First steps for governmental change

Recipe for change – first steps

A good mate of mine, Boyan Benev, just posted this note on his thoughts for how to take the first steps to change. I liked it, so am re-posting it here, along with my own addendum about transparency afterwards!
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Boyan’s post:

Opportunity to for change:

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  • I don’t believe that change will come from protests [only].
  • Real change comes from sequential action – we need a spark but that spark alone can never carry change through to the end.
  • If people really are interested in change [and not pure idealism] there’s a need to put together a series of aims we want to achieve… and then doggedly chase them.
  • These should be realistic, achievable goals rooted in what’s legal, possible and positive for the long-term future of Bulgaria (Steve’s edit: or any other country!)

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Only when we stand up and take responsibility for our discontent can we really expect to see change in any real form. Personally what I want to see is the following:
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Transparency:

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  • The best way to deal with corruption is by removing information barriers.
  • We have the technology and the understanding of how to apply this: let’s remove as many barriers as possible to information on how our country works on a national, regional and institutional level.
  • When EVERYTHING is out in the open and publicly accessible, debate and action on what *is* corruption, and how to deal with it, will be far easier.

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Education:

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  • We need more highly-qualified people in modern fields and disciplines; not just now but in years to come (e.g. Additive Manufacturing, Biotech.)
  • This is a case of lifelong education reform: starting from an early age and learning throughout our lives.
  • We have some great things going on in BG already – let’s build on them over the coming years. (Steve’s edit: we need to find and highlight the areas of success within any country or organization; this is a great way to show people around us that positive change is not only possible, but happening.)

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Regional Development:

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  • Bulgaria is not Sofia – we cannot let the country develop at two speeds. (Steve’s edit: this applies to any country – great disparity amongst any country or organization creates problems. Closing the gap promotes much healthier growth and harmony amongst the community.)
  • The capital will always be ahead, but let’s focus on policies which will encourage regional development (based again, on education reform).

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Bureaucracy:

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  • We need a MUCH leaner government, state and administrative apparatus.
  • So many of the barriers to citizens and business come from a bureaucracy which is in no way modernising at the pace it needs to.
  • Let’s seriously reduce the size of these institutions, improve pay and the quality of the remaining workforce and work towards a model which gives the people what they deserve: the opportunity to build a better life for themselves via either private enterprise or a steady career.

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Action only happens through action – it doesn’t matter whether we fail in the short run!

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Note on Transparency and fairness of salary

Those of you who have heard me speak frequently know that I’m an adamant proponent of transparency – believing that within a workplace, for example, there should be no secrets.

In the sense of Boyan’s post: government and public institutions, transparency for me is a fundamentally important tool to eradicate corruption. I really wonder: most people I meet are upset about corruption: yet unfortunately, endemic corruption has persisted for generations. It seems that many people, when they get into government, simply perpetuate the corruption. Someone recently mentioned to me that “government can’t lead the people, but rather follows the people” – which i found to be a good insight. Government *is* the representation of the masses. Sadly, one of the problems is that we’re so used to corruption as a society, that it seems when people get into a position where they are exposed to the “opportunity” of corruption, they take it – thereby continuing the cycle. We’re stuck in a mentality of accepting corruption as “standard”; believing it’s just the way things have been done, and how things need to be done… It’s once again back to being “stuck” in what I’ve come to call “Inertia Thinking.”

So it seems that to stop this, we need to simultaneously emphasize the point on “well-paid” government employees. PAY A GOOD SALARY for important government positions! Other countries have figured this out (presidents, senators, representatives: they all get a upper-middle-class range of salaries, so hwy not in BG?) If we provide a good salary, this reduces the incentive for taking bribes or participating in corruption in the first place.

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Combined with transparency, this seems a reasonable means to carry forward some basic reform in the system, and a great first step to rooting out the culture of corruption, and the subsequent inefficiency corruption causes.

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Is Bulgaria Ready for Change?

Are we ready for change?

For those of you not aware of what’s going on in Bulgaria; the month of February 2013 is sparking wide-spread protests against many things – in particular the way that Bulgarian utility companies are operating, as well as endemic corruption.
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Amidst all these protests, I’m wondering one fundamental question: is the average Bulgarian citizen *ready* for change?
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There is a significant difference between protesting against something specific (e.g. like a very high electricity bill which is a large % of your monthly salary), verses protesting for systemic change. Additionally: there is a difference between simply protesting (don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see the people take a stand!) and having an action plan for change!
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BULGARIA-PROTESTS_CS_Monitor
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What needs to happen is reform in the government system from top to bottom: total eradication of the mentality that feeds corruption, complete transparency, massive elimination of waste and red tape, and a focus on government *serving* people: meaning implementing processes that *help* us live and work easier: NOT implementing policies that hinder, confuse, or frustrate us.

