My Notes


10 Innovation Proverbs for Leaders

I received this from Joyce Wycoff a long time ago. It's interesting that what many people claim as “innovation” would not qualify as innovation according to below.

  1. PEOPLE do innovation.
  2. Innovation means doing something that has not been done before. By definition there is risk involved. No risk; no innovation.
  3. Innovation is a win-win process. It creates new value for the customer and the organization.
  4. Innovation is a team sport. Teams are built around a common objective and trust.
  5. Innovation requires risk. Risk-taking requires trust. Trust requires honesty and openness.
  6. Innovation requires energy. Energy comes from challenges that excite the imagination.
  7. Innovation is about creating the future. Cost-cutting and downsizing are about fixing the past.
  8. Innovation is not just a rah-rah word or fad. It is an investment in the future that requires new processes, time, energy, commitment and resources.
  9. Innovation requires new information — from co-workers, customers, suppliers, competitors and from the world.
  10. Innovation requires time — time to think, time to tinker, time to talk about possibilities and ideas. Down-to-the-second controls can kill innovation.

by Joyce Wycoff

#learningorg #design

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous, unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” Henry Miller


Building a learning organisation

This post is my notes for a talk that I recently gave at a webinar organised by a friend.

Photo: Unsplash

I learned about learning organisation from Peter Senge's book – The Fifth Discipline – a long time ago. “A learning organisation is a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.”

In the book, he talked about five characteristics of learning organisation: Systems thinking, Personal mastery, Mental models, Shared vision, and Team learning.

Here, I share my lessons learned of the above characteristics from a different angle: – Feedback loop – Diversity – Lateral development – Body of knowledge – Continuous learning

An organisation is “a group of people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose.” (Cambridge Dictionary) So let's discuss from two perspectives, i.e. individual members perspective and group/team perspective.

Feedback loop


Ask for feedback:

Without feedback, we will not know what goes well and what needs to be improved. Most companies I know have a review mechanism between us and our boss. And aside from our boss, we need to ask for constructive feedback from our team members, if we are team leaders. We can also ask for feedback from our peers.

Listen to understand:

We need to try to understand the feedback giver's perspective why he/she perceives us in a certain way that led to the feedback he/she gives us.

We may disagree with some of the feedbacks and that is okay. Despite our intentions, others may interpret our actions or results differently from what we envision. The point is to get feedback in order to know how others perceive us and why.

Avoid being defensive and attacking the feedback giver or he/she will stop giving feedback.


Have regular one-on-one:

We need to facilitate the feedback mechanism and one of the ways is to have one-on-one meeting between team leader and individual team members.

We are always busy and urgent tasks pile up unpredictably. If we wait until we are not busy, one-on-one can be forgotten. One-on-one is important, so I suggest we schedule regular one-on-one in advance between team leader and team members. It is easy to set it up for one year at the beginning of the year. We can always change the schedule if needed, but we need to commit to have it.

In my opinion, this is the responsibility of the team leader to schedule this and ensure it happens.

Listen to your “customers”:

We have many stakeholders to please and it is impossible to please all of them all the time. We need to focus on our high priority “customer” (whoever we define as customer amongst our stakeholders) and listen to their feedback.

In some organisation, the “customer” is very obvious. In others, this may be more complicated. The “customer” may even change, despite our team not changing anything. In big companies, sometimes this is influenced by company dynamics.

And our customer's needs can change over time, so we need to always check. When our team members answer “we have always done it this way”, we need to check if the “way” still matches what the “customer” needs.



Get to know and learn from others different from us:

If we hang out only with people very similar to ourselves, we may not learn many new things.

People with different interests learn different things and so when we hang out with diverse group of people, then we discover things they learn which are different from what we typically would have learned.

Different people has different perspective or approach to solving a given problem. When we are stuck at a problem, talking to someone with a different perspective sometimes helps us understand the problem in a different light and discover the solution.

Treat others with respect:

Eventually, misunderstanding or miscommunication can happen. Conflict is a natural course of life when there are more than one people. If we manage conflict professionally and resolve it in trustring manner, the team can come out stronger at the end of it.


Recruit for skill but plan diversity in the recruiting pipeline:

We need to understand the team's diversity profile. And when we have a vacancy we need to fill, try to recruit from places that can complement / enrich the diverstiy. The objective is to find a diverse pool of candidates. This may mean that we need to look in different universities, different job boards, etc.

Ultimately, we select based on skill, whether the candidates can do the job well. But if we have several candidates that can potentially do the job well, we have the option to recruit the candidate that can make our team more diverse.

