A Rose by Any Other Name

How do you say, ‘True North’ in a different language? As one of the main elements which anchors the work of PEMANDU Associates, translating the term True North, and so much more, lay at the heart of projects the organisation recently undertook in non-native English-speaking countries.

“It was definitely challenging – the work bandwidth tripled!” says Mohd Fauzi Puniran, a Vice President who was assigned to the Federal Road Agency Transformation Lab in Russia in late 2017. The Federal Road Agency (Rosavtodor) is responsible for overseeing the road transport industry and transport engineering in Russia, and had sought PEMANDU Associates’ Big Fast Results (BFR) Methodology to identify its True North to guide its management of federal roads. The Agency also requested our assistance to determine related initiatives to support regional economic growth.

“Some English words just do not make sense in Russian due to contextual issues, and may even appear offensive once translated. Hence, we worked closely with interpreters and our Russian counterparts to ensure the correct meaning was conveyed upon translation,” Fauzi, who was the engagement manager for the project, explains.

This process was painstaking, with the involvement of interpreters who would translate simultaneously while the Lab was underway. Each workstream was also co-facilitated by a Russian co-facilitator in addition to a PEMANDU Associates facilitator. This allowed the project team to gather the required input during the Lab towards preparing the final Lab report.

Hence, for the two months of the Lab, the team’s typical day consisted of 16-hour days spent facilitating the Lab, summarising the Lab findings in English then translating it to Russian. This was done not only to develop content for the final Lab report, but also to prepare for subsequent days’ proceedings throughout the duration of the Lab.

The team also put in effort behind the scenes to ensure the language barrier did not disrupt the work flow or working relationships between the Russian client and our associates, who are based in Malaysia, where English is the accepted language for business in addition to the national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

“We undertook frequent engagement with our client even outside of working hours. It also helped to build relationships among key stakeholders. Another strategy we adopted was to keep things simple. This did not only apply to our choice of words, but also in the way we conducted the Lab. It was important to explain each task undertaken during the Lab, so the Lab members not only understood the words we used, but also the meaning behind each action,” says Fauzi.

Zehan Teoh, a Senior Vice President at PEMANDU Associates who was stationed in Russia for a separate project, agrees on the importance of keeping it simple, adding that the fluency of language sometimes emerged secondary in communicating with clients and stakeholders.

Speaking on his experience in the country, he observes, “Very often we noticed that between non-native English speakers, although the vocabulary used was stripped down, it did not mean that information was being left out.

“Verbal cues are only part of the entire spectrum of communications, you also have non-verbal cues and body language.”

He adds that while translating on-the-go, be it from English to Russian or vice versa, did pose a challenge in the working environment, another important element it impacted was the ability to build trust amongst the project team and their Russian stakeholders; a crucial determinant in the success of any project.

Like Fauzi, Zehan saw that finding local advocates to help explain the context of discussions went a long way in ironing out communications breakdowns. Again, non-verbal cues, as well as staying engaged in discussions, even if they are being a conducted in a language you are unfamiliar, with also play a crucial role in building trust.

“Although the vocabulary used was stripped down, it did not mean that information was being left out.”

“Be sincere through your body language and show interest in trying to understand what they are saying. Even exhibiting that first step of being willing to reach out and being present will give your stakeholders the encouragement that you are sincere. Hence, even without a common language of communication, there are other ways to build trust,” he says.

The challenges posed by language barriers are also present in PEMANDU Associates’ currently on-going Senegal Agropole Lab project, which aims to identify projects to add value to priority crops and establish shared infrastructure and services for increased efficiencies by 2020 in South Senegal. This was despite half of the project team being fluent in French, the country’s official administrative language.

“The biggest challenge with the assignment is the subtle nuances between languages requiring Lab output to be monitored closely. Working with our client to ensure the meaning and context for the Lab output was captured and translated correctly was essential for future implementation. From a project management point of view, this required more time than usual, which means it put further pressure on a highly intense assignment like a Lab, says Yoong Huey Yee, a Vice President who is engagement manager for the project.

She points out however, that the difference in language allowed the project team to bond with the client due to the extra effort demonstrated. “Our fluency in French added to the client’s appreciation in our effort to make the assignment a success, despite our mother tongue being English. Working closer also facilitated trust-building,” she says.

She also agrees with Zehan’s advice that certain factors transcend language barriers, such as humility, attentiveness, respect and empathy, all of which helped the project team bridge the communication gap.

