What we can learn from the events in Egypt

on February 15, 2011

Most all of us had the opportunity to watch the extraordinary events on TV over the past three weeks.  We witnessed a people overturn 30 years of dictatorship in a mere 18 days.  I’m still in awe of the spirit and endurance that the people of Egypt showed the world, the sense of community they created, and the creativity they used to stay connected and rally an entire country to change its future.

One reason the world watched so closely is because what happened appeals to our greatest hopes and greatest aspirations.  The Egyptians showed all of us what can happen when ordinary people set out to do extraordinary things.  And amazingly, when all was said and done, people rallied for a “day of cleaning” to return the city of Cairo to its former glory!  Are you kidding me?  No cleaning crews or trash collectors.  Just citizens working together to take care of their city and each other.  Sounds easy, but I couldn’t even get my 8- and 5-year-old daughters to clean up after a play date this past Sunday.

So what can we learn here that applies to who we are and the work we do?

First, we saw a great example of the energy that can be unleashed when people feel they are part of something larger than themselves.  When citizens realized that the destiny of a democratic Egypt and the future of their children were on the line, their resolve grew daily. They staged nationwide rallies.  They protected Tahrir Square, which represented the nucleus of the movement, 24/7, from rogue police and opposing forces.  They were willing to go to great personal risk to succeed.

What we strive to do for many employees is to create a line of sight to a greater cause and to find meaning beyond the day-to-day tasks of their job.  To answer questions such as, “What is at stake for the organization and how am I helping it win?” and “What difference are we making in our markets and with our customers, and how do I contribute to that?”  We know if they are clear about these questions, their contributions and energy will far exceed the norm, and people will be able to achieve and contribute more than they ever thought they could.

We also learned the enormous power of technology to organize people, connect people, and create unprecedented dialogue.  As we think about creating and sustaining dialogue for organizations, we need to be aware of and continuously improve how we tap into and use the technology available to us.  Organizations may like or dislike these technologies but – not unlike Hosni Mubarak – they can’t control them.  Conversations are finding a way.  Winning organizations realize that and will want to play an active part in shaping conversations instead of suppressing them.  Technology provides an extraordinary opportunity to connect people faster, better, and further than ever before.  We are experts in creating dialogue, and we want to ensure that we can lead and guide where technology is letting conversations and communities evolve.

The sense of shaping your own destiny and playing an active part in the unfolding of the story creates a tremendous sense of ownership and accountability.  There were no policies that required the protest to remain peaceful, nor were there instructions that got citizens to form a human shield around a museum, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect timeless treasures.  It was a sense of ownership and responsibility that did that.

In the business world, we often create policies and processes to maximize consistency, but that can come at the cost of judgment, ownership, and empowerment.  We need to view ourselves as the guardians of our clients’ greatest self with the ability to free the potential human capital that often lies dormant.  If we effectively tap into that potential, what we unleash in opportunity far exceeds what policies and procedures could ever hope to achieve.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

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Managing Change
Managing Change