Success, It’s Not a Lucky Coincidence

By Marc Fong

“In such a system, no one – not even the Government – can act as a single point of control”

Systems in countries, from the third world to highly developed nations, are complex. Whether it is addressing economic value chains, education, health, or other kinds of systems, governments must work with a fragmented, diverse set of stakeholders with various capabilities and often conflicting goals. They typically must contend with issues such as a disparate “consumer” base (the public), supply-chain infrastructure, corruption and political intervention.

Compounding this, the various institutions and agencies of the government typically work within their own corner of the system, unable to see or optimise that whole. In such a system, no one—not even the government—can act as a single point of control. This complexity can be seen even in corporations and organisations – albeit on a smaller scale. Leadership is often focused on long-term goals whilst members of the leadership team have different priorities depending on their portfolio and stakeholders.

In an age of social media and real-time information, priorities can also change in the blink of an eye. Politicians worry about pacifying an electorate while business leaders are answerable to their shareholders. While stakeholder engagement and management are critical aspects of leadership, having a set of constantly shifting priorities is guaranteed to stifle delivery.

Developing the True North

The most successful examples of delivery share a common starting point – one where the leadership of a country or organisation have agreed that urgent intervention is needed to ensure delivery of a common purpose that they will commit to above other interests. Leaders need to acknowledge the burning platform, the raison d’être for transformation that they commit to regardless of their individual agendas.

In short, clarity and alignment from the leadership form the foundation for which to kickstart transformation.

Transformation must begin at the very top – the Prime Minister or CEO must make a clear statement that he or she acknowledges the problem and is willing to commit the resources (time, manpower and financial) to transform and ensure compliance from the rest of the leadership.  In addition to this, the leader must have a clear vision of his end-goal or ‘True North’, a single overarching goal that becomes the mission for the nation or organisation.

The leader must then communicate this to his or her leadership. In some cases, the True North can be amended or further refined based on input from the leadership but the end-result is universal acknowledgement from the leadership on the scale of the problem, the urgency of it and the True North that they will prioritise ahead of their own political or individual agendas.

Malaysia’s example

When Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak assumed the role of Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2009, he was faced with an economy that had stagnated as a result of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and further suffered from the 2008 Global Economic Crisis, jeopardising the nation’s aspirations to become a fully developed nation by 2020.

Over a series of 5 retreats, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet agreed upon and set the direction for the National Transformation Programme (NTP), for which PEMANDU was mandated to performance manage and facilitate. This is where we introduced our 8 Steps of Transformation methodology, a radical and structured approach incorporating clear diagnosis, planning, implementation, execution and feedback; in a sequence which ensures transparency and accountability during transformation.

The 8 Steps begin with setting the True North, or strategic direction, for transformation, which is what we facilitated during the Cabinet Retreats in 2009.  Workshops or retreats are often ideal platforms to obtain clarity and alignment as they provide a dedicated location and time for the leadership to have a discussion. Preparation is extensive to ensure the best-informed decisions — at a national level, key institutions such as ministries and their agencies are engaged with the objective of obtaining data as well as developing models and scenarios. Participants are engaged ahead of time and briefed so they can come prepared with data-driven points of view.

Our facilitation of the process allowed for frank discussions, reducing the risk of hidden considerations and internal agendas. The role of the facilitators is to ensure conversations are healthy (i.e. not dominated by a single party or point of view) as well as to ensure that the discussions are data-driven.

Driving Transformation

The result of the Cabinet Retreats was agreement on a ‘True North’ for Malaysia – the achievement of high-income nation status (as defined by the World Bank) by 2020 – as well the principles of the NTP: growth that was sustainable (by reducing dependence on public investment and diversifying the sources of economic growth) and inclusive (ensuring Malaysians at all levels benefited from the transformation).

The ‘True North’ for Malaysia was then refined into its final form, a target expressed in Gross National Income (GNI) which provided clarity for subsequent implementers – every initiative and project was assessed and prioritised on its ability to contribute to GNI. This resulted in a decision-making process that was both significantly accelerated and transparent. By publicly committing to these targets and principles in a series of strategic engagements, Dato’ Sri Najib and his Cabinet made themselves fully accountable for delivery.

It is important to note that the Cabinet did not make this decision in isolation – while the leadership remained accountable, throughout the process existing institutions were engaged to provide input and data ensuring a fully informed decision.

Since the Cabinet Workshops in 2009, Malaysia’s NTP has doubled growth in private investments and consistently ranked well in global indices. The gap between GNI per capita and the World Bank’s high-income threshold has narrowed significantly from 33% in 2010 to 20% in 2017 whilst both mean and median incomes for the bottom 40% of income levels has grown at an annual rate of over 12% from 2009 to 2014.

Our 8-Step methodology has also since been adopted by other countries around the world, such as Tanzania, India and Russia, while we continue to work with governments and the private sector in new markets. However, none of this could be achieved without completing our first step of transformation: developing clarity at the top and defining the True North.