Beyond proving the importance of a common language in undertaking projects, our work in Russia and Senegal testifies to the universal transferability of PEMANDU Associates’ BFR Methodology – one that transcends differences in language in the pursuit of driving transformation.


Transform Faster!

By Nyoomi Rasiklal Kamani

“We feel that only when we are challenged with our backs against the wall, innovation and ideation takes root…”

Having joined PEMANDU a little over a year ago, I have been witnessing evident outcomes achieved by our Big Fast Results (BFR) methodology. Some of the governments that have actually deployed this methodology, customised to deliver their economic transformation, included Malaysia, Tanzania, South Africa (whose ‘Phakisa!’ transformation programme translates to ‘Faster!’), Oman, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh. More recently, PEMANDU has been tasked to work on similar projects in Russia, Botswana, Nigeria and Senegal, of which I have personally been involved in.

Anchoring BFR is a 6-8 week lab process, where our consultants, analysts and project stakeholders engage in intense discussions to achieve consensus on a project’s high-level True North and its granular action plan which outlines step-by-step actions, persons responsible, timelines, budget requirements and measurable targets.

Our labs are also divided into four phases: pre-labs (determining the work scope), labs (where our stakeholders are required to be present), post-labs (where the detailed implementation plans agreed upon in the labs are scrutinised) and syndication sessions (ensuring that our client and all their stakeholders provide feedback on the lab and agree on its final outcome).

Business Unusual

As a newcomer to BFR, I admit that there were nuances which caused me to pause momentarily as the 6-8 week period is both rigorous and can be overwhelming, especially to a newbie. However, I was able to see the importance and significance of this timeframe as it involved analytics, solutioning and detailing of intended plans to mobilise transformation.

This time is used to not only gather, process and syndicate data but also build rapport between our consultants and lab members. Every problem or case for change is often overarching. Hence, to ensure that the interest of all parties is acknowledged, we invite representatives from each party.

This usually involves individuals from private and public sectors, smallholders, entrepreneurs and ministry representatives. Engaging the participants in the labs was also a first for me. I witnessed that most participants would come with a pre-set idea of the direction they would want to pursue. Hence, there was a need to break these silos down, so that all possible ideas, solutions and determinants were robustly discussed and agreed upon. In theory, the lab may seem to be a workshop but in reality, it is a platform that requires able facilitation to derive the right mix of solutions that will deliver the True North.

Emotions usually ran high as each lab member would defend the interests of their stakeholders. The management of these polarities represented a large chunk of our work. Often debates may come from disenchanted stakeholders who had participated in previous studies and research papers by other institutions, contrary to present environment. Managing discussions based on these pre-set ideas is a common feature in labs. Participating in a lab also requires different individuals to work together and this dynamic may also be a challenge that requires facilitation.

Witnessing the more seasoned PEMANDU consultants in action allowed me to gain a new perspective in facilitation. The polarities were managed through constant open communication to encourage our lab members in uncovering a common goal.

Economics can make sense

Theoretically, we could write down the True North at the front of the lab room, emblazoning the Gross National Income, private and public investments we are pursuing. However, this doesn’t translate as a common language. We have to strip these numbers down to the bare essentials – identifying how these numbers are arrived at, how the lives of their stakeholders stand to benefit from the transformation, what are the common social impact and how the targets will even be achieved.

These rounds of communications represented how we had to facilitate conversations between stakeholders by redirecting them to parties who will be affected by the changes proposed and encourage clear communication between them all.

Another reason why these labs are business unusual is because when we get all of our stakeholders under one roof, this removes the typical delays impacted by locale differences, as well as those with fragmented interests but have chosen not to participate. In our labs, we get them to plan, agree and detail their vision so that their results are Big and Fast – as promised. The labs are also where we pursue the most important component of transformation – gaining stakeholder buy-in. Without stakeholder buy-in, it is difficult to push the plan into immediate action.

Being Accountable

At the end of every lab, we publish syndication and budget reports. This means lab members cannot just agree on something at a superficial level. We question, challenge and encourage until each lab member understands the rationale behind a particular transformation initiative and are able to commit themselves and volunteer to lead the initiative. It is also here where they are required to confirm the anticipated resource and budget, as well as committing to a feasible timeline for the project.

Embracing the Big and Fast in BFR

It is this comprehensive process which necessitates the 6-8 week lab we highly recommend to our clients. But having participated in several labs since joining PEMANDU, I’ve come to realise, there are often different horses for different courses. I recalled reading one of PEMANDU’s first lab projects when I was still a student. It was on the development of Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme. I remember wondering what were these labs and what constituted the work in conducting 12 labs over two months in 2010, involving 6,000 stakeholders. Now I know!

