I had the privilege to work on a contract for one of Singapore’s most celebrated enterprenuers in my first business – Mr Sim Wong Hoo, founder of Creative Technologies. Creative is the company that invented sound for your computer and more recently famous for their long-drawn battle with Apple over the personal digital entertainment devices space mainly Zen vs iPod.
One of Mr Sim’s most famous words till today is about NUTS. What is NUTS? Although it has been some time and Singapore has changed quite dramatically since the time of this speech, NUTS is closely related to the theme of this blog – the highway of life. The following is the extract:
What is NUTS? NUTS is when you want to do something and you seek approval of a higher authority. When there is no rule saying that you can do such a thing, then the standard answer is NO…
In the US, when there is no sign on the road, it means that you can make a U-turn. When the authority do not want people to make U-turns, they will put up signs to tell you not to make U-turns.
In Singapore, it is the reverse. When there is no sign on the road, you are not allowed to make U-turns. When the authority allow you to make U-turns, then they will put up signs to give you that right.
The two different systems serve the same purpose – to better manage the traffic. They may look quite similar, just coming from different direction, but the social repercussion is significant.
In Singapore, the no U-turn without sign culture has permeated every level of our thinking and every segment of our life. This no U-turn has created a way of life that is based on rules. When there is a U-turn sign or when there is a rule, we can U-turn. When there is no sign, we cannot U-turn.
When there is no rule, we cannot do anything. We become paralyzed.
I call this “no-rule=no-do” phenomenon – the “No U-Turn Syndrome” or NUTS.
Singapore has prospered under a rule-based system for many years. When we were at a lower level of development, we needed many multi-national companies to come to Singapore to invest. What these MNCs needed were a very reliable group of managers and workers who could follow exactly the rules set by corporate headquarters overseas. Since they did not want their overseas subsidiaries to innovate anything, they wanted us to stick closely to the rules, no funny deals, no crazy ideas. They were here to teach us, not to listen to ideas from us.
The efficiency and no-nonsense style of the Singapore government is well-known. It has brought us prosperity and a good life. A rule-based system is essential here too to get everybody to toe the line.
But the world has changed. And it is changing faster and faster. So fast that the rules that were set yesterday are no longer valid and cannot serve our new needs. It is not a matter of setting new rules to meet the new situation because by the time new rules are formulated, they would already be out of date. It is a matter of how to survive and prosper in environments where they are no rules. It is a matter of how to live with ambiguity. Things are no more black or white, things are in shades of gray. How do we deal with them?
What is NUTS?
NUTS is when you want to do something and you seek the approval of a higher authority. When there is no rule saying that you can do such a thing, then the standard answer is NO.
What is wrong with this? There is nothing wrong if we choose to be stuck in the old world of our own where nothing changes.
To meet the challenge of the new world, to meet the challenge of rising to a knowledge-based economy, we have to innovate like mad. How can we innovate when we need to obey rules to innovate? Innovate means to create things out of nothing, it means moving into uncharted territories where there are no rules.
How can you innovate when you have to get approval of somebody who looks at a rule-book first?
Such is the syndrome of NUTS. NUTS is everywhere in the society including schools, offices, hospitals, parks, factories and even in our homes. Yes, in Creative (Singapore) too. Here are some hilarious examples, they make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. I am sure you can tell me more.
NUTS #2-“Creative Resource”-needed approval?
When our corporate headquarters were completed in 1997, we needed to give it a name. The placeholder name was Creative Technology Centre. Made sense, but it was a boring name that everybody had. I wanted a special name, because we are “creative”. So the usual names like, “Creative Building, Plaza, Complex, House…” were suggested on the name list. I rejected all of them. Finally we came out with a very good name, “Creative Resource” – the source of all creativity – and everybody loved it.
But wait, before we could go ahead, we had to submit the building name for approval. What! I was shocked. I needed somebody else’s approval for the name of my own building. By some faceless committee that I did not even know existed. Imagine having the name of your baby being approved by somebody you do not know.
Hey, that is the regulation. OK, we submitted and no prize for guessing the right answer. The answer was NO. The reason given was that the name was not “Centre, Plaza, Building, Complex, House etc…” There was actually a list of approved names in the rulebook and we were only given the impression that we could name our own building.
