Be flexible enough to change

September 11, 2011 11:05 am 0 comments

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We often do not see the world for what it is. We build our own views of it and the worry is that when we become fixated on a certain world view, we limit ourselves from the millions of experiences out there.

IT is often said, if war is God’s way of teaching mankind geography, recession is His way of teaching us economy. Many of the world’s crises tell a story. The events of the last two years are not altogether new. They are just the same old events drawn in a new environment.

A servant of King Solomon would repeatedly say to the King during good as well as bad times, “This, too, shall pass”. It was his way of keeping the King grounded, knowing that history always moved in spirals. Ignoring history condemns one to repeating it, albeit in a different time and space.

The truth that rears at every crisis which has hit our land in whatever form is that, when it happens (the crisis, that is), our realities can no longer be the same again. We can no longer return to “The good old days”. Our “normals” are forcibly re-defined. Our constants become so nebulous that we are pressed, voluntarily or otherwise, to seek new definitions of our new status and realities.

An example is the now well-publicised and remarkable remarks by former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, before the House Committee on Oversight and Governance Reform in 2008, after the Lehman Brothers’ collapse and the foreclosures.

Greenspan, an acclaimed free-market card-holder, had staunchly rooted for the free market and was often quoted as saying that free markets led to the best solutions and any constraint would have disastrous effects on capitalism.

But on Oct 23, 2008, a pale and pained Greenspan said: “I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak. I was shocked because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

The “flaw” was not the result of tardy data, nor can one argue that no one saw it coming as it were. The “flaw” was due to a warped world view of an organised market in an increasingly unorganised world. It was led by a “Gigo” (garbage in garbage out) argument, where the model was just fine but the data and assumption of how the world worked were not.

No matter our ascension and experience, breadth of vision and designs, and mind-blowing theories forged as the new mantra, none would see the rightful effect if our own world view remained bottled in time and space. Poignant in any crisis is that, the thinking which landed us the problem cannot be the one that will get us out of it.

The “flaw” as described by Greenspan reminds us that only when tragedy strikes our own homes and families in the form of illness, job loss, bankruptcy and foreclosures do we wonder if we have been drinking from a poisoned chalice of warped world view. Is everything we once believed in or were taught to believe in, what we should also believe in now? Or rather, is that today’s reality? As painful and soul-wrenching as these questions can be to governments and businesses, they are questions that warrant attention even if they do not reach conclusions, and if left unattended, could unleash repetition of history.

In 1993, Bill Murray starred in the movie Groundhog Day, in which he played Phil Connors, an egocentric TV weatherman who grudgingly covers the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney.

The plot of the movie revolves around how Connors wakes to the same day, again and again and again. The town remains the same, the people identical to the day before. The strain drives him to numerous suicide attempts until one day, he decides to re-examine his life and priorities. The movie unveils how he struggles to find meaning and purpose in his life as he learns what works and what does not. He places all attention in altering his view of the world based on his own personal reality, as his external reality is fixed. He transforms his thoughts and values. He transforms what was the worst day of his life into his best day. The only things that change in this transformation are his thoughts and actions.

There is a similar analogy in the science-fiction movie The Matrix, when Keanu Reeves, a computer programmer who moonlights as the hacker Neo, has the following conversation with Spoon Boy, a child he meets in his journey of self-search.

Spoon Boy says: “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realise the truth.”

Neo: “What truth?”

Spoon Boy responds: “There is no spoon. Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

The “spoon” is a metaphor for our fixed views of “reality”.

Rarely do we observe the world for what it is. It is much simpler to build a perceived order, load our preconceptions and baggage onto them to the point that they are heavy, rigid and unbendable. Reality is not permanent. It is not immoveable. When we become fixated on a certain world view, we literally fence ourselves from the million of experiences we can get from the brilliant shades of grey.

In our every quest to great change, we must not miss the small but important determinants that would manifest change in its every element.

As Malaysia prepares to become a high-income economy, our focus must reach out to the seemingly peripheral determinants for sustainability of that Vision.

