Managing Partner at Verraki, a business and technology solutions firm, Mr. Niyi Yusuf, in this interview advises business leaders on how to build and nurture resilient organisations. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of organisations in every corner of the global economy, especially Nigeria. What are the lessons and how ready are organisations to face what comes next in terms of difficult situations like volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA)?
You have asked two questions: what we have learned, and our readiness for whatever comes next. Let me answer the latter first. No, we are not ready for whatever comes next and that is because we don’t know what can come, we don’t know when the next black swan event will happen. No one predicted COVID-19 or the impact that it would have, so it’s difficult to determine or guess what can come next. No one can ever be full-proof and ready for uncertainties, we can of course prepare so our readiness and response will be better and faster than what we did for COVID-19. We can prepare for crises but must also realize that we are not in control of every variable, even though we may pretend that we are, or wish so. We can only prepare ourselves to be more resilient to tolerate and absorb whatever comes, especially the low probability but high impact events. That said, if we step back and are humble enough to understand that there are many things we don’t know, perhaps, we can approach life differently. Another thing we have learned is that we live in an integrated world and something that happens in a corner of Wuhan or actions of a political leader in a country can impact the world. A third thing I have learned is that many businesses are built for normal situations, which is why many struggled during this pandemic. Another learning point is the need for resilient leadership, because the role of leadership is critical during uncertainties, to provide hope and guidance, whether in business or government. However, the most important thing I have learned is that while uncertainties may sound death knells for many organisations, they provide immense opportunities for a few who recognise them and are quick to take advantage. Many companies have become unicorns and quadrupled in value during the pandemic. Many companies are being formed now to respond to COVID-19 opportunities in New York, Delhi, Nairobi and even Lagos that in a few years, will disrupt the world. Because if we look back, Airbnb, Instagram, Whatsapp, Slack, Uber, Square and many iconic organisations were established in 2008 during the mortgage crisis. Disney, Revlon, Hyatt, Fedex, Google, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft were formed during periods of significant economic crisis. Some great companies are being formed now that we will only get to know in another five years. The question for businesses is; will you be part of those great companies? Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention and every major crisis had provided opportunity to reshape the world. The current world order symbolised by the United Nations Organisation, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the Europe that we know today, were established based on the lessons of both world war I & II, while the dynamism of Japan came out of the ashes of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I know that the current coronavirus pandemic will birth some great innovations, companies and a new world order. I am hopeful that Africa and African businesses will be a part of this remold.
You have talked about opportunities within the pandemic, what do you think are the biggest challenges you see and opportunities the pandemic brings to transform how we work and live?
There are some obvious benefits; for instance, the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation. It has forced everyone; old, young, governments, private sector, social sector, urban dwellers as well as those in rural areas, to digitalize and to embrace digitalization. Last year, if you had told employers that their employees can work remotely for a month from home, they would have scoffed at it. I know an employer who had just installed a time and attendance system in Q4 2019 so that people can clock in at eight o’clock and clock out at five o’clock. And then the pandemic happened and lockdowns forced everyone to sit at home. So digitalization has changed our mindsets and made us to quickly embrace technology and to work from home and effectively too. For the challenges, I see two – the first is digital inclusion and the second is the mindset. We have high level of financial exclusion in Nigeria, and we know that above 36 million adults do not enjoy financial services. Not sure what the numbers are for digital exclusion but I suspect they are higher than for financial exclusion, as many people in the rural areas do not have the kind of technology access that you and I take for granted. Many people understood the implication of high cost of data and unreliable electricity supply during the lockdown. Wi-Fi and electricity are typically available for those that live in highbrow areas and serviced apartments, while availability, affordability and accessibility are perennial issues for the average Nigerian thereby limiting the number of hours they can be online and the volume of downloads they can afford. I am a member of an Islamic society, NASFAT, and became the president of the society last year. We currently have over 300 branches nationwide, with primary schools, secondary schools and a university. During the pandemic, we experienced this digital exclusion with many of our primary school students, especially those in the deep hinterlands. Our schools were running online classes but many students in the deep hinterlands in the South and Northern parts of Nigeria, could not join because their parents were unable to afford the data for Zoom, or even afford the smartphones required. So some of our schools had to adapt by developing a scheme to support the parents with cheap smartphones. The teachers would record voice notes or video on WhatsApp, to be downloaded by the parents. So instead of spending four hours online listening to a zoom class, the parents would download all the voice notes, videos, and assignments within 10 minutes. When they are done with their assignments, they would snap them and send them back to the teacher via Whatsapp. I found this interesting and reflective of the challenge of access. So digital exclusion is a huge, huge concern. And the reality is that Lagos is not Nigeria. The second hurdle is one of mindset; the ability of business leaders to embrace and accept technology even without the duress of a pandemic. It will be interesting to see how much WFH has become a culture a few years from now. For many companies like Verraki, they have been working from home since March 2020 and have been very effective. A company like Andela has terminated its office lease and is now operating 100 per cent virtual. So even if COVID-19 stops tomorrow, we are unlikely to go back to 100 per cent office work, we will apply at best, a hybrid of physical and virtual. I expect many digitalised companies will adopt this.
