We can only create jobs in the next six months by transforming the economy. This means change. But to achieve that change, we must overcome our collective fear. We must reach out to a populace that has been burnt many times; and offer that reassurance that our most vulnerable are crying out for.
Change is often praised and rarely practised. That is because each decision to change means weighing uncertain chances of loss and gain.
The scales, however, are weighted by the thumb of fear. Our bias against loss, honed by tens of thousands of years of hiding from growls from the dark, is deeply ingrained. Most people would rather their lives stay stock-still than risk their being worse. We stay stuck in the cave.
Prof Winston Dookeran, who knows a thing or two about changing behaviour, whether it be an oil-price collapse or a coup, has cut through to the heart of the matter: we must fix inertia or our practical efforts will be futile.
And it is fear, plain and simple, that weighs the balance in favour of inertia.
That is why things don’t get done. That is why we don’t ask for more work, make the cold call, pitch the investor, approve the application or launch the project. We’re afraid of rejection, blacklisting, or losing votes. We’re afraid, in fact, of making errors of any kind.
The current pandemic has shown us that failure to change is deadly. We have more to fear from standing still than moving. Covid19 has sadly forced change for the worst hit. But we still haven’t internalised the economic shock we’re in. I’m afraid too – that despite the best efforts of the leaders crafting a roadmap for the future – we will return to stasis, only to be buried by inertia as our cave collapses.
We run the real risk of encountering the same old blocks to change if policymakers cannot communicate the urgency of change to voters on the ground and to the people who must execute any new plans. We need to have a clear, frank conversation with a people that are not easily fooled and in a country that is the least trusting in the entire world, according to the 2014 World Values Survey.
To win the trust of a sceptical public we must first answer questions and comfort worries. We must first acknowledge people’s concerns. They are real – even if overstated. A terrible mistake I have often made is to stress the potential gains of some policy, when the true key to agreement is to credibly assure the person I am convincing that they will be protected from any downside.
We must appeal to self-interest. The people who control the levers (or who can put a cog in the levers) must understand how this will personally improve their lives in the short term. This is true even if the appeal is to the selfless – altruism’s price is often the warm fuzzy feeling of philanthropic content.
Finally, we don’t have to convince everyone all at once. Society is a spectrum of people ranging from visionaries to laggards. We should borrow a page from that Silicon Valley bible, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore: start with the people who already agree with you and the dominos will fall. As good ole’ US president Harry Truman said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
The changes required to adapt to the post-covid19 world may sound complex. That is because they are. But we can speak simply and communicate effectively. Technological change, for example, though essential, still sounds baffling and robotic.
Here are two phrases that say the same thing. The first: “We will create a sustainable technological ecosystem to enable catalytic synergies in the diversification space.”
The second: “It takes six weeks to learn to code for free online and 20 minutes to sign up to a freelance website. Imagine 5,000 newly-minted coders earning US$2,000 a month: that’s US$120 million in foreign exchange brought in a year.” Which is more convincing?
Roger McLean, who until recently has led our National Council on Productivity, is very clear on the matter – any transformation must demand buy-in from people on the ground.
There is no need for anyone to be threatened by transformation. As Giuseppe di Lampadusa says in his iconic novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh