THE other day I said, on radio (KFM – where I am invited on Tuesdays to join a panel of serious people), that I was disappointed in a number of “educated and otherwise informed people” because of their reaction to the announcement around the President’s End-of-Year Address.
It was reported that the Uganda Communications Commission had issued guidelines (instructions?) that private media stations would have to air the address live, which caused a social media furore – not that there is any other kind these days in Uganda.
Coming from some quarters, we shouldn’t be surprised by an uproar or flurry of angry messages whenever anything about our political leadership is mentioned – much like most countries face around the world (Google ‘United States of America’).
But in others I had to check whether I was reading the comparison wrong or not.
See, in most “corporate” (which word could in the past easily refer to an entire State) organisations the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) communicates the objectives and goals of the organisation, on behalf of the Board, which in most cases represents the shareholders (citizens, nationals, etc).
In the corporate world the CEO might likely address staff every month or every quarter, depending on how big or busy the corporation might be, which event is a ‘Stop-Everything-And-Pay-Attention’ affair.
It has to be.
This is the one person at whose desk “the buck stops” because this is the person entrusted with leading the management of the affairs of the entire organisation. This person chooses a team to assist him or her to run the organisation; provides guidance and leadership to that team; secures or mobilises resources from the shareholders and investors; then leads the motivation of the workers so they turn their human capital and other factors into value for the shareholders.
Many years ago, I was told by two notably successful Asian-Ugandan businessmen that their fathers had taught them to always pay attention to speeches made by politicians – starting with the President – and daily news reports. The information they gleaned from those two sources, they explained separately, was their core business intelligence.
One of them told me his father had been raised with this knowledge and their family wealth had therefore weathered the Idi Amin Asian expulsion of the 1970s. Many years after I first heard these statements from them I attended an event launch at which one of them was unveiling a massive new investment and on the sidelines he revealed what had shown him that possibility.
“Every time the President makes a speech, I listen for clues…”
Exactly as happens whenever a CEO speaks – shareholders, investors, employees, business partners, suppliers, and other key stakeholders…they all stop and listen.
Especially at crucial points of the business cycle – at the end and start of the financial year, hence the State of the Nation address taking place just before the Budget speech; at the close of the calendar year; and when major business changes are taking place.
Reading the second tier newspaper across the border in Kenya a couple of weeks ago, I caught the headline, “Uhuru bets on four key sectors to boost growth’. The story outlined the “four pillars” the CEO of Kenya is focusing on: ‘Food Security, Affordable Housing, Manufacturing and Affordable Healthcare’.
Stop right now and ask the next ten people you meet whether they can recite Uganda’s strategic priorities – it might be as frustrating as asking fifty people whether or not they know what our National Development Plan (II – not the first one) is.
Mind you, the idea here is not that we should have kept quiet and taken in everything said by the CEO without criticism and analysis, but maybe, just maybe, criticise and analyse after listening?
He spoke about many things: More sophisticated crime detection methods; illegal fishing; local content (Buy Uganda, Build Uganda); improved lake management; irrigation; innovations in solar power usage; import substitution (we annually import finished products worth US$7billion); the need for value addition to our raw materials within Uganda before exporting; more support for scientists; artisanship parks being built in Kampala…
The list is long and it contains many hints as to where the government will be placing its priorities next year – which should direct where the rest of us should place ours so we all push in the same direction and achieve “A Transformed Ugandan Society from a Peasant to a Modern and Prosperous Country within 30 years” – Uganda Vision 2040 as stated in the National Development Plan II.
In the corporate world, after the CEO has made those speeches and presentations, laying out the plans or strategies, the rest of the leadership translates these plans or strategies into departmental and personal plans and strategies so that over the year all staff focus on achieving the central goals and objectives.
After the speech over the weekend, though, do we remember what Uganda’s – OUR – goals and objectives for 2018 are; what the government that is running OUR affairs intends to do this year?
A GROUP of us have agreed to coin the term Corplatitudes to combine two elements of life in Uganda today that people such as myself have in recent years become irritatingly mired in.
