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Delivering Transformation

26 October, 2015 by Idris Jala

I make no bones I particularly dislike one word loosely bandied about in corporate speak, and that word is ‘strategy’. As much as talk is cheap, to some extent, so is strategy. I would go as far as to say that if organisations want to see results, it is certainly not in the belaboured hours spent in ‘strategic brainstorming’ where one tends to walk away with a gilded view of objectives and approaches and very little of anything else. I can quite imagine the impassioned executive, mulling in between workshops, “I like what I heard but I don’t know what to do about it.” 

Governments especially run afoul when it comes to implementation. It is commonplace for bureaucracies worldwide to announce elegant strategies and ambitious high-level blueprints, bound in leather and destined for failure. 

Without granular and carefully detailed 3-feet plans, strategies are merely impressive words etched on paper and as pointless. As a rule-of-thumb, only 5 percent of management’s time should be spend hatching strategies and 95% dedicated to drawing out detailed plans for implementation.

For over a year now I have been mulling over the vision of bringing global icons admired for their legacy on transformation, to come on stage in Malaysia and share their on-ground learning. Last week, PEMANDU kicked-off its inaugural Global Transformation Forum 2015 (GTF) themed to what I had envisioned Operationalising Transformation. With over 16 key policy makers, and heads of governments and corporations speaking to 3000 delegates, it was three days of excellence in presentation, engagement and learning.

Having listened closely to the various speakers and as a reflection of my years transforming organisations, two aspects must be present for change to take effect:
  1. Transformational leadership and it involves three attributes:
    1. Game of the Impossible: Incremental improvements do not transform but stretched targets force an entire system to change. Transformation calls for bold, brave leaders like Tony Fernandez, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lord Sebastian Coe to imagine the impossible and obsessively pursue Olympic goals.

    2. Ruthless Prioritisation: Transformative leaders are ruthless in prioritising their focus areas. You cannot excel if your aim is to be the best in everything. Carl Lewis could not have been the track and field world champion if he wanted to nail it in archery, fencing and diving as well!

    3. Get your hands dirty: A hands-off leader is guaranteed to fail. You must be prepared to dig deep into the trenches with your people. They will not have the solutions to everything and your role is to guide, make tough decisions and give them the courage of conviction and action.

  2. Detailed 3-feet implementation
    Here comes the real hard work that separates ‘the men from the boys’. Moving strategy into execution calls for detailed ‘what-we-do’ steps. These are ‘handrails’ that keep teams grounded to action, knowing what they must do and when it should be completed to ensure specific results.

    Before we embarked on the national transformation programmes six years ago, we conducted intensive workshops with the Cabinet. With the Prime Minister’s support, we galvanised Ministers to commit to champion radical reforms in securing big, fast results.

    The commitment of Ministers was vital. We wanted to avoid too much wriggle room where, down the road, one may cave under pressure to opt out or scale down, which is to be expected as the ‘game of the impossible’ takes heat.

    Once we secured our true north and priority areas, we channelled our energies to get the private sector to roll up their sleeves, and together with government agencies, dived knee-deep into detailing 3-feet implementation plans. Through the rigorous lab process, they deliberated on KPIs, targets and action items.

    From public Open Days to the publication of Annual Reports, transformation is also about being transparent and accountable. By announcing our KPIs and targets, we are now held responsible to keep to our promises. I have often joked that it is akin to being made pregnant, with no other alternative but to deliver!
The GTF 2015 featured transformation at three levels government, corporate and personal. Schwarzenegger shared his six rules of success and one which resonated with me: “Never ever think small. If you are going to accomplish anything you have to think big and shoot for the stars”. Carl Lewis had his own take: “It starts with believing something you don’t think you can do and not being afraid of failure.”

Pierluigi Collina, widely considered the best referee of his generation, hit the nail when he said: “If you continue to do the same always, even if you were successful you cannot continue to need a new winning advantage.” Best known for successfully heading the London organising committee for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, this former Olympic champion himself, Lord Sebastian Coe advised that “you learn more on the days it goes wrong when you absorb the lessons compared to when it goes right.”

The premier panel of former Heads of Governments such as Helen Clark, Goh Chok Tong, Jorge Quiroga and Kevin Rudd made the mark with their direct and punchy take on what makes leadership tick in their respective countries. 

When we first set-out to organise GTF 2015, it was to put together the equivalent of what Davos is to the economic community a world-class platform featuring top-line gurus sharing actionable ideas on transformation. This was our ‘game of the impossible’ and together with my team, I am honoured Malaysia stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s best right here in Kuala Lumpur.

(Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at

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