Pakistan – Learning from the Edgelands
Failed State – Remarkable People
In this blog I want to explore my experience of learning from the edgelands. It is my belief that places and organisations have edgelands, where things happen outside the norm. If you look hard enough and open yourself up to the experience you are likely to find new ideas and innovation. You can find a more detailed exploration of this idea on my website. http://www.edgelandsconsultancy.co.uk
Earlier this year my good friend Asif Zulfiqar asked me to work with him on an OD project in Pakistan. My first reaction was “no way”. My mind was flooded with security concerns, visions of rampaging Taliban mullahs, fears of kidnap, explosions, death and dying. Asif was very good; he said “Ian you are my friend, do you think I would do anything to put your life in danger?” So rather than saying no right away, I decided to do a bit of research. I contacted the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office who in turn connected me with the UK Trade and Industry Mission in Lahore. I spoke with Arshad Rauf from the UKTI a couple of times and was greatly reassured. He also helped me understand the kind of opportunity Asif was offering.
With regard to security issues, yes there are many problems and issues and a great deal of care is required. Working in Belfast during the time of “the troubles” was the most similar experience I have had. As an Englishman in Northern Ireland I relied totally on my hosts to provide me with guidance about where to go and what to do. As in Belfast, so in Lahore I met people who were keen to show me that everything is not how it is portrayed by the media; as well as “troubles” other, more generous, safe and delightful things coexist and ordinary people are trying to make a living, live their lives as fully as they can, have fun and enjoy themselves.
I learnt from both Asif and Arshad that OD is not well know in Pakistan. Training is much more common and better understood. However, both were clear that the kinds of skills and services we OD practitioners can bring to complex issues is much needed in the country and once people understand what OD is about it will be very well received and valued. So I decided to take the assignment.
As I stared to plan and prepare I realised I was being given a remarkable opportunity to visit an edgelands, a place outside of my personal and professional norms and one with the potential for me to learn new and interesting things. I was also being given the unique opportunity to bring an understanding of OD to somewhere that has little understanding of the practice.
My client in Lahore is a medium sized bank looking to position themselves in terms of business excellence and customer experience. They are working hard to be truly ethical and build a world-class business. Now many of you may think this is not so different from the aspirations of any bank in the world? The difference is, they are doing this in a country that is ranked 134th on a list of the most corrupt countries in the world, with only 42 countries lower on the list.
During our work together we had a very fruitful and insightful group discussion about principled leadership. This was one of the best and most authentic exploration of this topic I have ever had the privilege to be part of. I could tell how important this was to the people in the room. It really mattered. This set me thinking as to why they were so much more passionate about this than other clients I have worked with. I have worked on issues to do with ethics, values and compliance with other clients but for the senior leadership team at the Lahore bank this was absolutely central.
My belief is that working at the bank represents being in a place of psychological safety and they have a strong desire to create this not just for themselves but also for their customers. If you live in a country that is seen globally as being dangerous and corrupt, then creating institutions that are visibly not, carries with it a huge prize in terms of customer attraction and talent management. Of course not all businesses in Pakistan make this choice, just as they don’t elsewhere in the world.
The metaphor that came to my mind to help me understand this was that of the “exo” and “endo” skeleton. Crabs have an exoskeleton – its on the outside, we humans have endoskeletons – on the inside. I believe that in the developed world we rely on the exoskeleton provided by the state and civil society to give us the key organising principles as to how to work in a principled, ethical and compliant manner. So we have governing bodies, rules, regulations, inspectorates etc. In countries like Pakistan where the exoskeleton is not really there in an authentic or truly useful way, businesses that are committed to working in an ethical and principled way have to build an endoskeleton, within the organisation, that will enable and support ethical and principled actions.
This for me is a powerful learning from the edgelands of Pakistan. I started to think about the UK’s ethical and principled exoskeleton. The more I thought, the more I think it needs to see a damn good chiropractor given the number of business scandals we have seen in the past 2 or 3 years! Like many western countries, we have had scandals involving banking, energy companies, food adulteration, hospitals, care homes, journalism, the military, and politics – the list could go on and on.
When I returned from Pakistan I emailed a number of friends and colleagues to ask them what were the first 3 words that came to their minds when they thought of Pakistan. See below for a word cloud that represents their responses:
Prior to my visit, work with the bank and meeting other potential clients, my personal tag cloud would have been much the same. However this has changed. Yes, many of the words would still be the same; however new words would be present, even if only in a small way. If you look carefully at the tag cloud below you will see.
My Pakistani edgelands experience has made me pause and think a lot about the challenges decent people face when they are trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstance and the role OD can play to support this. It has also made me reflect on my own country and the way in which we are choosing to either struggle or ignore similar issues. Again I wonder what role OD has to play in this?
So what do you think? I would be particularly interested in your thoughts about edgelands as a place for learning and development and any experience you have had of this. It would also be good to hear your thoughts on what responsibilities you think we as OD practitioners have for supporting the development of ethical “endo” and “exoskeletons” as a means to encouraging principled leadership, healthy organisations and value driven businesses and how we can explicitly go about this?
If all goes well I will be looking forward to going back to Pakistan in early 2014 to continue my work and as with all OD assignments I will be keeping myself open to continue my own learning.