Whilst the resounding determinant of high income is gross national income (GNI), and all of us must contribute and be religious to that in our actions, we must not lose sight of the people who will make and sustain that GNI.

High income does not relate only to leather office occupants or Ivy League graduates. It must apply to “every man and his dog”, as is said in the colloquial English term.

Reform agendas of any kind must address the subliminal structural issues. Whether in public or private sectors, media, non-governmental organisations and even the public, we all touch lives.

Hans Rosling, a Swedish medical doctor and co-founder of Gapminder Foundation, in his presentation “Hans Rosling’s 200 Countries and 200 Years”, described how countries once grouped down in a low-income and low-life expectancy column in 1810 saw a change with the industrial revolution of the early 20th century.

The social structure of the world transformed. Asia and Latin America caught up with Europe and the US. Countries once placed within the low-income, low-expectancy cluster rose to the top end of the chart of high-expectancy, high-income cluster.

While this convergence was great news, the change in global structure took a blow on human psychology, especially in the once-developed countries which today rank on par with, if not trail the once-impoverished nations.

The human effects of recession and losing competitiveness are seen in the US, Japan and Europe.

The rise of many of the Asian, Latin American and Middle East countries is often attributed to the growth in their middle class. Middle-class parents have fewer kids. They hold dear to such values like prudence, ambition, justice, freedom, order, moderation and continual self-improvement. And these, we must address!

This evolution in global landscape is affecting how countries are run and how people behave. In our reform agenda, the subtle and subliminal effects of human psychology are often grossly missed.

If the map of reform does not comport with ground realities, we can be straddled by the perfect storm by way of market failures and human catastrophes.

In this renewed world order, countries with larger population could wield greater power simply because they own the consuming ability.

The West’s monopoly on capital and technology is now shifting to Asia. China, once known as the imitation country, is clocking large patents and fast becoming the innovation country.

Consumers in the West, traditionally known for their spending, are saving and we are seeing the reverse in Asia. Asians are spending more than they used to, even in Japan!

These are mammoth changes of trends and lifestyles. They are changes that will have a resultant effect on human psychology and society development.

Our every solution and service can no longer be a one-hit wonder. We often content ourselves by seeing success in one segment of our business when there are numerous areas crying out for change and simplicity.

Artistes like the Beatles, Pavarotti, Michael Jackson, P. Ramlee and Sudirman were able to transcend generations and localities even with the rise of new entrants. Why? Because they made music that resonated with people of all times.

Why do we still listen to music made some 30, 40, 50 years ago and call them “Evergreens”? Because they still move us even as we may have long moved on from the ground realities of the 30 years. Because the lyrics and the rhythms still hit a chord in today’s realities.

They were not the one-hit wonders who served a moment in time, or even a generation. They served many generations. They filled our purpose beyond just a moment, nurtured us through many of life’s phases.

The service we offer needs to do the same. We cannot gloat of victory when we simplify one aspect of our service or one part of our organisation. The transformation of the public service requires all ministries and departments at all levels – federal, state and local – to move in tandem and in concert. The global competitiveness of Malaysia can only happen when both the public and private sectors reorganise correspondingly.

The success and failures of our reforms are rooted in our world views, and anchored in how open we are to drastically changing our ways for the times. It resides in the public and private sectors’ abilities and preparedness to move pass limiting agendas of “bottom line” or “for profit only”, to the larger social and development order.

Great men have been greeted by great failures when they allowed the Groundhog Day-syndrome into their lives. Great nations have seen staggering failures when they were stifled by The Spoon mindset. No team can enjoy continual success if it keeps playing the same game for a different time. The 2010 World Cup gave us good insight into this. The greatness of any action, society and country, I am persuaded, is made by the humility of seeing the world for what it is and steering the sails to suit, even if at times, we may be sailing into the winds.

The opportunity and undertaking are ours. Fortune more often favours the bold, the one with enough courage and humility to say, “My model and assumptions no longer work, we need to simply work with new ones.”

> This is an excerpt of an address to the New Economic Advisory Council and Australian Public Service Commis­sion on Jan 27, 2011


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