Respect the diversity in the team:

Diverse group of people have diverse perceptions which leads to diverse reactions. We cannot assume an activity or approach that the majority likes will be liked by the minority in the team. If we put it to a vote, the majority will keep bulldozing the minority and eventually those in minority will quit. We need to find a balanced approach that respects the diverse team members.

Lateral development


Take on new challenges:

We need to step out of our comfort zone and take on new challenges. This could be additional responsibilities, new projects, etc.

Grow our career laterally:

Promotion is not the only way to grow a career. As individuals, we can grow by moving laterally, e.g. change team, change role, etc. This enriches your skill base and strengthens your CV / curriculum vitae.

The higher we go up in the organisation structure, the more diverse the skills we need. If we never grow our career laterally, our skill may not develop diversely enough.


Assign people to also work outside their current domain:

This was inspired by Google’s “20% project.” I call this approach the 80/20 project. (20% is just figuratively speaking; the point is majority and minority of the time.) In this case we assign a team member some role / responsibility outside of his/her team. The majority of the time, the team members work on their main job and then for the rest of the time, they work on a project / role for another team or another domain. The objective is to assign the team member to something different where he/she can acquire new skill.

Take the risk to move / rotate people:

Move / rotate people to a different team / department when there is a vacancy. Having people in the team who have done many roles in the company strengthens the talent base. You develop more people at a given skill, because a given job has been filled by many people who have rotated through it over the years.

If we do the 80/20 approach, then people who have done the 80/20 are good candidates for job rotation. Hopefully, the 80/20 assignment is the domain where they will rotate into. But even if not always the case, people who do the 80/20 show adaptiveness already and hopefully are better equipped to pick up new skills at the new roles they are rotating into.

Body of knowledge


Leave a legacy of documented knowledge:

A long time ago I learned the motto: “If it is not well documented, it does not exist.” We need to document our work / process so that others can understand and take over from us, for example, if we become ill or on a long vacation.

Particularly in software development, years after a piece of code goes live it can have issues. If nobody can understand how to fix it or make changes to it due to missing or poor documentation, there is a risk that it will be thrown away, because it can be quicker for the maintenance team to rewrite the program, rather than fixing a difficult to maintain code.

This topic is not limited just to computer program. In business processes, this is also prevalent. Teams may lose the knowledge why or how something is done a certain way due to lack of business process documentation. So let's document our work well and leave a good legacy.

Share our knowledge with other team members:

We know about clubs (e.g. photography club, etc), community of practice, etc. These are good forums to share our knowledge to others. Sharing knowledge benefits both the receiver and the giver.

Ensure our documentations are well referenced and properly used. If we make good documentations, but nobody knows about it nor uses it, then we are not getting the value we aim for.


Agree on documentation guideline and common knowledge repository:

Non-existent or poor documentation can be the achilles heel of a good team. There is no “one right way” to do it, but it is more important this is done consistently and maintained properly.

Different team will have different guideline and preferences. The important point is that everybody participates consistently. Knowedge management system and learning management system are useful tools, but they are just tools. Without strong documentation culture and learning culture, the tools cannot deliver the maximum benefits.

Define a knowledge handover process:

Organisational knowledge can be (and is often) lost when someone leaves the company (or even when the person changes team / department). We ought to define the knowledge handover process to explicitly manage knowledge retention and transfer when someone moves to another team or leaves the company.

Continuous learning


Learn new topics / skills:

We need to always learn about new topics. If we do not learn about new topics, we can be left behind.

At the same time, we need to find our passion and aim for T-shape. On topics / skills that we are passionate about, we need to continuously improve ourselves so we become experts at them.

Invest personal time and effort:

Learn on our own. Set up personal project with defined goal to learn a new skill / knowledge. (For example, we may have built a website using PHP in the past; now try redoing it using Go or Clojure, etc.) Learn by doing.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Confucius


Experiment new practice / process:

Start with something small and quickly measurable whether we succeed or fail (“fail fast”). For example, start with only one small team or one small project. Once the capability and experience is in place, then we expand the scope and scale gradually.

Be mindful of the team we experiment with the new practice we want to start. Avoid one-size-fits-all approach. Different teams have different propensity to being “commando, infantry, or military police.”

“Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos. ... The infantry are the people who hit the beach en masse and slog out the early victory, building on the start given them by the commandos. ... The military police aren’t troops at all but police.” Robert Cringely, Accidental Empires

Balance short term challenge and long term growth:

The nature of experiment is that it can yield less result as hoped for or even fail completely. There is a risk of productivity hit. And we are busy to start with, so we may make the team worse off, if this does not work as well as hoped for.

