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Reflections on management

“Our dreams are proof of what is possible. Our ability to imagine a bright future points to its possibility.”
Any discussion on the subject of management would be incomplete without remembering its father and inventor – Peter Drucker, whose ideas still matter and endure. He died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Claremont, California, in November 2005 at age 95; eight days shy of his 96th birthday.

In a world seeking easy solutions and simple prescriptions for success, he amplified the fact that the job of leading people, organisations and institutions is filled with complexity. He taught generations of managers the importance of picking the best people, of focusing on opportunities and not problems, of getting on the same side of the table as your customer, of the need to understand your competitive advantages and to continue to refine them. He believed that talented people were the essential ingredient of every successful enterprise.

It was very surprising for me to see a testimonial by Warren Buffet, probably the world’s most successful investor, on the front cover of Jack Welch’s latest book: Winning. Warren says in his tribute to Jack’s book, “No other management book will ever be needed.” This is a tall, and I feel, a misleading claim to make, even when speaking for Jack Welch, who was, without doubt, one of the most admired CEOs in the world of business.

Learning is a never ending process. BusinessWeek (European Edition), November 28, 2005, has Drucker on its cover with the caption, “The Man Who Invented Management” and why his ideas still matter. An article in the same issue by John Byrne illuminates Drucker’s life beautifully. It also contains views from prominent personalities. Jim Collins of ‘Good to Great’ fame, says this: “Peter F. Drucker was driven not by the desire to say something, but by the desire to learn something from every student he met – and that is why he became one of the most influential teachers most of us have ever known.”

Imagine what Drucker would have felt on reading Buffet’s testimonial. Even Jack Welch, former Chairman of General Electric is quoted as having said after Drucker’s death, “The world knows he was the greatest management thinker of the last century.”

What Socrates and Plato are to philosophy, Peter Drucker is to management. Drucker’s name has lived with me ever since I started my career with an international bank back in 1976. However, the immense value of his contributions to the world of management became apparent to me in my last fourteen years as an OD consultant serving the leading local and multinational organisations in the country.
What inspired me most about Drucker was his dream. After witnessing the oppression of the Nazi regime, Drucker found great hope in the possibilities of the modern corporation to build communities and give meaning to their work and life. For the next 50 years, he would train his intellect on helping companies live up to those lofty possibilities. He was always able to discern trends – sometimes decades before they were visible to others.

But Drucker grew disenchanted with capitalism in the late 20th century. He saw the system rewarding greed as easily as it did performance. Drucker was sickened by the excessive riches awarded to mediocre executives even as they slashed the ranks of ordinary workers. The doubt and disillusionment with business that Drucker expressed in his later years caused him to turn away from the corporation and instead offer his advice to the nonprofit sector. It seemed an acknowledgment that business and management had somehow failed him. Thankfully, the theory and practice of management is slowly beginning to creep into the two worlds – the world of ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’, with considerable discomfort to both.

Late Akhtar Hameed Khan and his breakthroughs in Orangi are inspiring. After a stint at teaching at Michigan State University in the 1970s, he returned to Pakistan to serve as an advisor to a rural development project near Peshawar. The Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI) approached him in 1980 to start a project in Orangi. With no office, no staff, and no contacts in Orangi, Khan began by walking the lanes for months. He peered into the middle and lower income houses of its one million residents, people who came in to fulfill their economic dreams in Karachi. Khan spoke to local officials, councillors and lobbyists and discovered how little the katchi abadi residents had in the way of rights.
Orangi was Pakistan’s largest unplanned urban settlement or katchi abadi. Located 12 kilometres from Karachi’s centre, it is a microcosm of this city of migrants, a sprawling community of mohajirs (Indian Muslim refugees from 1947), Biharis (more recent refugees from Bangladesh), Pathans, Sindhis, Punjabis and Balochs. Orangi has swallowed up 7000 acres of the barren Sindh landscape on the edge of Karachi and is still growing. Orangi is as big as Colombo or Amsterdam, a city within a city.
More than three and a half million people live in the 400 katchi abadis that surround Karachi. Being outside the official city plan, the migrants have little access to government-funded resources. Officials have traditionally ignored their squalor. Orangi itself began to be occupied in 1965 and grew rapidly after 1972 with the influx of refugees from the newly independent Bangladesh.
Orangi could have resembled the desolation of many other famous South Asian slums. But Orangi today is a development miracle, a thriving community of middle and lower-income migrants. The difference from a ‘slum’ is immediately apparent: the stench of human waste has disappeared due to a network of sewerage lines, secondary drains and pour-flush toilets. Small locally-built schools vastly outnumber government schools – all built by Orangi residents with technical and organisational guidance from Khan’s brainchild, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP).
BCCI’s support of OPP and the dedication of Late Akhtar Hameed Khan clearly illustrates how management capability can transform millions of lives for the better. With such achievements behind us, we are left with no excuses.
Bono of U2 was recently named ‘Person of the Year’ by Time magazine. Consider what he says: “My point is that the world is more malleable than you think. And it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.” By this, he means that those who have the means must see an end to extreme poverty by making poverty history. According to him, the world today has all the resources and capabilities to meet this end. All it now needs is the will to make a positive difference.
In this context, let us imagine our world in 2110! Prosperous; participative; and growing. Gleam in the eyes of kids. Each adult motivated and connected to an over arching vision, playing an active role in driving a booming economy, and each student hungry to learn about self, others, life and possibilities. We still have agriculture, municipal bodies, and centres of learning. Use of technology is common place. Judicial remedy of quality is available to all. Jails have turned into institutions of reform. Crime is low. Character is valued most and material wealth is no longer accumulated by the few, but available for the betterment of mankind as a whole. This is a world where good and evil still prevail, but where being cunning, deceitful and driven by hate and greed is frowned upon by society at large and seen as lowly traits. Streets are free of people who beg. Merit is on the rise, and the needy are cared for by the society in a way that empowers them to contribute in any way they can. There is heroism in simple acts of generosity. The air is clean, the streets are smooth and gleaming. Political power is distributed fairly and exercised wisely with appropriate checks and balances. People have at last woken up to their responsibility of making a difference in their immediate sphere of influence and are enjoying a life of vision, simplicity and diversity.

