Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Simon on Lagos, Africa

I introduce Simon Mcintyre, Colleague, complexity consultant and all round authentic soul. This is his comments after his first visit to Lagos in July 2006. The comments were emailed to colleagues in Equality Foundation, UK but with his kind permission I share it with all of you who extend your goodwill by visiting with me in this here blog.

Hi all

Having been back just over a week now I’ve had a bit more time to reflect on my Nigerian experiences and at Adewale’s recommendation I’ve decided to try to put them down in words, what I have learned, what I experienced and some of the incidents and situations I was in along the way. It’s by no means a complete travel diary (which would probably be rather dull) but should give everyone a good idea of what it was like

The flight was uneventful beyond the number of people who came to say hello to Ade both at check-in and on the flight itself showing that either it is a small world or that he knows a lot of people. Looking back on it I think it’s a combination of the two but it was certainly an interesting experience to see Adewale interacting with different people and to be introduced to a myriad of people from different backgrounds and who all do different things.

We were met outside the airport by Hakeem (Adewale’s Brother) and Andrew our driver and a mobile-police armed escort. The mobile police were to give me my first experience of the difference between exercising authority and power in Lagos, an issue which seems to run deeply throughout business and society.

The drive from the airport was both as I had expected and not, one of the main things was that it wasn’t very sunny, being rainy season it was overcast and even raining as we drove through the city out to the house in Leki, it sounds silly but when you’re in somewhere with expected 30 degree heat you expect it to be sunny! The traffic and driving however was pretty much as I has been led to believe, Ade and a few other people I met throughout the week have said that the closest thing in Europe to a Nigerian is a Italian and the similarities are certainly there.

The traffic and people’s driving was what caused the incident with the police escort, whilst weaving through the traffic another vehicle lightly hit ours (no real damage done though), which set the escorting policeman to chase him and try to pull him over. Despite the policeman being armed the van didn’t pull over which resulted in the policeman shooting his weapon into the air and forcing the van to the side of the road. This was about 15 minutes into being out of the airport, I guess some would say “welcome to Lagos” but I perhaps perversely found it a fascinating insight not into the country or the city but into the dynamics of power and human interaction. What was most interesting was the reaction of the young policeman who was riding with us, who couldn’t see why his colleague was reacting like that. After the incident was over we talked to our policeman who showed incredible insight into why the incident had happened, as he pointed out once you have fired your weapon where else do you have to go and why should you have to do that in the first place, what are you really doing showing your authority or really exercising your power for the sake of it? It was a quite fascinating conversation from someone who seemed to have a real insight into these issues, which belied his years and what some would see as his low position.

The company that we are working with over there is A3&O Media, an offshoot of A3&O which is a very successful company specialising in connectivity solutions for businesses. A3&O media itself began life as a provider of premium SMS services, that is text messaging services that cost more than your standard rate (like the voting texts for TV programmes like pop idol or Big Brother in the UK), but has moved into a couple of other areas and currently has a position somewhere between a technology based advertising broker and a provider of information services via innovative and new technologies.

I spent the first afternoon there talking to April, who is the nominal head of A3&O Media, although really is the head of marketing and being introduced to everyone there. It was clear just from my initial introduction that the organisation had issues that are perhaps not that dissimilar to our own, failing to execute on agreed actions, delays in launching products and services and a culture that prefers the tactical to the strategic.

I spent the next 2 days sitting in on meetings, talking to the staff and watching how the organisation worked. One of the main issues within the organisation was that difference between the exercise of authority and the exercise of power and how Wale the owner of the company used the two and more importantly how the staff let him use them in the ways they wanted. Observing A3&O Media and having talked to a number of other people it seems to me that this is an issue across the country (or certainly across businesses in Nigeria with even foreign businesses such as Ericsson having similar issues), particularly in the area of continuous improvement and letting people make mistakes and learn from them. The real issue is that of relationships, how do staff see the relationship between the organisation and themselves, between their boss and themselves and most importantly between each other. This is an area in which we can use our own expertise to help organisations figure this out, Omoluwabi in particular can help and this is what we are doing with A3&O, introducing them to Omoluwabi and empowering the staff to develop an organisation that is fit for purpose rather than have it designed for them, if you remember our own meeting around Omoluwabi this is looking at the dynamics first rather than at the structure.

