The Necessity of Cultural Reform: Working with time, not against By Assegid Habtewold
In my recent article entitled “The Power of Culture: Why we couldn’t make lasting transformations”, I argued that reforming our culture is critical to experience lasting and sustainable change but, at the same time, very challenging. As promised, in the coming couple of articles, I’d like to propose just a few of the cultural attributes we may consider reforming. Let me begin this journey by suggesting a change that may not draw serious controversies since, compared to my upcoming reform suggestions, it may not be a blind spot of many of us. It’s something that may not touch many people’s nerve. My first article in this series ‘The Necessity of Cultural Reform’, therefore, is about the need to work with time, not against it, to accelerate the transformation process. You may already know these but let me be clear upfront and recount our longstanding ‘sour’ relationship with time :-) We Ethiopians work against time unapologetically thinking that we’ve all the time in the world. We defile the very essence of time and think that we have got away with it. We seem ignoring why time was instituted in the first place. Time was introduced to make us accountable to the incredible opportunity we’re given to live in this amazing universe (space) for which we haven’t been asked to pay rent. It was also given to us so as we track our progress. Time isn’t here to be wasted and abused! Thus, let me quickly share with you the very nature of time, many of which you may already be well aware.
Time is a great equalizer in the world. Whether rich or poor, young or old, popular or obscure, short or tall, whether one lives in the west or south, like everybody else, each and every one of us has 24 hours per day. What is more? ‘Time is the scarcest of resources,’ as the father of modern management Peter Drucker said. He is right. As the saying goes, “Time and tide waits no one.” If we lose a fraction of our time, it is gone forever. We can’t recover it once it’s gone. It’s perishable. We cannot store, buy, sell, or borrow it. Time comes and goes fast. That is why Benjamin Franklin, one of the wisest men who ever lived on earth said, “Lost time is never found again.” If we lose other resources, we may have a chance to recover them back, not time. “Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever,” Samuel Smiles underscored.
One thing should be emphasized here. With the passing of each second unused properly, we lose the attached opportunities to advance individually and collectively. Beware, it doesn’t mean we’ve to work all the time. We need to balance our time to live a fulfilling life not only by working all the time but also by taking sometime to relate, relax, rejuvenate, sleep, grow, and so on. For that matter, if we fail to balance our time between work and life, we pay dire prices. We burn out, ruin our relationships, get sick, and remain miserable. In the time management workshops that we facilitate, we provide participants some techniques and tools to strategize and prioritize. We also empower then to use latest technologies and approaches to plan, schedule, and monitor their scarcest resource. By the way, we don’t need these all if the goal is just to manage time efficiently. In the latter case, you just keep yourself busy doing things whether they contribute in meeting your major goals or not. When you attempt to be efficient with time, you’re trying your best to use the limited 24 hours you have today without preparing ahead and maximizing it by using some aids. Here I’m talking about managing time EFFECTIVELY, which requires to think, strategize, prioritize, plan, and to employ latest techniques, approaches, and tools to prepare ahead. There are great tools to engage with that are used by world-class organizations around the world. We shouldn’t be left behind while the world advances by wisely and effectively managing time. However, discussing this further is beyond the scope of this article. If you need help in this regard, you may contact me offline.
Once the background work is done, let me be honest here. While the whole world is baffled by time, we Ethiopians appear to have infinite time on our hands. Whereas many find time elusive, we act as if we don’t care at all. We seem not getting it: Those who abused time judged by history while those who honored it got rewarded mightily. The latter used time prudently, and therefore, they- individually became wise, enjoyed healthy and happy lifestyle; and collectively advanced their civilization. On the other hand, we Ethiopians have paid so many prices as individuals and a society for mistreating time, and failing to live with a sense of urgency. Our culture is heavily leans on our past. Do you need a simple proof that we’ve a past oriented culture? How about the term we use worryingly- ‘Dero Kere’. Note that I’m not suggesting for us to disown and disrespect our past. I’m humbly proposing for us to stop talking and worshipping the past to the extent it costs our present moment, and most importantly, ours and the future of next generations. We don’t need to completely forget our past. We should learn from it but move forward to tap into the opportunity we’ve today and tomorrow. The proposal is asking us to place time at the center of our culture. It asks us to manage the scarce resources we have around time. This requires changing our old habits and also adopting new ways of handling time.
Of course, we Ethiopians aren’t the only ones who keep sinning against time. Like us, there are other similar cultures in Asia, South America, and other African countries that don’t treat time with the honor it deserves. What is interesting is that those countries from these regions that changed the way they had treated time, transformed their countries once they began managing time effectively. They decided to work with time, not against it. They trained their people to be prompt, and accountable. They improved their processes, and eliminated unproductive bureaucracies. Those practices that used to take years, reduced to months; those that took months, began taking only a few days; and those that used to require days, hours. By making their people, processes, and procedures prompt, they turned around the destiny of their country and people. We too can do it. It doesn’t take huge capital or lots of efforts. It just takes a change in mindset.
