Transforming organisations: Slow down to reach faster
Transformational leaders chart the four stages of start, road map, time plan and end point. The former are planned, while the latter are flexible. Execution requires constant review and adjustment, failing which two risks arise: initiative overload and declaration of victory. A live example of both can be seen from India’s recent experiences.
During the last seven years, citizens have had promises, for example, retrieving black money or beating the Covid crisis in less time than the Kurukshetra battle. The citizen has been harangued about far-reaching initiatives like demonetisation, Article 370, CAA, farm bills, $5 trillion economy and lockdowns. From a citizen perspective, the outcomes are hazy.
Using farm laws as just one example, the latest Lokniti-CSDS poll survey states that the popular mood even in far-away Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala has turned against the new farm laws. If true, the laws may have to be buried. However, citizens’ adrenalin is pumped up constantly with the rhetoric of “never-before-in-seventy-years” initiatives. High decibel demagoguery and television debates pump up the initiative overload. The citizen is tired, more so after the Covid second wave.
Declaration of victory:
In 2003, a Rs 150 crore “India Shining” campaign was unleashed by an overenthusiastic NDA declaring success for their initiatives. The celebratory tone lacked so much credibility that the NDA lost the 2004 elections. Victory over Covid has followed a similar pattern. It is reported that the RSS is planning a campaign called “Hum Jeetenge” to counter negativity around Covid news. If done in a defensive and arrogant manner, it could be disastrous for the NDA.
Several examples demonstrate this early victory malaise. For example, in 2017, Quint Studer wrote about how a Chicago ‘Great Comeback’ hospital declared victory at the first taste of success. The very next month, the hospital had to retract its celebratory self-accolades. HBS Professor John Kotter has written in Harvard Business Review about why transformation efforts fail. Error number 7: declaring victory too soon. On June 7 last year, this newspaper reported Pope Francis’s Sunday advice to his followers about Covid. “Thank God, we are slowly coming out, please follow the rules that help us to avoid the virus to get ahead. Don’t cry victory too soon.” All leaders should heed this advice.
Scientific temper is not about science. It demands an attitude of curiosity, dissent and debate. Look back to understand how epidemics ended in the past—no epidemic was eradicated within a short timeframe, like the duration of the Mahabharata battle!
Boston Review (30-6-20) tellingly reported under their ‘Science and Technology’ column: “The history of epidemic endings has taken many forms, and only a handful of them have resulted in the elimination of a disease…. The two faces of an epidemic, the biological and the social, are closely intertwined, but they are not the same … science is deeply contingent upon local practices.”
While this report emphasises the intersection of science with social subjects, leaders may fall into the trap of excluding both science and social aspects. In transformation, you need STEM and SHAPE. Science, Technology, Engineering, Manufacturing must be accompanied by Social sciences, Humanities, Arts, People, Economy.
Think slow and deep:
This article is not about the pandemic. The pandemic merely illustrates one challenge of transformation. I advocate thinking slowly and deeply. A Korean proverb says, “It is when you are in a rush that you have to slow down.” Vedanta advises use of the intellect rather than only the mind through shravanam (listening), mananam (thinking) and nidhidhyasanam (introspecting).
I quote two examples from the business world. Unilever’s Path to Growth was announced in 1999. Intense programmes followed, leaving employees in a tizzy. Till 2004, the targets were not met. Soon, top management and business targets were both revised.
In 1992, Arthur Martinez was selected to lead American retail chain, Sears, against competition from entrants like Walmart. For two years, Martinez embarked on a slew of strategic initiatives, leaving the employees of the company quite breathless. He then declared the turnaround complete and successful. Soon thereafter, the company faltered, and Martinez stepped down in 1999.
An example from public life in Ecuador is terrifyingly reminiscent of events close to home. Jamil Mahuad was the immensely successful mayor of Quito from 1992 to 1998. He was popular, he walked around the city to meet his voters and he decentralised problem-solving by motivating citizens to solve their own problems. After declaring success with his Quito model, he got elected as President of his nation, Ecuador.
In this new position, Jamil could not repeat his ‘people-touch activities’. Gradually, he became remote. He relied on aides to report problems and recommend solutions. Urgent actions were required for the mounting problems of Ecuador—inflation, foreign debt, bankrupt banks and devastation from an unexpected El Nino storm.
In a dramatic move, Jamil froze bank accounts and ‘dollarised’ the economy. The economy did not respond positively. People came out on the streets and in January 2000, a coalition of military officers forced Jamil out of the office of President.
Such are the travails of initiative overload and declaring victory too soon. It is important to slow down to move fast.
Author and corporate advisor
(The author had served as Director, Tata Sons and, before that, as Vice Chairman, Hindustan Unilever. Collaborating with entrepreneur-cum-angel investor R Narayanan, he has recently co-authored a book titled “Wisdom for start-ups from grownups”)