Are you generating good customer experiences?

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

Women rising in the workplace

On women in the Kenyan workplace, I am confident that the glass is not only far from empty but that it continues to fill at a reasonably rapid pace. With the exception of the contact sport of politics, there is increasing gender balance at all levels, including in senior management and on boards.

Sure, there’s plenty of scope for further improvement, but I never like seeing the gloomy picture portrayed by over-focusing on the dearth of women in elective offices.

We have so many well-educated, articulate women here, both technically competent and emotionally intelligent, that employers are able to up their gender balance without any thought of affirmative action: for anyone to claim they “can’t find suitable women candidates” is simply unjustified.

In so many places I see women in leadership positions – including filling the roles of both chair and CEO. The 2021 survey conducted by the Kenya Institute of Management, together with Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) and the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) on board diversity and inclusion showed that gender diversity in the boardroom now stands at 36 percent, from 21 percent in 2017.

By comparison, the global average of women holding board positions stands at 23.3 percent, up from 20.4 percent in 2018. Then, women here constitute 21 percent of board chairperson appointments, whereas the global average is three percent. And female representation in C-suite roles in Kenya constitutes 37 percent compared to 21 percent globally.

Even in organisations dominated by technical staff, the proportion of women is on the rise. A good example is Davis & Shirtliff, where I am a director. When I first joined the board nearly two decades ago there were very few women among its ranks – not surprising, as the vast majority of employees are engineers and until not long ago this discipline did not attract women.

Over time, however, not only has the number of women among the annual graduate intake significantly increased, but those who preceded them have been rising steadily up the organisation.

Also, in running my workshops on change management and culture strengthening, I have observed that it is disproportionately the women who not only contribute more but also more impressively.

Contrary to many studies that show women are less vocal, my experience is the opposite. Their competence is matched by a well-earned self-confidence, which leads them to articulate in ways that show they are headed for higher leadership.

In disciplines like HR and company secretarial, women have for long been prominent, and as these functions have moved more centre-stage those within them have been increasing their circles of influence.

When in 2019 Evelyn Mungai published her book on women’s empowerment, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies (full disclosure: she is my wife, and I was the book’s editor) it gave women encouragement that the glass ceiling is disappearing, at least for educated urban women.

And to retain the mindset that it is still blocking their progress may be more a self-defeating choice than a rational judgment.

The onset of Covid, resulting in the spread of home-working, part-time working and flexible hours, has brought new opportunities for women in the workplace.

More organisations are now providing lactation locations and onsite nurseries, plus also back-to-work programmes for women re-entering the workforce. Those that do will attract and retain the best female talent, having them be productive and happy.

The rise of so many strong, competent women in this country is indeed encouraging. But it leaves us with concern for an increasing number of their male counterparts. In some workplaces, leaders are already worrying about the men being left behind. The aspiration is not for women to be included at the expense of men.

Rather, each person, irrespective of gender, should be nurtured to develop both their technical and non-technical skills so they may fulfil their own potential while maximising their contribution to the broader group objectives.

That is when we will no longer need to be talking about the struggle to include women in the workplace.

It will be as much history as giving women the right to vote or to have a bank account.

How to offer and receive feedback at workplace

In a recent coaching session, my client and I were discussing his initiative to improve the ways in which feedback was being given and received in his work environment.

As we shared how each of us approached doing so ourselves and how we encouraged others to offer and absorb suggestions, we emerged with a list of do’s and don’ts that he and I felt would be helpful to share with you here.

What makes us more or less receptive to feedback? It’s a mixture of, on the one hand, how it is offered and by whom, and on the other hand our openness to changing how we feel, how we think and how we behave. Are we into learning and growing by experimenting with new approaches?

Or are we so convinced of the rightness of our existing ways that there’s no need for listening to what others think? Maybe we feel so insecure about venturing beyond our comfort zones that we need to hold on to where we are, however good the idea that’s being offered?

However receptive we are to feedback, much of our reaction has to do with how it is offered. Too many do so in ways that make us feel we’ve been under-performing and that we are inadequate.

It comes across as criticism rather than as a way of improving a situation, thus making it harder for us to be anything other than defensive.

Such people also tend to focus exclusively on feedback regarding what isn’t going well, while taking the positive for granted – like the exception reporting in appraisal interviews or school reports. (Your child might have done well in all subjects except one, but that’s the only one that receives a comment – “Must do better in mathematics.”)

At the other end of the spectrum, we also have those who restrict themselves to only offering positive feedback, perhaps worried that suggestions for improvement may give offence and only lead to pushback. Having said that, it’s usually good to start with acknowledging successes, along with celebrating the supportive strengths that enabled them.

