An African Experience in Transformation

Posted by A.C. Ping
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In 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected black President of South Africa he began a process of transformation which was aimed at creating an African renaissance, where all people are treated equally regardless of race, religion or gender. Five years down the road, Nelson Mandela has been replaced by Thabo Mbeki as President, but the government’s agenda still hinges on transformation and reconciliation. Across the country Government Departments, businesses and individuals are being encouraged to let go of the past and transform to create the new, but if the past is no longer relevant what are the new anchor points for creating the future?

One of the biggest Government Departments is the Department of Health, and during 1999 a pilot project was run in the KwaZulu-Natal region to assist the department in undertaking the required transformation. This project involved taking approximately fifty people through two weeks of training which was then followed up with three months of on site coaching.

On the first day of training it became immediately apparent that although the participants had a great wish to transform, they had no access to the skills needed to do so. The Department was rife with factional in fighting and one of the key issues was the cultural clash between Zulu’s, other Bantu people, white South Africans of English background and Afrikaners. The four groups simply had fundamentally different values systems and were continually faced with values dilemmas where they were faced with the question of who was right and who was wrong.

In addition to this, there was considerable ill feeling over the changes that had been wrought in the Department since the elections in 1994. It was perceived by many of the white South Africans that the policy of positive discrimination towards black South Africans was alienating them. Many of these people had a great fear that they would be alienated further and forced to leave. Alternately many of the black South Africans who now found themselves in managerial positions above their white colleagues were having great trouble in managing across the racial divide.

To be able to transform, it was clear that the Department needed a fundamentally different way of working. This different way involved introducing the participants to Ontology, a branch of meta physics which focuses on the study of being.

One way of considering our way of being is to look at the power of language to create our reality. The critical part of this is the ability to distinguish between the three domains of communication – Past, Present and Future. Most people spend the majority of their time creating the Present from the Past instead of from the Future. To be able to transform our way of being we need to be able to learn to create the Present based on the Future we desire.

The 3 Domains of Communication

Our brains operate as self organising patterning systems and as we grow up we accumulate beliefs, judgements, opinions, assumptions and experiences that create these patterns and enable us to make sense of the world. From our past experiences we know what works and what does not work in various situations. From our values we determine what is right and wrong. Additionally our opinions and assumptions guide our behaviour in different situations. As individuals we always act in accordance with our perceptions. That is, if we perceive that the world is a dangerous place we will always act in a way that reflects that perception.

From our Past we create our Present. Our past experiences allow us to know what we are good at and what our weaknesses are. As we grow older and accumulate more experiences we refine what types of actions provide us with success and we become better at judging what action will be most likely to bring us that success in different circumstances. But, in addition to helping us be successful, our past perceptions also limit us and limit the present reality that we are able to create. They create our fixed view of the world.

In creating our present from our past we have the benefit of those experiences but it also means that, faced with a problem, we have only a range of options to choose from, not unlimited possibilities. This is because our past dictates to us what will and won’t work and from that we generate a series of options – we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper – our mind is already travelling down the patterns that we have formed over the years.

In this sense it is a reactive loop, from our past we have opinions and judgements about many things. We make assumptions about certain issues, and to a large extent we believe we ‘know’ everything. This is what forms our fixed view of the world and feeds the fears which in turn create the barriers to change. By acting in the present in a way which is aligned to our fixed view of the world we ensure that it does indeed manifest – we perpetuate our past into the present. This is what the people in the Department of Health were faced with.

Acting in this past/present loop enables us to undertake continuous improvement and to improve upon the systems and processes we are currently using, but it will not allow us to undertake transformation.

Transformation involves ‘being’ a different way. This different way involves creating the present from the future that we desire rather than from our past. We must be able to believe that what we desire exists at some point in the future. We then act to bring that future towards us. By acting in the present/future loop we begin with a clean sheet, completely unencumbered by our past experiences. Instead of a range of options we have infinite possibilities when it comes to taking action – anything becomes possible.

In this sense, the present/future loop is the loop of creative manifestation. It is a proactive loop. To be able to create the reality you wish for requires:-

  • Absolute Clarity - about what it is that you want to create. That is, you must be able to feel it, touch it, smell it and see it.
  • Intention – you must intend to create this reality and have duration of intent. That is, not to continually change your mind about what it is that you want.
  • Belief – you must sincerely believe that it is possible and then act in alignment with the belief that what you are trying to create does exist at some point in the future.

Vision, Mission And Values - The New Anchor Points

To be able to operate in the present/future loop, in an organisation, the anchor points for this future orientation become the Vision, the Mission and the Values. The Vision answers the question of Why ? – Why are we doing this ? Why does this Department exist ? The Mission answers the question of How ? - How are we going to create the Vision ? And the Values answer the question - How are we going to behave together on the journey ?

Once the participants in the Department could see their situation from this perspective they were suddenly able to start changing their way of being. Instead of looking at their relationships from a personality perspective they could now look at them from the perspective of commitment to the Vision. When they found themselves looking at issues from a ‘past’ perspective they were quickly pulled back into the present/future loop by their colleagues. Instead of asking ‘Who’s right and who’s wrong ?’, they now began asking ‘What are we trying to create together ?’. The key for the group now became clarity on the Vision, Mission and Values.

From this point on, a lot of work was done on trying to gain this clarity. Participants were split into groups where they put the Vision into their own words and spoke it back to the group. New projects and activities were looked at with regard to their alignment to delivering the Vision and the Mission. The Values were also considered from a behavioural perspective and brainstorming was undertaken to generate a list of actions which would support the Values.

Instead of looking at a problem, considering what had worked in the past and then choosing from one of the options, becoming future orientated allowed the group to consider what it is that they wanted and then to ask how they were going to get there. In this way the organisation, and its people, could become proactive around the Vision, rather than reactive to circumstances. By using the Vision, the Mission and the Values as the anchor points for action, the organisation always has a set of reference points to enable it to determine what it is that it wants. It knows what the destination of the journey is, how it is going to get there and what types of values will guide its behaviour along the way.

By making these dreams explicit it has allowed people in the

Department to become truly empowered to create the new. Indeed, as Lawrence of Arabia once said,

"Those who dream by night in the dark recesses of their minds
wake in the day to find that all was vanity;
but the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
for they may act their dreams with open eyes,
and make it possible."

--Lawrence of Arabia


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