‘Corplatitudes’ is made up of two words – ‘Corporate’ and ‘Platitudes’, but inside it there is a clever insertion of the word ‘Attitude’, which is a central issue here.
‘Corporate’ in the sense that we use it in Uganda, referring to seemingly well-employed individuals whose employment makes them dress, speak, and presumably think differently from people such as employees of the government, NGOs, small and medium enterprises, and other such places. The expected promise presented by ‘Corporates’ is one of seriousness, excellence, high business value, quality work delivery, and so on and so forth.
‘Platitudes’ are just that – those statements that have been used so often that they begin to mean absolutely nothing to both the speaker and listener.
Corplatitudes, therefore, should be obvious to all of us since we hear them all the time – especially those of us who deal with so-called ‘Corporates’ – which term encompasses almost anyone in any form of formal employment these days – from a customer or management perspective.
There are phrases such as ‘We apologise for the inconvenience caused’ and ‘Your call is being attended to’, which could fall in this category but don’t. An apology is an apology however insincere, and the fact that your call has been answered, albeit by a machine, could be interpreted as attention.
But Corplatitudes are mostly proferred in response to demands for work accountability. I hear them most when I ask a question such as, “What are you doing?”
And as of this week, I will not be accepting Corplatitudes from anyone anymore.
The ones I am classifying as Corplatitudes and rejecting outright are those such as, “I am/ We are handling it (your issue).” I can’t explain how we began accepting this statement within our offices, but as I have told my colleagues in various places, “handling” doesn’t mean anything sensible to getting actual work done.
Even literally, your “handling” of a matter could keep it in limbo for years on end while it doesn’t actually get resolved. I have been foolish to turn away when told someone is handling something, and I will be foolish no more. Instead, I will demand to know EXACTLY what the person is doing SPECIFICALLY to solve the problem or deliver the required task at hand.
Then there is the delivery “by close of business”, which phrase is frequently used to manage one’s expectation of delivery of things like reports or actual work, and even has the official abbreviation COB.
“Close of business” is not a universal measure of time any more, even for banks! And whose close of business would that be – yours or mine?
Plus, does that mean you will dispatch whatever that is “by close of business” or I will have it in my possession “by COB”? And if I do get it just before COB, then am I really expected to close business for the day and let that report or work task sit on ice overnight or something?
And it is in this last point that one finds the real reason for the Corplatitude “COB” – they promise that knowing that you will most likely be leaving work or business in the hope that you will actually find the report or work task on your desk the next morning. The promise of “COB”, therefore, comes with an automatic buffer that stretches it to “opening of business the next day”. Meanwhile, you can start ‘handling’ it…
With me, that nonsense has ended. We will schedule things using universally accepted timelines and in a manner that allows me also to do work within working hours.
Then there is the classic “we are doing our best to” solve your problem, finish a work task given, find the cause of the fault and so on and so forth.
You are certainly NOT doing your best if the problem is NOT solved, the work task is NOT finished, and the cause of the problem is still NOT known! You are making a mockery of the definition of the word “best”, and that is the worst thing you could do to “best”.
The next rung lower of that wobbly ladder of non-delivery is “we are trying to” do something. As Nike says, “Just Do It!” That’s supposedly why you are employed in the position you are in – because you were tested and found competent to do the work assigned to you. I think.
“Trying” to do something is to admit that you are going about your job like it is guesswork. Pilots shouldn’t just try to fly planes; surgeons shouldn’t just try to conduct operations; soldiers shouldn’t just try to defend the country. DO YOUR JOB!
All these and more, which we will continue to identify with time, represent an attitude of complacency because some people believe that work must be seen to be done without necessarily being done, unlike that saying about justice.
Underlying these Corplatitudes is an attitude of laziness, irresponsibility and, I daresay, childishness – because it’s the corporate equivalent of, “I am sorry, teacher; the dog ate my homework” – the unintelligent version of this was the Abim District Administrator who told fellow adults a few weeks ago that termites had eaten his accountability the vouchers…
From today, I am offering everyone a one-month Corplatitude flushing period during which we should all identify and get rid of the damn things. After that, business and work in general should move faster, better and more sensibly, and “we will achieve economic growth”.
