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When is it the right time to respond?

Colleen Magner
December, 2015


When we have different views about what should be done, when is it the right time to respond together?

Earlier this year, we were asked by our associate in Nigeria to train a group of senior government officials in Transformative Scenario Planning in Jos, a small city in the north of Nigeria. The invitation came in March, a few months before the national elections.

After learning a little more about Jos and discovering that it has been the close to several violent clashes, my colleagues and I decided to go but only after the elections. This got me thinking about timing and what conditions need to exist for change to happen. If you’ve been following African politics, you’ll be aware that the ruling party in Nigeria has recently changed. The new president, Muhammadu Buhari won on his promises to respond to corruption and Boko Haram.

His government has outlined five national priorities: rooting out corruption, reducing the cost of government, diversifying the economy so that it is no longer dependant soley on oil, dealing with security threats and Boko Haram and increasing economic growth.  Reos Partners was invited by the government think tank, The National Institute of Strategic and Policy Studies (NIPSS) to help senior officials plan to address these issues.

At the end of the two-day training, one participant stood up and shared emotively “How can we change the mindset of people so that they move beyond the short-term, get-what-I-can-gain mentality to that of realising that this country can only succeed with a collective, long-term view?” His question was in response to whether scenarios will help to achieve the objectives of the new government. It was asked with exasperation and frustration and it resonated with the group - there were many murmurs of approval and claps.

Can different stories about what’s possible truly shift the way a country thinks, and then responds? This is a frustrating place we find ourselves – where the successful outcome is not in sight.

Another Reos colleague introduced me to a book called: The Three Laws of Performance. It’s a long, compelling book with a simple message. After interviewing many of leaders across organisations, big and small, public and private, the authors came to the conclusion that three things influence performance. The first law is that your performance is a direct reflection of how the world occurs to you. The book breaks down what “occurs” means. But it’s basically about what stories you tell yourself about the experiences you’ve had.  The second law of performance is that all things that occur to you, occur through language and symbols, for example words, images, messages (whether it’s a war memorial or a picture of a boat of refugees). And the final law of performance is that the only way you can change your performance is by changing the language and symbols you find meaningful.

How do we look at something and extract a new insight from it? Or even better, how do we collectively look at something and extract the same productive insight? You all know the story of the elephant and the blind men. The blind men who touch the trunk think the elephant is the trunk. Those who touched the tail think the elephant is the tail. We’ve found that scenario planning is an excellent tool to make visible how things occur to a group, and what language and meaning they pay attention to. It’s a risky and time-consuming process for a whole-systems team to participate. So the success of a scenario planning process has a lot to do with timing, and when a group is ready to let go of what they pay attention to, to make sense of their positions.

In our experience, the best timing is when levels of frustration are high across different centers of power, and yet there is an equal sense of what’s possible. The sentiment of change in Nigeria, together with high levels of frustration about the current situation are good ingredients for a conversation about the future.

This article is part of a series “Moving Through Tough Terrain”.

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