There’s a tale about a king from the Maldives who was notably disconnected from his subjects. When his chief courtier informed him that people in the islands were starving, he reportedly responded, ‘Emeehunnah hama kaliyaa birinji kolhehves nulibenee tha?’ Translated, this means, ‘Can’t they even get a small portion of kaliyaa birinji?’
Kaliyaa Birinji, as described in recipes passed down by various authors, including President Amin Didi, is a savory rice dish seasoned with an array of spices. While this dish may have been commonplace and unremarkable for the king and his court, it was unattainable for the islanders, as the spices, many of which were imported, were not readily available.
This type of ignorance in leadership is a challenge we all face. Over time, we may lose touch with the grassroots, lower-level employees, and often, our customers.
Sometimes, we become insulated from the outside world without even realising it. We navigate through situations unconsciously, and our implicit biases can render our decisions less effective and relevant.
Strategic thinking necessitates a thoughtful understanding of the human experience. To fully comprehend this experience, we must immerse ourselves in these situations and listen to those who are living them. Leaders should emerge from the ranks of the people they lead. They need to truly belong, possessing the capacity to approach issues with a comprehensive perspective.
That is a mouthful, I know. Every shortcut or convenience we bring to our lives could ultimately result in a net negative impact in the end. This is true in the case of mobile phones, uninterrupted availability and the expectation that your team must constantly look at their phones. Expecting your team to be polyvalent may be fair, but multitasking or having to have divided concentration and attention can result in substandard performance and unhealthy stress.
What most of us remember from our undergrad research lectures is to differentiate between correlation and causation. Two things may be correlated (happening simultaneously), but that does not mean one caused the other. Some of us might say that we can bring in the same argument to the question of more burnout at work correlating to a greater emphasis on multi-tasking, polyvalence and information overload, but can we really? Evidence suggests that burnout is caused by stress and cognitive overload.
Number 2 and number 5 are directly related to how much work we ask our team to do and how much time they stay engaged in that work. Both these factors have mobile phones and constant connectivity as the greatest contributor enabling the heavy workload and long hours. Mobile phones blur the line between what is personal and professional. You may be at home, winding down and checking your Instagram feed to see what your friends are up to, and suddenly, there is a frenzy of activity in the work-related Viber or Whatsapp groups. You may want to just find out what the commotion is but end up
Cognitive neuroergonomics is a field of study that focuses on understanding how the brain processes and responds to different types of work tasks, environments, and technologies. It aims to improve the design of work systems and environments in order to optimize the performance and well-being of workers.
Employee burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged exposure to demanding work environments. It is characterized by a range of negative symptoms, such as feelings of cynicism, detachment, and reduced accomplishment, as well as physical symptoms such as fatigue and decreased immune function.
There is a strong link between employee burnout and cognitive neuroergonomics, as the factors contributing to burnout often involve issues related to the design of work systems and environments. For example, workers who are required to perform highly demanding tasks without sufficient resources or support may be more prone to burnout. Similarly, workers who are subjected to high levels of stress, such as those working in high-stakes environments, may be more likely to experience burnout.
By studying the cognitive and neural processes involved in burnout, cognitive neuroergonomics can help to identify and address the underlying causes of burnout and develop strategies to prevent it. This may involve redesigning work systems and environments to better support workers, providing training and resources to help workers cope with demanding tasks, and implementing interventions to reduce stress and promote well-being.
Mobile phones keep us connected. We are ‘available’ 24/7 and there is often no respite from the rat race we call life. This small device we carry with us everywhere we go forces us to juggle many things at once mentally.
My wife receives and attends to work-related calls past 10 pm at night, and according to her, everyone is expected to answer their phones. I had the same conversation with one of my friends who looks after the administration of a school. He said that staff and parents feel that it is OK to call someone after 9 or 10 pm for school-related queries, but he does not entertain these calls. He asks the callers to call during office hours the next day. Culture is the norm that we accept, accommodate and entertain over time in our interaction with others.
