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Take the giraffe’s view

Jan 21, 2007 Strategy, Sunday Nation

This column often tries to glean management wisdom from the world of sport. The cricket world has been shouting something in recent weeks, and the message is coming from the ‘Ashes’ series held between England and Australia.

Cricket aficionados will know that in the just-concluded series, Australia thrashed England 5-0. That’s five test matches – the more traditional, longer version of the game that takes five full days to complete – to nothing. In other words, a complete whitewash. That is a very, very difficult feat to pull off, but the Australians, playing on their home territory, did it with the ease of snatching sweets from a small child.

Just a mismatch? Well, the Australian team has been the strongest in all forms of world cricket for more than two decades now. But England actually beat the Australians in 2005 in the previous Ashes series, played on English soil. That was followed by traditional English chest-thumping, flag-waving and drunken revelry. The festivity went on for months, as though the beginning of a new golden age in English cricket had been heralded. Fans, commentators, writers and even politicians began to think that the narrow 2-1 victory was a sign of a deeper renaissance, a coming-of-age of an exciting new English team. And so the English team set off for Australia late last year, dreaming the unthinkable: that they would now repeat their Ashes victory by beating the Australians on their own soil.

Sober cricket analysts knew better, and were predicting an almighty mighty bursting of the bubble. And so it happened. The 5-0 thrashing that England received was an abject humiliation – and Australia’s ninth series win in the past ten attempts. Observers noted that the English cricketers seemed to be several notches below their opponents, individually and collectively. Their confidence will take some time to rebuild.

As this column does not appear on the sports pages, you may by now be ready with a ‘So What?’ What can both these teams teach us that we might apply to our economy and our businesses?

England first, and the lesson is obvious: no hubris please! Getting so carried away after just one victory is silliness of the first order. The English seem particularly prone to this – and in the process their players lose focus and a major bust invariably follows the minor boom.

We in Kenya also have the hubris bug. The most minor of achievements is often turned into a national festival. Our vote-hungry, spin-happy politicians usually lead the charge, turning the unveiling of a national dress, a rare football victory or whatever into a gala event. The most mediocre of gains – such as 5% growth in the economy – is trumpeted by the government and rubbished by the opposition in equal measure.

We must end this fixation on single events, and learn to focus on longer-term strategies and lengthy development paths. For this, look no further than the Australian cricket team. Ever since I was at university, this team has been at the top of the tree – and shows no sign of ever being shaken off its lofty perch. But that is no accident; the Australians are relentless in their pursuit of excellence on and off the pitch.

They strategise, plan and execute extremely well, year after year after year. They have the strictest of training regimes, and brook no lapses in quality. Any weak links in the team are dumped ruthlessly. Their succession planning, too, is impressive: Ricky Ponting, the current captain, is the fourth major leader of the team over the past two decades. Every time, the passing of the baton is done cleanly and immaculately, and every new leader seems to take the team to ever-greater heights.

The team seems to be bursting with new talent. As old hands retire, fresh new faces emerge and clock up the runs and wickets within no time at all. None of this is serendipity. There is a remarkably strong system at work here: a will to win and a hard grind that no one else can match.

Let’s learn something. We must take a similarly long view of our businesses and our nation’s development. We live in an era where politicians and bureaucrats take no more than a three or four-year view of the economy, because of the uncertainty and turmoil of our current politics. Our infrastructure planning is as short as the political cycle. We do not schedule successions, because every leader plans to be in office forever. We have no long-term philosophy, because individual elements want only short-term gain.

The long view must come from technocrats and business leaders who are in for the long haul. As we get to work on our landmark Vision 2030 project this year, let us build in all the systemic features that will allow us to take the long view: ambitious, relentless, and dogged.

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