The Malaysian Transformation: Big Fast Results

Dato’ Sri Idris: “We dream of a magical rose garden in the horizon and forget to see the rose garden that’s blooming right outside our windows.”Dato’ Sri Idris: “We dream of a magical rose garden in the horizon and forget to see the rose garden that’s blooming right outside our windows.”Dato’ Sri Idris: “We dream of a magical rose garden in the horizon and forget to see the rose garden that’s blooming right outside our windows.”

Former Senator and Minister in the PM’s Department Dato’ Sri Idris Jala is no stranger to the global corporate world, having worked in Shell for 23 years (since 1982) and subsequently in Malaysia Airlines as CEO and Managing Director from 2005-2009. He is also no stranger to fame, being featured in Wikipedia, Bloomberg, and even McKinsey & Company.

Dato’ Sri Idris has long had a reputation for being the master of turnarounds, a reputation he first gained and enjoyed in Shell, which he carried forward to Malaysia Airlines, where he enabled the company to post record profits merely 2 years after its worst losses to that time. And over the past 6 years, he has been applying the same turnaround principles as CEO of the Malaysian government’s Performance and Monitoring Unit (PEMANDU) and the Big Fast Results Institute (BFR-I).

Speaking at the inaugural Global Transformation Forum 2015 (GTF2015), Dato’ Sri Idris outlined the requirements – and his methodology – for obtaining significant results in a short period of time (or as he put it, ‘big fast results’. Implementation and execution was where most governments fell down most of the time, he believed.

“My hypothesis is that the reason for the prevalence of such failures to deliver results across the world is because the first step is missing; that being the translation of high-level strategies and plans into detailed programmes for implementation. Elegant and beautiful the plans may be, but there is no translation.”

In keeping with GTF2015’s theme of ‘Operationalising Transformation’, Dato’ Sri Idris highlighted the role that leaders play in accomplishing transformation. “It is absolutely important to have transformational leadership. You must have leaders who truly want to transform.”

GTF2015 - Idris Jala article 2

GTF2015 - Idris Jala article 2

Dato’ Sri Idris believed that transformational leaders embodied 6 key attributes, of which he highlighted 3. “Transformational leaders pursue what I call ‘the game of the impossible’; you’ve got to do something that you yourself say you will fail doing. If you set incremental goals, that’s just business as usual and you don’t need transformation.

“They are also almost ruthless about prioritisation. Anything that does not contribute towards the core of your plans is not a priority. And I use the term ‘ruthless’ because that is what is needed. It is important that your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are set accordingly.

“Finally, transformational leaders are operationally hands-on. I do not believe that a leader is worth his salt in transformation if he is totally divorced from the problems. Whatever plans are designed in the ‘lab’ (brainstorming sessions), only 30% will be implemented exactly as designed; 30% are modified based on conditions on the ground – so if you are the leader, you need to be involved in that process – and the remaining 40% are new solutions that need to be derived. True leaders must get their hands dirty and be part of the problem-solving.”

But that is not sufficient, he pointed out. “You got to get down to doing it. And this is what I want to talk about today; our 8-step methodology.”

The methodology starts with getting everyone’s agreement – and buy-in – to the organisation’s direction. “I am of the view that unless and until you have the leadership fully aligned on the ruthlessness of determining what the strategic priorities are, don’t even begin.”

The second step was, as Dato’ Sri Idris jocularly described it, locking the key stakeholders in a room and throwing away the key until they found solutions to addressing the strategic priorities (known as ‘labs’ in BFR-I). “We wanted solutions that were ‘good enough’ to begin with, because however long you plan it, in the execution, it’s bound to change.”

Following this were the ‘town hall’ sessions, exposing the proposed ideas and solutions to public scrutiny.

The fourth step was then to publish a detailed roadmap for the general public to peruse, and in the case of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) roadmap, this was one of the most difficult documents to have been worked with. “We wanted precision and exact KPI commitments, which the government at that time was not used to,” he explained. Dato’ Sri Idris made it clear that by making these specific commitments public, there was no choice but to deliver on those promises.

Setting KPIs that were based on the outcome of the labs came next. “You cannot come with your own ‘shiok sendiri’ (self-gratifying) KPIs or lowball them; these have to be given to your people from the labs,” he emphasised.

At this point, implementing the solutions required people to ‘do it relentlessly’. “You must monitor the situation constantly and solve the problems recursively; i.e. by going back to the drawing board to redo and re-examine.”

Coming to the 7th point, validation of the results obtained over the stipulated measurement period, Dato’ Sri Idris stated that in the case of the ETP, Malaysia brought in PwC to ensure that the data are correct; if not, the results are amended.

Finally, the results are published. “Every year, we publish an annual report. We put down the score of every Minister; the list of what they have and have not delivered, and so if you wanted to know who scored the highest or the lowest, it’s all there.”

Concluding his presentation, Dato’ Sri Idris stressed that we live in a world that was imperfect. “It is tragic that we human beings make perfection the enemy of the good. We dream of a magical rose garden in the horizon and forget to see the rose garden that’s blooming right outside our windows.”

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