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Now more than ever: the steering wheel must connect to the tyres

Mar 29, 2020 Leadership, Management, Strategy

More than a decade ago I asked on this page: is Kenya’s steering wheel connected to its tyres?

The imagery is half-comical: of leaders merrily spinning the steering wheel thinking they are driving the car; the vehicle, meanwhile, goes where it wants. The issue was very serious, though; I raised it in the light of the many government declarations and directives that were flying around in those days: internally displaced persons will be resettled in a month; the Mau Forest will be cleared immediately; the judiciary will be reformed…etc. So many noble words uttered up by the steering wheel; so little action down at the level of the road.

Today, as fear of the coronavirus tightens its grip on our society and lockdowns and crackdowns loom large in our lives, this broken connection between those who declare and those who execute may come back to haunt us.

The directives are certainly coming thick and fast: mandatory quarantines, stay-at-home orders, systematic testing of the population – all these are part of our daily discourse now. The steering wheel is being spun dangerously hard – but will the vehicle move as expected? The early results are not reassuring.

The truth is, we have for decades now watched the decline of our execution capacity. We suffer from a dearth of talent in key parts of public service; we have a widespread management deficit; and the normalisation of corruption has created grossly misaligned incentives. Ministers can proclaim a necessary initiative, and to their horror, see only chaos ‘kwa ground’. Unintended consequences rule the day.

If we are not to pay dearly for this execution deficit, we must pay deep attention to the nature of the problem.

Some diagnosis first. One essential challenge is that over the decades many who purport to lead have mistaken leadership for word, not action. This is a fallacy. A leader’s job does not end in commanding someone to do something; it involves making sure the thing is done.

Things get done when a number of conditions are met. First, that rules exist to govern behaviour, and are enforced. Second, that good work is rewarded, and inaction punished.

Third, that leaders and doers are part of the same team, and their success or failure is collective. Fourth, that there are enough people in the system in key places whose focus is on the nation, not themselves. Fifth, that there is a system for measuring results that is made public, to focus attention on outputs, not intentions.

Recovering and recreating those conditions will take many years, and we don’t have that time while fighting a virulent pandemic today. So what is to be done?

First, as a leader, be clear: have you understood the consequences of what you are about to order on the most vulnerable people, the ones who will face the greatest impact of your policy decisions?

Next, whether you are a leader spearheading government initiatives or just minding your own organization or department today, you must realise that whatever comes out of your mouth must turn into meaningful action on the ground. Therefore, do not announce initiatives if you have no confidence in their being executed properly. If you mess this up, lives may be lost. 

You must translate your own directive into a plan of execution; map out some action sets, responsibilities, timelines and desired results; and then you must personally follow through. You must pick your best available people to head key elements of the execution plan; have a daily checklist in order to monitor progress; and crack heads and take action when things are not working.

You can’t get everything right in high-stress, uncertain times, but you must try to think things through. Then, if surprises occur, listen keenly to real feedback from the ground and be ready to change course. Create some loose plans B to D upfront, just in case plan A turns out to be a dud.

We must be very careful now with all our decisions and rollout plans. If we get them badly wrong, the consequence could be dire. We cannot prevent poor people from accessing their livelihoods if we have no alternative for them; and the alternative has to be real and actionable, not just a feel-good pulpit proclamation.

Pause before you proclaim. Think of the actionable steps. Anticipate where things will go wrong. Crack the whip to ensure no wilful failures are tolerated. Hold regular progress meetings. 

Follow through, review. Follow through, review. Follow through, review.

The words of General Omar Bradley, commander of American troops on D-Day, will ring completely true now: “Amateurs talk about strategy. Professionals talk about logistics.”

(Sunday Nation, 29 March 2020)

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