We are slowly but surely blurring the line between public and private lives when we call others and allow others to call us outside office hours.
Sometimes we overestimate the value or power of knowledge in certain situations. This happened to me recently. When I was asked to facilitate a team-building session for a group of teachers, I prepared for a two-hour session with content I thought would be helpful.
I thought reflecting on the broader question of what education and schooling mean to us, discussing and sharing our thoughts on the ills that had befallen us in recent times, the extent of polarization among us, and exploring our roots were all important themes that could unite us in finding a common purpose as educators. The operative word here was ‘building’. Building anything requires a foundation, a basis, and a unifying purpose. I was trying to find that purpose.
I was wrong – I was wrong about what some teachers would be relevant content for a team-building session.
The curse of knowledge or the curse of expertise, as some call it, could work against you in many deceptive ways. When I know something, it can be hard to imagine what it would be like not knowing that information. This makes it difficult to share my knowledge because I struggle to understand the other party’s state of mind.
If you are curious, here are some articles you may find helpful in avoiding the ‘curse of knowledge’.
Nabhan, my son, is perhaps the wildest of all cards that nature has played into my hand.
Nabhan was born on 12th February 2002 and on the same day, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said the following in a DoD press briefing:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.
My first HR textbook was from an author named Michael Boella. I got a copy of his book on people management in hospitality in my teens, early to mid-1990s. One of the concepts I grew a liking to is the Johari Window. What Rumsfeld said that day is quite similar to the Johari window conceptually. I thought then, and still think, that this could provide a potential framework for discovering our own selves. Self-awareness and self-discovery should be lifelong journeys.
Around the same time, in 1995 Charlie Munger gave his famous The psychology of human misjudgment. In this talk, Munger compares some of the popular psychological concepts and how people working in different domains, and specialists in different disciplines use the same traits in human nature to understand and manipulate us.
It was not long after that Professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote about what is now famously called ‘the Dunning-Kruger’ effect which is a way of explaining how some people with fewer skills in an area tend to overestimate their competence.
I believe all these concepts should be applied to the self instead of trying to understand other people through these lenses. We should be able to see inwards through these lenses.
There is so much we don’t know. There could also be a lot more things that we don’t know that we don’t know. We are fallible creatures. We will always make ‘mistakes’ as judged by others, and acknowledging this, accepting this and constantly reminding ourselves of this is one of the best defences against overconfidence.
In the 60s, my grandfather (Maafaa) bartered most of the gold in his possession for a bicycle.
If you are from F’mulah, I will tell you who my grandfather was and some background. My grandfather was Ahammadhufuthuge (Moorithigey of Miskiymago) Ibrahim Didi and he was a metal worker.
The bicycle was owned by Nayaagey Rekibeybey. Maafaa gets betel leaves from Kalho Maabe-age but when he had to go to Dhoondigan and walk a few kilometres further, he went and exchanged most of the gold he owned for a bike.
Bicycles were rare in those days and the one that Maafaa bought was probably one of the very first bicycles brought to F’mulah. It may have been a status symbol and a luxury for many, but for Maafaa, it was the functionality and utility it provided.
For Maafaa, that bicycle was a vehicle that helped him move from point A to point B faster. Knowing Maafaa and having spent time with him during his last years, I kind of understand what he thought. He never told me why he bought the bicycle, but I will hazard a guess.
Maafaa was an introvert and you could get a big smile out of him but a full-fledged conversation was not his cup of tea. This was of course different with us. He always collected his betel ‘dhe namaadha dheythere’ (between two prayers – meaning between Maghrib (sunset) and Ishaa prayers). From Moorithigey to Maalegan was a relatively short walk and back in those when the island was sparsely populated, not many people would stop him for a chat and also fewer houses along the way meant less light (there was no electricity back then) so fewer people saw him. When he had to go to Dhoodigan, everything changed. It took him longer to walk and having to punctuate his walk with people stopping him to ask where he was going was not something he wanted to face.
