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To succeed, make the crucial distinction between event and process

Mar 14, 2010 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

This Sunday I want to focus your attention on two seemingly simple words: EVENT and PROCESS. The difference between these words, I would like to argue, is that between earth and sky, between success and failure, between dream and reality. Yet we are confusing these words every day in Kenya and retarding our progress.

Our fixation is on events rather than processes, and always has been. If you are looking for an answer to why Kenya remains underdeveloped and shows limited signs of ending that state of affairs, this fixation is a major suspect in the case.

Consider trees. We all agree these days: trees are good, they are assets, they are insurance for our future. Or rather, most of us agree: there are still some politicians lacking in cellular matter up top who would dispute this. But for most right-thinking Kenyans this is a no-brainer. Trees are good and we need more of them. So what do we do? Plant more trees, of course.

We make an event of planting trees. Politicians lead us on tree-planting exercises where they scoop a couple of shovels of dirt into a pre-dug hole for the cameras, and then leave. We do the same privately: many of us go off on feel-good weekends where we go and plant a good number of trees. We come back basking in the warm glow of achievement, of giving back, of doing things for posterity.

Millions of trees have apparently been planted in this way in recent years, by large numbers of well-wishers and right-thinkers and do-gooders. But here’s the legitimate question: where are those trees? Do they still exist, and do we care? In other words, we are all too happy to do the cheap and exciting work of organising the EVENT of planting trees; we are rather more reluctant to conduct the tiresome and dreary and repetitive PROCESS of maintaining them.

Take corruption. There is no greater threat to our future than the cancer of corruption. It threatens to undo every plan and eat into every strategy we have for our future, for we are unable to guarantee that any money we reserve for any project will not be stolen. And as we have seen of late, we are plumbing the depths. Nothing is sacred anymore. Money intended for internally displaced persons, for free education, for drugs for AIDS patients, for famine relief, for burying our dead – everything is up for grabs.

So what do we do to tackle this immense problem? You guessed it: we focus on headline-grabbing events rather than longer-term processes. And so we periodically sack/suspend/interdict the most egregious offenders. We create and disband anti-corruption organs. We appoint and sack ethics tsars. We make loud speeches bemoaning this threat to our children’s futures. All events, all momentary, all theatrical, all empty PR.

The real war on corruption would be fought through foolproof processes, not events. A process of monitoring abuse; a process of unearthing scams; a process of conducting diligent investigations and building strong cases; a process of prosecution; a process of incarceration; and a process of reparation.

If anyone had the tiniest intention to actually tackle the corruption beast, we would be designing and executing that series of processes, every single day of every single year. We would do the dreary grunt work, not the superficial camera play.

You get the idea. Leadership is not the event of appointment and grand inauguration; it is the process of inspiring others for collective uplift. Success is not the clocking of a certain bank balance: it is the continuous process of personal improvement. Achievement is not the arrival at an arbitrary destination; it is the process of embarking on a difficult journey and staying the course.

Parenthood is not the event of planting a seed; it is the grim and overwhelming process of bringing up children, every single day of their childhood. Learning is not the event of attending a programme; it is the internal transformation that comes from nurturing the process of inquiry. Customer service is not the event of giving customers freebies; it is the hard-graft process of inspiring employees to focus their daily attention on creating loyal customers.

Branding is not the event of launching a new logo and identity; it is the process of keeping your company’s promise to its employees and customers. Development is not the event of signing of cheques by aid agencies; it is the systematic process of uplift of an entire populace over a generation or more. Love (to repeat myself) is not a climactic event; it is a quiet and sustained kindness stretched out over a lifetime.

In short, we are confusing the incident for the achievement. There is no escape. Events give us a high and allow us to bask in temporary glory; but only systematic, repetitive and robust processes deliver long-term impact. In your life, let no event come at the cost of process.

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