PEMANDU has always encouraged the Lab participants to play the game of the impossible. We feel that only when we are challenged with our backs against the wall, innovation and ideation takes root. A need for commitment manifests itself and from there, being accountable and driven to deliver comes second nature.

It is a mindset PEMANDU nurtures from an employee’s first day, up until the impossible is merely another item on our checklist and always bearing in mind that if you do business as usual, you cannot go big or fast; and to get Big Fast Results, you cannot do business as usual!


Success, It’s Not a Lucky Coincidence

By Marc Fong

“In such a system, no one – not even the Government – can act as a single point of control”

Systems in countries, from the third world to highly developed nations, are complex. Whether it is addressing economic value chains, education, health, or other kinds of systems, governments must work with a fragmented, diverse set of stakeholders with various capabilities and often conflicting goals. They typically must contend with issues such as a disparate “consumer” base (the public), supply-chain infrastructure, corruption and political intervention.

Compounding this, the various institutions and agencies of the government typically work within their own corner of the system, unable to see or optimise that whole. In such a system, no one—not even the government—can act as a single point of control. This complexity can be seen even in corporations and organisations – albeit on a smaller scale. Leadership is often focused on long-term goals whilst members of the leadership team have different priorities depending on their portfolio and stakeholders.

In an age of social media and real-time information, priorities can also change in the blink of an eye. Politicians worry about pacifying an electorate while business leaders are answerable to their shareholders. While stakeholder engagement and management are critical aspects of leadership, having a set of constantly shifting priorities is guaranteed to stifle delivery.

Developing the True North

The most successful examples of delivery share a common starting point – one where the leadership of a country or organisation have agreed that urgent intervention is needed to ensure delivery of a common purpose that they will commit to above other interests. Leaders need to acknowledge the burning platform, the raison d’être for transformation that they commit to regardless of their individual agendas.

In short, clarity and alignment from the leadership form the foundation for which to kickstart transformation.

Transformation must begin at the very top – the Prime Minister or CEO must make a clear statement that he or she acknowledges the problem and is willing to commit the resources (time, manpower and financial) to transform and ensure compliance from the rest of the leadership.  In addition to this, the leader must have a clear vision of his end-goal or ‘True North’, a single overarching goal that becomes the mission for the nation or organisation.

The leader must then communicate this to his or her leadership. In some cases, the True North can be amended or further refined based on input from the leadership but the end-result is universal acknowledgement from the leadership on the scale of the problem, the urgency of it and the True North that they will prioritise ahead of their own political or individual agendas.

Malaysia’s example

When Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak assumed the role of Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2009, he was faced with an economy that had stagnated as a result of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and further suffered from the 2008 Global Economic Crisis, jeopardising the nation’s aspirations to become a fully developed nation by 2020.

Over a series of 5 retreats, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet agreed upon and set the direction for the National Transformation Programme (NTP), for which PEMANDU was mandated to performance manage and facilitate. This is where we introduced our 8 Steps of Transformation methodology, a radical and structured approach incorporating clear diagnosis, planning, implementation, execution and feedback; in a sequence which ensures transparency and accountability during transformation.

The 8 Steps begin with setting the True North, or strategic direction, for transformation, which is what we facilitated during the Cabinet Retreats in 2009.  Workshops or retreats are often ideal platforms to obtain clarity and alignment as they provide a dedicated location and time for the leadership to have a discussion. Preparation is extensive to ensure the best-informed decisions — at a national level, key institutions such as ministries and their agencies are engaged with the objective of obtaining data as well as developing models and scenarios. Participants are engaged ahead of time and briefed so they can come prepared with data-driven points of view.

Our facilitation of the process allowed for frank discussions, reducing the risk of hidden considerations and internal agendas. The role of the facilitators is to ensure conversations are healthy (i.e. not dominated by a single party or point of view) as well as to ensure that the discussions are data-driven.

Driving Transformation

The result of the Cabinet Retreats was agreement on a ‘True North’ for Malaysia – the achievement of high-income nation status (as defined by the World Bank) by 2020 – as well the principles of the NTP: growth that was sustainable (by reducing dependence on public investment and diversifying the sources of economic growth) and inclusive (ensuring Malaysians at all levels benefited from the transformation).

The ‘True North’ for Malaysia was then refined into its final form, a target expressed in Gross National Income (GNI) which provided clarity for subsequent implementers – every initiative and project was assessed and prioritised on its ability to contribute to GNI. This resulted in a decision-making process that was both significantly accelerated and transparent. By publicly committing to these targets and principles in a series of strategic engagements, Dato’ Sri Najib and his Cabinet made themselves fully accountable for delivery.