At the end of the day, he wanted to get his betel run done between Maghrib and Isha. Go after Maghrib and be home before the call for Isha and he was not going to get this done if he walked on foot. He was a nice person so he would not ignore anyone who spoke to him on the way.
We all buy our ‘bicycles’ and rationalize our decisions internally but to an outside observer, what we buy may not make any sense.
In an overly materialistic world, we have come to associate the quality of education and knowledge with the materials that a learning environment is built with. We seem incapable of detaching knowledge from brick and mortar. A school has become a social construct, a physical structure that has to be built with the most expensive materials. Our expectation of a school is not what is taught there but rather the physical built quality of the building and the comfort of the environment.
About a decade ago, I came across the story of Sugata Mitra and his ‘hole in the wall’ project. His story is fascinating. It is a story of our capacity to self-organize and learn even from a very young age. A software engineer by profession, Mr Mitra wanted to make education accessible to the underprivileged. In this youtube video, he explains how he started thinking that the victorian English education system that the rest of the world adopted in the 20th century standardised education and how he thought that limited human creativity. After the initial experiments, he came up with concepts like Self organized learning environments or SOLEs and the Granny Cloud. These concepts and the school in the cloud turn our conventional ideas about schools on their head.
The late Sir Robinson is another educator who had strong opinions against the systems of schooling we see today. He called for a new paradigm in education and introduced such terms as ‘education’s death valley’ and described schools as places that kill creativity in children. He was perhaps the best TED speaker ever. Here is one of his TED talks where he talks about customizing and personalizing the way we help children in schools.
I recently read the autobiography of Amartya Sen, the Nobel-winning economist and global thinker who recollected details of his childhood and school days in his most recent book ‘Home in the world’. Professor Sen attended the Shantiniketan, but not during the life of Rabindranath Tagore. The description of Shantiniketan and the learning environment during Professor Sen’s time there and before that opens a window into how education was viewed back in those days. It reminded me of the importance of helping each child reach their full potential in life instead of standardising education. Some brave thinkers have tried to demonstrate this through stories and this is a story I came across many years ago and shared on my blog.
Another important lesson I learned from Professor Sen’s book is the myth of colourful academic achievement during childhood equating to success later in life. When Professor Sen won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998, the principal of his old primary school in Dhaka wanted to honour him during his next visit to Bangladesh and when the principal dug through the old records for Professor Sen’s academic results in primary school, he was surprised to find that those results were very ordinary. He was not a straight-A student. Schools should teach kids how to think rather than what to think. They should be taught life skills, social skills and self-awareness more than anything else.
For a long time, I have had very different opinions on how our education system is organized. As far back as 2009, I argued against island school SMTs for trying to exclude certain kids from their schools. The idea of extending boundary walls to keep the so-called ‘street children’ out never appealed to me and it goes against the principles of open community schools that we are supposed to have on the islands. Kids on the street, especially those being lost to delinquency, are the result of the failure of educators who are responsible for that catchment area – the SMT of the very school who are trying to keep these kids out of their premises. Here is the link to a document that was prepared in 2011 about an educational vision for Fuvahmulah as I saw it then.
My formative education was mostly extracurricular. They had very little to do with formal education. I learned from my grandfather’s Achchange, from my uncle and from backyard gardening with my father. At school, my best lessons came not from the books but from the work that our principal Ibrahim Waheed made us do – organizing his library, printing a newspaper and a magazine and acting in plays. I am grateful for my childhood and to all those beautiful people who shaped my childhood that made me who I am.
So what is a school? To me, it is not about schools but more about schooling as a concept. Schooling as helping children grow in their capacity to be independent thinkers capable of looking after themselves and those around them. Schooling is about enhancing their capacity to make meaning of themselves and the world they live in. Schooling should not be associated with a glorified building. Schooling can happen anywhere. Discipline and life skills can be taught anywhere in the neighbourhood – be it inside a tin shack, a mud hut, an odi haruge (boat hangar) or on the beach on small islands. What is important is not where our children are educated but rather with what knowledge and competencies.
