Why transform?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on September 3, 2008

There is little sense of moving from good to great

Transformation – change – is a popular topic. Politicians cite the need for change as a reason they should be elected. It’s a call that resonates everywhere. U.S. democratic presidential candidate Barak Obama rode a wave of popular support for change to become the first African-American nominated by a major U.S. political party for the highest elected office in the land – and in the world.

In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim last week won reelection to Parliament after leading a diverse coalition to a stunning electoral triumph in national elections in March. Anwar was sacked by his boss, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 for seeking to bring about change in the form of greater transparency and accountability in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Now, he’s back with the same message.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, most everyone acknowledges the need for political change, but no one seems quite certain who should lead it. There does seem to be a high level of consensus about who won’t, shouldn’t, or can’t. In China, minorities demonstrate – sometimes peacefully and sometimes not – for change in the way they are governed, and who does the governing. In Thailand, a democratically elected government is once again threatened by non-democratic forces that proclaim the need to foster political change.

As these examples show, perception that transformation is needed provides momentum for taking action – sometimes even radical, non-democratic action – that promises to profoundly alter institutions and processes to provide a better state of affairs. Old people, old processes, and old perspectives are no longer relevant. It is time to have new people, new processes, and new perspectives – at least until they too become old – because transformation should be continuous.

My perspective shouldn’t be construed as an argument against change. On the contrary, I am a great fan of creative destruction, just not change for the sake of change. In the private sector, change breaks down monopolies, fosters innovation, and creates opportunity. Companies like Salesforce.com and Google, for instance, transform the way companies leverage technology by innovating new technology. These technologies, because they are widely and relatively cheaply available, create new opportunities for individuals, corporations, and places to effectively compete with much larger competitors.

How does the momentum for transformation develop? First, as I suggested, transformation takes hold when it has – or enjoys the perception of – broad support. Thailand is again a good example in the public sector. If Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is hounded out of office by the organized mobs occupying his office this week, it will be because a relative minority successfully creates the perception of broad support for reform leading to better government.

Second, to achieve broad support for change it must be led. In the Philippines, while surveys point to broad dissatisfaction with government and government institutions, there is no groundswell of popular support for political change. That is because there is no viable change agent – no leader, no champion – of transformation. In Thailand’s case, protestors opposing Samak wear yellow shirts, a color associated with the popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Bhumibol is believed to have supported the military coup that overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with whom Samak is identified, in 2006. Despite continuing and broad popular support for Thaksin, Samak is under pressure to resign on the strength of Bhumibol’s popularity, despite dissatisfaction with the military government that took over from Thaksin following his undemocratic removal.

The dynamic of Thailand’s politics may transform, however, given that Thaksin is relatively young and Bhumibol will be 91 in December and any likely heir won’t enjoy his popular support. In Malaysia’s case, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which has governed the country for half a century knows that Anwar is very likely to succeed in his quest to overthrow it. This explains the disingenuous decision to charge him with sodomy, a serious criminal charge in Malaysia first made by Mahathir a decade ago, and eventually overturned. Anwar’s decisive victory last week shows that heavy-handed government efforts to discredit the former deputy prime minister have failed and that the momentum for change is increasing.

Whatever you think of these situations, the momentum for transformation is evident. A recent McKenzie & Co. survey of global executives showed that in the private sector the principal reason for undertaking transformation is the desire to “move from good performance to great performance.” It also showed that transformations that succeed have well-defined goals and a strong, credible champion, generally the CEO.

Aside from the absence of a credible champion, it may be that transformation in the Philippines is stillborn because there is so little sense of moving from good to great.

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