This puts the recipient in a more relaxed and confident state of mind, and with heightened self-esteem, they can then more easily handle tougher inputs coming their way.

During our conversation, we talked about the benefits of role-playing and rehearsing feedback-offering sessions to develop more effective techniques that can lead to the desired impact. Much has to do with emotional intelligence, with choosing the right words and tone, including appropriate body language and maybe a light touch here and there.

This is how high-trust relationships are built, ones that allow for what would otherwise be difficult conversations, where the one offering feedback has a reputation for doing so only to see the recipient be at their best. Then, however inconvenient the input, it will be evaluated more constructively.

Soon after that coaching session, a friend of mine was complaining to me that her suggestions as a board member to management were rarely greeted positively. Why were they resistant to what she felt were helpful ideas?

What could she do differently, as the default blocked mindset she perceived has led to her being more reluctant to make her suggestions? As we talked we felt it would be good for her to go beyond offering suggestions informal meetings but to float them one-on-one in less formal settings, like over lunch with the CEO.

In such a setting, even before getting into the specifics, it would help to explore why her suggestions were rarely pursued. So I encouraged her to exchange offers and requests with the CEO and his colleagues in order to bridge the gap between them. “If you would do more/less of this, it would be easier for us to react positively,” the CEO might propose.

And my friend could offer to continue sharing her suggestions provided she felt more motivated to do so by not feeling she was speaking to an intrinsically unreceptive audience.

The ability to offer feedback in ways that make a difference is a valuable skill, whether with subordinates or peers, never mind with superiors, and perhaps most importantly of all within families. And being open to feedback from others is also something to cultivate, within organisations and from other stakeholders. Oh yes, and from coaches too.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs

I was recently facilitating a session with a new board, helping align them with each other and with management and become fit for purpose. And as I was listening to their contributions and the reactions from management I could see that the newcomers, with all their fresh energy and enthusiasm, too often were unaware that some of what they were proposing was either happening already or had been shown not to be effective.

As the discussions progressed the directors graciously realised that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Such inaccurate perceptions aren’t unusual for recent arrivals on boards – nor, by the way, for many who have been around a long time. Plus of course, for those further away from the decision-making and other activities, armchair critics are smugly convinced they are more expert than the experts.

The answer, as I have mentioned before in these columns, is for leaders and others to ask more than tell, to listen openly, applying what Prof. Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry” – the title of his book on the subject. In his 2021 book, Think Again, another great professor of organisational behaviour, Adam Grant, also writes on this common phenomenon. I love how Grant helps us find our way in this fast-changing world, having already written here about his earlier book, Originals.

So now I offer some thoughts from Think Again – whose sub-title is The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “Knowledge is power,” Grant affirms, adding “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”

It’s logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence. This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness, with such over-confidence having become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Sadly, as I too have found, over-confident people are the ones least likely to seek guidance from others – in particular, their juniors – and they are the ones who will shun coaches or mentors.

At the other end of the spectrum, Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it’s only their confidence that is lacking. This can turn out to be helpful, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

We have heard about the “confirmation bias” Grant mentions, the search for evidence that supports what we already believe, and he adds “desirability bias”, seeing what we did or didn’t want to see – as those who didn’t want to see Trump as President sought data to show a lower probability that he would be elected. Finally, there’s Grant’s “I’m not biased” bias, which speaks for itself.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. This requires us to think as scientists do, treating our views as mere hypotheses to be tested and reviewed, and so enabling us to remain agile. This mindset contrasts to the “preacher” in us, wedded to tightly-held sacred beliefs; the “prosecutor”, only out to see the flaws in others’ positions; and the “politician”, who merely lobbies for approval from potential supporters.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs, and often it is these beliefs that hold us back, as Spencer Johnson revealed in that brilliant fable Who Moved My Cheese and its wonderful follow-up, Out of the Maze. Strong justification, Grant advises, for nurturing healthy beliefs at as young an age as possible.

Awareness of all these impediments to and characteristics of quality thinking not only gets us to think about how we approach our own thinking but helps us influence the thinking of those around us – the subject of the second part of Think Again.

For each and every one of us, whether at the personal or family level, whether in our organisation or our community, we need to re-assess our thinking process so as to ensure we’re fit for purpose in these volatile times.

My dearest wish is that as our politicians think about Kenya beyond the 2022 election they too absorb the wisdom of Grant. But given that this appears highly unlikely, it is we the voters who should do so.

Entrepreneurs ought to act like revolutionaries

In my last article, I started writing about the lessons from David McCourt’s book Total Rethink – Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries. There I focused on what he saw as the personal attributes of successful entrepreneurs, and in this one, I will be reporting on McCourt’s experience regarding the business side of entrepreneurship.