(Give yourself bonus points if you correctly identify the Corplatitude hidden in plain sight there.)
I’m going to number the lessons so it’s easier for you to follow, which is not to say that you might be dense or slow, but, for instance:
1. The first short bit is in Kinyarwanda, so if you’re back here with the complaint that you don’t understand Kinyarwanda then please practice a little patience and go on for a few more minutes till you begin to understand the language he is speaking. Besides that, there is a sublime message about lessons being in existence all around us, even in strange languages…
Again on patience; it’s just over one hour forty four minutes but is such a valuable listen that it is TOTALLY worth the time spent – more than once!
We’ve heard it said over the years that Kagame leads Rwanda like a business-type Chief Executive Officer, and this speech underscores that once again, so kudos to the man.
Listening to the speech one morning after I had gone into near apoplexy during discussions with a wide range of fellows ranging from a wretched gardener to a highly paid senior manager in an otherwise respectable company here in Kampala, I started forwarding the link to all and sundry – starting with the gardener (who has What’sApp!)
But I realise, of course, that the lessons I infer may not be the same ones that others will, so I must share my interpretation and favourite quotes here for anybody else to use.
2. “…this time around we are here for serious business; for change that must take place. That’s what brought us here…and that we are not just in a hurry to leave this place and go back to business as usual.” The man demanded that the collection of senior government officials at the retreat should come up with “something different” for our people (read clients or customers or citizens or colleagues, depending on what you do).
3. “Instead of people coming here hurrying to go back; they are going back in their minds before they have even arrived here!” <— you know how many times we do this, don’t you? Go for a meeting but all through you’re thinking about the evening or weekend ahead…
4. In a tongue-in-cheek comment on workshops, even though this one was obviously useful, he went: “I think we need to extend this period and sit here and reflect…meditation. To have time to meditate and really think; because I don’t think you have time to think seriously. You just need to be kept in one place doing nothing maybe and to feel how good it is to do nothing, and reflect over that, and then maybe when you go back you will do something…” Kagame’s wit is cold, but note that there is a difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking seriously’.
5. A meeting or workshop “can’t be an end in itself. It must be a process to lead us to something more concrete. That’s what I want to hear and that’s what I want to see.” The man is intelligent; too many people hold meetings for the purpose of holding meetings – a subject I am weighing in on during coming weeks.
6. Kagame tells his people, as we should ours, that he is “not capable of changing anybody here to be different or to think differently, but I am capable of keeping challenging you!” THAT is the role of a leader, and when your leader challenges you, take the challenge rather than complain or gripe or do the usual things people do.
7. “People here everyday repeating themselves, being defensive, talking too much, everybody has explanation…everybody is right… it is the other one who is wrong, it is not him, it is not her…and we keep at that for all these years. Nobody takes responsibility, nobody owns up…” THAT is the quagmire many business environments (obvious in governments!) get into, and as he says, nothing gets done!
8. “You ask what happened and somebody dries up…even the simplest thing to say ‘there was this problem; this is why we did not do it’ or ‘we discovered we needed to do something different and differently’…nothing!” Eh! Even Kagame has this problem?! I find it a little uplifting, but on the other hand…
9. “And it is ALL OF US. We see it, we know it, we let it pass! We know what goes wrong every single day; but we expect that somebody else is going to do it; and somebody else is YOU. There is no other person going to do it!” Collective responsibility; and he keeps coming back to this. “This Rwanda of ours, who is going to do it for us? There is nobody interested in your business, in your country. If YOU are not interested, you are dead.” <—substitute Rwanda with your company, family name, anything, and you will get it. That idea that “They” are supposed to do this and “They have not done that…” and the thought that some donors or business angels will solve a problem? Drop it. It’s YOU! YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.
10. “How do you switch off and nobody can find you to deliver things we have the possibility for? I am not asking you to deliver impossible things! How can we fail to deliver on what we have means for?” Good question. And one we must ask everyone whether in business or politics or service delivery.
11. “You are just lost in yourselves…several individuals operating all over the place, it’s not we as a system. You are having a problem realising a system to work as a system. It is just scattered individuals minding their individual business and not the business of this country.” <—teamwork & collective responsibility again.
