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.

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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.

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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.

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