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Dear Editor: Five reasons the worst is yet to come in T&T

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.

Photo: Former House Speaker Wade Mark (left) talks to students in Parliament.
(Courtesy Gov.tt)

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.

Failed institutions

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.

Photo: A vehicle approaches a pothole.
(Copyright UK Telegraph)

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.

Photo: Workers at Petrotrin refinery.
(Copyright Industriall.union.org)

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.

Photo: Murdered prison escapee Hassan Atwell poses for the camera during his time as an inmate.

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.

Photo: Revellers enjoy themselves during the 2016 J’Ouvert celebrations.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

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.

Photo: The price of crude oil remains low.
(Courtesy Newstide247.com)

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.

Photo: Prime minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and his wife Sharon Rowley (centre) observe the Independence Day Parade on 31 August 2018.
(Copyright Ministry of National Security)

About Keita Demming

Keita Demming
Keita Demming holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. His podcast Disruptive Conversations is an effort to unpack how people who are working to disrupt a sector or system think. Dr Demming has worked internationally and in a variety of sectors within the field of social innovation. He also holds the license for TEDxPortofSpain.

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6 comments

  1. So on the one hand, “We ignore the lifelong process of socialisation that made them into criminals”; on the other hand, “Too many of us are self-focused and not community focused.” So one group is shaped by external forces, while another is failing morally.

    This kind of contradiction is a failure of critical thinking.

  2. Most of this is valid and true but wish to focus on point One which RUDY PIGOTT FORMER HISTORY MASTER OF QRC tried for his entire teaching/nurturing life to drill into the heads of his TT children….At the celebration of his life ceremony one of his now learned students told me she HAD to be there because he taught her the one most valuable lesson of her very successful life.QUOTE..
    HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO THINK.
    And that is where it starts and all else follows.

  3. I go to school in the US now, so kinda disagree with your stance on our education system. It is challenging which is good. I think the primary education is too exam-centered, that’s a fact. However, I think if youths are encouraged to pursue what they are good at, besides the traditional Doctor, lawyer, engineer posts, I think we would see much better results. Also, which country has super high paying job positions available after graduation? I have been looking high and low. Also, are you suggesting that the variety of free programs for skills and trade are of no value? Personally I think a lot is accessible to our population, it’s how it is used and how it is managed by those in authority that is the issue.

  4. Brilliant analysis of the country. I totally agree and I do not have a PhD or any of the letters. I worked with Petrotrin for 22.years and could not rise because performance took a second place to credentials. Hoping things do not get worse but believe they will have to before they get better.

  5. Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.
    The forces of destruction begin with toddlers — a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars — and on up through the university. On the job people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable. – W. Edward Deming 1990

  6. We are not taught how to think! The perception of an implied problem.
    “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.”
    The issue here is “rote memorization” vs “critical thinking” skills applications.
    A very interesting narrative on the misunderstandings of “rote memorization” , “critical thinking” applications utilized by the T&T educational system and business enterprises.
    Clearly visible is the existence of a “rote memorization” process dominating the education system long before the birth of the nation. This not going to change! One should not misunderstand the global significance of this process.
    The preferred method that article alluded to involves “critical thinking”. This is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.
    What is not clear is whether the writer realizes the Foley of not studying the effects of non-verbal communication transmitted by his article.
    What is critical thinking?
    Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:
    Understand the logical connections between ideas
    Identify, construct and evaluate arguments
    Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
    Solve problems systematically
    Identify the relevance and importance of ideas
    Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values
    Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform him.
    What is Rote Learning?
    Rote learning is defined as the memorization of information based on repetition. The two best examples of rote learning are the alphabet and numbers. Slightly more complicated examples include multiplication tables and spelling words. At the high-school level, scientific elements and their chemical numbers must be memorized by rote. And, many times, teachers use rote learning without even realizing they do so.
    Does rote learning have a place in 21st-century education?
    Is rote learning an outdated technique or is there a valid place for its use in the classroom today?
    Increasingly, rote learning is being abandoned for newer techniques such as associative learning, Meta cognition, and critical thinking instead of being used as a functional foundation to higher levels of learning.
    It’s always useful to apply meaningful relationships to basic skills. At the end of the day, however, rote learning plays a bigger role than most teachers would like to recognize in today’s learning climate. It’s up to us to leverage our own unique teaching methods to produce the most effective learning environment for our students, and it’s important to keep an open mind around “the right” approach.
    Consider this: How do students learn the alphabet or multiplication tables if not through rote memorization? For that matter, can a high school chemistry student progress without having the Table of Elements memorized?
    Rote learning and memorization do not equal higher-level thinking, and should not replace one for the other. Rote learning, however, is the cornerstone of higher-level thinking and should not be ignored. Especially in today’s advanced technological world, rote memorization might be even more important than ever! Think of rote learning as the filing system for your brain. If you can easily access the information when performing a certain task, the brain is free to make major leaps in learning.
    If the intent of the author’s article is to facilitate changing the system or to seek creditability for his paper. Then examine the national curriculum and syllabus as a starting point. Further, put the burden on UWI to collaborate with the public to produce a better product.
    Dr.Cliff Bertrand
    Educator