It is important to note that the Cabinet did not make this decision in isolation – while the leadership remained accountable, throughout the process existing institutions were engaged to provide input and data ensuring a fully informed decision.

Since the Cabinet Workshops in 2009, Malaysia’s NTP has doubled growth in private investments and consistently ranked well in global indices. The gap between GNI per capita and the World Bank’s high-income threshold has narrowed significantly from 33% in 2010 to 20% in 2017 whilst both mean and median incomes for the bottom 40% of income levels has grown at an annual rate of over 12% from 2009 to 2014.

Our 8-Step methodology has also since been adopted by other countries around the world, such as Tanzania, India and Russia, while we continue to work with governments and the private sector in new markets. However, none of this could be achieved without completing our first step of transformation: developing clarity at the top and defining the True North.

Business agreement handshake at coffee shop

Why Stakeholder Management is not a Science

By Larvin Rengasamy & Azlin Niza Ismail

“The idea here is to ensure focus to provide stakeholders with an appreciation of our presence.”

Through the course of PEMANDU Associates’ involvement in the implementation of three government transformation programmes – in Malaysia, Tanzania and the Sultanate of Oman, we have found stakeholder management to be an empathetic art as opposed to a science.

Our experience in each programme we have been involved in illustrate two stages of stakeholder management: knowing who our stakeholders are and earning their trust to deliver. This means we stay true to our Big Fast Results methodology and deliver quality under pressure.

Know Your Stakeholders

To begin with, we map our stakeholders to identify who will be leading and directly involved in the transformation agenda. However, it is not as simple as just constructing a who’s who – it also requires an understanding of stakeholder needs as well as their strengths and weaknesses in relation to the transformation at hand. Without constructing our stakeholder map and identifying their priority areas, we would not gain the commitment and engagement required to deliver 3 feet plans to implement transformation!

This exercise also helps us understand our stakeholders and overcome resistance to the introduction of new norms at the start of transformation. The team at PEMANDU Associates will work with our clients to share WHY this is important and HOW we can collectively drive transformation.

The answer may vary from client to client and may also be actioned differently. It can be formed as a simple text message to the group to nurture communication, or a detailed email to determine progress. This is done to assure that the work is being monitored.

In all our projects, we typically conduct an on-boarding session with all stakeholders. This ensures expectations in terms of working norms, routines and discipline of action are managed from the start. Coaching is another useful way to manage stakeholders’ expectations and gain their cooperation.

Communication Is Key

The second component and equally vital in stakeholder management is establishing a method of communication within the work environment. This ensures that each stakeholder, with their diverse backgrounds, knowledge and views, is able to clearly see how information is shared and established for discussion. To do this, it will be necessary to leverage stakeholder relationships and build coalitions that foster the success of the project.

At PEMANDU Associates, we have structured and adopted our Big Fast Results methodology, consisting of our 6 Secrets of Transformational Leadership and 8 Steps of Transformation. A component of this methodology comprises and promotes a clear governance structure for the escalation of issues, weekly problem-solving meetings and reporting as well as a monthly Steering Committee meeting. This is in addition to ongoing information-sharing at the working level on a daily basis.

The inability to manage stakeholders appropriately may be indicated by missed deadlines, the expansion of work beyond the agreed scope, confusion, conflict and stakeholders’ loss of interest in participating in the transformation programme. Often, this is indicative of competing priorities, a lack of focus or a lack of commitment.

In discussing these issues with project managers, we have to ask two questions and establish a rule:

1) What is the communications plan (how is information shared)?
2) What is the project governance structure (how do people assimilate, make decisions and escalate issues)?

It should be ensured that no one is penalised for sharing their opinions or views. Only when this is agreed upon as a norm can the stakeholders “trust us” to be doing the right thing.

“We consider stakeholder management as an empathetic art because polarities are bound to persist between groups of people.”

We consider stakeholder management as an empathetic art because polarities are bound to persist between groups of people. This is where we must begin to understand and refine the lines of when we may or can be amenable and assertive or firm.

Managing multiple stakeholders with different backgrounds and expectations is always a challenge, but one that should be moderated to achieve consequential benefits for all parties involved. The focus should be centred on providing stakeholders an appreciation of our presence and to ensure they perform their roles as expected; delivering our expected output as scheduled and achieving acceptance of the transformation programme.