How can organisations adopt resilience, not only in terms of their business but also their operations, and people?
The first step to building resilience is accepting the reality that there is an issue and things have changed. In the current pandemic, we must realize that there is both a health hazard and safety issue, so we must accept the reality that the world as we knew it has changed and we will have to do more to keep ourselves safe. The remedy isn’t to reject it, in Nigerian parlance, or to wish it away. Secondly, We need to build and maintain a positive mindset that sees growth opportunities. It’s the classic half-cup analogy; do you see it as full or empty. Someone told me recently that the cup is always full; it is 50 per cent water and 50 per cent air. I think that captures the required positive mindset succinctly, to see opportunities in everything. And it’s not easy, we must train ourselves and our teams to have a positive mindset and look for the growth potential, as opposed to bunkering down in fear. Thirdly, VUCA periods provide a time to focus on interpreting your mission and focusing on it. If you understand your mission and are driven by that purpose, the chances that you will keep going, even in the face of the greatest hurdles are high; you are mission-driven and so will keep your eye on the ball.
The fourth step: do not wait till you have complete information before you can decide. Avoid analysis paralysis, where you keep analysing and requesting more information before you can understand and take a decision. In a crisis period, you may not have all the information you need. You have to use available information to take measured small steps, bets and investments, and build flexibility into options to allow you be agile.
The fifth step is to build a culture of mutual trust and a safe environment for people that promotes psychological safety. There are many uncertainties already; you should not create new uncertainties for your partners, colleagues and staff. You need to create a culture where people can ask why, test new ideas, and challenge the status quo. By being able to ask the right questions, hopefully, they will be able to better understand and embrace change, especially the type of change that comes with crisis.
How can organisations and people design for resilience?
When we are designing organisational processes, we typically ensure that we are creating the right user interface and user experience for our customers. So, this is the same way organizations must design their systems and processes to improve employee engagement or experience. Organisations should make sure that the systems, policies, and processes they have in place remove the frictions that irritate employees, slow down work, and make the organization not easy to do business with. The second thing is to make sure that in designing for resilience, you focus on the five forces that drive growth; people, technology, customer, capital, and entrepreneurship. When you have the right people, they will do the right things to acquire and excite customers. When you have the right technology, you are likely to drive growth. The third is the customer. If you have the right customer types, you are more likely to be on a growth trajectory. When you have the right amount of capital to do business, you can capture opportunities and drive growth. And the last one is entrepreneurship; the ability to take risks to attain the rewards for risk; capital appreciation, market share, and so on. In designing for resilience, you need to focus on these five factors of growth and make sure that you design your policies and systems to enable these five factors. You need to enable your people to be able to excel and achieve their potential. And design to maximize the use of technology. You must also design an excellent customer experience to retain loyal customers. You must also desire your people to be entrepreneurs who can innovate, who can challenge the status quo, and take risks that will lead to prosperity and growth. The third thing you need to do is to make sure you put the right people, with the right skills, in the right place at the right time and for the right price. And when you do these things right, then you are likely to have great people or great talents working to support the organisation. And skills are important, as, in a crisis period, it is the ability to adapt and learn relevant skills that determine resilience. This is why organisations need to develop a culture where staff can be self-directed and can take responsibility for their growth and skills with personalised learning. When designing for resilience, it is important to design for diversification. You should have multiple suppliers instead of one, so you will not be held hostage when one fails. At Verraki for instance, we have built capabilities across 3 market sectors – services, the public sector, and the real sector. We have been seeing good growth in services compared to the other two sectors, largely because Nigeria is becoming a service-oriented economy. This diversification has helped us, as we can serve, for instance, telecoms, or banking or technology sectors when oil and gas sector is not growing. That’s the benefit of diversifying your services.
And lastly, to design for resilience, learn to set micro-goals, especially within a crisis period. You don’t set a goal for a year when you are not sure what will happen. You set a goal for a month. After you achieve that goal, you set a goal for the next month or quarter. And these micro-goals should reflect the situation at that moment and align with the realities of the day. The attainment of these micro goals will help build momentum for growth instead of despair and despondency.
The new normal occasioned by COVID-19, has increased workers’ dependency on broadband access for internet connectivity. As a technology company, how will you advise the government on cheap and ubiquitous broadband access?