This change, however, should begin with our leaders. This is especially important when it comes to our politicians and community leaders that attempt to transform our community. So far, those organizations that should lead our people by example are also victims when it comes to managing time effectively. I can give you many examples but let me just share with you two- one from politics and another from a community organization. It was, if my memory serves me correctly, beginning of 2004- just over one year prior to the infamous national election that was conducted in 2005. Back then; I was the CC member of an affluent political party. When the Executive Committee called for a meeting, I thought discussing the upcoming election would be one of the agendas, and thus, I prepared myself and came up with a 4-page concept paper that laid out the approaches our party should adopt to win the upcoming election. When I figured that talking about the election wasn’t one of the talking points, I requested it to be included. Members of the Executive Committee on the stage were stunned. They thought it was too early. My request was denied and we were unable to talk about it. You may not know this. Opposition parties wait to plan until they get some campaign finance from the Electoral Board, which is the unofficial arm of TPLF. Deliberately, the ruling party rations the limited fund very close to the election so that opposition parties won’t have enough time to strategize, plan, and effectively use their time to win elections.
If you ask me, we shouldn’t have totally depended on the ruling party’s finance to fund our campaigns, and most importantly, we shouldn’t wait that close to prepare and win elections. We should have prepared for years to win a national election. My little proposal just a year earlier shouldn’t have been considered anomaly. Unfortunately, since strategizing and projecting into the future isn’t part of our culture, my proposal was rejected. Another example. Last year, I was a member of a think tank group. Since the organization was in its infant stage, I began suggesting coming up with both short and long term strategic plans, and also asking the team to discuss about where we see the organization in 5, 10, 20 years. My request did fall on deaf ears. The group preferred to talk about things that are urgent (even if they aren’t important in the long run), and focused on the now. Nothing is wrong with this approach but for a think tank whose aim is to bring a lasting change at national level, failing to project into the future, strategize, and plan is a setup to fail as the saying goes “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
Please note that I’m not here bragging and appearing smarter or better than these great minds. It wasn’t my intellect that led me to develop this personality that works with time. Situations forced (allowed) me to make changes earlier in my life. Being the president of the largest students’ union in our country in the late 90’s while studying a very tough field at AAU, which required me to take more than 20 credit hours per semester, strained me to befriend with time for the sake of survival. Upon graduation in 2000, I joined a multinational research institute. Again, I got lucky to work with scientists from other cultures that embraced time, and that too contributed toward my being pro time. Otherwise, many of the leaders on that stage back home, and members of the think tank group are my heroes. I don’t want you to assume that I’m here to judge them and think that I’m wiser than them just because I’ve incorporated effective time management into my personal culture. I’m citing these instances to make a point about how some (or maybe many more that I don’t know about yet) of our best too are plagued by lack of time management. My goal is to encourage our leaders to embrace time and use many available techniques, tools, and technologies as they lead us into our future Canaan. Our leaders should be reminded that those who recognized the central role time management plays for individual, organizational, and societal level transformations succeeded while the rest are struggling to change their dreadful circumstances regardless of having excessive other resources such as human resources, land, finance, and so on at their disposal. Being rich in other resources alone without the capability to manage them around time is useless. That is why Drucker emphasized, “If time is not managed, nothing else is managed.”
Of course, I’m not naïve to think that this little article from me could bring this reform we need desperately right away. Other larger than life personalities attempted to challenge us, and they couldn’t succeed so far. Our own the legendary Tilahun Gessesse made a strong case for using time prudently. He once sang a powerful song about time entitled “Ketero Yikeber”. In that song, he lamented why we keep failing to use time wisely while we’ve a mind that thinks. He pointed out that one of the signs of civilization is respecting time, and how neglecting the importance of time denied us from becoming civilized, and therefore, to remain behind the rest of the world. Unfortunately, time caught our hero before he could be able to see the fruits of his appeal (time will catch all of us sooner or later :-) He passed away but his work remains alive continuing to petition us to treat time intelligently. This is my hope, as a society, we may wake up from our sleep, drop the culture of tardy and lethargy, and embrace time and use it in our advantage to overcome the myriads of challenges we face.
Certainly, leading such a change nationally at the moment requires the political will of the ruling party. Nonetheless, I doubt whether such a change interests them; even if they do, not sure whether this is their priority right now. Thus, let’s take out our people back home from the question for now. Those of us who live in the Diaspora, we adopted and treat time with respect in the workplace. We arrive on time and meet deadlines or else we risk losing our jobs. Why then we fail to apply the same rule as we work among ourselves to transform our country? How can we change our destiny without incorporating one of the key factors in bringing lasting change? There is no way a culture reaches it’s potential and attain civilization without working with time. And those of us in the Diaspora have the obligation to embrace time and be exemplary.
Lastly, if our desire is to come out of the messes we’re in and advance in the 21st C, there may be many things we should do and steps we should take. Reforming our culture so that time becomes the essence is one of them. As a community, we should become prompt, punctual, and industrious to maximize the time we get each day in our advantage and in turn to transform our personal and societal destinies. If you’re trying your best to tap into your scarcest resource and using it wisely, keep on doing what you do. Remember, however, what I said earlier, there is a huge difference between using time efficiently and effectively. Capitalize on one of the scarcest resources you have by using latest technologies, tools, processes, and methods and manage your time EFFECTIVELY. If you haven’t begun this journey yet, start small scale by planning for each week. The first step is to identify your major goals for that week. Make your goals SMART (Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time bound), enlist the tasks that enable you to meet your goals in order of priority, schedule them on your calendar, and then begin executing your plan one task at a time. Take a few minutes and evaluate your progress on a daily basis and make adjustments, if necessary. Once you achieve some successes, start planning for a month, then for one year, 5 years, a decade, and so on. Use also your influence to win more people in your side. If enough Ethiopians join this movement, slowly but surely, we will have the critical mass to transform our culture, and win time in our side, and in turn transform our community.