Strategic Pioneering in Africa

sobat logo-3This week, I am part of a team launching a new School of Business & Applied Technology (SoBAT:, in Kampala, Uganda. I believe we are among the “first” of business schools to work in partnership with business and industry to focus on practical application of skills and developing character among students. We are proposing an apprentice-type model where this starts to happen from the beginning of the course, so that by the end, students are fully productive and already earning to fund their education.  I believe we are, in this sense, pioneers.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a tradition of pioneering – and, I believe, this tradition has not been lost!   When you put “pioneer” into the Google search engine, you get several references to the early settlers and explorers in North America, perhaps because Google along with the internet is still quite USA-centric.  But when I think of pioneering, I think of the likes of David Livingston, Henry Stanley and John Hanning Speke exploring Africa, on missions such as seeking the source of the longest river in the world, the Nile.

The origin of the word “pioneer” is the French word “pionnier” which perhaps surprisingly  means “foot soldier”.  It is one who is in front, who goes first.  One definition of pioneer is a leader, but not in the traditional sense of the one who is in charge, inspiring forward motion through great oratory or decision making, but just by virtue of being first, at the front.  Surprising as we probably think of pioneers as being a rather solitary existence, but clearly there are many foot soldiers at the front of an army battle line. We get perhaps a better sense when we consider a common root is the word “pawn”  in chess.

As an amateur song writer and performer, I have written many songs in my life.  One of them, an attempt at a humerous song called “If I were a chess piece” contained the refrain: “if I were a chess piece, I’d be a pawn”.  The lyrics continue with the idea that pawns, unlike bishops: “don’t get stuck on the white, and don’t get stuck on the black; they keep on going forward because they cant go back…” . Rather uncomfortably, they may get sacrificed for some greater good, the gaining of a better position or a more important piece.   But most intriguingly, they are the only piece that can metamorphose into the most valuable piece on the chess board, the queen”

Its an interesting picture of pioneers… at the front, risk takers not intentionally but because of their role …  because they sometimes make sacrificial moves, , and  are occasionally part of some glorious moment in history … the discovery of the source of the Nile, or electric light,  or the first to the South Pole, or the top of Everest.  It is pioneers who are essential for progress, and ultimately achievement and positive change.

Africa has been a pioneer in the field of Mobile Banking, which has originated in Kenya with M-Pesa, and is now widely adopted across East Africa.  It has emerged out of the combination of necessity and the availability of technology.  The need was for more efficient ways of paying for services over long distance, when the majority of the population don’t have bank accounts, but do have mobile phones.  Africa are pioneers by virtue of being first.  Apple Pay might have the technological smarts to make this technology more widely available globally,  but Africa has nevertheless been the pioneer.

Pioneering is in the spirit of innovation.  The global business world grapples with the secrets of innovation, because invariably, effective innovation can lead to more profitable business. But the secrets of effective innovation are elusive;  not least, because it involves taking risk. We witness innovation as risky because it is moving into unchartered territory, and therefore the range of possible outcomes increases, ie it becomes more risky. Innovation is achieved through pioneers.  Organisations that want effective innovation need the right kind of pioneers.  This in turn, requires a certain type of organizational character, which encourages pioneers, those who would lead by being first.

In this extract from my book “Risky Strategy”  I make the case for the  type of character that leads to “strategic pioneering”:

“If we want to understand what’s behind effective innovation and positive change, we need to look at character.  Leadership is directional and involves movement; it’s not static. It’s taking people from one place to another place, to a new outcome, to a new way of seeing the world and how it works. This is innovative change, and doing this well is what marks out effective innovators from those who are less successful. And character is at the heart of this process.  Jim Collins outlined the attributes of the leaders in most successful businesses that he researched in Good to Great.  He talked of character attributes such as fortitude, humility and discipline. In Chapter 3, I described a character journey that culminated in the Blonay Profiler: Bold Creative, Empathic and Self-Disciplined. Leaders of innovation change need a blend of all three, which is hard to achieve because of the tensions between the dimensions.  Most of all, I believe the Bold Creative dimension is the one that is crucial.

I am calling those who have an extra dollop of the Bold Creative dimension ‘strategic pioneers’. They are proactive more than they are responsive, and they are intuitive more than they are analytical. They celebrate difference and diversity more than form and order, and are more likely to be found on their own than in a pack.  They are natural risk takers.

Our tigers and elephants were born in a story in our research about innovation. This was the race to a global launch of a new product in the fast growing computer games market. Elephants were needed to make sure all the right processes were in place, with the appropriate attention to detail,and to ask the difficult questions: “What if this doesn’t work as we expect? What if customers don’t like that?”.  Meanwhile, tigers were cutting corners, firing before aiming and going with their intuition. Somehow the organisation managed to hold them together, and a successful launch was the result.

It is interesting that Gerstner’s book on the transformation of IBM (Gerstner, 2002) is called Who says elephants can’t dance.   This is the story of IBM’s transformation over a decade from the early 1990s, from a computer products company to a business services firm, while Gerstner was CEO.  In this case, the elephant metaphor is clearly meant to symbolise a large organisation, which typically struggles to change very much because of the inertia of its existing expertise and culture.  What helps the elephant to dance, I would argue, is the presence of tigers, and particularly a tiger at the helm of the business.  He talks about taking two big bets: one to turn IBM into a fully integrated services business, not just the largest but the most influential.  The second was to bet that the market would move away from standalone computers to network-based solutions. He talks about it as fraught with risk,  and suggests: “There is no such thing as a toe in the water. When you take the plunge, its full body immersion.”