Writing a column: harder than it looks?

On the eighth anniversary of my first column in Business Daily I thought it would be good to reflect back on the 225 or so articles I have delivered since then. It was not too long after the paper was launched that its then managing editor, Nick Wachira, succeeded in twisting my arm into becoming a regular contributor. He wanted me to submit a weekly column, but I balked. Indeed I thought I was being foolishly ambitious in even agreeing to the tyranny of a fortnightly deadline.

As I thought about possible topics that could fill my regular allotment of 1,000 words I fully assumed I would run dry in a year, maximum eighteen months. Yet here I am, still churning out my twice-monthly thoughts, with little prospect of writer’s cramp setting in. It means that as I go about my business, as I read an article or a book, hear a talk or participate in a workshop, or just engage in a casual conversation, I’m constantly scanning for ideas. Fortunately, no restrictions are placed upon me: I can write about whatever I want, and so far nothing I have submitted has been rejected – or even changed.

It’s very satisfying, and it has become a normal part of my life. It’s a great feeling when an idea for a piece suddenly strikes me, and then I can hardly wait to hit my computer and get going. It was George Bernard Shaw who described inspiration as ‘a blank piece of paper’ and other than now replacing the paper by a screen he might have added the need for a deadline. For necessity is indeed the mother of invention, with the columnist’s deadline un-negotiable.

Quite often as I start hammering away I have little idea of where the story will take me, never mind of how it will end. Sometimes I fear that what I have to say will consume considerably less than the thousand-word quota, which means I must force myself to create the balance – and without waffling. Then on other occasions I overflow my limit, so I’m forced to chop precious phrases and sentences – a painful exercise. Always though, at the bottom left of my screen I am kept helpfully informed of how many words I have consumed so I know how many more I need to manufacture.

Once I get launched with my first paragraph I tap comfortably away, happily developing my theme. And when eventually I key in the concluding sentence I feel a nice mixture of achievement and relief. But before I send the package off to my editor I let it sit for a while, typically overnight, before casting my own stern editing eye over the product. I spot the odd typographical error, cut a bit here, add a touch there, introduce a more interesting verb, remove a superfluous adjective. It’s the less exciting but equally important work of polishing the language and sharpening the flow. Finally off it flies into cyberspace, sometimes with me suffering a twinge of anxiety, wondering if I should have checked that extra fact, read through the text one more time to make sure that all was well, but at least knowing my editor will not be banging at my e-door about delivery.

When the day of publication comes I buy the paper and turn to page nine, to see how my article has been laid out, what picture and caption have been added, and what headline has been placed above it. To the right I scan down the “Other Voices” column that completes the page, nodding at the pictures of world leaders that sit there along with mine. (Which reminds me, I must submit a new one of my present aged self, as the one I sent eight years ago still features.)

Finally, the feedback from readers – of both the print and the online versions. One, an old friend of mine, sends me a long mail after each and every article. He tells me whether he liked it or not, sometimes hammering me for having been too technical or insufficiently something else, but more often reacting with at least some enthusiasm. He also writes about incidents I’d reminded him of from his own rich and long life. Plus about anything else that’s been on his mind that week.

Sometimes I receive a brief text from a reader, sometimes a substantial mailed commentary. Only once has a reader been really mad at me. It was in reaction to an article I’d written about what Kenya had to learn from Rwanda and the man, a Kenyan expatriate living an obviously miserable life in Kigali, wrote to tell me that Kenya had absolutely nothing to learn from that place. After a few further grumpy exchanges we were forced to agree to disagree.

It was an article I read some time ago in the New York Times that gave me the idea for this one. The author challenged his readers to list all the original ideas they had, and then to write an article about one of them. “Perhaps you’d be very successful at this,” he accepted. “But now imagine doing it for four weeks,” he continued, “then for two months, then six, then a year, then five years. And all this while pursuing your other activities. How do you think you’d fare?”

The writer wouldn’t go so far as to say his readers would be sure to fail. But he admitted being left with a grudging respect for columnists. “It really is a lot harder than it looks,” he concluded, adding that he couldn’t imagine how he’d cope with the demands of staying fresh for a regular column. Thank you sir. That makes me feel really good.

And now I see I’m approaching my 1,000 words so I must stop… or I’ll be chopped.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Developing vision, mission and values statements

I recently ran a strategic planning session with a client, within which of course we reviewed their vision, mission and values statements. And as is so often the case with this topic I found the facilitation to be emotionally and intellectually exhausting. While some felt out of their comfort zones, others were filled with undue confidence. There’s rarely an in-between when assembling the trio of products: people either find it’s not their cup of tea – and a complete waste of time – or they love the playing with words and ideas.

Sadly, those who believe our time could be better spent on (as they see it) less airy-fairy topics actually have a point. This is because hardly anyone makes any use of having built the statements. They’re just there, lifeless, framed on a wall in the reception area or floating somewhere on the website. So why bother? Because everyone has to have this stuff, right? It shows you’re with it, professional, contemporary. And after all, no one needs to know you think it’s irrelevant and ignored, and that daily life goes on as before.

Anyway, whether merely for compliance with best practice or for real, these days everyone’s got to have their statements. And now and again, usually when someone like me shows up, they’re dusted off to remind people of what they say and whether, come to think of it, they’re still on target.

