A lesson from Swiss watch makers

Swiss watchmaker

In February of 1994, I was among 10 security intelligence officers attending a course on 'Political transition and change management'.

It was an eye opener course that I felt deeply privileged to have attended.

We looked at the global political changes that had taken place since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the attempt by President Gorbachev to reform the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) through his Perestroika and Glasnost programme that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 16 republics gaining independence and Russia standing alone.

We also looked at how change brought down the Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

Most changes in the world come from either outside or from the fringes of a paradigm shift because most leaders focus on the centre.

Things at the centre of the paradigm are orderly and in agreement. No contrary voice is heard. At the fringes, people speak in whispers and outside the paradigm people plan what to do about it. This is the reason why most leaders are overtaken by change. 

The South African scenerio offered a different development. This came about when a 39 year old man, Dr Bernard was appointed Head of the Security Services.

He brought to the attention of the Apartheid government the fact that it was no longer possible to sustain the battle against the anti-apartheid forces fighting for freedom.

The government then entered into a proactive approach to managing change. The government allowed limited political engagement of black people internally, started talking to and rehabilitating Nelson Mandela in Prison and established  contact and dialogue with the ANC in exile in Lusaka, first using business people, the South African Intelligence established contact with ANC Intelligence in exile. Later, unbanning the ANC, the PAC, and the South African Communist Party.

A paradigm is a frame of reference, a worldview or mindset. A paradigm gives one a reference point, it defines what makes for success and failure, and the choices that one makes in making decisions.

If say, you belong to a protestant  reformed theology Christian background, the way you see the world and interpret things will not be exactly the same with the way someone of a charismatic pentecostal theological background will see and interpret things.

If you are so focussed on the centre of that paradigm you would become oblivious to the occurrences at the fringes of your paradigm or outside your paradigm.

Change often comes from the periphery and outside and not from the centre. It is here that organisations whether political, religious or business need objective independent intelligence analysis.

The greatest weakness of many organisations is that their research and development outfits or intelligence organs are inward looking.

This was the fate of Swiss watch makers. For a long time the Swiss were well known for their watches. A worker in one Swiss watch  factory came up with a digital watch invention. He offered it to his company and it was rejected.

One factory after another rejected the invention, who could use a digital watch after all. The inventor sold his invention to a Japanese watch maker.

Fifteen years down the line digital watches took over the dominance of Swiss watches.That was the beginning of the end of the dominance of Swiss watches in the world.

The biggest lesson, while you cherish the glory of your paradigm, is to have your eyes constantly scan the fringes of your paradigm and the environment outside it. Have the ability to listen to contrary views.

In traditional society chiefs allowed dancers to compose songs that would criticise the chief or inform him of the happenings in the village. In this way not only would the villagers use dance and sing as a way to vent their frustrations but it was also a vehicle of communication. As long as your critic was in the contest of dance, you were safe.

If you reflect on the democratisation process in Malawi, you will find that the Malawi Congress Party lost the opportunity to proactively manage the change process because it was focussed on the centre of the one party paradigm.

Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in his capacity as the President of the party had asked the Party Convention in Mzuzu to deliberate on whether Malawi should allow the creation and participation of other political parties.

This was after he had been briefed by intelligence that they were already underground movements advocating for multi-party democracy. The Convention, still focussed at the core of the one party paradigm rejected the change.

Their argument was, the people of the country still wanted one party only, the Malawi Congress Party. If however, they had read the signs outside that paradigm, changes in Togo, where a multi-party democracy had been successfully launched and the agitation that was going on in Zambia, the behaviour of University students, they would have agreed it was time. It could have given them the opportunity to drive the processes of change.

The President of the Republic of China on Taiwan had done it that way, announcing the change to multi-party democracy before opposition parties were even created.  Nobody was ready. It took 15 years before an opposition political party could win an election.

What has remained memorial of that training was a statement that our trainer said to me one lunch time.

Everytime we took a lunch break he would say to us, "Excuse me gentleman, can you allow me to smoke this evil stick?" He would then take a cigarette and smoke. On the third day I asked him a question, "Excuse me Sir, why do you continue to smoke cigarettes if you call it an evil stick."

His response was fascinating, "Young man,( I was 35 then) you don't understand. I was 16 years old when I smoked my first cigarette. Then it was fun and cool. I was announcing to my parents and teachers that I was grown up and attracting the attention of the girls and the admiration of peers. I am 65 years old now, I no longer enjoy smoking but I cannot do without it." 

From his story I developed one of my loved youth talks on choices and consequences.

I often tell young people that while this is a free world, you can choose as you like, remember that choices have consequences.

These consequences are either positive or negative, they can come to you immediately or many years later when you have even lost the taste of your choice. In this regard you have to always choose realizing that you either choose to pay now and play later or choose to play now and pay later.

From the example of my smoker trainer you also must realize that pleasure, with time, turns into pain. Choose to make hard choices now because you know that they will bring about good results later. Know that if you choose to take it easy now you will pay heavy consequences later.