System change is also about incorporating a sense of personal and social accountability into ourselves, and in particular the people chosen to run our government, to use our tax dollars wisely. The closest model I can think of is the Swiss model – a government that most Swiss people I talk to seem pretty happy with (at least more so than most other governments)!

Without such systemic change, any new government is just a repeat of the past. If the previous party that just resigned returns to power – or whomever wins again – and conducts a little ‘re-shuffle’ of people, combined with some new ‘populist’ promises to lower utility bills, well… nothing really changes, besides 1 or 2 quick fixes. But the underlying issues remain.
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Are we actually READY for real improvement? Do we, as the MASSES, really understand and embrace the need for systemic reform? Are we not just FED UP with corruption and inefficiency, but ready to ACT for change?
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Pay Your Valued Suppliers – They aren’t Creditors

I recently tweeted about the alarming trend of larger companies delaying payments – longer and longer – to smaller companies (article here: on.wsj.com/N6Zfjb).  It’s something that has been continuing to nag at me: large companies (like those on the S&P) have record cash holdings, yet are increasing the number of days they are taking to pay suppliers (yes, that means you APPL). They are basically using their large size to stiff-arm the smaller suppliers; becoming the school-yard bullies we all despised.

Oh yea, little company – what are you going to DO about it?!? Nothing! We’re the big company, we have the money and deals, and you WILL accept our terms!” The unstated (or often, sadly, stated) implication: there’s a line of suppliers lined up behind you to step in and take your place. Worse, the CFO organization within these large companies often views this “tactic” of delayed payments as “best practice.”

Well, guess what? Your practices suck, and while they may improve your cashflow in the short-run, they are actually damaging your business in the long-run. In fact, I could write an entire post (and probably will!) about the importance of moving to fewer suppliers, and treating them as valued partners…  but here’s the short version:

By bullying your suppliers, and pushing them hard on prices and payment; what you’re really doing is pissing them off, lowering their profit (which is a bad thing, as it means they aren’t able to put their best resources to the task), and incentivising them to deliver lower quality overall. They begrudgingly work with you – and from an attitude like this, you don’t get loyalty, innovation, and amazing customer service. You get the bare minimum.

I recently had two experiences where customers paid me – *ahead* of time. Yes, they paid my invoices faster than the terms in the contract. Imagine that.

The first, a long-time customer I really love, have consistently paid their invoices within a week of receiving them. I sent a note of thanks to their manager, expressing true gratitude for their promptness. She sent me back, in return, the following great statement:

“My motto is: when you have cash in the bank, pay valued partners ASAP!  Glad to be appreciated :)”

Now, in my book, that’s class. Thanks Robin, our hat’s off to you! The second recent occurrence was from a brand new customer. Now, if you’ve had a small or medium sized business yourself, you *know* how important it is to you to get that first invoice paid from a new customer. Our new customer pays straight away (awesome!), and I shoot off a message of heartfelt “Thanks!” With a nod and a wink, Patrick replies the following:

“You’re welcome. We try to pay everything as soon as possible. Its clear we don’t have a working capital manager yet :)”

With a clear dose of sarcasm towards the “Best Practice” of using your suppliers as creditors, Patrick acknowledged the beauty of treating suppliers who do a good job as true partners. Bravo!

So why does this change? We all know it’s wrong, and we avoid the practice as small and mid-sized firms. Why is it, as firms grow, we begin to lose this sense of valuing those external partners we work with? And really, shouldn’t we be doing the opposite? The clear answer is yes, we should.

So if you’re reading this, go and do it. Walk right into your purchasing office, or supplier management department, or whatever it is, and change the policy, starting tomorrow. You’ll find that you spur more loyalty, increased service levels, and greater long term value by doing so. These qualities will easily offset the minor cashflow position.

The Importance of Culture in Business, Part 3

So we looked around at large companies, and see their slow decline. Their fall from former glory. Two questions come to mind when I think of the rise and fall of the company, as expressed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of blog posts.

  1. Why do we succumb to this process, time and again? And,
  2. What can be done to prevent, or reverse, this process?

These two questions, to me, have to be asked – and answered – if we ever want to arrest the negative development of the firm. My answers, at the moment, are along the lines of:

  1. Stop inertia thinking, and
  2. Elevate culture to the importance of profit.

Intertia Thinking is what I’m calling the belief and adoption of old, or inherited, limiting beliefs. We tend to do things, and to think things, just because “they’ve always been done this way,” or because they are considered, by the indusry as a whole, as “best practice.” Heck, it’s gotta be the best way, it’s even called “best practice!” Fundamentally, when we adopt these limiting belief systems whole-heartedly, and forget to constantly evaluate these concepts, and examine their relevance for our situation, time, and environment, we accept, implement, and adopt legacy solutions and actions – rather than create and develop new, more relevant, ones!