So off we go, and first with the vision. In Kenya, but by no means only here, weak conventional statements are the overwhelming norm. “To be the leading XXX”, “a world class YYY”; “a centre of excellence…”, blah blah blah. This is the kind of cliché we find all too often: unrealistic, pseudo-inspirational, generic and internally focused. What a struggle it is to move people beyond such unmemorable platitudes, often expressed at wordy length, and where mission verbiage overlaps with what has already been pronounced in the visionless vision.

Wake up, folk. Think purpose. Think impact. Think customers. What is your vision of the consequence of being that world class, premium, leading centre of excellence of choice? How is what you aspire to going to make the world a better place? The example I most often quote is from Disney, whose statement simply reads: “Make People Happy”. And another favourite is low-cost irrigation-pump social enterprise Kickstart, who tell us they’re in business “to lift millions of people in Africa out of poverty, quickly, cost-effectively and sustainably”.

Unfortunately, thanks to the prevalence of the inward-looking cliché model, too many people now feel that this is the “proper” way to craft one’s statement. Good news therefore: I give you permission to be original, punchy, unique and memorable. In fact I instruct you to be so.

For me mission statements are more straightforward – and likely to need more frequent review. Here one lists what one does in order to achieve the why of the vision. (I say “for me” because there are different views on the very definition of vision and mission statements. Then, some feel they only need a mission statement, and so do away with the separate expression of a vision. My view though is that it’s a shame not to have two bites at the inspirational cherry: the “why” followed by the “how”.)

A further struggle awaits as we get to identifying the values, with more generic clichés the order of the day. “Professionalism”, “Teamwork” and “Integrity” top the polls, with “Innovation” now appearing more frequently – however poorly practiced. I will hold back from venting further on values here, as sometime soon I’ll be devoting a separate column to this element.

Even fewer fans exist for working with values statements than do for the other two. Why? My sense is that most leaders are skeptical about the very possibility of changing attitudes and behaviour, the intended consequence of defining one’s aspirational values.

“People are how they are,” such leaders feel, “and there’s not much you can do about it – certainly not here in Kenya.” I disagree, and not least as a result of observing plenty of very healthy sub-cultures in this country, in organisations where the leaders themselves live good values and have managed to get their colleagues to do so as well. They have understood the power of vision, mission and values statements, using these to galvanise those around them into purposeful and uplifting action. They speak about these statements; they recognise and reward those who are aligned with them; and they hammer those who are not.

Most leaders, it has to be said – and again not just in Kenya – having stretched themselves to conjour up their visions and missions, completely run out of energy when it comes to defining their values (or “core values” as they have come to be known for some reason). It is why, for instance, this third component so often slips off the website or the annual report without trace. “Oh yes,” they admit when I point this out to them. But are they filled with remorse? Do they rush to make amends? Hardly.

Yet, as I have written before, I am firmly convinced that without living by a set of healthy values we have no chance, no chance at all, of living our visions and missions. Not in an organisation, not as a county, and not as a nation.

In our strategy sessions we usually reach a point where I suggest to the full group that they seek a few volunteers to further wordsmith what they have come up with, as otherwise we can go on debating points and splitting hairs forever. This small team then proposes a nicely wordsmithed set for the comments and ratification of others. The big challenge then begins: to use the statements as important tools of great leadership. Yes, to make them live, rather than to see them be what far too often they become, neglected passionless prose, mere decoration without function.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Manoeuvring in “conflict and fragile” states

For some time now I have been working with professionals in the development community who have chosen to throw themselves at the most challenging opportunities of all in their field: these are the heroes who try so very hard to make a difference in what are called ‘Conflict and Fragile States’. I offer no prizes for guessing which countries qualify for such a label, and you won’t be surprised that neighbours of ours like Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan are among them. Others include Chad, DRC, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zimbabwe in Africa; and beyond this continent Afghanistan, Nepal, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and others – nearly forty countries in all.

At the best of times being in the development world is like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, so just imagine heaving the biggest and roughest boulders up the steepest and roughest of mountains. Indeed one of the challenges they face is that many sober people – not excluding some of their development colleagues – believe the task is so hard there’s no point even having a go.

“Why bother trying?” others wonder. “Why throw good money after bad?’ they are asked, by some whose job is to allocate the permanently scarce resources available. Providing emergency humanitarian assistance is universally, uncontroversially supported. But trying to revive failed institutions (or to build them from scratch) and to promote good governance, the rule of law and human rights is just too ambitious, goes this not uncommon school of thought.

Is it? That’s what these people strain to achieve. However slowly, however imperfectly, among however many risks, uncertainties and setbacks. And that’s not all. How do you plan in such environments? How do you even build enough understanding of how society and politics work in these places? How do you deal with security problems, and with getting good people to work there, or even visit?

Then once projects get under way, there’s need to monitor whatever progress is possible and report back to the head-offices back home. So how do you carry out surveys, collect data? To what extent are you able to use the country’s own systems (which you know you should if at all possible) rather than setting up your own? Well let me tell you, these people have come up with ways. “Tools” they call them, and “instruments”; and over time policies and guidelines have been prepared, with lists of do’s and don’ts.

The catalogue of challenges continues. At the national level, donor governments are getting smart about what they call “comprehensive and integrated” approaches that bring together multiple functions, sectors and ministries. In fragile states the ministries typically comprise those of foreign affairs, international development and defence, and often line ministries such as the ones dealing with health and education also enter the fray. Increasingly the World Bank, the UN and the bilateral development partners are planning and working much more closely together, both within and between institutions and countries. And all players appreciate the benefits of close collaboration with regional institutions like the AU, the African Development Bank and the likes of the EAC, COMESA, ECOWAS and SADAC. Multi-donor trust funds are also becoming common, and these also allow for sharing of staff.

