Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

Crib Notes on Golden State Warrior’s Collaborative Culture

Even if the Golden State Warriors lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, they have clearly established an extraordinary culture of performance and collaboration. Kevin Arnovitz outlined some elements of this culture in his excellent piece, “Fun and games: Warriors winning culture faces biggest test.” In particular:

An inclusive culture that values original (sometimes contrarian) thinking:

People up and down the Warriors’ org chart tout collaboration as the defining quality of the team’s culture. As with the Spurs, one is judged not on agreeability but on the ability to present original thinking — even contrarianism — agreeably.

Deliberative decisions and lots of communication. I particularly liked this story about doing their due diligence on Shaun Livingston:

“Decisions are made collaboratively,” Kerr said. “There’s a ton of discussion that goes into what we’re going to do. Any decision is discussed at length. It’s healthy, and we get a lot of different points of view.”

“Our communication happens on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis,” Myers said. “It’s rare that anyone ever goes off in a silo, even me, and comes into the office one day and says, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ We’re having conversations organically, and they have a rhythm to them. We’re all formulating thoughts in a daily flow. We call each other to chat the way you’d call a buddy to check in.”

Joy and work-life balance as values:

Joy is constantly cited as a guiding principle within the organization…. The coaching staff under Kerr has adopted a mantra: “Either get s— done or go have fun.” Work is honored, and it’s vital to the development of both the team and the individual players…. But work-life balance is sacrosanct. Preserving that joy is not just a byproduct; it is an objective unto itself. Nobody in Oakland is setting up a cot in the video room, and nobody would think better of you if you did.

Diverse, sometimes unconventional thinkers and interests with a learning mindset. The Warriors have a 10% rule to encourage personal pursuits.

“Failure” Is Part of the Game

One of my favorite work maxims is: If you’re not fucking up, you’re not trying hard enough.

I try to drive this home with all of my teams in all of my projects. But what does it actually mean, and how do you actually create a culture that encourages this?

Baseball offers some beautiful insights into this. In baseball, if you manage to hit the ball successfully 30 percent of the time over the course of your career, you are considered a great hitter, quite possibly a Hall of Famer. That means you’re “failing” 70 percent of the time. But no one thinks of it that way, because hitting a tiny baseball coming at you at 90 miles per hour from 60 feet away is freakin’ hard.

If you’re going to adopt this attitude in your own work, you have to be clear about what a good success rate actually is, and you have to celebrate when you achieve that rate. In Silicon Valley, for example, most VCs are in the high-risk, high-reward business. Many VCs cite a 10 percent hit rate as success. If they hit that rate, they celebrate.

With some of my projects, I go so far as to add, “Failure of effort” to my checklist of success. For example, in my second Changemaker Bootcamp pilot, I had one workout that went horribly awry. I actually checked that off as a success indicator, because it gave me confidence that I was really testing the model rather than playing it safe.

The other important thing to do is to differentiate between different kinds of failure. I like to think of it as failure of neglect versus failure of effort. One of my favorite coaches in baseball always says that he’ll never complain about a player getting thrown out trying to steal, because it’s a failure that stems from effort, not neglect. (Stat geeks object vociferously to this strategy, but that’s a topic for another day.)

With my teams, I try to go out of my way to reward people for failure of effort, because I want to encourage people to follow their instincts and take risks. I’m not always good at this, especially in high-stakes situation.

Last July, we had a terrible Delta Dialogues meeting, which was documented in our final report. There was one moment in particular when one of the facilitators advocated strongly for a particular move that the rest of us did not feel good about. I supported it anyway, because I understood his reasoning and because he felt so strongly about it. The move didn’t work, and he felt awful about it.

In our debrief, I tried to state as clearly as possible that, if I had to do it again, I would do exactly the same thing. We were dealing with a lot of complexity, and we had to make strong moves if we were going to be successful. That meant we were going to make mistakes, and we needed to be okay with mistakes of effort. I wanted my teammate to understand that I supported him and believed in him, and a mistake of effort wasn’t going to change that.

Still, I’m not sure I conveyed that message successfully, because I was absolutely dejected by the overall outcome, and I was probably sending very mixed messages. In particular, I didn’t think we had prepared adequately for the meeting — failures of neglect — and I was very angry about that.

In the end, it all worked out. We were ultimately honest with ourselves about what we controlled and what we didn’t, and we made a lot of adjustments based on what had happened. In a followup meeting two months later, my colleague made the exact same move. This time, it was perfect, and that meeting ended up being the best one of the whole project.

The key to doing anything hard is to strive for perfection, but to expect a certain amount of failure. In practice, this is hard, especially when you’re a high achiever used to a certain level of success. Your ability to embed this mindset into structures (such as your success checklist) will help you do this more effectively, but at the end of the day, it’s all about practice.