Operating a resort on a remote island is a complex thing. These islands are self-contained and have to become self-sufficient, producing our own electricity, water and ensuring a functioning sewage system. This requires a lot of local/contextual knowledge and experience for initial set-up and maintenance. Luckily, we have tried and tested these systems for 50 years now. There is a lot of tacit and explicit knowledge within the industry on most aspects of engineering operations in a resort.
What is required to succeed as an engineering director or chief engineer on a resort in the Maldives is not in-depth knowledge of one specific engineering area. It is instead a range of exposure to mechanical, electrical, environmental, civil/architecture, and a basic understanding of generic engineering concepts and a whole lot of common sense. One of my earliest mentors in resorts, Abjee, made sure that this was drilled into me from the start. He said to me that to manage a resort, I will require some knowledge of everything so that none of my team tries and takes advantage of my ignorance. Our forefathers called this ‘dhuniyeyge aaju faaju engun’. For them, it was about understanding how nature works, what happens when and how we should react to the elements.
Here are some broad and generic insights on how we can make better engineering-related decisions. I am not an engineer but I have a fairly good understanding of how things work from a technical perspective and hope readers find them helpful.
Backlog will suffocate you
The core functions of a resort hotel are mostly hospitality related. They include the provision of accommodation and F&B. However, both these functions require a lot of engineering support. Resorts have two parallel hospitality operations going on at the same time – that of the front of the house and the back of the house. Staff and guests must be fed and sheltered; as resorts age, all infrastructure succumbs to natural wear and tear. The number and frequency of incidents requiring engineering attention increase as operations continue. Resort operations happen in cycles, and every day these cycles are repeated. Murphy’s law says we should always get things done ahead of deadlines to avoid last-minute glitches. Another insightful wisdom comes from Parkinson’s law where work expands to fit into the available time, making us wait for the 11th hour before starting on projects. Unfortunately, the operations cycles do not stop and other departments keep sending more SOS requests for engineering support. Engineering is just one department, and carpentry is just one section that has to deal with requests from 10 or more departments that all have ‘urgent’ requirements.
Ensuring a backlog-free operation requires a lot of daily planning and getting in specialists from time to time or outsourcing some tasks as special projects.
When you fix problems, they come back and bite you harder
A leaky roof is perhaps a good example. We get bothered by the leaks only when it rains. Sometimes engineering can only see the leaks when it rains. It is easy to plug holes temporarily always intending to attend to it at some point later. However, when more tasks come in, the team will never be able to as there are much more urgent areas where the same resources are needed. And then, one day, the whole roof collapses.
Stormwater management is one area I have seen most engineering departments struggle with. Challenges in the form of flooded roads, puddles and pot-holes can be a nightmare at some resorts. Some architects design for aesthetics and engineers then need to make the buildings and spaces functional through innovative solutions. Instead of attending to floods every time it rains, proactive and purposeful landscaping can create lower areas adjacent to pathways and roads most likely to flood. Gutters from large roofs should be directed away from public areas.
Don’t swim against the current
I have written on the importance of harnessing nature for landscaping and this concept of understanding nature’s processes and cycles is important in coastal engineering and landscaping. Most islands in the Maldives deal with beach erosion at some point in time and some resorts also deal with sand accretion or too much sand at some points in the monsoonal cycle. The simplest solutions in beach management come from understanding how sand behaves around the island and this is a function of many things including the orientation of the island, where it is within the atoll and what is happening in the neighbouring islands. The shape/profile of an island is the result of many (thousands if not hundreds) years of current moving around it. When we start building around it, extending the beach, and building multiple structures in the surrounding water, current flow is disturbed and nature starts compensating for these changes. I never understand why we are so surprised by beach erosion when we disrupt the natural flow or current.
