Being smart and saying the right things is not enough

By David J. Abbott

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.”

What are some of the key factors that shape doing business in Kenya and East Africa ? And, how can one can compete to be up there with the market leaders ?

Get in 10,000 of hours of focussed practice in your area and you will become a master.  Strange thing is you will find that once you reached a threshold, as in IQ,  anything additional can at times not make a difference.  And, it might be good to learn Chinese.   Better to be street smart, than book smart, realise that the bog standard is not enough, be conscientious of time and just get that little bit better every day to compete.

Factors that shape business on the street

10,000 hour rule

What is greatest pop group in living memory ?  Or, what individual transformed the computer world and you probably use their product every day ?  Answer would be the Beatles and Bill Gates respectively.  But how did they come to get to their pinnacle position of icons of their age ?  Was it just luck, being in the right place at the right time, and cutting a some leverage point business deals ?

Canadian writer, Malcolm Gladwell author of The Tipping Point wrote a book about Outliers.  An outlier is defined as “1) something that is situated way from, or classed differently from a main or related body, 2) a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.”  Clearly,  the Beatles and Bill Gates are outliers. Beatles got their break between 1960 and 1962 when they travelled to Hamburg in Germany and played in clubs seven days a week for months on end, almost non stop, racking up almost astronomical hours of practice.

In the old days, say in 1980, computer programming was quite tedious.  You wrote computer programs on cardboard punch cards using key punch machine, where a program would consist of hundreds or thousands of these cards, stacked one on another.   Once complete, you took them to an operator who put them through the  mainframe computer for you.  One mistake and you had to go back to square one and find it. 

Bill Gates went to the upmarket Lakeside high school in Seattle that by some quirk of fate in 1968 had installed  a ASR – 33 teletype machine with a direct link to a mainframe computer that gave Gates hours and hours of programming experience, without the hassle of going via the cumbersome punch card route.  And, then he later did the same in the University of Washington  again racking up an amazing amount of programming time for a teenager. 

Turns out in whatever field of endeavour, music, computer programming, medical research, playing chess  or just plain business there seems to be a tipping point once one reaches 10,000 hours of practice and experience.  10,000 hours of focus in one activity is a big chunk of time, roughly 1.14 years.  Gladwell’s thesis  is that after 10,000 hours, one becomes a master. 

Being smart is not enough

Albert Einstein who reconceptualised our world today with his theory of relativity had an IQ [intelligence quotient] of 150. Ye there are people with IQ’s of 190  who just never seemed to make and are stuck in oblivion.  IQ of 100 is average, you probably need a IQ of 115 to do graduate school work, but it turns out once you get to an IQ of 120 having a higher IQ does not seem to turn into any real world advantage.  This same principle, applies in business, you just need to be smart enough, you do not need to be the smartest.

Chinese investment

Two of the greatest economic impacts on Sub Saharan Africa in the last 15 years are said to be the introduction of the mobile phone and Chinese investments.  Some schools of thought would suggest that Chinese “private sector” investments [really supported by the Chinese government] are greater than all the ODA, official development assistance flows combined.   In Kenya, one sees the impact of Chinese investment on places like the Thika Road and back – end ICT infrastructure that Huawei and ZTE do for major  mobile service providers.   Forget learning French or German, better to start learning Cantonese or Mandarin.

Question is, given all these factors, how does one compete ? 

Getting to the starting line

Change as a constant and the ability to evolve

“The only constant is change itself” said Heraclitus roughly 2,500 years ago.  If you don’t change and adapt with the times your dead in the water, the equivalent of death by Power Point.

A businesses ability to evolve is critical.  Case in point is Safaricom which now earns a significant proportion of it’s income from data related services.  “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent.  It is the one that is most adaptable to change”  said Charles Darwin. Being book smart is nice, one can have all the qualifications and degrees and letters behind ones name, but at the end of the day, what is critical is to be street smart.   [It is getting to the point in Kenya where everyone and their uncle, has the title of Doctor, where in, for instance, North America, the only people who would be called Doctor would be a physician, dentist, veterinarian, or very senior, probably a touch older and conservative academic.]

The “bog standard”

“Bog standard” are the words my Irish, Oxford graduate friend,  Jed, uses to describe the minimum acceptable standard.  It is not that there is anything wrong with the bog standard, but it does “wow” anyone, it is just enough to get by.  It is the “same old, same old” pretty predicable. For example, when you look at companies and organisations vision, mission and value statements in various sectors they are remarkable the same.  For instance, values there will generally be something on professionalism, teamwork and integrity.  Again, nothing wrong  with this.  It is just the bare minimum to get by.

Just show up

“80% of success is just showing up”  is Woody Allen’s thought.  And,one might add, show up on time.  [Don’t blame the traffic.   Kenya has roughly 1.5 million vehicles, which in many ways is a small number, catch is they all seem to clustered together in the same place, at the same time.]  Whatever you do, think a few steps ahead, and just make sure you get to your meetings on time.

Compete on time

A source of  competitive advantage that is not often mentioned is time.  Don’t think Michael Porter even mentions it in his classic 1985  book of the same name on the business strategy.   Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking talks about there being two dimensions to reality.  Time and physical space, so if one has not mastered time, it suggests an air of unreality.   If a customer or client makes a request, get back to them just about right away ?   If your  e mail travels on fibre optic cable it is travelling at the speed of light, to which there is nothing faster, unless those at the CERN facility can tell us a neutrino can move faster.  If a message is travelling to you in a micro second, why would it take a few days, [or perhaps even never] to reply ?  Often you can find the people with fanciest ICT gadgetry are the worst to respond to e mails.

Do a little bit every day

Imagine a sales person, whose revenues have dropped, they are  not doing very well.  Root of the problem is that Sam the sales person is not getting out in front the potential customer enough, not enough sales calls and follow-ups in a day.  

Sam knows that the target is 6 sales meetings in a day, yet recently he has been lucky if he has one in a day.  Better Sam targets 3 in day in the following week, and then 4, back to the six, than make the jump.  

This doing a little bit every day, or in Sam’s case every week, works wonders and workable.  Japanese call it Kaizen, all these small bit by bit incremental improvements add up.  While the increase is arithmetic, often it seems that once you reach a tipping point, then the impact seems to be exponential.

David is a management consultant  www.acatalyst.co.ke E mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article appears in the February issue of Think Business.  

aCatalyst Consulting was formed to provide leading edge practical advice to clients in Kenya and East Africa. Our goal is to set a standard of excellence by working together with leaders to build winning organisations. Our intention is to work with clients make a significant difference in their performance.

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