Transformation or fix the basics?

This week I'm in Dakar, Senegal and have just been to see the African Renaissance Monument . It's very odd, dramatically impressive, cost a fortune, and excited many complaints on its commission. At the time of its unveiling in 2010, the then deputy leader of the Senegal opposition Ndeye Fatou Toure described the monument as an "economic monster and a financial scandal in the context of the current [economic] crisis".

Slate Magazine describes it as The Controversial Senegalese Monument Built by North Korean Propaganda Artists: At 160 feet tall, the bronze African Renaissance Monument is over one-and-a-half times the height of the Statue of Liberty. It depicts a man with a bare, ripped torso holding an infant aloft in one arm and guiding a woman with the other. The infant points ahead to indicate the glorious future, while the woman extends her arm behind to acknowledge the troubled past. Her hair is swept back by the wind, as are her scant, gossamer-like garments.

You travel in a high speed lift to a viewing platform in the man's hat – except we didn't because the tiny capsule-lift shuddered to a halt between floors, the doors opened and all we could see was a concrete wall. It was terrifying. There is a permanent 'pompier' (fireman) in it operating it and there to guide the 3 additional people the lift can take down the ladder if the lift or the electric power fails – apparently both a common thing to happen. We didn't have to clamber down the ladder but when he got it started again we got out at the first possible floor that had stair access. The first two floors (essentially the statue's base) house an exhibition and stories of black leaders.

What the monument reminded me of (apart from the folly of monuments – have you read Ozymandias, a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley?) was a meeting I was in last week. It was one where one group of people seemed to be talking in one language and a second group was talking in another but where we finally got to a third language that we all understood. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I'm hoping I'm beginning to learn the new language of common ground. (It's not one found on DuoLingo where I'm learning French but maybe it should be).

What was fun was that we were all making big efforts to understand the other – there wasn't any heat in it. One side in the room was talking big ideas and 'transformation', and using words like 'digital', 'lean', 'agile' essentially presenting the idea of building the expensive monument pointing to the future. The other side was making a plea to forget the 'ideal state vision' and '2020 end-state', to use normal language and to just help them fix the basics: not quite the clean water, consistent electricity and sanitation needed in Senegal but certainly IT tools that are fit for purpose, don't require the patience of Job and are free of the numerous work-arounds currently needed.

I was rather convinced that they were on the right track. It takes colossal will and charismatic leaders to make case for a future vision when in the current day-to-day the basics are lacking. It's a simple but powerful idea – on the lines of 'don't run before you can walk' and it makes sense. Backing up this thought is the evidence that the track record of successful transformation effort is not great. I've just re-read the classic article by John Kotter – Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail which in my experience is as valid today as when it was first written in 1995 and republished in 2007.

So I'm now wondering about 'transformation'. The organization I'm working with has been down the 'transformation' route more than once in the last decade and there's a certain amount of weariness (and amusement) from the long-service staff who are wondering what will be different in this 'transformation journey' that will result in the visionary promises being kept and whether the basics will be fixed this time around. And I'm asking myself whether an organizational 'transformation project' is on the same lines as building a vastly expensive and ultimately divisive and controversial monument that fails to achieve its symbolic intent.

I think it could be if those involved in the transformation programmes forget that showing they are fixing the basics – simply helping people do a good job: one without re-work, duplication, inconsistent processes, etc – is not included in their work from the beginning. Of the 8 things that Kotter suggests need to be in place for transformation to be successful two of them could be instrumental in showing that 'cracking the obvious' as one of my colleagues called it is a clearly communicated and integral part of the plan: creating short term wins, and consolidating improvements and bringing still more change.

Putting on my yellow hat of optimism (see Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats – a very useful tool) I don't think that transformation efforts are necessarily doomed to failure, but I do think they are significantly more likely to fail if the basics are not being fixed as the transformation work proceeds.

What's your view? Do transformation projects need to fix the basics as they go? Let me know.

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