McCourt, himself a highly successful serial entrepreneur in the field of telecommunications – a self-professed “revolutionary” in that domain – tells us that while in business and in life generally, everything is changing so fast, with the problems we need to solve entirely different from how they used to be, the ways we think and how we make decisions have changed little since the times of agricultural and industrial societies.

The traditional wisdom, he observes, has been that improvements are best introduced incrementally, with large established corporations planning to increase their turnovers and profits incrementally, and governments changing their laws incrementally. However everything is moving too fast for that to be an effective solution any longer, and we must all revolutionise the way we think and the way we behave in order to be more entrepreneurial.

In an article he published in The Irish Times around the time his book appeared in 2019, McCourt relished the thought that because revolutionaries threaten the status quo – and for many their comfortable way of life – they are often very unpopular. But he strongly believes that upheaval is essential if we are to cope with the challenges the rest of this century is bound to throw at us as the alternative could well be even worse.

Technology is progressing so fast that many are getting left behind, forced to “stand back and watch as the future shoots by”. So if we are to succeed we must “take a risk and ruffle the surface”

Today’s technology goes beyond previous linear approaches, he observes, with algorithms sorting through billions of pieces of data to find patterns and connections unrecognisable to humans. It is also cutting out the middle man, as crowdsourcing is taking the place of bank managers; Airbnb, Expedia and Booking.com replacing the travel agent; and Amazon having thrown the world of retail into upheaval.

The combination of technology, social media and the way people now absorb information – particularly the younger generations – means that the top-down centralised way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow, he warns, adding that the enormous opportunities available could easily slip through our fingers “due to the greed and conservatism of the establishments that dominate the economy”. Ouch.

In the book, he also complains about how too many corporates stifle inconvenient smaller competitors, and about the short-term thinking of too many companies. To make matters worse we suffer from the over-regulation of the business environment by government, seriously inhibiting innovation and entrepreneurship.

(Including and not least here in Kenya – with the notable exception of how the Central Bank allowed the introduction of the disruptive Mpesa system… plus now watch out for swift moves by the Capital Markets Authority.)

McCourt is not just focused on beating his competitors or maximising his wealth. He is equally concerned about the many who are left behind, and here he is looking way beyond revolutionary business entrepreneurs for solutions.

“A revolutionary entrepreneur,” he states in his article, “is anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. After all, change isn’t confined to business. Today’s healthcare is being transformed by advances such as 3D printing, remote diagnoses and electronic health trackers, education is being rebuilt by e-learning and video classrooms.”

McCourt is aware that lots of changes are needed beyond those brought about by technology. “There are so many structures in our lives that need reinventing – and I mean total rebuilding: the political system, diplomacy, taxation, wealth distribution, the refugee crisis, to name but a few,” he challenges.

“I became an entrepreneur for the joy of doing things differently, to rethink the model and to change things in ways that would eventually bring benefits to everyone,” his article concludes.

I’m sure that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would applaud that, as his recently launched Courage and Civility Award indicate.

The question I leave you with is whether you are simply an incrementalist… or whether there’s something of the revolutionary in you.

Entrepreneurs should act like revolutionaries

I’m always grateful when my daughter Amy sends me a book to read, including the most recent one I received from her, Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries, by David McCourt, published in 2019.

McCourt has indeed proved himself to be a serial revolutionary entrepreneur, disrupting the telecommunications industry in multiple markets around the world and earning himself a fortune in the process.

He came up with radical new ways of transforming how customers’ needs could be met, comparable to what the likes of Amazon, Netflix and Airbnb came up with in their domains.

McCourt saw how previously unthinkable ways could be devised to dramatically improve services and reduce costs – often by eliminating middlemen.

He won himself bold contracts, sometimes without having fully thought through how he could deliver on them but confident that necessity would be the mother of invention… which it typically turned out to be.

So what does this “Total Rethink” require? What are the characteristics of revolutionary entrepreneurs? It starts when we are young, says McCourt, with how our parents support and encourage us, and how our teachers also do.

Then there’s developing a strong work ethic, again from a young age. As a teenager McCourt took it for granted that he would help around the house and in the garden – as I used to do! And while at college – again like me – he always took up summer jobs.

In the American education system there’s too much emphasis on overcoming weaknesses and not enough on further building natural strengths, McCourt notes, while worrying that virtually all school curricula in America are geared towards helping children get good results in standardised tests – which then enables them to get into universities.

Here they are subjected to more such tests, as a result of which they qualify to enter graduate schools.

