Monday, March 9, 2015

Vision, next level, empathy

Are those among the things we take for granted to keep the equilibrium in our informal, harmonious and pleasant culture? Why would we want to disturb the apple cart? We were having dinner with friends, who had lived most of their adult life in California but now call Alabang home, when I picked up those words. While my wife and I were the ones visiting the Philippines, all four of us would fall under the classification Fil-Ams. Which simply means our worldview is different from those of us who call PHL home, and no other.

Our friends have picked up the local lifestyle being members of the country club and signing up for another in Tagaytay. “The idea is Tagaytay is accessible and the goal is to visit once a week, play golf and pick up some fruit and vegetable on the way back. Of course, we must know when to drive out to minimize traffic en route. By and large we will keep our American way of life, meaning DIY (do-it-yourself.)”

I looked perplexed and my wife had to translate. “Remember I had lunch with friends last week and I saw a few ‘yayas’ but there were no kids around. The yayas were attending to my friends and they were seated at the next table, at the beck-and-call of their seƱoras, like valets.” And my wife added, “When we come to live here again, you will hire me a yaya cum valet.” That will be the day!

In a feudalistic society like ours, we don't need a vision because those who count are already living the dream? But a vision or to imagine a bright future is something that my Eastern European friends would not assume. We were in our dark ages – under our Soviet masters – and we learned to take things as they come, was how they would explain it. And I would recall the expression, “step-by-step.” “Foresight” was not top of mind, if it was even uttered.

When I first arrived they explained the situation they were in. First the good news: They had sales of $6 million which made them proud. But the bad news was they were giving away the store, they were not delivering profits. And so we discussed the challenge they had in front of them and, that is, to be a $100-million company. Long story short, they've blown past that milestone and have set their sights on something much bigger. Their mantra is to keep moving up to the next level.

How does that apply to PHL? We must view SMEs beyond a livelihood or family undertaking. The bias must be on “outcome” not “activity.” Every enterprise is an opportunity to be a contributing member of society; and once critical mass is attained, collectively they can supplant our feudal system – and even wean us from our reliance on OFW remittances. But that will not happen if they remain small scale. They must seek to scale up. We can’t be an oligarchic economy that is riding on the backs of 10 million OFWs in perpetuity if we truly mean that we want to be an inclusive economy – and feed the other half of Filipinos. Poverty has gotten worse? Surprise, surprise? What else do we expect given our reality? Willing the glass to be half full doesn’t make it so!

Of course their eyes popped when my Bulgarian friends heard $100 million. That means you are able to stand on your own two feet, was how I explained the significance. It's all about the ecosystem. Imagine that we will lay out tracks, sturdy tracks and long enough so that we can travel far. Then we shall put on one car then a few cars, and then some; and then we will extend the tracks so the cars will have enough tracks to traverse – and even run at faster clips. Imagine, think 360 degrees and visualize an ecosystem.

The image came to me again as we were driving along EDSA and caught in traffic; and my wife and I were watching the few jam-packed MRT cars while countless buses were clogging EDSA because of their stop-and-go routine. How do we move up to the next level? My wife asked: “Why don't they optimize the investment on the tracks and put more cars in order to take more passengers and reduce the number of buses?” The thought came from our recent experience while in Bangkok and where we moved around with ease like other foreigners we saw because of the efficient public transportation system.

But is it true that bus operators are an influential bloc? Why? What was the rationale of the investment on the MRT if the public transportation system hasn't truly improved? Shouldn't that be the metric of such an infrastructure project? 

Back to my Bulgarian friends on how they can stand on their own two feet. Wherever we will lay the “tracks,” we have to think empathy otherwise we will never figure out the right products to sell. As we develop more of the right products, our portfolio will expand. That is how we will put more cars on the tracks. It is not about what we think, it is about what the consumer's problem is, or her need. It is not inside-out, but outside-in. It's the simplest way to explain empathy. [I am writing this on the train as snow continued to make a mess of Manhattan after attending “The Big Rethink” conference sponsored by The Economist Magazine for the modern-day CMO or Chief Marketing Officer. And I was with two friends from Eastern Europe. The first session asked the question: What global trends are we not talking about, moderated by the Media Editor of the magazine with 3 Fortune 500-types in the panel. And I was waiting to hear about Steve Jobs, for example, but not only. And so I raised my hand to make the point. The CMO beyond being the exemplar of leadership and financial accountability is grounded in human empathy because that is the well from where product innovation comes from, so says Steve Jobs. What is my question? Do you agree or disagree?]

Our Fil-Am foursome finished dinner and as we stepped out of the restaurant we realized we were both parked some distance away. And it was not a pleasant sight – a sea of cars packed like sardines – in a restaurant row that's part of a development billed as the local version of Beverly Hills. And our friend sighed, “There’s no empathy behind the design of this development.”

Over dinner we were jumping between looking at the glass as half full and the absence of the desire to move up to the next level. The good news is Philippine business and industry have some of the smartest people. And that we have a select group of Ivy League-types that are leading local enterprises.

In our hierarchical system and structure, everyone expects them to occupy lofty positions in Philippine society – and why we send our kids to these institutions in the first place. And then the bad news: we got to talking about the couple of cases where such an assumption was off base (or was it misplaced trust?) to the detriment of their employers.

Yet even in the West there is “clubbiness” among such elite groups, and the reality is because innovation continues to move at warp speed, those who don't keep up are left behind. And in the Philippines where we lag in innovation, creativity and competitiveness, it won't be surprising if they aren't kept current as well. And why doctors have continuing education, for instance.

The moral of the story: Can we imagine having a vision for the Philippines? What about our enterprises not taking the Filipino consumer for granted, that is, if they want to be honed in innovation, creativity and competitiveness? Those are founded on empathy . . . Whatever progress we may have achieved as an economy, there is the attendant challenge to move up to the next level . . . And finally . . . impeccable credentials can't undo the fundamental given, that education doesn't end with a sheepskin.

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