Dear Dalitso

Everyday lessons for tomorrow

No Shortcuts to Progress

November 13, 2023
Letter #

The title is borrowed from Gorman Hyden’s classic on development challenges in Africa. In the process of building anything you will realize that there are indeed no short cuts to progress. We have come up with all sorts of hacks- but truth be told building an organization is not an overnight process and cannot be hacked. It is a complex process involving people (with different personalities and skills), financial resources (from various sources with different reporting/accountability requirement), a set of ideas, processes, and ways of working. These are stand-alone pieces that need to be brought together into a symphony.

What I have learnt over time:

Culture overrides strategy- or as some will put it ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Strategy is important but its success will depend on organizational culture. At times we are fuzzy about what we mean by organizational culture. I will summarize organizational culture as the way we conduct ourselves in our business. It includes the way we relate with each other as a team, work together and our leadership style(s). It extends to how we engage with our external stakeholders and how they view us.  It is those unspoken words and ways in how we interact with each other.  We have embraced the need to be nimble as part of organisational culture.  Ensuring that we can move with speed by avoiding complex bureaucracy arrangements and making sure we keep things simple. One of our strengths is that we are constantly connected with each other and can quickly gather to brainstorm on problems quickly.  We have embraced the idea of being nimble to an extent of changing course when we sense a dead end or that previous assumptions that led us on a certain path no longer holds.

Strategy has its place in the organisation- I am quick not to dismiss the role/relevance of strategy. Instead, strategy is the second priority after organizational culture. We may all be woke- excited about work but we still need a compass. Strategy provides us with the rationale for existence, a specific set of problems we exist to fix and the tools of work we use. It is easier to measure progress made vis a vis a strategic plan. As long as we remember that the success of a strategy depends upon a healthy organizational culture. As the topic suggests there are no shortcuts to progress. Now and again, we face new challenges.

COVID-19 and the related restrictions challenged us on both the organizational culture front and the strategy implementation. How do you keep a coherent team when you can’t gather. Does technology help? We tried. We even had a virtual book reading club every Friday afternoon at the peak of the pandemic inspired lockdowns. Our strategy also makes assumptions about resources. There is the assumption that we will secure resources as per plan. It hardly turns out that way. In our five years of existence, we have had to implement the strategy within a context of scarcity. Team capacities can be unfairly stretched at times. Ours is a fast paced and high-octane organization so it’s easy to get into the burn out zone without even realizing. Besides burn out there are also moments when the task is just over our heads in terms of capacity. We are growing. At times we have had to secure service of short-term contractors. It works in the short term but that again is not a good short cut. We still have a lot to learn. There are indeed ‘no shortcuts to progress’.

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