According to the NCC, as at November 2020 we had 207 million active subscribers for telephony services across all the networks utilising different technologies including GSM, CDMA, Fixed Wireless and Fixed Wired (i.e. Landline), of which 155 million are internet subcribers with 86 million using mobile broadband and with 4G coverage now available to 37 per cent of the population. With a mobile broadband penetration of 45.07 per cent, Nigeria is well on its way towards achieving the 70 per cent target set in the National Broadband Plan 2020 -2025 having surpassed the 30 per cent target of the expired National Broadband Plan 2013-2018. The National Broadband Plan aims to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria, a minimum of 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas, achieving a penetration rate of 70 per cent and covering at least 90 per cent of the population by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data (2 per cent of median income or one per cent of minimum wage). A landmark regional study of the majority of countries in Africa conducted by the International Telecoms Union (ITU) confirms that an increase of 10 per cent in mobile broadband penetration yields an increase in 2.5 per cent in GDP per capita, while strikingly, it suggests that a 10 per cent drop in mobile broadband prices will boost adoption of mobile broadband technology by more than 3.1 per cent.
Given our context-size, spread, lack of fixed infrastructure and challenges with laying fibre-optic cable across the country – the government is rightly focused on mobile broadband as a way to provide affordable and ubiquitous access. Achieving the target coverage of at least 90 per cent of the population at a price of 1GB data that is not more than 1 per cent of minimum wage by 2025 will require deliberate interventions, concerted efforts and urgent tending by all stakeholders (operators, communities, regulators, civil organisations and governments across Federal, State and Local tiers) to remove the current hurdles associated with our business environment including multiple and sometimes conflicting regulatory policing by more than 10 government agencies, high costs of Right of Way (RoW), expensive broadband equipment due to high cost of, and limited access to, foreign exchange, community conflicts, equipment vandalism and general limited availability of public backbone digital infrastructure across Nigeria, via fibre optic cables, cell towers, Internet routers, wireless spectrum, and reliable electricity. We just heard how Tizeti launched a 4G LTE broadband service for N4000 ($8.5) monthly, in Edo State, due to favourable concessions given to broadband companies. Government at all tiers must provide concessions as part of their own deliberate upfront investments to foster affordable broadband access across the country and then seek to reap the benefits afterwards of increased economic growth, wealth creation and prosperity. As opposed to instant gratification, government must be ready to groom, support and nurture the proverbial goose that is laying the golden egg, so that the telecom industry can provide long term sustainable returns and the overall digital economy can prosper.
The four regional Infracos licensed over the last five years have not recorded much success. Highlighting the need for government to do more to remove the bottlenecks that currently constrain internet access and delivery by reducing connectivity and ROW costs to the minimum, encouraging telco players to implement zero rating services, easing the process for acquiring base stations and ROW, providing favourable access to FX, tax concessions and incentives for companies investing in digital infrastructure projects and providing access to long-term developmental funds.
From a technology point of view, what will you say constitutes resilience in today’s organisational workforce, and does resilience impact on businesses?
Of course, resilience has positive impact on businesses as they are able to operate during crisis. From a technology standpoint, digital resilience is an organisation’s ability to maintain, change or recover technology-dependent operational capability during crisis, to use technology to seize business opportunities and to render acceptable service levels through, and beyond, severe disruptions to its critical processes and the systems which support them. Digital resilience typically involves the redesign of business processes and IT systems to facilitate the protection of critical infrastructure and information, implementation of strong cyberdefences to protect against internal and external threats, establishing effective business continuity plans for responding to operational failures, and the creation of a framework for innovation. Digital resilience directly impacts the business by driving standardisation and automation of processes to avoid personnel risks, avoiding complexity to reduce operational cost, boosting agility to capture opportunities and enabling innovation to amplify scale. Resilient people and organisations have 3 characteristics. First being an acceptance of reality and knowing that hope is not a strategy, second is a deep belief that there are opportunities during crisis, and third is an uncanny ability to improvise solutions from thin air, to turn risks into advantages. So, business leaders must be intentional about building and developing teams to trust and believe they can collaborate effectively to complete tasks together. We must develop the workforce to be mission-led and purpose-driven such that they can keep going in the face of a crisis and no matter what fate throws at them. This requires developing a positive mindset and an abundance predilection that sees opportunities for growth.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many organisations have since closed down offices and operating fully remote. And they have been able to maintain acceptable service levels since March 2020, and at reduced costs. The ability to remotely provide your staff all the technical support that will sustain their productivity; the ability to maintain a seamless engagement experience for your clients and the ability to protect your operations from increased cyber threats is resilience. Naturally, this will involve scaling and expanding connectivity and collaboration platforms including video conferencing, messaging apps for employees to remotely connect and collaborate; communicating best practices of remote working including wellness and work-balance, and encouraging employees and vendors to remain vigilant to business email compromise and other cyber threats.
Digital resilience must also involve the C-suite who must provide digital leadership and visible sponsorship for digital initiatives aimed at boosting business resilience. Leaders must integrate digital resilience into management and governance processes, and also train and engage all staff to create an agile culture. For many enterprises, the ability to survive a catastrophe, the capacity to defend market share and the probability of seizing opportunities to grow the business, and not just survive or defend, are all dependent on how resilience the business is.