PRAGMATISM + admiration for Fire Brigades
People often attribute Singapore’s success to pragmatism and adeptness to changing situations. As a small country in a geographical area of some physical and much rhetorical conflict, Singapore has to be observant, fast on its feet and diplomatic. It is certainly that. But it would be wrong to see Singapore as a melee of fast-moving tactics. On the contrary, since independence, Singapore has had a far-sighted objective for which it is equipped financially and socially. Today it is one of the countries that shows it understands the importance of strategy and how to balance it with tactics.
In a world of frequent and repeated arson the fire brigade becomes the most important institution. No matter the longer term needs, extinguishing today’s blaze becomes the prime objective, and rightly so. The cause of the fires then becomes relegated to ‘tomorrow’s problem’. So tomorrow, another fire. All governments faced with repeated crises become fire brigades. Most extinguish the fires and some, not infrequently, themselves as well. But the same problems arise again soon. Repeated ministerial portfolio changes don’t help. They have no strategy.
Good strategy requires luck just as much as good tactics do. Singapore hasn’t always been lucky. Its foray into, and subsequent ejection from, the Federation of Malay States was a bitter blow to a country so small that at least three of its vital needs – people, land, water – were dependent on geographical expansion. Being excluded from these sources of growth Singapore built up to the sky for housing and down below ground to tunnel transport. The pragmatism with which it tackled these challenges never lost sight of the strategy. Nor has the strategy been left to stagnate. It is reviewed – pragmatically – but the fundamentals of the society Singapore wants to be, remain in place. Lee Kuan Yew’s vision for Singapore was a remarkable strategy.
How about bigger countries? Can they also have a coherent strategy while remaining swift to deal with the slings and arrows? Not simply. Small makes it easier to know your people, allows those in charge to hear the reservations of the citizens and the moans of the dissidents. Who is where and doing what, is easier to grasp. But communications have developed fast and social media are swiftly responsive, if not always representative, so there is no reason for the head of any state not to have a fairly full picture. Protesting the increase in age at which you may retire may be stupid but the fact that people can do so is a core asset of life.
The lessons learnt from managing big countries – and they apply to big companies, too – are that whenever possible they should be managed in ‘bite’ sizes. A big conglomerate is only a bank with some people management skills. A big country is much the same. Both must be equipped to behave as a fire brigade occasionally – and the words are “behave as” not “support”. Of course, there are minor crises which a fire team can handle. Major ones are the responsibility of the top management – all the way to their dismissal if they fail.
There are, of course, some businesses, like those involved in communications and transport, where coordination is a vital part of what they offer. They need to be managed more centrally. Competing railway franchises have reduced the British railway system to a time-failing farce. On the other hand an unnecessarily centralised National Health Service has bankrupted the greatest single social advance of my lifetime, the British NHS.
If my discussion of strategy and tactics sounds like a bit of logic chopping I can attest that, in my own experience in business, those companies that recognise the difference between the two, and behave accordingly, flourish and grow, those that don’t stagnate and dwindle. This has particular relevance for today’s startups. The development of many of them will be swift – and final if they don’t pay attention to the strategy. In the excitement of startup, where they are going is often relegated to ‘later’. Its essential place is ‘now’.
We are in a pragmatic era. Our ability to do things previously thought of as science fiction has lept ahead faster than we could have imagined. Trying to put together a webinar to address precisely the points I have been making, I found several highly admirable people willing to join a discussion about ‘How far can AI go?’ but none wanting to join a discussion of ‘How far should AI be allowed to go?’.
It worries me that recent financial failures have suffered the same reluctance.
Do you have a strategy for your life? I ask because many people don’t.
If you do, we would be very interested to know how you arrived at it.
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14 April 2023