Let’s not forget the tensions that arise between the need for governments to show quick and solid results from spending taxpayers’ money. The political imperatives associated with donor country electoral cycles (more so in straightened domestic economic circumstances such as we are currently experiencing) make it even harder to be patient and flexible when trying to promote long-term sustainable development – never mind in fragile states. “Nothing works,” comes the political cry. “Why throw good money after bad?” “Make an impact or get out!” Yet the timescales within which one can hope to see stabilisation and development in fragile states extends to decades – literally.

So these good people are caught in the middle, between dysfunctional client nations and unrealistically demanding countries that fund them and expect instant miracles.

Having said this, it is reassuring to note that the experience over the years of engagement in fragile and conflict states has become sufficiently documented and discussed that those who decide where and how to offer development aid (alongside humanitarian and military/security assistance) are now much better placed to adopt policies that are more constructive and more realistic.

They increasingly appreciate the need for taking risks, knowing that some of the resources applied will fail to achieve their intended objectives. They understand that development professionals in fragile environments must be allowed greater flexibility, both in implementation and in the very adjustment of direction. The unpredictability they face cannot be handled by applying the normal processes for planning, procurement, monitoring and evaluation and so forth; and those on the ground must be allowed a much freer hand to make the judgments about when and where and how to move; when to hold back; and when to withdraw.

They must be able to act quickly and yet be patient to stay for an extended period – without the kind of stop-go initiatives we often witness among donors. Responsiveness to local cultures and concerns is also vital, and this means putting staff in missions – both local and international – who understand the political economy and often have to engage with people whose style and actions they don’t approve of. In other words, key to success is engaging emotionally intelligent entrepreneurial types rather than civil servants more used to following laid down procedures.

I have been mingling with so many highly educated, talented, hard-working and deep-thinking people, filled with goodwill and good intent, trying their very best to do good (while doing no harm) in the most difficult environments on the ground, while dealing with their head-office bureaucrats and politicians back home. I take my hat off to these unsung heroes. And so should we all.

meldon@symphony.co.ke

Rapid Results Approach

It’s hard to get things done in today’s world, never mind in large organisations such as governments. Long-entrenched bureaucracies have added mile upon mile of red tape, with past excesses leading to more and more ways (often fruitless) of ensuring compliance with good governance.

Meanwhile public servants the world over have always been known for their aversion to risk, on the basis that sins of omission are much more easily forgiven than sins of commission. Not for them the mantra that it is better to have a go and apologise later than to seek permission up front (almost hoping the answer will be “no”). These drags on progress are exacerbated by the presence of hidden agendas, from the political to the financial to all kinds of other interwoven complications. No wonder that even where political will is present it is so very hard to move forward.

Development progress is at least as challenging at the grass roots, where too often conservative attitudes lead to the ready assumption that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday, except that a few more things will have fallen apart. Needless to say, politics are also not absent at the local level.

The World Bank is one of the many agencies that have been scratching their heads over how to accelerate development, and a few weeks ago I wrote about my experience in Istanbul with some of their Collaborative Leadership for Development team. Last week I was in Accra attending another event run by this group, in which we focused on how to work with a short-term intervention methodology known as the Rapid Results Approach (RRA), through which one or more specific, measurable goals must be achieved within a hundred days. Such RRA projects have come to be known as RRIs, or Rapid Results Initiatives.

I was delighted to have been invited to the programme, as when I was one of those supporting the Public Service Reform and Development Secretariat team some years ago, it was the RRIs that gained more traction than any of the other reform efforts within the overall Results Based Management programme. (Sorry about the jargon, but I must admit I find some of these terms quite useful.)

I remember being present at the launch of the University of Nairobi’s RRI, at which then Vice Chancellor George Magoha spoke with gusto on how serious the institution was about unblocking the serious things that had remained blocked for too long. And RRIs continue until today in Kenya, at both national and county levels, unblocking the blocked.

So how does it work? The idea is to identify an issue that is amenable to seeing measurable progress made within the specific and limited time-frame of a hundred days. An RRI team composed of around twelve people must be assembled, supported by a senior executive owner, maybe a minister, maybe a governor, and by a coach or facilitator who guides the team through the process, ensuring progress towards the desired outcomes.

Yes, outcomes. Not mere outputs. More jargon here. In performance management terminology an output merely signifies that an activity has been completed successfully. For instance, that the desired number of people has been trained. But are they using the skills they have learned? It is only if that happens that an outcome can be celebrated. We’re not finished yet though. For they might still be using their skills without the final desired impact being made, such as reducing infant mortality by a certain number.

Too many Performance Contracts stop short at the easy-to-measure but insufficient output level. I can’t resist smiling, for instance, when I see elements like “Goal: Produce strategic plan” followed by “Measure: Strategic plan produced”, with no reference to either its quality or its consequence.

I’m not going to elaborate on the more detailed aspects of how RRIs are structured, because I want to focus on what is for me the secret to their success. As the originator of this approach Robert Schaffer put it, RRIs are about “breakthrough strategies”. And if we are to tear down the silos between units involved in a stuck process; if we are to re-engineer that process, eliminating steps that slow things down; if we are to innovate and take risks… then we must be bold.