On the other side of the coin, if we do not master the new skill / process, it can be risky as well. The world around us continue to change and I think it is better to initiate the change from within, before the change is forced on us. We need to push our team for continuous learning.

Let's assume, hypothetically, that it is possible for our team to grow better this week than the previous week, and next week is better than this week. And on and on, consistently week after week.


Compounded growth of 1%

Here, 1% is just an illustration – the important point is the consistency. Consistent growth, even small, adds up.



Learning organisation is not a destination. We do not build a learning organisation and say “It is done, now we can stop.” It is a continuous process.

Similar to gardening, after we work hard to build a beautiful garden, the work does not stop there. We must tend the garden continuously or else the garden will be beautiful no more.

Learning organisation is a journey. “A learning organisation is a company that facilitates the learning of its members and CONTINUOUSLY TRANSFORMS itself.” If we stop transforming, we stop being a learning organisation.

And therein lies our motivation to be a learning organisation:

A learning organisation is an adaptive organisation.


Leaders of tomorrow

Finding potential leaders and developing them require investment in time and resources. It goes beyond “training” programmes.

Each future leader is unique and flourishes best in a different way. We need to give each of them the due attention and cater to their individual development needs according to their uniqueness – not “one size fits all” approach.

Furthermore, the type of leaders we develop reflects the type of leaders we are, so we need to “walk the talk” and be authentic. As leaders, we need to keep learning and continuously improve to be better role models.

The leaders of tomorrow were planted yesterday. If we do not plant today, do not be surprised if we get no leaders in the future.


Inspiring Leaders

A few weeks ago during a HeForShe mentoring session, I discussed leadership attributes with my mentee. I asked her what she would like to be known for, 10 years from now.

And in the past few days, I thought some more about these attributes and reframed my thoughts to be more succinct. Here is my list: competent, visionary, and kind.

These attributes reflect the leaders who inspire me and the leader I aspire to be.


See also: The challenge of leadership and Your brand

Digital junk

Recently I wanted to install a new piece of software in my personal Windows laptop which had about 20 GB of free space. Unfortunately, the new software needed at least 100 GB.

So I went to the application list and checked each of the installed software on the machine. I removed all of the applications that I did not need anymore, but that did not get me much additional free space. Seemed fishy.

Then I went to check the disk usage for each of the folder group at the root. The Users folder was large, but I recalled that I recently purged a lot of files prior to this due to some other activity. So next I dissected the size of the sub-folders in Users folder.

The AppData sub-folder was huge. And I just uninstalled many applications. Something is definitely fishy.

I painstakingly checked each sub-folder within AppData. Turned out it contained sub-folders from all applications that was ever installed and uninstalled on the machine. This machine is 7 years old and started life as a Windows 7 and now runs the latest Windows 10. It has seen a lot of experimentation and application try out, so there were a lot of application data folders to remove. Manually.

In the end, I had about 105 GB of free space. In other words, I freed up additional 85 GB of space out 256 GB storage capacity. All this time, one third of the space was filled with junk.

Lesson learned

If it were my house' living room, I would have noticed it when a third of the space is junk and would get rid of it. Some people like to keep things around in their storage or attic or cellar thinking those might come to some use sometime in the future. But even they would not keep junk / trash around as in the case of my Windows laptop story.

Yet in this digital age, mobile devices and computers comes with bigger and bigger storage. It is easy to assume that when the storage space is full, we had it filled with things we digitally need and therefore we need to buy additional storage or new computer or new mobile phone.

But before we do that, verify first if we truly use everything that fills up our digital storage.

Even if we have the financial means to buy more storage or new device, it is a good habit to clean up the digital junks in our life from time to time. Be it in our computers or our mobile phones.

At work this can happen too

Yesterday I met with the Server team to discuss migration plan to the incoming new infrastructure. My team planned to decommission some applications, but less than two years ago, we already cleaned up our applications as part of server consolidation clean up.

Turned out my team had been monitoring that some applications were not used at all recently. And nobody in the Application teams knew who the business owners were, due to staff turnover and missing documentation. So the Server team turned off those applications and waited for who would shout.


So those applications will be backed up and archived but not migrated. If somebody shouts post-migration, we will find out why they need the unused application.

Even in business, digital junk exists and we need to vigilantly clean it.


Best tool vs optimal tool

I was looking for a cloud data storage solution recently and researched it on the internet. I read a number of product reviews with pros and cons. And then I read some users comments that provided some real world rebuttal of the reviewers assessments. These users used the product within their use cases longer than the product reviewers who used the product only a short time for the sole purpose of writing a review article for the internet. The perspectives from other users put the product reviews into context whether they are relevant or not for my use cases.