What is theoretically possible is not always practical
In one of my previous places of work, the management decided to invest in a kitchen waste processing machine. If I remember correctly, the machine can process 100 kilos of waste in a batch and each batch took about 3 hours. At this rate, the machine will take 30 to 40 hours of operation to process the daily kitchen waste collection. What was more complicated was the amount of power required to run the machine. It could only be run at off-peak times. This, therefore, limited the effective capacity of the machine and it was deemed not feasible for operation.
I have also seen a chief engineer start composting kitchen waste only to abandon the project halfway through because it was not practical. While composting at a small scale can be feasible and beneficial for an island, a lot of things need to be considered before starting a composting project. Not all organic matter decomposes at the same speed. If we put all our kitchen waste together it could take anywhere from 14 days to more than a year! It is practically not possible to have enough composting space to hold 7-15 tonnes of organic waste.
Master the art of juggling (resources)
One of the biggest challenges that I have seen heads of engineering deal with is that of getting the priorities. Most will find themselves constantly in situations where the same resources are required in multiple locations at the same time and especially when there are requests from front-of-the-house departments, they come with a great sense of urgency. Resource allocation can be tricky and may remain a very elusive skill to master for many heads of engineering departments. Resource allocation is very context specific. Most resorts will have ‘set in stone’ manning numbers that are aligned with the number of rooms or guests. These numbers d not take into account the volume of work in the ancillary or support services where workload not only fluctuates with occupancy but with weather-related events as well.
Engineering is a multifaceted function within the resort operation. There are many more components to a resort’s engineering function than I discussed here. Engineering is also the most critical function and incurs some of the highest recurrent expenses and by managing the function smartly, can contribute positively to the bottom line. Periodic review of power and water production, load and usage data and streamlining of the work processes can be very effective in reducing fuel costs.
Maldivians have for most of our history been very hospitable, welcoming and friendly towards outsiders. While this has relevance to guesthouse and homestay tourism, the commercial hospitality we see in resorts today relies on a different model and image.
Achchange – the centre of life as I saw it when I was growing up in F’mulah in the late 70s and early 80s, share a lot of similarities with how things were done in the first decade of tourism – creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to become self-sufficient. Not even a single tin can was thrown away.
My first day at a resort 34 years ago was quite an experience. I was assigned to a dorm room that had 13 other men. I was on the top bunk.
Showers and toilets were about 300 feet away from where we slept and as I walked toward the toilets on the first day, I had my towel wrapped around my waist. Halfway through, someone came from behind and pulled my towel away. The next day I didn’t bother to wrap it around – I just threw it on my shoulder. I was, of course, wearing underpants.
Resources were scarce back then. I remember carrying water on Ummeed Dhoni with Aage Alibe of Mahibadhoo. In the dry season, when the water plant breaks down, we had no choice but to bring water from neighbouring islands.
My experience at a typical Italian village was fun. I grew quite close to Capo Villagio and his girlfriend who wooed me with ‘Arnoldino bello piccolino’ every time she saw me. Once, I ended up being wrapped in her favourite Italian Serie A club’s regalia to be stripped again and rewrapped in Capo’s favourite colours just minutes after.
I enjoyed being part of the evening theatre. Italian animators and Maldivians appeared together on stage just like we worked together during the day. It was a very close relationship.
In summer, a team of our F&B production and service will travel to the South of Italy to open Maldivian restaurants at summer vacation hotspots run by Club Vacanze. It was a true cultural exchange.
Tourism started with simple and basic products and services. The relationships were organic and genuine back then. Today, resorts offer a complex mix of facilities and services. Each resort tries to be unique and stand out from the crowd. The evolution of tourism went from simplicity to complexity.
People – the resourceful humans who create the tourism experience – had not been seen as such an important element in the mix until recently. We still do a lot of things to change the objective reality (food, accommodation and physical spaces) rather than subjective perception in trying to improve life in resorts for workers.
The Maldives as one of the best luxury destinations in the world has redefined many of the standards in high-end tourism offerings. This has created a rich body of tacit knowledge that has not been fully documented and archived.