The RRI team must be empowered to do whatever is necessary to achieve the target set – and within the hundred days. If they come across roadblocks they cannot remove themselves then the higher authority, the executive owner, must intervene to smooth the way. There is no room for timidity or hesitation here. The team must act decisively, knowing that sometimes what they hope for will not turn out as expected, and that indeed there will be setbacks.

All this requires flexibility to keep focused on outcome and on impact, doing whatever is necessary to get there. And let me introduce you to another concept necessary for working in these complex high-paced environments. Many tasks can be accomplished by just applying “technical” expertise, where leadership is merely required to be systematic. But in tackling the kind of obstinate challenges that RRI goes after leaders need also to be “adaptive”.

They must display emotional intelligence to deal with the political and cultural issues that lead to resistance and undermining. And they must have the negotiating and consensus-building skills to bring people together around a common goal. Not least they must help all involved to act as a high performance team that lives by healthy values.

My dream – and not only mine – is that RRI becomes “the new normal”, a regular way of life that assumes it is very possible to be ambitious, to achieve great things in short periods of time. A final point though. RRI grabs a particular issue by the scruff of the neck and deals with it in a hundred days. Fine. But the bigger challenge is how to keep the momentum going, and how to spread the mindset of urgency beyond it.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

A better future for the Mara?

I’m very much a city fellow, but I was recently asked to join a small group that has been engaging with Narok County government officials to find ways of improving how the Masai Mara reserve is managed. Topping the list of challenges that need to be handled are the over-development of camps and lodges, the lack of discipline among driver-guides and the massive encroachment by cattle, which together have led many to predict the eventual demise of this extraordinary national asset.

It was not always this way. Indeed until Tanzania closed its border with Kenya in 1977, the Mara was little more than a stopover for tourists on their way back to Nairobi from the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Not only was the Mara far less well known internationally, but until the 1960s and early 1970s wildebeest weren’t even chomping on its grass.

What we now know as the great migration of well over a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras was held in check by frequent outbreaks of the viral disease rinderpest, which had spread from cattle to wild animals such as wildebeest and buffalo. And it was only when a programme to inoculate cattle was established around the Serengeti in the 1950s and early 1960s that rinderpest disappeared from the wild herds.

As a result, wildebeest numbers skyrocketed from 250,000 to their current level, and it was this dramatic increase that made the Mara vital to the migration, as a place where the animals could find food and permanent water during the dry season. The Mara at that time becomes the world’s premier destination for game viewing, as a result of which up to 400,000 tourists visit it each year to see the migration.

It was not only the wildebeest population that exploded in the Mara. Tented camps and lodges spread across its pristine landscape, and despite numerous attempts to create a management plan that would protect the environment and regulate tourism at sustainable levels none was properly implemented. The big challenge was political will, without which it would always be impossible for such efforts to succeed.

So when Narok Governor Samson Ole Tunai and his team hosted a Masai Mara stakeholders’ meeting in Nairobi in September 2014, it offered hope that there was now a real desire by the County government to restore the Mara’s reputation. For this to happen there would have to be dialogue between the County government and all the other players on the scene, and happily the last few weeks have seen an impressive gathering together of good people, a coalition of the willing, to indulge in the needed brainstorming.

I’ve been very impressed by those participating, who have included stakeholders from the Masai community and the wildlife conservancies surrounding the reserve, folk from the tourism industry and the media, from NGOs such as the East African Wildlife Society, and also others from the diplomatic community, all willing to contribute their energy.

Much of what is needed to transform the Narok Governor’s vision for the Mara was addressed in the 2008-2018 Masai Mara Management Plan that was rejected by the Narok County Council at that time. Now the plan is to be revised and updated to fit the current situation – and it should happen rather quickly. The Governor announced recently that it will be worked on as a matter of urgency, including progressing its necessary ratification through the County Assembly. Attention is already being diverted to preparing for the 2017 elections, so if the plan does not get finalised now it will become increasingly difficult to focus on the hard choices necessary to sort out the Mara and its future.

The African Wildlife Foundation and the Conservation Development Centre, both of whom had supported the writing of the 2007 management plan, are prepared to become engaged once more, but at the centre is the leadership of the Narok County government. For the plan to work it must be embedded in Narok’s five-year County Integrated Development Plan and its annual County plan as well. The need for the plan is already identified as a key determinant of the county’s future success, but now we see the encouraging prospect that it will actually provide a robust basis for implementing what is needed to see the Mara rebound. The good news is that the Governor and his County Executives are determined to drive the process, tracking and managing comprehensive implementation.

The Governor made his announcement about the updating of the plan at a recent meeting in the Mara which was also attended by British High Commissioner Dr Christian Turner. The Governor made the welcome announcement that a revised management plan will be unveiled in three months’ time. It will, he confirmed, embrace the concerns voiced by stakeholders, spelling out the key priorities – not least how the Masai community will benefit more from the tourism revenues gathered.

High Commissioner Turner had driven down for the meeting in reaction to alarm over the repercussions of British travel advisories on non-essential travel to various parts of the country following the acts of terrorism that have left tourism in the country at an all-time low. In his statement he reminded us that though the UK travel advisory is still in place in parts of the county, the Masai Mara is not among them.

It’s always reassuring to see Kenyans and others of goodwill gather together and engage constructively with their government counterparts to confront common national and local challenges. Let no one imagine it will be easy to overcome the vested interests that have so far prevented the Mara from both conserving the wildlife and the environment and attracting high quality tourists in a sustainable way. But now is a unique opportunity to support this initiative to serve the worthy cause of a viable Mara reserve that Kenyans and visitors from around the world, along with their future generations, can continue to enjoy.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

What must you do well to be a great doctor?