 

Regarding culture, there’s a lot we can discuss. Suffice it to say, I’m beginnign to believe that once you lose your original focus, your spirit and passion, and instead allow others to impact your business (through either accepting and adopting external Inertia Thinking and limiting belief systems, or directly hiring people who believe in these, into your firm), you stop being able to propel forward with passion, verve, and a sense of purpose towards making the communities around you better off (whether those communities are fellow employees, customers, or your neighbor).

A lot of ideas come to mind when I think of how to expand on these answers, and I think they’re best left for subsequent posts and musings!

The Importance of Culture in Business, Part 2

What hapens when a company, which started off as innovative, flexible, and passionate, becomes “professional” as we understand it today? When it grows, and matures, and ulimately puts in place those “structures” and “processes” which seem to be the thing to do?

The same thing that happened, according to Toynbee, to civilizations. They begin to decline.

In the very least, these changes will bring about an inability to positively and creatively react to changes in the competitive environment – as Toynbee would say: to step up and positively respond to challenge and response situations. What helps make civilizations, and companies, great, is the ability to adapt, respond, and overcome challenges with amazing responses – solutions that work, and which improve the former status quo.

I’d argue that once “maturity” happens, a switch from focusing and nurturing creativity and an entrepreneurial attitude – to one of “big company bureaucracy” occurs, and it’s potentially impossible to respond positively to challenges. At thsi point, responses that work actually require massive restructuring, rethinking, and removal of at least some of these bureaucratic beliefs – along with a re-focusing on the customer. Which, until now, had been largely forgettn by the giant corporation. Think IBM – they almost crashed and burned a few times, only to be reborn after some deep soul-searching.

You see, these “best practices” are actually old beliefs, held over from ages past, and they are typically founded on fear. They were put in place during an age when we tried to make humans act like corporate slaves; robots to be subjected to time-and-motion studies and efficieny of movements.

Ultimately, they spark fear, create inneficiencies (the opposite of what we’re told they do), and create silos and barriers within the organization. They mark the beginning of the end of a company, however long that end might take to arrive.

 

Toynbee argued that, depending on the original strength and size of a country, the actual decline can take a very, very long time. Think Rome.  The same notion can be applied to companies – once they apex, it can be a long, and slow, end. Imagine Kodak.

Take a look around at every large company. By and large, as soon as they diminish the importance of culture, they apex and begin to decline. I’d say Google has hit that apex already. It used to be like Microsoft, in the beginning: Google was cool. Now… it’s lost it. Speaking of Microsoft, it’s at a cross-roads. It hit the apex, it’s on a slow decline, and it has to either wake up, shrug off the tyranny of bureaucracy, or continue it’s long slow slip into irrelevance.

What can be done?

 

The Importance of Culture in Business, Part 1

I read a great article in Forbes today, and I have to say that it’s totally spot-on! The article discussed a British historian, named Troybee, who wrote prolifically on the rise and fall of civilizations. I hadn’t heard of Toynbee’s work on countries before, but he’s basically saying that:

“… civilization flourishes when it motivates insiders and attracts outsiders with its creative dynamism and culture. The civilization breaks down when its leadership loses this creative capacity and gives way to, or transforms itself into, a dominant minority. When this happens, the driver of the civilization becomes control, not attraction.”

 

The guest author, Philippe Silberzahn, pointed out that it’s not just countries and civilizations that this process happens to, but to it also occurs in businesses. And he’s right. In the beginning, you’ve got the entrepreneurial start-up. The passionate, excited group of people that have come together to change the world – or if not the world, some little piece of if. They want to make an impact, however small. They’ve invented a new product, or developed an innovation which does something better. Together, they work hard and smart to get it out there in the world. As they become increasingly successful, they grow…and grow…and grow.

 

And at some point along the journy, they lose that initial spark of passion, energy, and drive.

I believe that we have a set of limiting beliefs regarding management “best practice”, which we’ve largely inherited from the industrial revolution, and which no longer serves the way people want to work today. At all. These beliefs favor control and process as a company grows, rather than a sense of purpose, empowerment, freedom, and creativity.

You hear it said that as your company “grows up” (gets bigger), you need to “become more professional.” What does that mean? Probably things like:

  • Tto switch to centralized strategic decision making,
  • Create “mature” HR processes,
  • Implement strict finance controls and audit procedures,
  • Build and stress the overall importance of process (to the extent that it surpasses common sense and freedom),
  • Create formal organizational structures (e.g. administration and hierarchy),
  • Centralize and standardize procurement,
  • …and on and on…

It’s just “what you do.” It’s “Best practice…” But what happens next?