Cynicism and pessimism usually greet such aspirations. Such a vision, while applauded, is privately seen as utopian by most. You may hear people say, “It is a very nice vision. Many people do strive for that. I would very much like to see a world like that for my grandchildren, preferably for myself also! But how will the next 100+ years bring all this?” Others may add, “The last 5000 years were not enough for delivering anything like this? Why did Buddha or Jesus or Prophet Mohammad (PBUH.) not turn the world into such a place?” Yet another view might suggest: “On the secular side, Marx had a similar dream which turned into dreadful dictatorships, political and economic incompetence and mismanagement.”

People need to be convinced that such lofty ideals are attainable and not merely utopian – and that too, in the space of century or so. It is the practice of management that can shape our future – corporate and community.

Pursuit for excellence is apparently an audacious goal and stretches our capabilities on a continuing basis to ever-higher levels of performance. Excellence is perfection and perfection is God. Excellence is a never attainable state – it is like an ever-moving target, yet striving for it makes all the difference in our lives. It enables us to break free from a life of poverty, misery and mediocrity.

Our dreams are proof of what is possible. Our ability to imagine a bright future points to its possibility. However, certainty about the future is only God’s domain. For us mortals, probabilities are all we have to work with when we envision the future.

Just because there is no precedence in the past, does not mean that we stop attempting things others believe is not possible. Go back a few thousand years in history to man’s endeavour to fly. People were enchanted by the flight of birds in the sky. Some would ask “If birds can fly, why can’t I?” At that time, the paradigm against flying was a million times stronger than the bright global future described above. They were the few who, despite the odds, believed in human possibilities, tried to fly in all kinds of crazy ways and died in the process. They were not prophets or saints, but their legacy has impacted the lives of mankind as a whole. Their spirit to fly remained alive till only in the last century, when ‘heavier than air’ machines took to the skies and have changed the face of travel forever.

It is easy to dismiss the possibilities that reside in the coming 100 years, particularly, when you consider the outcomes of the last 5,000 years. The widening knowledge and wealth gap is a case in point.

Time is a relative concept. Unbeknown to us, we often get trapped in a time warp. A moment can be life. And life, only a moment. The fact is that all of us are part of a grand continuum of civilisation – we have been created for a purpose and we have been blessed with guidance from prophets, messengers and sages on how to live and prosper on earth. All great figures of history, secular and religious, have contributed to the development of societies and civilisations by laying down solid and enduring foundations that we enjoy today. We are the reason why our ancestors ever lived! The work of our forefathers is still unfinished and we need to play our part and pass on the ‘torch’ to the coming generations, as they did.

By changing our perception, we can change our world. We live in new times and need new thinking. The last 100 years have seen more change in technology and connectivity than was ever witnessed in the previous 10,000 years or more. Only 100 years ago, our world’s population was around 1.4 billion. Today, we are nearly 7 billion. It took mankind 10,000 years to reach a population of 1.4 billion, and yet we have become more than three times the size in less than 100 years! The global economic, social, political, technological shifts today are rapid, exponential, dysfunctional, chaotic, yet full of possibilities – positive and negative. If we are not careful, the forces of change will lead us to our destruction.

Who can deny the fact that we have abundant resources, capability and knowledge to accomplish the seemingly impossible? The only barrier between us and the future we envision will therefore be our lack of resolve, lack of commitment and lack of visionary leadership and management. It is this inertia we need to break.

According to George Friedman in his latest book , “If human beings can simply decide on what they want to do and then do it, then forecasting is impossible. Free will is beyond forecasting.” Do we have the ability to creatively manage within given constraints, to make all things possible?

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