I nearly jumped through the roof when I heard the answer. It was a very typical case of NUTS. “Resource” was not in their rule book, hence the standard answer was NO. I was not going to give up on this right. So we fought back and wrote letters to appeal. Finally, after a long process, our name was approved. Whew!
NUTS #3 – Cannot sing Singapore songs!!
While we were preparing for the opening ceremony of Creative Resource, we wanted to have a lot of creative fun. We prepared a lot of performances by our own staff. We were very fortunate to have invited the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong to grace the event. We wanted to show him the best creativity in us.
The opening fanfare idea was to have a big group of kids running into the building, singing a medley of Patriotic Singapore Songs. It was going to be very delightful. After the songs were arranged and recorded, at the last moment, someone in the team decided that we actually needed to seek approval from the authority because of copyright issues. The answer came back was of course a NO.
There was no rule to say that you could do a medley of Singapore songs. There was a rule that said we could sing the Singapore song in special celebratory occasions like ours, so this was allowed.
Our people started to panic, because there was no time to change the recordings. They sought my advice. They were thinking of canceling this delightful! fanfare and disappointing the kids, from our Creative O child-care centre, who had practiced so hard for this event.
I asked them why they had thought of seeking approval for a private function especially when the answer could be a No. they were afraid that the TV stations were there filming and it might have constituted a copyright infringement!
There were a few NUTS at work here. First it is my own staff who were NUTS, they were toeing the line so tightly that they felt the need to seek approval for a private function that was not controversial at all. I was sure that the PM would give his 100% endorsement. Then we had the NUTS at the approval side who looked at the rule book and said No.
I asked them to go ahead and just do it, even violating the rejection letter. Some of my NUTS staff must have freaked out. I told them I would bear the full responsibility. If I had to pay a $2000 fine, I would pay it. In the worst, worst case I might go to jail for it – that would be interesting too.
In fact, the PM in his impromptu part of his speech also said, to move forward, we would have to “just do it”. It was a timely message.
NUTS #4 – No Title
Recently, Creative had just spent a few million dollars investing heavily in a company. The key person in the company was needed urgently to launch a new “.com” project that could be worth a lot more in the future. In the era of the Internet, timing is everything. Then suddenly, he told me that he needed to go for reservist during the critical period. This meant that his whole team could be crippled because his leadership was not there. I told him that there should not be a problem, as he could always apply for a deferment. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister has told me in the Technopreneur 21 committee that, reservist duties should not hinder Technopreneurship because the affected reservist could apply for deferment and it would be considered favourably.
So the staff wrote a letter to apply for deferment. It was rejected. I told him to write an appeal, mentioning Creative’s involvement and all the relevant and valid reasons for such critically needed deferment. It was still rejected and we were running out of time.
I guess I had to step in. I wrote the letter personally again, citing all the reasons and the “.com” time-critical factors. It was still rejected. I was very upset by this. It was already the last working day before he had to go in-camp.
I had to call the officer personally. I identified myself, including my role in the Technopreneur 21 committee and appealed for the fourth time. The answer was still NO. after all the reasons were given, the answer was still NO. Well, they had liberalized then – if you were a new employee of a company, the deferment would be allowed. I argued strenuously that the key person was more than a new employee. He was a new employee of a company for which we had spent millions to acquire.
No! An acquisition does not constitute the equivalent of a new employee. A new employee IS a new employee. Period. The rule book never said that the people in a new acquisition are new employees. Therefore they are not “new employees”, regardless of the fact that their employee status are the same in principle. It does not matter if you are Sim Wong Hoo or the T21 chairman. NUTS is NUTS.
It almost drove me NUTS!
Fortunately, I heard from some people that I would get a better chance if I were to call the unit Commanding Officer. I asked for his name and phone number and the officer obliged. I managed to track down the CO on his handphone at the very last minute. The CO was an understanding man because he was also a reservist and in the computer line. The deferment was finally granted.
NUTS #5 – Creative NUTS
We had our equal share of NUTS in Creative and they really drove me NUTS because they actually happened right on my head, the CEO of the company. Such is the persistence and universality of NUTS.