Like me, you have sat with doctors who related to you as a live human being, vulnerable and anxious… and also with others who just honed in on your specific health problem and confined themselves to the technical task of solving only that. You have experienced the whole spectrum from medics possessed of a wonderful bedside manner to those with no awareness of even where the bedroom is.

With the disconnected technical kind you will have wondered how such highly trained professionals, people who wanted to be healers of the sick and who have studied for so many years, can have missed out on so much. Neither do they examine us holistically nor do they relate to us as emotional entities. What was going on when they were selected for medical school? Should they have been admitted at all? And how is it that those selecting the topics covered in these schools didn’t think it necessary to fill in such glaring gaps?

Increasingly however, programmes to develop medical practitioners, like ones producing other technical professionals – be they accountants, engineers, lawyers, technologists or others – have been including subjects that were hitherto beyond the narrow technical scope of their studies. More and more it dawned on curriculum developers that they urgently needed to broaden the development of their students.

One good example is business schools, traditionally renowned for churning out mere number-crunchers, heartless folk who lacked soul. Many B-Schools – but by no means all – have come to appreciate that “the new hard is soft”. In other words, however necessary it is to be financially literate, such skills are far from sufficient in a rounded business professional. Not before time, B-School leaders realised that the major challenge of the day is to mold individuals who combine technical with interpersonal skills, men and women who can lead responsibly and humanely, taking care of their staff and their customers as well as of the society in which they live. This indeed is the bigger challenge, the one that requires courage and imagination.

I was delighted that when I studied at the London Business School in the early seventies my courses included one on leadership as seen through the lens of literature, in which we studied great – not to mention flawed – leaders as portrayed by the likes of Socrates and Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Moliere. (This, by the way, thanks to the influence of my favourite management guru, Professor Charles Handy.) Likewise, in my economics undergraduate programme I was able to select political thought and French existentialist literature as two of my options. These courses provoked deep and broad reflection at a critical stage in my evolution as a person, and through them I learned much about myself and how I related to those around me.

These thoughts came to my mind as I read a recent Wall Street Journal article on the revamping of the American Medical College Admission Test. “One hundred years ago, all you really needed to know was the science,” commented Dr. Catherine Lucey, a member of the committee that reviewed the test. “Now we have problems like obesity and diabetes that require doctors to form therapeutic alliances with patients and convince them to change their lifestyle.”

So a quarter of the heavily revised test – taken for the first time last month by 8,200 aspiring doctors in America and by more than ten times that number globally – covers psychology, sociology and the biological foundations of behaviour, together with concepts such as social inequality and class and ethnic discrimination. Other new sections test critical-thinking and statistical reasoning, and background material covers concepts such as “power, privilege and prestige”.

“Change is hard,” said Dr. Lucey. “We are trying to send a message that in order to be a highly effective physician you need to have a foundation in a broad variety of domains.” An important message to absorb, and not just for physicians.

Too many young people were only attracted to their profession by its technical challenges. Their aptitude lay there, and when they absorbed themselves in the wonders of science or the grandeur of the law or the intricacies of accounting they felt at home, becoming stronger and stronger in their chosen domain.

As they complete their studies and enter the workplace, at first this can work well for them. Just as it was in their studies, it’s just them and their technical task. But the more they progress in their field, whichever it may be and before very long, the more they must interact with other people and the more they must understand the financial context within which they operate. Yet for many it is not what they were expecting, and it is not what they were prepared for.

Some find it possible to expand their comfort zones, overcoming earlier assumptions that such non-technical matters were simply not for them. For others however, the realisation comes too late. They get stuck, and are unable to develop their careers further. It’s a sad scenario, one that readily leads to frustration and bitterness.

As a talented software engineer once put it to me, “When I was at university I did a great job building my technical muscles, but I neglected building those needed for communicating with my colleagues and customers.” Having left the realisation so late he knew it was going to be much harder than had he been introduced to such skills as a young man.

I don’t know how many professors read Business Daily. But for those who do, along with members of professional associations who influence the ground that is covered by the generation that will take over from them, I hope they take this issue very seriously. The future of the young men and women who will soon be following in their footsteps depends on it. Let them not end up feeling inadequate and bewildered, as too many of their predecessors did.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Collaborative leadership and development

Following my visit earlier this year to Jerusalem, where I admired the 16th century walls erected by Suleiman the Magnificent, the then Chairman and CEO of the Ottoman Empire, more recently I was in the city that served as the great man’s corporate head-office, Istanbul. Together with other consultants from around the world, and hosted by the World Bank, I was there to share experiences on how to accelerate the implementation of development projects by complementing the “technical” work of the World Bank through addressing the equally important “people” aspects.

We spent a week discussing what has worked and what has not, the obstacles we have faced and how we have tried to overcome them, and how we can do better in future. The World Bank, in its “Collaborative Leadership, Learning and Innovation” group, has for the last few years been running programmes that work with government clients on such challenges, and as a result it has harvested a great deal of valuable knowledge.

Over the years, its approach has migrated from a teaching and lecturing style to a very practical and interactive way of engaging. And on the first evening, immediately the group gathered, we were ourselves plunged into instant participation through being asked to identify the elements that had made our own engagements taxing.

Many spoke of lack of ownership on the part of one or more of the stakeholders, and this for a number of possible reasons. In some cases it was lack of alignment between them, not unrelated to a lack of trust. We’d seen cases of weak analysis prior to the engagement, including jumping at solutions prematurely. We had experienced resistance to change, thanks to vested interests benefitting from the status quo.

