Following my visit earlier this year to Jerusalem, where I admired the 16th century walls erected by Suleiman the Magnificent, the chairman and CEO of the Ottoman Empire, more recently I was in the city that served as the great man’s corporate head-office – Istanbul.
Together with other consultants from around the world, and hosted by the World Bank, I was there to share experiences on how to accelerate the implementation of development projects by complementing the “technical” work of the World Bank through addressing the equally important “people” aspects.
We spent a week discussing what has worked and what has not, the obstacles we have faced and how we have tried to overcome them, and how we can do better in future.
The World Bank, in its “Collaborative Leadership, Learning and Innovation” group, has for the last few years been running programmes that work with government clients on such challenges, and as a result it has harvested a great deal of valuable knowledge.
Over the years, its approach has migrated from a teaching and lecturing style to a very practical and interactive way of engaging. And on the first evening, immediately the group gathered, we were ourselves plunged into instant participation by being asked to identify the elements that had made our own engagements taxing.
Many spoke of lack of ownership on the part of one or more of the stakeholders, and this for a number of possible reasons. In some cases it was lack of alignment between them, not unrelated to a lack of trust.
We’d seen cases of weak analysis prior to the engagement, including jumping at solutions prematurely. We had experienced resistance to change, thanks to vested interests benefiting from the status quo.
And for these and other factors, we’d all been in situations where no significant impact resulted: business continued as usual, with enough of those involved imprisoned in their comfort zones – which frequently meant isolating themselves within their silos. All too often, even where an initial change initiative succeeded, the possibility of it going to scale proved a step too far.
A predictable list of other obstacles emerged, including procurement heaviness; other sources of entangling red tape; lack of top level support; and what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once called the explosion of “events”– unforeseen distractions that drain energy away from the project at hand.
Many initiatives saw inadequate tracking and measurement of the planned change, thanks to such monitoring and evaluation being a mere afterthought; to weak or wrong indicators; or lack of sufficient data to assess the extent of the desired impact. Indeed, often absent was the very discipline needed to manage performance effectively.
Having identified the headaches we then shared stories of situations where we had managed to overcome some among them, to emerge with at least a certain measure of success. The group in which I found myself immediately went for building trust as our theme, appreciating that with it comes alignment, and hence ownership of the goals in question and the will to achieve the intended outcome.
What builds trust in a consultant? Of course they need the technical knowledge and skills to engage with credibility, but what emerged again and again was the need for a good attitude, one that speaks of confidence, coupled with friendliness and humility.
The term used by the World Bank team to encapsulate such an emotionally intelligent approach is “Adaptive Leadership” – the ability to handle a situation with flexibility, overcoming the numerous unexpected roadblocks that are inevitable in this game.
During our week we drew up a list of competencies needed by leadership and change consultants. An early thought was that they are people who can be parachuted into difficult situations and hit the ground running.
They must have broad experience – including of how government works, and in the use of change management tools and techniques. They must have developed excellent communications and mediation skills (not least in active listening); and they must be at ease in facilitating high-stakes, high-level conversations, ones that often include the need for managing conflict.
A coaching approach is often part of the engagement process, and a focus on the desired impact is mandatory.
Other strengths mentioned included being – and being seen to be – neutral and objective, transparent and open-minded; and the ability to lead and work within diverse teams.
Finally, an almost endless portfolio of other qualities was easily drawn up, including diplomacy, respectfulness, authenticity, patience and calmness, sense of humour, creativity, agility and being a spreader of positive energy.
We heard stories of successful change initiatives from Ghana and Rwanda, from the Philippines and Iraq, from Serbia and the Comoros — yes and from Kenya. And we shared experiences of using different tools to build that vital engagement and momentum which can bring about the breakthroughs in whatever area of development was selected.
The term “reform” was used from time to time during the event to describe a change initiative, and while I fully understand the intent of the expression I have never been entirely comfortable with it, speaking as it does of merely overcoming the outdated, the disorganised, the fragmented, the incompetent. My preference is for more positive terms that focus on a more uplifting and less painful process.
Indeed, all of us who took part in the Istanbul event left truly uplifted, encouraged that in so many different parts of the world like-minded people are thinking ever so hard about how to actually bring about development —significantly, sustainably and to scale.
The World Bank is much criticised for many aspects of its work, sometimes justifiably and sometimes much less so. In my interactions with its people over the last few years, I have come across some of the most informed and thoughtful people I have ever met, including and not least those who led our recent discussions by the shores of the Bosphorus.
Long may they continue to bring collaborative leadership, learning and innovation together.