Recent events in Trinidad and Tobago like the closing of Petrotrin and many other examples have signalled that we are in crisis. For some, we are seeing a crisis of leadership, for others, we are seeing a crisis of governance. It is hard to deny that our future is uncertain.
Unfortunately, from where I sit, things are only going to get worse and there are five reasons:
We are not taught how to think
Our education does not teach us how to think but teaches us what to think. As a result, our system rewards those who are best at regurgitating what they have been taught versus independent or divergent thinking. Ironically, even corruption is facilitated by rule-following.
Whistleblowing is a form of a rule-breaking. When a whistleblower breaks from the status quo, they have broken the social contract that usually allows the corruption to continue. Many of the people in top positions: lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc, are the hallmark of people who are good at following rules. A major component of innovation is breaking rules. Breaking rules that prevent us from delivering the best value to our end users.
Innovators look at a system and ask, “Why are things done this way?” They then proceed to redefine the rules of the game.
In Trinidad and Tobago, it is difficult to be a rule-breaker or rebel because those in power are likely to be rule-followers. The people you need to convince that a new way is possible are not the same people who are willing to challenge the status quo.
We are a small nation and the risk of failure is great. When people take risks, we focus on their failed attempts at breaking the status quo and the failure follows the person for life. This means that people hesitate when considering taking risks and they comply with a model that tells you what to do and think versus a model the compels you to question everything. We are caught in a trap and until we break this cycle things will continue to get worse.
Some years ago, I wrote a Master’s thesis, and as part of the research I interviewed a number of public sector employees who had been involved in a major change initiative. The insights of that thesis won me the thesis of the year amongst some 200 students at the University of Manchester. One of my observations in that work was that developmental failure is really about organisational failure and institutional failure.
Our focus tends to be on the outcomes and not the systems and processes that produced the failed outcome. Today, the problems we are seeing in Trinidad and Tobago can be described as the “presenting problems.” They are the result of problems that are occurring further upstream.
The truth is that presenting problems are almost never where we find solutions. In our case, because our systems and processes are ineffective, they produce problems further upstream.
For example, we all complain about crime and the number of murders in the country. Yet murders and criminals are not born, they are created. With the exception of the small percentage of people who are sociopaths, our system is producing crime and criminals.
The solution to crime is not more police or better policing. The intervention needs to happen further upstream. If we had institutions that were better at transitioning people from school to work-life, fewer people would opt to engage in illegal activity.
If there were sufficient well-paid jobs after you graduated, we would retain more of our talent. If our schools were better at ensuring more people graduated, we would be able to reduce the number of people who choose a life of crime.
Most of us would be hard pressed to think of an institution that is working well. Until we build strong institutions we will continue to see failure after failure. Petrotrin is just another example of a failed institution.
We do not respect evidence-based approaches
Building on the point of failed institutions, one of the major shortcomings of our institutions is that they are not designed to incorporate evidence into their decision-making processes.
Often, when working with teams in Trinidad and Tobago, I experience a moment where we are using data to make a decision and it quickly becomes evident to me that people do not value the use of the data. As a result, what gets done is based on the “feeling” of the most powerful person in the room or the opinions of the majority.
There are so many problems with this approach but the biggest problem is that often the presenting problem is not the problem. Data helps us understand the underlying reasons for persistent problems. A good example could be how we talk about crime.
The dominant narrative on crime focuses on the criminal and the hotspot areas. We do not talk about how a beautiful baby becomes a hardened criminal. Instead, we look at criminals and dehumanise them with descriptors like “the element”, a term that I absolutely abhor.
We ignore the lifelong process of socialisation that made them into criminals. We do not look at the circumstances that led to that person becoming a hardened criminal and until we begin to look upstream these problems will persist. Not only does it dehumanise the problem, but it also fails to acknowledge how our institutions failed that person throughout their journey.
When working with teams in Trinidad and Tobago it is evident that people are unfamiliar with using data to make decisions.
We are stuck in the short-term
I curate and manage TEDx Port of Spain’s annual conference, and every year we have to negotiate with the venue about the date of our event. The venue does not have a system in place for us to book two years in advance. So the longest timeline we can really work with is about 18 months, and even that is a stretch.
As a result, it is difficult for us to book really high profile speakers who need at least one year’s notice. Short-term planning is therefore built into the DNA of our systems. Highly successful companies plan five and ten years ahead. In Trinidad and Tobago, our systems are designed to keep us stuck in short-term planning.
It is part of the system in which we operate. Even worse, on a national level, it has long been demonstrated that we cannot plan more than five years ahead. Sometimes we even appear surprised by the date of Carnival which is known more than 25 years in advance. In our system, each time we change governments and hence political parties we change the plan. We do not build on what others have initiated.
Long-term is not what we do and it severely limits our capacity to build the future. The classic example of this is if we compare Norway’s sovereign fund, established in 1990 and now valued at 1-trillion dollars with Trinidad and Tobago’s Heritage and Stabilization Fund (HSF) which was established in 2007 and is now the go-to piggy bank for withdrawals.
Norway’s sovereign fund that was established for future generations and is the now the highest performing fund in the world. Trinidad and Tobago had a chance to do a similar thing and that chance has been squandered.
What compounds the issue is that we do not have the patience for deep, thoughtful work. Some years ago I did some work for a high profile organisation in Trinidad and Tobago. I was told that my work was too thorough and too well thought out by the client. I was confused. So, I left the project because I only know how to do deep, thoughtful work. Through the grapevine, I met the person who took over my role and he told me that you can only do shallow work, that is how you keep these clients.
Going far is slow thoughtful work. We do not have the patience to do thoughtful work. For example, Petrotrin could have been handled in a thoughtful manner, but this administration chose expedience.
We are ignoring the signals
Failure is never a surprise. We are often so wedded to our solutions or the status quo that we misread the signals of impending disaster. Failure doesn’t come out of the blue, there are always signals but we can’t hear or see them amidst the party noise.
Can you conceive of a future where oil continues to be a major global commodity? The green technology revolution is coming. The push for green technology has been happening since the 1990’s but we have been ignoring it. The price of oil has always been volatile, but we have placed the hopes of our children’s future on the backs of a single commodity.
The signals of an era of low oil prices have been there for a long time, but because we have a low tolerance for views that are different and place too high a value on compliance, we are unable to see the signals. Upton Sinclair said it best, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
For far too long our salaries have depended on oil so we have been motivated to ignore the signals. As a result, we feel blindsided when a failure occurs.
It can be argued that we are seeing the signs, but we sure are not doing anything about it that helps move us in a direction that builds our future. Petrotrin and its works are the side effect of a poor national strategy. We have no strategy. We have no vision. As a result, things are only going to get worse.
Change requires that we change. It’s the first principle of transformation. Too many of us are self-focused and not community focused. Unions can only react with resistance. Rowley can only exert old power from the top. It is all he knows. Nothing in his past experience has taught him a different way of operating the world. He and Imbert are in power and neither of them I would describe as self-reflective or humble.
For now, the future of our nation is in their hands. They are doing the best they can with the tools they have and unfortunately, it will not be enough.
They, and consequently we, are not equipped to bring ourselves into the 21st century. They are making decisions our behalf. So, things are going to get so much worse and I hope we will be able to recover.