And for these and other factors, we’d all been in situations where no significant impact resulted: business continued as usual, with enough of those involved imprisoned in their comfort zones – which frequently meant isolating themselves within their silos. All too often, even where an initial change initiative succeeded, the possibility of it going to scale proved a step too far.

A predictable list of other obstacles emerged, including procurement heaviness; other sources of entangling red tape; lack of top level support; and what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once called the explosion of “events” – unforeseen distractions that drain energy away from the project at hand.

Many initiatives saw inadequate tracking and measurement of the planned change, thanks to such monitoring and evaluation being a mere afterthought; to weak or wrong indicators; or lack of sufficient data to assess the extent of the desired impact. Indeed, often absent was the very discipline needed to manage performance effectively.

Having identified the headaches we then shared stories of situations where we had managed to overcome some among them, to emerge with at least a certain measure of success. The group in which I found myself immediately went for building trust as our theme, appreciating that with it comes alignment, and hence ownership of the goals in question and the will to achieve the intended outcome.

What builds trust in a consultant? Of course they need the technical knowledge and skills to engage with credibility, but what emerged again and again was the need for a good attitude, one that speaks of confidence, coupled with friendliness and humility. The term used by the World Bank team to encapsulate such an emotionally intelligent approach is ‘Adaptive Leadership’, the ability to handle a situation with flexibility, overcoming the numerous unexpected roadblocks that are inevitable in this game.

During our week we drew up a list of competencies needed by leadership and change consultants. An early thought was that they are people who can be parachuted into difficult situations and hit the ground running. They must have broad experience – including of how government works, and in the use of change management tools and techniques. They must have developed excellent communications and mediation skills (not least in active listening); and they must be at ease in facilitating high-stakes, high-level conversations, ones that often include the need for managing conflict. A coaching approach is often part of the engagement process, and a focus on the desired impact is mandatory.

Other strengths mentioned included being – and being seen to be – neutral and objective, transparent and open-minded; and the ability to lead and work within diverse teams. Finally, an almost endless portfolio of other qualities was easily drawn up, including diplomacy, respectfulness, authenticity, patience and calmness, sense of humour, creativity, agility and being a spreader of positive energy.

We heard stories of successful change initiatives from Ghana and Rwanda, from the Philippines and Iraq, from Serbia and the Comoros, yes and from Kenya. And we shared experiences of using different tools to build that vital engagement and momentum which can bring about the breakthroughs in whatever area of development was selected. The term “reform” was used from time to time during the event to describe a change initiative, and while I fully understand the intent of the expression I have never been entirely comfortable with it, speaking as it does of merely overcoming the outdated, the disorganised, the fragmented, the incompetent. My preference is for more positive terms that focus on a more uplifting and less painful process.

Indeed, all of us who took part in the Istanbul event left truly uplifted, encouraged that in so many different parts of the world like-minded people are thinking ever so hard about how to actually bring about development – significantly, sustainably and to scale. The World Bank is much criticised for many aspects of its work, sometimes justifiably and sometimes much less so. In my interactions with its people over the last few years I have come across some of the most informed and thoughtful people I have ever met, including and not least those who led our recent discussions by the shores of the Bosphorus. Long may they continue to bring collaborative leadership, learning and innovation together.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Big picture thinking needed from the private sector

Imagine for a few minutes that you are the President of the Republic of Kenya. Less than three years ago you and your colleagues put together a manifesto for the TNA party and for the Jubilee Coalition, in which you laid out what your government aimed to achieve during its term of office.

When teams of experts put such documents together, for sure they dream about a better future for the country, and as far as Kenya is concerned they will definitely do so in the context of Vision 2030. They will also make sure they toss in some headline-grabbing “flagship” projects to catch media attention – in the case of Jubilee, initiatives such as the procurement of thousands of laptops for students, free maternal healthcare, and the Standard Gauge Railway. Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, would call these the President’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”, his “BHAGs”.

So much for the political razzmatazz. Such showstoppers must be included, otherwise State House will remain a distant and unrealistic dream for any aspirant. But now imagine you (the President that is) have invited to State House the head of your government’s think tank, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, and the Chairman of KEPSA. Also present are the Kenya Country Director of the World Bank and (had it still been fully up and running) the Secretary of the National Economic and Social Council. The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the future of the country.

You are aware that the people you have invited are far less interested in the short-term political impact you make. They want to engage with you – as do you with them – on the few overarching issues that, when taken together, will lead to Kenya fulfilling its extraordinary potential. What would you all talk about? What would you not talk about? And how?

To help you out let me report on a small gathering of leaders from the private sector I was part of recently. Those present had all been provoked by what happened at the last President’s Round Table, at which our State House host challenged us to think at a strategic level and to propose the key priorities to him and his cabinet. What a turnaround. Normally it is the politicians – in the West as much as in our part of the world – who are accused of imprisoning themselves in “short-termism” and of mere manoeuvring against their opponents. Yet here we had our top man telling the rest of us to shape up and rise to a higher level.