Context matters a lot, but context is often overlooked

When we want something, we research it to find the best product / service that we can buy for the specific use case. We buy it and then sometimes we discover afterward that the best product / service has other costs aside from the money we pay for it.

It is not necessarily wrong, if best performance or best value or best whatever is the one and only goal. But it is important to understand well: are we absolutely sure there is no other goal that we ought to consider within the context of the big picture?

We ought to avoid “local optimisation” that can degrade the overall expected benefit.

For example, let us say that we have two inter-dependent jobs that need to be done by two different tools and we bought the best tools we could find for each of the jobs: tool A and tool B. Great, so now we will get the maximum benefit when we put these two together, right? Not so fast. It depends on how well these two work together in managing the inter-dependent aspect of their jobs. We need to understand the short term and long term implication whether problem or additional effort or cost may ensue out of the integration between A and B.

Considering the full context, we ought to assess if A and B are still the tools of choice for the jobs, or whether alternative options will integrate more optimally to yield a better overall benefit.

Assumptions can mislead

This one is obvious, but also often gets overlooked. We want to be explicit about all our assumptions and understand how each assumption affects our decision making process. If our assumptions change, the optimal solution may change also, because what we need may turn out to be different.

As for my cloud data storage search, I challenged my assumptions and in the end I reframed my “jobs to be done” differently from when I started my initial research. By questioning my assumptions of what I need vs want, I reconsidered a solution that I excluded previously. This solution is not the technical best because it does not meet a few of my criteria, but it fits perfectly one criterion: simplicity.

Optimise for total benefit

The optimal tool balances trade-offs to maximise the total benefit.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle

In my cloud example, the best tool is not the simplest and, for now, simplest is what I need. Therefore the optimal tool that I bought, in this case, is not the technical best, but I am happy with it, because it gives me the maximum total benefit.

#design #learningorg

Related post: Best practice can be wrong?


In college I learned KISS: “keep it simple, stupid!” Along the years, I adjusted it to be “keep it simple and short”.

Today I learned another good one: “keep – improve – start – stop”, i.e. those are the decisions you need to make when you are assessing business activities.


10 Dec 2017

Supporting agile

To support the transformation to “lean / agile”, C-suite ought to do the following.


Not everything needs to be done in “lean / agile” way – today. Focus on area(s) where “lean / agile” can bring the biggest business impact and where the relevant team members can + will support the transformation.

Transform one thing at a time and demonstrate positive result. Then add the next area(s) and demonstrate positive result again. And then add the next one(s) and on and on.

Know when to stop. For many companies, not everything needs to transform into “lean / agile” way.

Get the right people

Not every old-schooler can transform into a “lean / agile” expert, so choose – or acquire – the right people to do the first “lean / agile” transformation who can deliver the intended result.

“Old dogs” can learn new tricks, but somebody needs to show the way. Attending “lean / agile” boot camp or workshop will not be enough to transform the mindset. And keep in mind that “lean / agile” is primarily about mindset / way of working / behaviour, not tooling.

Codify the learning points

Ensure knowledge is transferable to other team members in order to scale out the transformation efforts. Unless demanded by the C-suite, this is an oft forgotten activity.

Have realistic expectations

Humans learn to crawl before they learn to walk and then run.

In the face of setback, understand first the root cause. Don't go into finger-pointing mode. Fix the root cause and move on. Don't give up easily.


22 Nov 2017

Authentic vs. authenticated

Marketing gurus promote the ideas that we must position ourselves / our brands / our whatever as “authentic”. And as leaders, we must become authentic leaders.

Yes, but ..

You cannot call yourself authentic on your own. Authenticity does not exist in a vacuum: you need someone else to validate that you are who you say you are, i.e. that you are authentic.

Your opinion on your own authenticity matters little. Authenticity is attributed to you by the beholders based on what they perceive about you, not based on what you think of yourselves. And their perception of your authenticity is completely subjective to their expectation of how you act out your values or principles.

There is no need to make any claim about authenticity. Instead, decide which values or principles you stand for and act accordingly, day in and day out.

Then ask people and truly listen to their answers. (Do not try to justify yourself, but let their answers – even between the lines – be your mirror.) Are you acting or living according to the values or principles you stand for?

Yes = authentic

No = need to work on it

Avoid marketing B.S. and keep it simple. Go “walk the talk”.


29 Nov 2016

Managing millennials

I lead a team of demographically diverse people. The age range is anywhere from late fifties down to twenties. One person has even worked for the company for 25 years – older than the age of the youngest staffs.