12. Meanwhile, throughout the tirade, a few people interject with explanations and suggestions but Kagame doesn’t accept any of them – not just out of anger, but because he wants work done, NOT explanations of why work cannot get done. <—again, do you recognise this? And he doesn’t let anyone wriggle out of the blame-sights; not that blaming is a good thing, but on the receiving end taking responsibility so a fault can be fixed IS useful.
13. At one point, the man insists that one government official should tell people how much time has been lost. This is another factor that many employees don’t fully understand – time lost can never be regained and is invaluable, regardless of the opportunity ahead. Always make use of the opportunity you have NOW!
14.”I am putting this question to you not because you were there as individuals, but because as institutions you lead, you were there. What do you think goes wrong and why does it continue getting wrong?” <—and THAT was the crux of the matter, THAT’S what the retreat was supposed to address, summarised into one simple question.
15. “We can’t keep repeating ourselves and doing nothing about it.” <—again and again, do YOU recognise this at YOUR place of work? If so, share this link.
16. “It’s the young people, it’s the old…there are many categories. It’s those who think they know everything, it’s those who are struggling…but you find they all behave the same way! We have the young people who are always making everyone aware that they are young people. Yes, I don’t mind, I am grateful, but what are you delivering? Young is good but it’s even better when you are using that young age to deliver something, because you are quicker, you think faster, you think better, you are educated…Well-educated, fine! But what is your being well-educated delivering to these people…? If you are not doing what is expected of you, it doesn’t matter how much educated you are; you probably wasted that money that took you to school!” <—we’ve talked about this here, haven’t we?
Moving on swiftly:
15. “You better listen more to the one who criticises you because it challenges you to think. Critically. And see what you need to change and improve yourself. Don’t listen too much to those who praise you.” <— surround yourself with critics rather than friends and praise-singers. When people complain about something, don’t go on the defensive, but instead WORK ON IT.
16. “The challenges we have as a country, Rwanda (replace with YOUR country or company or family) and the context in which we operate are completely different from what you see elsewhere. We are not spoilt for anything; we have to struggle every single day to get what we want to get. Nobody is going to deliver it to us.” <— true of everyone! No pain, no gain. You’ve got to work to get anything
17. “Therefore you can’t even do things on the basis that you are better than so-and-so. We have many people to compare ourselves with to deceive ourselves that we are actually very good. How can anyone be there complaining when we are actually better than a whole list of entities you can name?” <—NEVER compare yourself to people or organisations or companies that you feel are inferior to yourself. “For me, it is what are we getting from it that transforms the lives of our people? Period!” <—focus on the objective. And he went on: “If you want to make comparison, compare yourself with those who have achieved what we are struggling to achieve! How can you compare yourself with people sitting and swallowed in a mess?” <—You would think that this is obvious but…
18. Underscoring that point: “You should be more daring. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves with the worst. You should be more daring than that. You should be comparing yourself with the best and saying how much more do I need to do to be there?” Aim high with focus and seriousness, chaps, in whatever you do.
19. “A system is just the aggregate of different parts. If the different parts are sick you transmit that into the system. You delay a decision or you make a wrong decision, it transmits into the system. And we are failing as individuals to take stock of our own weaknesses and problems that we transmit into the system. Get rid of these weaknesses and problems as individuals!” <—YOU have an individual role which you must play correctly and well, and if WE all do our bit then the entire system, company, government, country will run well.
20. “You can’t be a mayor or a governor or a minister or a… if you are hurting the people you are leading, you’ve already gone against the very constitution. Justice must apply…”<—this as a reference to corruption in high office, and we just have to pray that it becomes a mantra taken up right across the continent!
21. At this point, Kagame whips out some logic that must make having a big government job in Rwanda a sleepless affair. According to the big man, people who know what is going wrong and yet do nothing about it or don’t raise the red flag are probably doing something wrong themselves or too blind to be in positions of authority themselves. “You are not supposed to be in that place in the first place. If you are not part of it but you don’t see it…there is something wrong with you also. Otherwise, if you are not part of it and you see it, what stops you from taking action or initiating action?” <— it is not easy having a big government job in Rwanda, luckily for the citizens there!
