The Journey to a High-Performance Culture Works on ‘Congo Time’

by Stacey Barr |

We all want a high-performance culture in our organisations. We want people to be results-oriented, to act with a scientific curiosity, to be relentlessly solution-focused, and to have a continuous-improvement mindset. And we want it now.

A central bank in Africa has a great approach to changing the culture of their organisation. The corporate strategy team wants to create a results-oriented performance culture, a shift away from a culture of action-orientation and maintaining the status quo. And this current culture is embedded in parts of the leadership team, so change isn’t going to happen from the top.

In late 1998 I went to Congo to visit with a volunteer project that rehabilitates orphaned chimpanzees into social groups, and then releases them back into the wild. One of the more interesting things I recall about the trip, aside from the cheeky juvenile chimps, was how long it took to get things done. Food would be delivered to the project whenever someone got around to it. We would meet with people whenever they turned up. We’d get a lift back to town whenever the truck would pass by. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. We called it ‘Congo Time’.

The great thing about ‘Congo Time’ is that you can’t rush. There are no quick fixes. It happens in its own good time. And that mindset is what works so well for the African bank. They are doing things now to change the culture, which they don’t expect to reap the full benefits of for another five years. And that’s why it works. They’re giving themselves space to get it right.

The corporate strategy team is nurturing a critical mass of performance measurement champions across the bank. They keep these champions involved in designing and measuring strategy and give them high quality training. They have chosen the best people, the brightest and most enthusiastic and self-directed. They have chosen people from which the future leaders of the bank will rise.

Culture change, even when it is led from the top, is slow. It works on ‘Congo Time’. So be patient and take advantage of time you have to influence it.

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  1. David Wheeler says:

    ‘Congo Time’: a great phrase.

    How many times in the west do we see the focus on the buzzword fashion for ‘quick wins’ and ‘low hanging fruit’ result in blurred ‘elephant’ vision? Difficult tasks disappear into deferred futures, while the elephants continue to dominate the room.

    Different cultures operate in different time-worlds.

    Many western cultures act as if time is a mountain river that flows in one direction only, vulnerable to fallen trees and absorption by the soil.

    Many middle eastern and African cultures treat time as a river delta where blockages are common, expected and mean little because water always makes its way to the sea.

    Neither of these time cultures works efficiently without help. Both come up against the need for co-operation between multiple specialists reliant on complex infrastructures.

    The help comes from flexible planning to achieve shared objectives. Planning identifies critical dependencies, creates meaningful milestones and identifies incompatibilities between the desire for maximum action-in-parallel and the scarcity of available resources. Plans can be monitored and readily adjusted so that everyone involved stays on track.

    Long-term planning takes courage, commitment and constant meaningful monitoring of what is actually happening with those original objectives – which is where you come in, Stacey. All praise to you.

  2. Glad you asked : – )

    Actually my first book was all about maturing an organization – or changing the culture. And I totally agree – there is no quick way to do it. And you can’t force or enforce change from the top because the culture will outlast management. Historically, it always has. We offered that an organization seeking enterprise-wide change, shouldn’t. It would require a culture change that will take years…so instead we suggested that the effort change from enterprise-wide to champion-driven.

    The simple idea is that you find champions (those who would say “heck yes” to an improvement idea) and assist them in being successful in that area. We all too often focus on the “heck no” people – trying to get them to move…and the BEST we can hope for is to get these people to become “no” people.

    So, how would I start? I’d start by finding champions and then supporting them in what they are passionate about.

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