Good therefore that as a result of the President’s challenge one among our small group decided to assemble his own list of the big issues. And here it is, more or less as he shared it with the rest of us: building infrastructure; creating jobs, especially for young people; reducing poverty; fighting corruption; improving security; transforming productivity and developing our human resource; offering transformative leadership; making it easier to do business (including making regulations more user-friendly) and improving our competitiveness; strengthening the  justice system; ensuring the optimum utilisation of our emerging natural resources; making devolution work; rationalising the budget structure and process; delivering on Vision 2030; focusing on “Kenya Futures” – planning for the demographics of 2050; working on our national values system; strengthening Brand Kenya – and the role of the media within that; and building an efficient and less wasteful public service.

It was just that, a list, a raw initial list. It was as yet unstructured, still to be sorted into priorities, never mind being populated with content. But just seeing it was more than enough to make us sit up and reflect. And I hope it has the same effect on you, dear readers. Remember, you’re in the meeting as President, so these are the areas where you want your people to contribute.

Now imagine you are no longer the President, the recipient of the wisdom of others. Now you are who you are. And you must be intelligent and knowledgeable as you propose to him. Which of the topics from my friend’s list do you adopt as yours? What steps do you propose that will make a difference? What serious, affordable, implementable ideas are you putting forward?

OK, let me be generous. First, just choose your top three issues among those I’ve listed above. That in itself is an interesting exercise, to figure out which ones drive all the others, those without which progress cannot be made elsewhere. Is leadership there? Are the national values? Productivity?  (Am I hinting at my candidates?)

Then, of all the topics, choose the one where you will make your contribution, identifying also to which others it links. Which ones affect the one you have selected, and which others does it in turn affect?

But please don’t just keep your thoughts to yourself. Share them with each other. Stimulate conversations about these subjects with those you know. Write your ideas down, and send them to the organisations I imagined were represented in the State House meeting. And, why not, share them with me, either in the online comments space or by e-mailing me.

Let’s make this kind of strategic engagement much more normal, never mind that it’s far less fun and far more challenging than talking about politics. Surely it is from among the readers of Business Daily that we should expect high quality proposals on what needs to be done to see Kenya surge ahead. We must do more than critique the ideas of others. We must include ourselves among the authors, the builders, of national strategies for transformation.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

More lessons on public private engagement

Thursday 2nd April 2015 was a terrible day for Kenya. It will forever be associated with the devastating attack on Garissa University in which so many innocent people died. But for me and others who had been invited to lunch at State House that day for the 4th President’s Round Table with the private sector it was a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand we were still learning of the horrors of the latest al Shabaab outrage, but at the same time we were inspired by the constructive collaboration between the public and the private and by the decisiveness of the country’s CEO.

Even if the terrorists had not chosen this day on which to launch their unspeakable attack, the media would still have given negligible space to what was being agreed between the government and the private sector. After all, it was just lovey-dovey stuff, about working together harmoniously to build a better Kenya. Which self-respecting reporter or editor would be interested in such peace-love-and-unity outpourings when there’s so much juicy material around on corruption, political manoeuvring, crime and suchlike?

I should add that some observers aren’t happy about the private sector’s “cosyness” with the high and mighty. They should be much tougher, such critics feel, citing areas where progress should be made but is not. I have written about this dilemma before, and I am not shy to repeat that being polite and respectful is not a sin, and that it is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Of course it is guaranteed to attract negligible media coverage if any, but I firmly believe that business people must work with and not against the government.

Most of what they do is going to be far more effective if it is indeed away from the public glare. But the challenge with such an approach is that much of it goes unrecognised, and even where the private sector agenda is advanced as a direct result of quiet negotiation it’s too easy to assume it was not a factor. It’s the lot of unsung heroes on both sides, and one they willingly accept – given that the macho alternative, while offering instant gratification, is actually quite unlikely to deliver the goods.

In some neighbouring countries, where the atmosphere is less liberal, the private sector’s attempts to speak out have, with some justification, seen them branded as supporters of the opposition, as a result of which they have been shunned by government. How the private sector should behave is a delicate matter. And as I have said before, there is a place for ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ strategies. The hard-ball approach of much of civil society offers a good complement to the inevitably softer touch of business, and of course circumstances vary widely, over time and across situations.

Is KEPSA always on target in how it selects the priority issues for its National Business Agenda? I for one have no problems with its choices, and if significant progress in creating an enabling environment for business is to be made, it must be very selective. At this Presidential Round Table the focus was on integrity, the improvement of government processes and the further spread of e-government. Surely one can’t argue with such a trio.

In his remarks, KEPSA Chairman Vimal Shah praised the responsiveness of the government, delighted that so much had been so swiftly agreed in the morning meeting that had preceded the lunch. And when CS for Industrialisation and Enterprise Development Adan Mohamed and Deputy President William Ruto followed him, they too appreciated the way the government and the private sector were working together for the good of the country.

William Ruto made an important point when he emphasised the need to meet continuously and frequently. For when people keep a distance from one another it is too easy for negative stereotypes to be reinforced, and for the natural mistrust between the sectors to be perpetuated.

Now to the climax of the meeting, to the address of the president, who put on a stunningly impressive performance. He started by stating that he was very pleased with the progress being made as a result of the Round Tables. “I wanted this government to be business-friendly, to help this country be competitive and to promote prosperity and the creation of jobs,” he said, while admitting that they have not moved at the pace he would have wanted. “We must up the pace and conclude issues. We must quickly overcome legislative and bureaucratic hurdles, and it’s more important that we do so now, as we worry about increasing competition from neighbouring countries.”