22. (In an exasperated tone): “Your characters; what are they worth? Some individual character….? It’s like, ‘You have to accommodate me the way I am whether you want it or not’. I don’t want it; period! Why should we be hostage of your terrible characters? Why should Rwandans (replace with YOUR country, YOUR family, YOUR customers and clients) become hostage of your bad character, or your individual profit and selfishness…?” <— see, he refuses to accept the justification ‘people are like that’; the way YOU should refuse to justify or accept silliness in anyone as a character trait.
23. “Everybody is full of self-importance and doing nothing for this country…for this country that has suffered the way it has! Our people. I’m not talking about YOU so much; I’m talking about the more than 11 million Rwandans who are there who even know we are here thinking about them, planning to do things for them and they are there thinking about individuals here who are just lost in themselves and doing petty petty things.” <— gwe, this is talking RAW. But if you believe you are important, Kagame reminds you that you are NOT as important as the people you should serve, who look up to you for that service.
24. “Something negative will always happen. We should all look for reasons why something should NOT be done or should NOT happen, instead of finding reasons for why something (wrong) should happen. (We) should drive in the direction where we say ‘something should be done to remedy this’.” <—if we collectively pull in one direction, if enough of us push for the correct action, we should be capable of making a marked difference. The challenge now is to get as many of us as possible gunning for ‘the right thing’ and ‘the general good’.
25. “I am here to discuss those you call ‘in spite of’; we have achieved this ‘in spite of this’. If you say Rwanda has made progress in spite of this weakness my time should be spent on ‘this weakness’, NOT what we have achieved. what we have achieved we have achieved!” <— DON’T rest on your laurels, as the adage goes. Don’t be satisfied with past achievements and become complacent. Don’t stop aiming high. Don’t be content with a hit here and there.
26. “It’s not just achieving that I am thinking about. It’s two things: 1) How do we sustain what we have achieved? 2) How do we deal with ‘in spite of’ things so that we make more progress?” <— like Kagame, be clear and focussed about your targets/goals/objectives. He refuses to budge from his position over close to two hours in spite of the arguments people, including persuasive ones like Andrew Mwenda, put forward.
27. “If we have delivered things 70% and we have not delivered things 30%…” <— the man is NOT easy to please; and this is commendable. A good leader doesn’t settle easily for apparently good results. 70% good actually means 30% bad – it’s a matter of perspective!
28. “If we have delivered things 70% and we have not delivered things 30%, 70% of my worries are on the 30% we have not delivered and 30% of my worries are on the things that have been delivered. I have more worries about the few things that have NOT been delivered, and less worries about things that have been delivered. The things that have been delivered, my worry is sustainability. But not delivering on the 30% may actually cause the problem of sustainability for the other ones that have not been delivered.” <—again, perspective. He focusses his thinking rightly on what matters to him and why.
29. At one point, Kagame reminds everyone how after a trade mission to the UK, a foreign investor flew into Kigali from the UK, using his own money, to ‘follow up’ on a matter that Rwanda should have had more of an interest in. <— does THIS remind you of anything, in YOUR country or YOUR company? Like a client ‘following up’ on a sales offer your people made to them?
30. “When we went to UK, we did not go as Minister so-and-so individually or President individually…we went as Rwanda as one system!”. <—again, the collective and responsibility. When your employees go out to meet clients do they realise that they do so as THE COMPANY and not just in their individual capacity? When your Sales Executive sends an email do they understand that that email has gone out from YOUR ENTIRE COMPANY and not just humble, little, old so-and-so?
31. “We went there, we came back. But we did not really have a plan of how we are going to attract people as Rwanda, not as ‘when Francis remembers’ or ‘when Kanimba decides to remember’.” <—ALWAYS conduct deliberate planning for official activities, whether country trade promotion or company sales!
32. “This person was even begging us, ‘Can you allow me to follow up for you…?'”
33. “…but this is something being discussed MONTHS after the meeting.” <—do you recognise this as well? An issue being raised in a meeting and not tackled that very day or at least the next, but then being raised again weeks or even months or even YEARS later?