First example, the time I needed some CD-ROM replicated for some last-minute projects. I knew I had time because, we had an in-house CD-ROM replication plant and it would have taken less than one day to finish the job, especially my small little job of a few hundred pieces.
But when my assistant came back, she told me helplessly that they needed a one week lead-time. I almost jumped off my chair. This was a rush job for the CEO and they just threw back their standard lead-time at me, it was clearly written in their rule-book that the standard lead-time was one week – for a rush job. So one week was what you would get even if you were the CEO of the company, even if your job was very important.
I asked them who set the rules? They were the ones who set the rules! I was amazed how NUTS they were. Then change the rules, I told them. Finally they did it for me in two days.
There were several of such examples within Creative. And the managers sometimes fought with me because that was the only way they could ensure the quality of the products. Quality is good when we are shipping products to customers. But when we need to rush, it is always during the early stages of engineering run, where we need a lot of samples to test. Quality then becomes secondary and time is primary. Staff with a NUTS mentality would not have the flexibility to do such a switch, unless you make another rule. And you can only live within the new rules.
NUTS #6 – More Creative NUTS
The second example in Creative has to do with customer support. Creative pride ourselves as a company that provides the best technical support. All our staff know that. We have 400 people in Oklahoma USA, just listening to phone calls alone. We have a small technical/customer support team in Singapore serving only the small Singapore market. The team is hardworking and dedicated to the company. In general, their service is good and efficient – when there are rules.
There was once when I received a customer’s letter addressed to me complaining about our customer support department (CSD) with regards to a missing CD from our product. Our CSD insisted that the customer get the CD from his dealer who sold him the PC with our product. And the customers attached the letters of exchange. It was such a minor issue but I felt customer satisfaction was most important. So I wrote a small note and asked them to give him the CD and be done with it. CD-ROMs are very cheap anyway.
A few weeks later, I received another letter from this furious customer complaining that our CSD wanted to charge him like $15 for the CD because it was the responsibility of the dealer to give it to him. And he attached even more letters for me to read.
I was very upset this time because, what could have been a very simple and pleasant customer support issue, costing the company less than $1 for the CD-ROM if people in CSD had just given it to him in the first place, now potentially cost the company a bomb:
Firstly, the CSD’s time to write all those letters of exchange, they are way, way over $1. But because of NUTS, our CSD people did not see it. They are just trying to follow rules when there are no rules in such situation.
Secondly, the CEO’s time. I had to read about ten letters two times to figure out the gist of it all. It must have cost the company thousands of dollars. And even after my first instruction to just give him the CD-ROM, they still went into a cat and mouse chase to try to ask him to pay $15. Someone in CSD probably set the rule that if a customer wanted an extra CD-ROM, it would cost him $15 – that is it, regardless of the plight of the customer.
Thirdly, the most expensive part – the harm it had done to our brand name. A potentially unhappy customer would hurt the company way beyond the customer. He would tell all his friends not to buy from the company. But people with NUTS mentality could not see beyond the rules. They could not see that a $1 CD-ROM was much, much cheaper than their own time, their CEO’s time and the value of the brand name.
I had to call all the three persons involved in this case to my office and explain to them very slowly about our principle of customer support. You could not fault them for dedication, they were trying to make an extra $15 for the company. Not seeing the big picture of how much more it would cost the company. I had told them that for us, the customer’s interest is always in the #1 position. I told them that they were the “customer’s advocates” – they had to be fighting with me for their customer’s interest, rather than the other way round.
Finally, told them to call up the customer directly, apologize and give him the CD-ROM he wanted and ensure that the customer was 100% satisfied. If the customers are not satisfied – we should not take their money.
We are moving faster and faster into many uncharted territories, where there are no rules. We do not want to be paralyzed by waiting for the rule to be formulated before moving – it will be too late. We have to discard our NUTS mentality and learn to live in a new world where there are no clear rules. Not that it will be a cowboy lawless land. There will be broad guiding principles such as common goals, objectives and basic integrity to follow. The rest, we have to look at the big picture and decide what is the best way to do a job, to achieve our goals.
Sim Wong Hoo
Excerpt from “No U-Turn Syndrome (NUTS)”
Chaotic Thoughts from the Old Millennium