Around the middle of the week, A3&O learnt that a new service for the Nigerian National lottery which was due to be launched the following weekend had been moved to be launched that weekend instead. I was then drawn in to helping them make it work, working with each of the teams to ensure everything was in place that needed to be and that it all launched without a hitch (in the end there were many hitches but not all of them were A3&O’s responsibility!). This was an extremely interesting experience, and taught me a lot. My initial approach tended towards doing all the thinking for them, telling them the solutions to their problems and in effect just becoming Wale for them (one of the issues with their dynamics is that Wale solves all the problems and tells everyone exactly what to do). What had in effect happened was that I had been pulled into the existing dynamics of the organisation and they were using me in the same way they were used to in just 3 days! Interestingly enough, until it was pointed out to me what I was doing I hadn’t even realised it, and I think this is one of the most important learning points for me from the whole Nigerian experience, the fact that you have to step back sometimes and watch what is happening through different eyes, looking for the patterns of behaviour that are destructive and non productive and working on how to change them. This is something I will be trying to do all the time now, not just for myself but also for others, I think its important to realise that just because someone is doing something or has a particular dynamic doesn’t mean they know that they are or that they have it.

From then on I took a much more facilitative approach, making the staff take control of meetings and brainstorming sessions, intervening only when it was necessary and helping them to build their own capacity. This was strengthened by a half day Omoluwabi workshop led by Adewale and the change in the organisation and the people within it was almost immediate. They went from disorganisation and a total lack of teamwork, planning and purpose to a group of people who understood their goals and objectives and the value each of them could bring to each other regardless of their own area of expertise. The concern was obviously that once we left they would default back to type and that is why we have agreed with Wale to continue working with them over the next year and for me to visit once a month with an agreed delivery plan of workshops and actions. The real purpose of our interventions with them is to make them independent and able to function on their own with their own system of operation that suits their unique environment. What is most interesting is the fact that there are many Nigerian companies facing exactly the same issues and the default approach is to find a scape goat, and sack staff, not to look at the system and examine it for its own failings.

So that was my experiences of the work side of things, what about the actual environment itself. This is the difficult bit to put into words, what did I see is easy (I could write pages of pure description, but that would be quite dull and give no really insight into the place) but what did I feel and how would I describe Nigeria I find far more difficult.

I think the main point is that everything seems to have its place, yes there is an enormous gap between rich and poor (in-fact I think the real gap is between the middle and working classes there) so whether you would call that rich I don’t know, but at the same time the lower classes are not totally jobless or starving (although there are obviously homeless and the total poor) but I think (but have no figures to back it up) that they are a minority and as a percentage of an enormous population are probably no larger than a so called first world country.

My other observation is that it is a place with great energy and immense possibilities and a capability to energise you, although I should add that my views are only representative of Lagos, which I was told many times is not Nigeria. The “can do” and “will do” attitude that everyone seems to have is infectious and truly energising, I found myself feeling totally re-vitalised in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. I think one of the reasons was being released from the existing dynamics of home and Equality Foundation and setting totally new ones. However as well as experiencing the energy there is also the opposite, the phrase a place of great contrasts but in a totally different context to the normal rich poor split. At the same time as being full of energy, Lagos is relaxed, the people are at the same time hectic and laid back, you have to experience it to really understand it but as well as being the busiest I have been in some time there I was also probably the most relaxed as well.

Which begs the question why can’t we establish this balance at EFL why can’t we be busy, and focused but relaxed with it and why are we defined by our existing dynamics, and find them so hard to change? As I have already said the change in A3&O was immense in a short time but we have been talking about change at EFL for even longer and can’t seem to sustain it. This is something that we must work-out not just for ourselves but to enable us to close the loop for clients too. I personally am trying very hard to keep that energy level up, to stay energised and focused on the strategic and the future not at the expense of the present but rather not bogged down in it.

I’m sure there was much more that I should have shared, perhaps some examples of the ease at which contacts are made (for example our chance meeting with the Nigerian Minister for Information in a restaurant) or the resilience of the people to adversity such as constant power shortages and generally poor infrastructure but the ability to achieve and innovate nonetheless, something that I think we have lost in the UK because we no longer have to (everything is on a plate for us), or maybe the human dynamics of the Ajadi family but perhaps that will be for another email or to describe in another trip. In a nutshell Nigeria was an eye opening experience for me both to the possibilities there and to the possibilities within myself. I think I learnt a lot there both relevant to our work and in particular human and organisational dynamics and probably more important I learnt a lot about myself and how I currently operate and can operate. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve struggled to describe Nigeria when I’ve talked to people about it, because I’ve really been looking for the words to describe the effect it had on me but choosing words to describe the place itself and therefore failing. I’m really glad to be going back every month and hope I can share everything that is going on there and with me, with you guys back at home and if I don’t please let me know. Feel free to ask any questions or to clarify anything