34. “I thought you were exposed to this modern world we live in but when you come home it’s like…to not even be sensitive to this time wasted since October?! Instead of you, these ministers, to have sat when they came back immediately in October and work out something and connect with whoever they need to connect with, they just came and switched off until somebody else from outside came and was literally begging us…on something that is obvious. And even then someone can delay them saying ‘we are still thinking about it or what do do…'” <—tell me you DON’T recognise this in your company, country or even your home!
35. “You fight with an army you have. If you have a sick army, that’s the one you have; that will be reflected in the battle. You cannot have a sick army and fight a war as if you have an army that is quick on their feet. The sickness in the army will be reflected in how you fight the battles. How things can be done and should be done is known, but the gap arises because of how people translate what they know into what they do and should do.” <—this, being part of the famous exchange with Andrew Mwenda, and is self-explanatory.
36. “We have to call a spade a spade…” <—he didn’t just call a spade a spade, he spent almost two hours naming an entire workshop, literally!
As I said, if you don’t stop and listen to this speech to gain motivation; if you don’t share it with all your workmates and employees, and employers and members of parliament and government technocrats on the continent of Africa, you are wasting both time and space just being alive.
LAST week I sat down to coffee with a former junior colleague of mine to whom I first revealed my ‘Toilet Approach To Work’ thesis months ago.
Unbeknownst to him, I had designed a mini-project to alter the way he lived his life and heighten whatever positives he might have, without presuming to be his mentor.
The process was lengthy and threatened to be frustrating, especially because he tended, like many do, to avoid my grumpy, critical and seemingly judgemental presence.
After realising that my tips and hints were probably just littering the air around him, and almost suffocating myself with the resultant frustration, one morning I snapped and summoned him for a chat.
It went well in that he listened and responded appropriately, but he kept blocking my points with excuses and reasons.
I had learnt the conflict resolution tactic of looking away briefly from your opponent/adversary, and as I did so to avoid an explosion at the young fellow, my eyes fell upon the toilet door.
It wasn’t attractive or catchy in any way, but I focussed on it as I contemplated my next move. I did consider, briefly, sending him through that door (NOT head first in anger!) to think about his life and that’s when the theory presented itself so quickly I turned back to him:
“Do you plan your day before you leave home for the office?”
“Er…yes. I think so…”
“I make sure I have enough transport…”
“THAT’S not planning. See that toilet door?”
“Do you plan your trips to the toilet?”
As expected, since I was making it up, we stumbled a little over this part until I had the explanation laid out:
We don’t plan our trips to the toilet (in general); we get an urge that is biologically stimulated, and our bodies respond to it as and when required.
Work should not be approached the same way; work needs to be approached with purpose, plans, objectives, motivation and energy.
The ‘Toilet Approach to Work’, I told him, covered the tendency people like him had of approaching work the way they do the call to the toilet.
For instance, some people go to the toilet and don’t even know what they will do once they’re there. They start at the urinal bowl, then find themselves having to sit on the toilet. Even then, they are totally unsure of the quality of their output, solid or not.
Either way, approaching work like one does the toilet generally results in waste material.
You don’t plan anything and just present yourself and the relevant bits of your digestive system, then biology takes over.
Whatever you’ve got is what you let out, until it’s done.
Approaching work like one does the toilet also leaves a foul smell, evidence of the quality of work you do, I told him.
And to avoid the foul smell lingering, approaching work like one does the toilet necessitates the application of air deodorisers and whatnot, which is an additional cost to the workplace correcting what you’ve done wrong.
He shouldn’t, I insisted, approach work like he was going to the toilet.
Instead, I implored the fellow, plan your day, set measurable targets, and spend time at work ensuring that you’re being useful and producing stuff that your colleagues will be pleased to see after you’ve left.
By this point, he had coughed up a little protest but I pressed on:
Many people, especially in workplaces, leave for the toilet with insincerity saying silly things like, “Let me come…” or “Be right back…” or “I’ve got to check on something…”
Then they screw their faces up into serious looks as if heading into the cubicle to concoct the cure for Ebola.
