By W.A. Wijewardena –
Now strategy in print form
The PIM Don and FT columnist, Prof Ajantha Dharmasiri, has released a collection of articles he had penned to newspaper columns over a decade in printed form under the title Strategic Strides: Serene Sharing for Sustained Success. There are 30 articles in all on different aspects of strategy in this collection. They have been rewritten and updated for publishing in printed form and therefore, readers will not miss anything that relates to this subject in the current context. Dharmasiri has drawn his experience as a teacher of strategy and management for many decades in Sri Lanka as well as abroad. Hence, the general readers who are addressed by this volume stand to benefit much from these articles.
Original strategy relates to military campaigns
Strategy comes from, Dharmasiri informs us, the Greek word, strategios meaning the art of planning used by a military leader for attacking an enemy. Though it comes from this military origin, today it is relevant every sphere of human action that needs careful planning for attaining success. Therefore, it does not matter, it is relevant to a nation, a government, a business, or a simple household. It is specifically relevant to Sri Lanka today because the country is going through the worst of its economic catastrophes in all its recorded history. With inflation hitting our real income on one side, and loss of output due to unemployment or negative economic growth on the other, we all have become poorer than before. If we are to get out of this malaise, it is necessary for all of us to employ appropriate strategies. Therefore, strategy is a must.
Strides: Long walks toward desired direction
But then, why strides? Dharmasiri tells us again that strides are walks with long decisive steps in a desired direction. That direction is toward the success which we wish to have in the future. The future is not known today and therefore it is simply a dream. Our challenge is to make the dream a reality. That is why strategies are needed. If we do not have strategies, as the Chinese military expert Sun Tzu has told us, we will have unnecessary conflicts. What is to be done is to avoid such conflicts in advance.
To get the best result in strategic strides, it is necessary to focus on four actions starting from letter ‘R’, coded as 4Rs. The first R is to recognize the salient features of people at diverse workplaces. The second R is to reflect on the main challenges associated with managing people of diverse backgrounds to attain the expected results. The third R to relate the strategies which one learns to issues in life. The fourth R is to reinforce those strategies into one’s system like saving to a hard disk so that one can continue to draw on them. This is familiar ground for anyone who has done lectures at PIM. Those are basic parameters which PIM has insisted for lecturers to deliver lectures and students to make learning happen in them. These are in fact known as mnemonics which help anyone to remember what he or she has learned.
Diverse views of strategy
There is no consensus among strategist theorists as to how one should approach the issue. It is perhaps like describing an elephant by six blind people. Each blind man, not seeing the total picture of an elephant, tries to describe it from what he has just grabbed of the beast. Since this analysis is not complete, we cannot get to an elephant just by adding each description together. What does this mean? Those who plan to strategize should strive to form the big picture in their dreams to see the interconnectedness and interdependence in all natural systems. This is known as the vision from a top of a mountain. One who is at the top can see the scenery all around him. One who is at the bottom can see only what his naked eye can see. Hence, Dharmasiri warns us that we should not attempt at strategizing with only partial information. Our information set should be comprehensive enabling us to see not just what we can see but what is to be foreseen. If this ‘foreseen’ factor is ignored, the results that we get will be disastrous.
Wrong strategy of trying to convert agriculture to organic overnight
This can be explained drawing on an example from Sri Lanka’s recent history. The previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration had the strategy of converting Sri Lanka’s agriculture to organic farming overnight in a bid to provide toxic-free foods to the nation. To attain this goal, its planned action was to ban the importation of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It was expected that when farmers were denied of these essential inputs, they would compulsorily go for organic fertilizers helping a rapid transformation of the agriculture to organic practices. But the big picture told the opposite story. The current improved agriculture practices were based on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and therefore, it could not immediately go for the alternative forms of inputs. The result was the decline in agricultural output, loss of income by farmers, and the country heading toward a major food crisis. This catastrophe would not have happened had Sri Lanka made its strategic strides with the big picture in mind. This was not only bad strategy, but bad economics too as highlighted by the French economist Frederic Bastiat in 1850. He said that if an economic who sees only what is seen and fails to see what is to be foreseen is a bad economist. By the same token, a good economist is one who sees both what is seen and what is to be foreseen.
