What has the SABC and a Fish Bowl got in common?

The dramas and changes unfolding at the SABC in South Africa can serve as an interesting case study about how leaders destroy the reputation, faith and trust in organisations. Not only has there been negative publicity about the organisation, but now even their nomination process for selecting new candidates for the Board has come under fire.

Prof Kupe, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University and a member of the Save Our SABC Coalition has written an interesting opinion piece about this http://bit.ly/Wdg6r, to which I would like to add a slightly different take.

I believe that serious questions will have to be asked by those involved in changing the organisation around. It goes beyond just selecting new candidates for a Board.

I would ask: ‘’ What must be done to radically transform the SABC?’’. Obviously the quickest way to turn around any organisation is to get rid of senior management. In this case not only do they need new CEO, but even the Board has been dissolved.

But what about the people in the institution? Did they have no role to play in the fiasco? What did they contribute to the problem of decay and why should they get away with no action been taken?

Perhaps the best way for me, an outsider based on what I read to describe the SABC, is to use the fish bowl metaphor.

070803a5078 The fish bowl metaphor begins with a question. The question is this; "If the fish is sick what would you do, treat the fish or change the water?"

The logical answer is, you would change the water. Why? Because the fish is only as healthy as the water it swims in. The fish is the human cell and the water is the fluids around the cell(s). The ocean has a delicate pH balance of 8.3 and is maintain by alkaline mineral salts. Our internal fluids are like the ocean and are maintained by the same alkaline mineral salts – sodium, chloride, magnesium, potassium and calcium. At the present the ocean pH because of global warming has gone from 8.3 to 8.2. This huge decrease in the ocean pH has caused potential health risks to all sea life including the loss of the coral reefs.

The same thing is happening to many of us with body warming, as our bodies are affected by our lifestyles. In the same way I believe that the SBDC is also suffering from the same ailment – body warming. It is not going to help to just change the top fish, even if one author did write a book called Fishes rot from the head.

What is needed at the SABC is a multi-faceted large system scale change intervention. The culture (the fluids) and communication patterns of the organisation will have to be changed.

Culture is often defined as it’s how we do things around here, but the other day I heard an even better definition – It’s how we intuitively do things around here. In other words it’s the way things get done without really thinking about how we’re going to do it. A Stage of Unconscious Incompetence or Competence?.

So, can the culture at the SABC be dissected? Edgar Schein (among others) points out that culture exists in layers. It is often compared to an iceberg. The level that is visible above the surface is the level of behavior. This is the easiest layer to observe and change but it is affected by invisible layers underneath. The first invisible layer of culture below the surface, according to Schein, is the layer of values: what we care about and what we think is important. You can’t observe values directly the same way you observe behavior but you can certainly infer what they are from the way people act. The deepest layer of culture – and the hardest one to observe, measure, or change – is the layer of fundamental beliefs.

What is the driving beliefs at the SABC? It is not enough to make structural changes, intangibles like morale will need to be tackled.

In my opinion, the only way the SABC can be changed around is if we radically change the way people think, act, communicate and participate at the organisation.

Joyce Wycoff wrote in her book “TRANSFORMATION THINKING” that thinking within an organisation is defined as the mental activity of every member of the organisation…all the idea generation, learning and skill development, exchange of information, communication and problem solving that make up the intellectual capacity of an organisation. (Intellectual capital is the sum total of what everyone knows in the organisation).

I just hope that the decision-makers at the SABC will not suffer from the monkey’s dilemma – the unwillingness to let go of something even when holding on, but will effect real changes.

When a monkey reaches into a jar and grabs a fistful of nuts, he’s delighted because he’s got what he wants in his hand. When he can’t get his enlarged fist out of the jar, he winds up not getting the nuts in the jar or the ones that he could get by going outside and climbing the nut tree. If he would just let go of the nuts in the jar, he also might stumble onto the idea of turning the jar upside down and pouring the nuts out!

The "fistful of nuts" syndrome is one of the main reasons that breakthroughs seldom come from the most logical place. Microcomputers were not invented by a major computer manufacturer; cellular phones didn’t come from AT&T; railroads, the major transportation system of yesterday, didn’t invent airplanes, the major transportation system of today. It’s very difficult to let go of something tangible to look for new possibilities.

The late Harry S. Truman said “We shall never be able to remove suspicion and fear as potential causes of war until communication is permitted to flow, free and open, across international boundaries”. To which can be added, “organisations will never be as successful at transformation unless it does the same to its communication and thinking processes”.