That, I explained, is the same as making empty promises to deliver reports “by COB” and “OTIF” and “meeting targets”.
If you’re going to do something, just do it!
In the toilet, you’ve got to keep your head down, aim low, make as little noise as possible, and avoid physical contact with other people; if you do the same in the workplace then you’re a liability.
The toilet approach to work, I concluded, is as small-minded as the space allocated to the toilet in any ordinary workplace.
Long before I joined British American Tobacco (BAT) as a staffer, I was a journalist and one day got invited to the BAT offices by their Comms man, Henry Rugamba, to be shown round their new open-plan offices in the hope that a feature commentary would result about the progressive nature of the company.
Open plan offices were quite modern back then, and exciting. They signified a new way of thinking, and suggested sophisticated behaviour. The company with an open plan layout was forward looking and led the way in everything else. Employees of such a company were less likely to use foul language, since they would look ridiculous in front of everyone; and also less prone to the temptations that come alive behind closed doors.
It had one door leading to the entire office – thus necessitating electronic, keypad or fingerprint access. It had soft-back chairs and modern office desks, and coffee machines.
Eventually it was in those same offices that I was involved in making some drastic, staff-driven changes to management, spurred on by the same openness encouraged by having an open-plan office, but I will get to that later.
That day, though, Henry effused about the open plan layout and must have wondered why I was so unmoved by the brief tour. But you see, my office at the time was the newsroom at The New Vision, which was as open plan as one could get without working outdoors. And even though the chiefs had their territory marked by way of desk placement, we were basically equals in most other things.
Shortly after that, I started working with the Vice President, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, and was assigned a plush office on the second floor of the President’s Office wing of the Parliamentary Buildings.
I was a ‘big man’ employed at Director level and on a special contract, moreover in State House.
Within fifteen minutes, I was disconcerted by the silence and solitude of the massive room with its red carpeting, and wedged the door open so I could interact with people going by through the corridor. That way, I figured, I would quickly get to know most of the people in the building and also introduce myself all round.
Some minutes later, I witnessed someone almost suffer a heart attack as they were walking past when he realised the door was open and I was sitting right there! The fellow didn’t know whether to run forward or somersault backwards and essentially did both at the same time, with the net effect that he stayed in one place and stumbled comically.
The next person to come along was also discombobulated, and eventually one polite, elderly secretary chosen to bell the cat came over to quickly greet me and remove the wedge.
I protested and even though she firmly told me how “we don’t do this” I insisted on having my door wedged open. Twenty minutes later, another staffer walking by recovered from her shock to also try to shut the door; and another an hour later who didn’t even say a word but shut the door all the same.
I realised I was probably going to spend my days explaining to people why my door was open, and walking across the expanse of office to wedge it open again. And I gave up.
But since we spent most of our time working out of doors in the field, I realised that at the highest level of government most of the work is actually done in an open-plan environment; the President’s meetings are always out in the open, and just about anybody gets to meet him at State House, talking openly about anything that suits their fancy.
So when I eventually got to BAT as an employee, I figured I knew it all and was quite surprised when our Managing Director showed tyrannical and unpopular tendencies. It didn’t take us too long to rise up and change him – not by revolution, but through open dialogue and clearly stating our displeasure directly to him.
Open plan flattens space so employees are essentially the same. We all use the same desks and chairs. We all breathe the same space. We are not too special to look at each other. We are just workmates sharing space to achieve the same objective. It’s easier to talk and share views and ideas. Work gets done faster. The negatives of bureaucracy are fewer or less burdening.
Experience has convinced me about the usefulness of the open plan environment, and to this day I try to break down office walls so that employees can avoid closed minded environments; and so managers don’t become kings in little office castles.
Worse, closed doors allow managers to operate like little gods; their staff only entering into the shrine on occasion to receive curses or blessings depending on the strength of their sacrifice – be it a report here, an invitation card there, a problem solved or a problem being presented.
We should continue to break them down, so there are no mysterious issues behind closed doors, building fear and uncertainty outside of them; and people don’t disappear with keys and turn maniacal with the control that it gives them (including toilet keys).