People are the greatest asset
How do we include people in our strategic strides? Dharmasiri says that people are the greatest asset which a business or a nation has. In today’s knowledge-based economy systems, nothing can be compared to the power of the human brain, nicknamed as the necktop. Drawing on Lynda Gratton’s book on Living Strategy, Dharmasiri says that the only route to improved performance is by placing those who have a necktop at the center of strategic decision-making. That has both meaning and purpose for our ultimate customers, again human beings. Therefore, strategy formulation and execution should be handled by competent people. This is very much relevant to crisis-ridden Sri Lanka today. It has become a beggar nation that keeps on floating out of the handouts to be granted by friendly nations and multilateral institutions. That will help Sri Lanka to just avoid a bigger catastrophe. The way to get out of it is to select a group of competent people, use their necktops, and design several paths of strategic strides to take the country to a quick economic recovery. This is what Japan did when it was devastated by the drop of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the World War II. With the help of knowledge, first imitated from the Western world but later developed inhouse, Japan was able to make a quick turnaround within about a decade. So, Sri Lanka does not have to give up the dream of a good future at all. What is necessary is to map out all strategic strides with people of improved necktops at the center.
COVID-19 offered golden opportunities
Dharmasiri says that the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic provided a golden opportunity to Sri Lankans who were forced to work from home or away from their usual workstations. In normal situations, being away from the workstation is being on vacation. However, this is not vacation in the normal sense. It is simply a working vacation or workation, as he has termed it. Here, family, work, and society are connected. To get the best out of it, Dharmasiri says, there should be inner and outer harmony, a pleasing accord with spirit, body, and mind. By making this designation, are we moving back to what is being preached by religion? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because all major religions have talked about it. No, because modern psychological managerial practices have developed them beyond the boundaries of religion. A case in point is the emotional intelligence, now further expanded as social intelligence. The latter is the capacity to communicate and establish social relationships with empathy, on one side, and assertiveness, on the other, and is an extension of the earlier developed concept of emotional intelligence.
A basic feature of the world that we live in is that it is paradoxical having both pleasant experiences and unpleasant ones. Any strategist will have to work through these extremes. Dharmasiri calls it paradox navigation, a strategic stride in which one will steer his vessel amidst destructive tensions. It does not matter whether we are concerned with a nation, government, business, or simply household, we also should work through these tensions. When doing so, Dharmasiri says that we should be concerned about not the traditionally woven human resource but the human potential. Human potential management contrasts from human resource management in the sense that human resources are just a given stock that cannot be increased or decreased without delivering a negative shock to the economy. In this background, it is important for strategists to bring in strides that enable the management to change the structure of the economy. Potentials are then changed to accommodate another important policy direction that accommodates possibilities. This is not only common to business firms. It is relevant to the modern day governments as well. Sri Lanka’s authorities who are faced with the worst of economic catastrophes in its recorded history are required to do ‘paradox navigation’ with appropriate strategic strides opening the potential of the country to make a quick turnaround in the system while exploiting all the possibilities available. If the country misses it this time, there will not be another opportunity available.
Needed future competencies
With the advancement of science and technology, specifically the information and communication technology, old jobs have become redundant and new jobs have taken their place. This process is a must for the development of societies and was named ‘creative destruction’ by the Austrian American economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in a publication titled Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, originally released in 1942. The countries that will prepare its people for these new jobs will succeed, while those who fail to do so will lose. This is relevant to Sri Lanka too. In a chapter titled Future Competencies for Sri Lankans: Rhetoric and Reality, Dharmasiri has looked at this issue. While noting that future belongs to those who create it, Dharmasiri says that the world which we are going to join is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In this context, the future competencies – defined as measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors critical for successful job performance – are also changing rapidly. Dharmasiri has put these competencies to a mnemonic called ABCDE standing for Analytical thinking, Business Savviness, Creative Mindset, Digital Diligence, and Emotional Maturity. The important requirement is, as Dharmasiri tells us, we cannot postpone the acquisition of these competencies to tomorrow. They should be acquired today itself. However, a limiting factor is that these competencies also change every day. Hence, it is an eternal battle which we should undertake to keep us updated of the future requirements. If we succeed, so will the workplaces in which we work, and the nation that is made up of those workplaces. If we are not successful, our challenge is, as Dharmasiri says, ‘perform or depart’. Since ‘departing’ is not an option, we should perform and to perform, we should equip ourselves with the necessary competencies. There is no choice for us, in that respect.
Strategic Strides a must read
I have covered only some salient strategic strides which Dharmasiri has presented in his publication. All the thirty strategic strides are important and cannot be ignored. A good reader will find it absorbing when he starts reading it. It is a must read for everyone, whether he is at school, at the university, or at a workplace. In my view, Ajantha Dharmasiri’s enterprise in bringing these articles in printed form is commendable.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com