“If they do really well they get into Harvard,” he continues, “where the whole premise of the business degree is to teach them to think outside the box – the exact opposite to everything they have been taught up until then.” It makes us feel really good about our new Competence Based Curriculum, which has done away with the problems this revolutionary has identified in the US system.

All the top universities around the world now have courses on entrepreneurship, McCourt has observed, it being a “fashionable” subject to offer. But if you ask the students why they want to be entrepreneurs they will most often say it’s because they want to be rich and because they don’t want to have a boss.

He’s not impressed, asserting that no high quality entrepreneur he’s ever met has chosen that path in order to get rich, and that while not having a boss they all rely heavily on mentors and on the support of others.

He writes at length about the importance of confidence, based on capability; being willing to collaborate and compromise in order to get to win-win; sharing generously rather than being selfishly secretive (worrying in particular about middle management in this regard, who too often see their colleagues as competitors rather than teammates); listening to others and not talking at them (this for all managers, politicians, teachers, and others too).

He also stresses the need to be a good story-teller; to articulate one’s message simply, briefly and clearly – as in the elevator speech; and to write well. He was once told that his “secret sauce” was his ability to chat with anyone, whether they were three years old or 80 years old, and that they would feel like he could relate to them and that he respected them.

Here he quotes Dale Carnegie, who famously said that “you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”.

All that I have selected so far are personal attributes, and in my next article I’ll focus on the business side of entrepreneurship, on how to deal with customers so as to get the business and then how to deliver on it.

But before I conclude today I’ll leave you with a question his mentor put to all those at dinner aboard his yacht: “If you could come back as something else what would that be?”

McCourt’s immediate thought was that he would return as a revolutionary. Mine? Maybe a tennis professional or a photographer. How about you?

Challenges to change in dynamic business world

Since writing my last article on how to influence change, I have had the privilege of listening to Costas Markides, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of several outstanding books on the subject — including his latest one, Organising for the New Normal.

He was a delight to be with online at the Davis & Shirtliff management conference in which I was participating, making his points in such a lively and humorous way. Don’t take my word for it though, listen to him on this podcast, ‘Resilience mindset and the new normal’ on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Costas — which I am sure is how he’d like me to refer to him — is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy. As with anyone who works in this field these days he reflected deeply on how the strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to influencing people’s behaviours. He, therefore, focuses on social psychology as a key ingredient in his mix.

Why do people behave as they do, he asks, and what is it about the organisations within which they work that makes them do so? For sure leaders cannot simply tell their people to be, say, resilient and innovative. You won’t be surprised to learn that Costas is a great storyteller, and one he loves to quote is from the Harvard Medical School, which carried out a study on patients being released from hospital following major heart surgery.

Each of them was told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives — no more smoking or drinking alcohol, healthy eating and plenty of exercises. All very logical and rational.

The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90 percent of them reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, the book about this case by Alan Deutschman, the author describes what differentiated the 10 percent of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas relates. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour — like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional.

Another factor that influences how we behave is our environment, and Costas talks engagingly about how leaders must create one that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values, devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours, develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want.

There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses — like if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy.

Above all, Costas tells us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas, the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. He tells us we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. But this requires going beyond simply asserting that.

Leaders must lift their people psychologically, emotionally, reaching both their heads and their hearts, so they can visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Let me conclude by mentioning that an extra reason why I so enjoyed interacting with Costas was that nearly 50 years ago I spent a year at the London Business School as a student in their Sloan Masters programme. It was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence. His session reminded me of those uplifting days, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised the place and showing me it to be as vibrant now as it was then.

Are you an influencer?

Life would be so much easier and less stressful if we could influence others to do what is in their best interest by merely persuading them with logical, rational arguments.

But it often turns out to be really hard, often futile, so we just give up in frustration.

Efforts to influence others can be at the individual level, helping someone to do things like lose weight, give up smoking or drinking or do regular exercise.

It can be at the organisational level — where research shows that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail to make a difference.

Or it can be in communities and up to national level, all with a view to modifying behaviour. So much effort is invested, too little impact is felt.

My life as a director, a consultant and a writer is all about influencing people, typically to help them work better together without wasting time, energy and emotions struggling with conflict, bureaucracy, silos or other impediments to high performance.

I’d like to think that at least sometimes my circle of influence is adequately significant. But I am possessed of no magic wand, and so however brilliant my change management operations may be, the outcomes with my ‘patients’ are still sometimes less than overwhelming.

Are my Business Daily columns influential? Do I merely raise awareness but stop short of influencing behaviour? Or are some of my readers actually stimulated to change in the way I am advocating?

As for my consultancies and directorships — more so when I am a board chairman — how do I influence behaviours?

