and judge one set of beliefs against other sets?  And how do we acquire these tools? And keep them polished?

My schedule from now till end of August is rather fragmented and busy, and so my entries will be somewhat uneven, in length and timing.  But I will keep on discussing interesting points.

Change is really a knotty issue.  I will attempt to delve into some philosophical lessons I have learned on change in the next entry.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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