The president then made a fine managerial point: “We are not meeting here to sort out minor details. Some of what we discussed this morning should have been handled at the Ministerial Stakeholder Fora, which should be meeting monthly and be action-oriented and deliver results.” The president added that he had instructed his Chief of Staff to give him regular briefs of these meetings, including the minutes. “We are here to look at strategic competitiveness issues, at what we need to do to be the regional hub – not to talk about VAT refunds or Import Declaration Form problems. The ministers have full authority to do their jobs,” he reminded them, his impatience with indecisiveness and pettiness obvious.

What an execution-focused leader! What a contrast to how he once described his predecessor as a “hands off, eyes off president” at a lunch of the American Chamber of Commerce. Here’s how the president concluded: “We must work to narrow the gap and operate as a seamless team, with no differences and with a single, clear-minded objective. It is why I apologised recently for past injustices, because it’s not good to be looking in the rear-view mirror – the view through the front windscreen is much broader. The past is to learn from, not to live in.”

Well said, Mr. President. And I hope those charged with rapid response to security challenges take note.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Let’s get serious about agriculture

The other day, dotted around my mixed salad, I enjoyed both the sight and the taste of those small sweet cherry tomatoes, and I was reminded of seeing them grow at a research farm in Israel’s Negev desert during my visit there early this year.

Driving south along the perfectly smooth road through the Negev the landscape indeed became distinctly desert-like, with signs warning us to beware of camels crossing the road. At the research centre we first watched a film about the activities there. We saw the farmers and their families in action, how they had left everything behind to risk it all in this arid area, and how, supported by expert mentors, they had struggled to learn the tricks of the trade and to harvest their first cherry tomatoes.

New varieties of cherry tomatoes were developed in Israel 40 years ago, where the celebrated drip irrigation system was also dreamed up, and next we were taken by our guide, Gadi Grinblat, to see a plastic-covered field of the tiny tomatoes. Gadi was a great story-teller, explaining how over the last twenty years the researchers there have been seeking ways of continuously improving the crop and how it is cultivated.

Whether it is tomatoes (8,000 tons a year come from this area), or grapes for wine (150,000 bottles a year are filled in the Negev), or peppers or cucumbers or olives or cotton, the central question was how to grow them in sand, in which normally absolutely nothing survives as it is completely incapable of holding water.

Here though it’s different. The tomato plants use 95% of the water dripped onto their roots, each one receiving an identical amount. And with no water anywhere else there’s no incentive for insects or weeds to flourish. Gadi listed the three, soon four, possible sources of water: piped from the Sea of Galilee 300 kilometres to the north, which until twenty years ago was the only option; desalinated water from the Mediterranean, 100 kilometres away; in a year from now, through recycled water from the army camp being constructed 15 kilometres away; or from the brackish salty water 900 metres below them. All but the last alternative cost lots of money to supply, but it was far from obvious that the local water would allow the plants to grow.

That’s what much of the research has been all about, and the good news is that, alternating with some sweet water (all computer-controlled) tomatoes and melons largely fed on brackish water are actually sweeter. Gadi enthusiastically explained how they use bees to pollinate the plants; how they hang the stems from above to take up less land and allow the crops to be more accessible; and how they experiment with different shapes and colours, and for the cherry tomatoes, different arrangements on the stems.

‘Here we can play, as we don’t grow to sell and survive,’ he said. For their mission is to improve the livelihoods of farmers in Israel and elsewhere, by offering the results of their learning to others. Gadi then took us to see grapes on the vine, tickled into growing out of season through increasing the temperature ten degrees by placing a plastic cover over them in winter, thereby enabling two harvesting seasons a year. And he showed us their truffle mushrooms, the most expensive in the world (in New York they go for $1,000 a kilo). The cost of these mushrooms is partly so high because they don’t grow under every plant, and you don’t know which ones will deliver the goods and which ones won’t – until the researchers here will have scratched their heads over the problem some more.

Do we have researchers scratching their heads like this in Kenya? We do. Do agricultural research institutions exist here? Yes again, both local and international, and they do great work. Our challenge is not really the quality of the research itself but the dissemination of its consequences. This is not something that happens automatically. Serious budgets must be allocated, including for the marketing as well as for the technical expertise required. Not least for helping our farmers to be bold enough to consider new approaches.

There is so much scope for ramping up our agricultural productivity, whether through planting better quality seeds or appropriate application of fertilizer, whether through irrigation or post-harvest storage, or through other means of moving beyond mere subsistence levels. (Don’t even get me going on reversing land fragmentation.)

Yet we know farmers, here as in most parts of the world, are renowned for their conservative attitudes and their skepticism regarding change. “We tried it before and it failed,” we hear too often, or simply “we lack the resources”. Added to this is the high average age of our farmers, although more recently a few Young Turks have been entering what has been until recently the most unglamorous of occupations.

We celebrate the new energy and knowledge about farming being spread through our Saturday papers; we cheer on those doing good work in research; we applaud the young (and some not so young) Kenyans finding new ways of farming; and we encourage the emerging emphasis on irrigation. Of course too we gasp at the performance of the horticulture sub-sector (which has been much assisted by Israelis). Now we need to bring all this together and transform our thinking on what farming is and how it can deliver so much more than it has been doing.

When I was in Israel the Galilee International Management Institute signed an MOU with Vihiga Governor Moses Akaranga to work together to double the county’s agricultural output in two years. And if in Vihiga, why not elsewhere in Kenya? Come on, young Kenyans, grasp the opportunity, as you have done in IT and in other fields. And come on, Kenyan universities, emulate the folk from Galilee. We can do much more, and there’s no better way than by emulating those curious and determined Israelis.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org