All these thoughts swirled around in my mind as I read Influencers, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — a group of change consultants themselves, who were curious to find out how others who had been of influence went about it.

One of my favourite examples reminded me of my recent hospital experience. A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect.

So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly – the “positive deviants” – to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were smiling, making eye contact, identifying yourself, letting people know what you are doing and why and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Another example is the extraordinary work of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunis. He found that by grouping women from a village in Bangladesh together and making them communally responsible for evolving viable business plans and for repaying loans made their success rate phenomenal.

I related to this case as some years ago my wife launched a microfinance company, through whose work she saw that the most valuable role it could play was to influence the value of reliability and the behaviours that supported it. It worked.

When it comes to altering behaviour, the authors found that you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? If not, why waste the effort?) And second: Am I able to do this thing? (If not, why even try? Then, you must replace judgment with empathy, and lectures with questions.

The moment you stop trying to impose your agenda on others you eliminate the fight for control.

Storytelling is a powerful way of influencing, they also reveal, relating personal experiences, with all their challenges and setbacks, but where the goal was achieved.

Whose stories? Those of opinion leaders in the group, to whom others listen. For it isn’t the mere merit of an idea that predicts its adoption rate.

Rather, whether opinion leaders embraced and promoted it.

Then, insist on immediate feedback against clear standards, we are advised. Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment, and build in recovery strategies, while offering real-time coaching.

There’s so much more in this book I would like to share, but I must go to my concluding question: are you skilled at influencing others? Or are you too pushy, too instructive, or otherwise insufficiently smart? Look out for high influencers, and see what to learn from them.

Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

How to manage change during transition period

I have written about change quite often in this column, and a few weeks ago I referred briefly to my own change anxiety in the context of my stay in hospital while dealing with Covid.

There, during my two-month incarceration, I was moved several times: from this ward to that ward, and then first to one room and later another prior to my eventual release. Each transition provoked its own anxieties, however ill-founded some were.

I was reminded of my transition stress as I came across the book Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, a prominent consultant who pointed out that much of what gets us agitated is not the actual difference between the old and the new situations but the disruptive transition from one to the other.

Each time I dreaded the prospects of being wheelchaired to my new abode, someone trailing behind me with the oxygen cylinder to which I was hooked up, and someone packing my belongings and then unpacking them in an unfamiliar setting – on one occasion at high speed and late in the evening.

All this required great mental and emotional strength on my part to keep adequately calm and optimistic about both the journey and the destination.

One transition led me to a distinctly less conducive environment, justifying my prior concern; while the upgrade to my first private room delivered significant advantages, as did the freedom from isolation – allowing me to receive visitors. But even this did not take away from the discomforts of transition.

My exit from the confines of the hospital to a care home and then finally back to my own home exposed me to yet more transition experiences, yet more reasons to be anxious about moves from one environment to the next, where at each stage the availability of carers would be diminished.

The good news is that all this made me a transition expert in just three months!

Bridges describes the sequence of progressing from the first stage of “ending” the previous setting, when we feel a sense of loss, accompanied by first denial, then anger and frustration, as we come to terms with the need to let go of the familiar; to the “neutral” stage, where negative feelings diminish; to the “new beginning”, with its mix of gains and fresh challenges.

It’s good to seek support when facing change, advises Bridges, and indeed from my experience I saw that support should be offered pro-actively and pre-emptively – having understood where and why people are anxious. How was it for this hospital nomad?

Sometimes I was reassured and comforted by the doctors and nurses, but on one occasion I actually felt like an Internally Displaced Person. Important too is to be straightforward with ourselves about where the new situation will indeed leave us less well off, helping us to accept the inevitable gracefully, as it’s as good as it gets.

Managing expectations is the name of this game.

The neutral zone is the most challenging, I read, because we can’t go back to the old state and we haven’t yet mastered the new one. Other messages from Bridges are that it is easier to let go of the past if we take lessons from what is ending and what we must let go of.

And that if possible we should try and take some familiar aspects into and beyond the transition.

More so in this volatile day and age we are constantly challenged to transition beyond our comfort zones: a new boss or structure or job; a new phone or laptop, or a new version of an operating system or App or ERP, and so many other changes… not to mention Covid, which has multiplied the ways in which we have had to adapt – to remote working, to not shaking hands and in many other ways.

Some of us find it all so hard to handle, while others manufacture the strength to expand their comfort zones as they travel through their transitions and into their new scenarios.

If those new scenarios leave us worse off, make us feel like an IDP, then we must find yet more strengths – beyond those required for the journey through transition – so we can plan for our best possible future with an invigorated sense of purpose.