As more and more local islands welcome tourists, the definition of a tourist as perceived by the average local needs to change. Tourism is very context-specific and we can adopt models that are fully compatible with Islam and our culture and way of life in these small islands.
What I do not like about self-help is the level of confidence with which most authors promote their hypothesis. While anything and everything will resonate and work well for a section of the population, generalizations across the board will deceive a lot of people. This can eventually do more harm than good for the most vulnerable in our midst.
No concept is a silver bullet. There are no magic formulas when it comes to self-help. We are mostly concerned with improving indicators for our health and wealth. Sometimes, as psychologists suggest, even WE do not know why we want something. Some of the things we wish for are social signalling that does not have any meaningful benefits for us at a deeper level.
We are all naive at some point in our lives. I said we are naive because I do not want to say that we are all gullible but the reality is that by nature we can all be gullible in certain situations depending on our physiological and psychological state of mind. When misinformation and lies are thrown at us left, right and centre, critical thinking is perhaps the most important skill we can possess to counter the volume of lies and misinformation and find the right combination or balance of information that will benefit us in a holistic sense. Some self-help ideas work against this.
The degree of fluidity between two extremes of nature’s system – simplicity and complexity, makes it very difficult to apply binary ideas to anything in our lives. The dynamism in these systems means that we have to constantly course-correct our behaviour, actions and reactions. Our best course of action is to opt for a dynamic, adaptive approach that helps us become better with each difficult situation. This is what Nassem Taleb calls Antifragility.
In 1888, Nietzsche wrote “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens.—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker,” which can be translated as “Out of life’s school of war—what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” It appears in his book of aphorisms, Twilight of the Idols, and no further explanation follows. There are plenty of scientific references to this exact human phenomenon, where repeated exposure to a stressor can make you immune to that stressor over time. Unfortunately, grief, hardship, misery, misfortune and disaster do not strike every individual the same way.
A similar concept that we are quite familiar with is resilience. This term has been around and has been in frequent use since the Tsunami. A similar word I remember learning in hotel school is ‘tensile strength’. We discussed it during laundry and housekeeping classes to describe the different types and qualities of fabrics and clothes materials. Tensile strength maximum tension or force that a piece of fabric can tolerate before breaking. It is the ability of the material to be stretched with pressure without breaking/damaging and then be able to revert back to its original status. Resilience has a similar connotation. It means the ability to bounce back to its original state or not be damaged by pressure.
In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, we must design our systems – companies, operations, societies and infrastructure – to withstand shocks and find growth after or even through these shocks. The frequency and severity of turbulence and novelty of threats such as the recent pandemic and the impact these events have on everyone – including our own personal lives at an individual level, make it hard to survive and thrive today. Unless we are fully aware of how things work around us, we will find it difficult to pick ourselves up when we fall.
The internet is often regarded as a tool for levelling the playing field in many areas. It has democratized the way we express ourselves. While in many areas it has empowered us, some platforms have created asymmetries.
One example of this is TripAdvisor and other similar platforms. While they have empowered travellers and hotel guests, we don’t often think of the asymmetric relationship they create.
A guest or a customer can rant and rave about their experience but we as readers do not allow the same privilege to the service providers. True, properties can and do respond to explain or defend their actions but they are already on the back foot when responding to a negative review.
Irrational, nasty or malicious reviewers get away with absolutely zero repercussions or consequences while a hotel posting about a bad customer behavior will most definitely experience a torrent of abuse and backlash from the public.
With the growing level of incivility in society and among the travelling public universally across the globe, hoteliers need to find creative ways of overcoming this challenge. Finding the right balance of presence and level of engagement on social media platforms and the internet has always been difficult, partly due to the fast evolution and dynamism that is inherent in these tools/platforms.
I don’t know the ultimate solution but being aware of this asymmetry and taking that fact into consideration when putting together the property’s social media and digital identity strategy can help deal with them better. There aren’t many proactive measures we can put in place. People are unpredictable and irrational. When and how a customer reacts to our services will always remain unknown and when it does happen, we should react rationally and within reason.