I have a framework for managing people in general and although it is applicable to any gen, I think this framework is especially useful when it comes to managing Millennials.


Engagement is the foundation of the framework. I engage my team members directly and encourage them that hierarchy should not prevent them from engaging me directly.

Engagement entails talking to them individually to listen to their opinions, ideas, and concerns. I seek them out and do one-on-one?ó?sometimes in my office, sometimes at their desk, and sometimes in the coffee shop.

Certainly they need to work with their managers on all aspects of their job; business process and roles and responsibilities exist for good reasons. But they have access to me directly whenever they want to talk to me. Growing up digital, they have always-on connection to the contacts in their messaging app. There is no barrier for them to connect to anybody once they have the phone numbers or user names.

They have low tolerance for bureaucracy.

I dislike bureaucracy and they dislike it even more. I need to be conscious of existing practices that is taken for granted, but actually a hindrance for engagement among the team.

Having engaged them, I need to empathise with them.


My team wants to express themselves – they want to be heard and understood. As I engage with my team, I need to listen and empathise to understand things from their viewpoints before I help them understand my viewpoints.

They want to be heard and understood.

Because I was once their age; I went through growing up period and college too. They, on the other hand, have not seen as much action as me, so it is more difficult for them to understand my viewpoint, although I cannot say it is easy for me either.

They are curious and want to understand the big picture. Growing up digital, they have ready access to information at their fingertips. But inside the corporate wall, internal information is often not as readily available. “How do I do this and why do I need to do it this way instead of that way?” Often there is no SOP (standard operating procedure) for it. “It has always been done that way since the company was founded.” “Because the boss said so.” Sometimes I do not know the answer and I will need to admit that and ask them to come up with a better way. Sometimes I know the answer and I will need to invest the time to explain it to them.

And although their experience and mine are not the same, there is a common base for both sides to try to relate. And both sides need to make the effort. It is difficult enough to have common understanding among people of the same gen and it is even tougher between different gens.

Common understanding helps me engineer the circumstances for the entire team to perform at their best.


To enable the entire team to perform at their best, I need to engineer the team circumstances to fit the unique composition of the team's strengths and weaknesses. Engineering the circumstances entails many things.

Everyone is unique.

Many Millennials prefer dynamic job over monotonous job, even if the boring job pays better than the exciting one. Obviously I need to pay them competitive rates in order to attract them, but I also need to ensure their job setting is not so boring that they leave.

I try to match challenging assignments with their potential ability. Since they do not have many years of track record in the company, I do not know fully their ability for a given assignment. Thus I need to monitor and adjust it from time to time.

Many of them believe in contributing to causes that improve the society and the earth. They volunteer to teach the poor in a remote village, collect plastic waste, teach senior citizens how to use computers, and many more activities. Often, they do these in their personal time. But some of the company-endorsed activities take place during working hours and I let them be away from work to do their volunteering.

I ask their mentors to take their Millennial mentees seriously to provide the right amount of support (not too little and not too much) and to train them according to their needs. They are thirsty for opportunities to grow and learn.

They do not have a lot of baggage from the past and would question something that I take for granted. This provides me insight to make relevant changes to improve team environment.

If needed, I will reorganise the team to maximise everyone's contribution according to the unique combination of their strengths and weaknesses.

Engineering the team circumstance provides the structure for them to excel and within this structure I need to continuously encourage them.


Positive words are important for the team's morale, but encouragement is more than just pep talk?ó?it entails actions. I need to show the team that I walk the talk.

Encouragement is more than just talk.

If I tell them “you are empowered to do whatever it takes to deliver the result”, do I micro-manage them and make all the decisions? Or do I monitor at arms length and let them make the relevant decisions?

If I tell them “it is okay to fail, but learn fast and do not repeat it”, do I jump up and down and yell at them when they fail? Or do I help them understand the root cause of their failure constructively and re-engineer their set up so they can do better on the next try?

How do I handle poor performers: do I look the other way or do I address it? Poor performers weigh down the team and, if not addressed timely and appropriately, will discourage the whole team.

Authentic encouragement is positive words in action.

Authentic encouragement is positive words in action. It elevates team enthusiasm.


Lessons Learned

Obviously this is an ongoing process and I am learning by doing. So far here are what I discover from managing Millennials.

  • They appreciate being engaged sincerely by the senior management.
  • I enjoy my one-on-one discussions with them; it is refreshing.
  • Listening to them teaches me a thing or two (as long as I keep an open mind).
  • Their presence in the team provokes me to engineer the team circumstances proactively (instead of waiting for outside pressure).
  • Their enthusiasm inspires me to be a better leader.

Your mileage may vary. Happy managing!