27 Nov Analysis: Vision and Management
Can Pakistan, or any country for that matter, prosper simply on good management without a national vision?
This question is prompted by a recent column of Irfan Husain in which he makes such a claim:
In Benazir Bhutto`s first term, the late Eqbal Ahmed bemoaned her lack of vision. I replied that rather than a visionary, we needed a good manager at the helm. We argued about this, as we often did over other issues, without either of us convincing the other.
I still believe that good, solid management is more important than having a grand vision that is not translated into reality. After all, we know what our problems are; what we need is a team that sets about solving them in a serious and effective way.
There are two problems with this assertion, one obvious and the other that needs substantive discussion. The obvious problem pertains to a misinterpretation of Eqbal Ahmed’s intent. When Eqbal spoke of a vision he surely could not have meant “a grand vision that is not translated into reality.” There would be little point in talking of a conception that is rendered futile by its very definition.
Let us ignore the mischaracterization and focus on the real issue, the relationship, if any, between vision and management, and the claim that “solid management is more important than a grand vision.”
Irfan Husain argues that solid management is more important because “after all we know what our problems are; what we need is a team that sets about solving them in a serious and effective way.” Let us take the two parts of this statement separately.
Do we really know what our problems are? If we polled a representative sample would we end up with list on which there would be some semblance of a consensus? I have my doubts but let me set them aside and ask if there would be a further consensus on what might be the causes of our problems? Here I am much more certain that there would be a wide diversity of opinions. And if that does turn out to be the case, how would a team set about solving the problems in a serious and effective way?
One could infer that implicit in Irfan Husain’s claim is a vision of a technocratic, top down approach in which a team goes about solving the problems of society in accordance with its own understanding of the causes. But is this a feasible approach? Could such an approach succeed in the absence of a societal consensus on the causes of the problems? If not, would one not need a political process supported by intellectual analysis that works to build a social consensus that serves as the foundation for the problem solving? And, if so, would this not be an element of the vision that Irfan Husain claims we do not need?
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a social consensus on the causes of our problems is generated without the need to articulate a national vision. Let us say that it emerges purely as a result of neutral, value-free intellectual analysis. Given this stroke of luck, what would be the direction along which the team would orient the country for the future? It should be quite obvious that there is not just one direction that is possible. Indeed, there are many – should Pakistan be an Islamic welfare state, an Islamic socialist state, a democratic socialist state, a liberal democratic state, etc. Which one of these possible directions should the team select?
Solid management without a national vision would run into a brick wall at this point because each direction in fact corresponds to a distinct vision. And, furthermore, no amount of good management would succeed unless the nation or a substantial majority subscribed to the vision that gives specificity to how the problems are to be solved. Once again, we are back to the supremacy of the political process that articulates a vision and convinces an electoral majority of its appropriateness. Indeed, in the ideal democratic scenario, different political parties are supposed to represent alternative visions that they place before the electorate for approval and support.
There is another way of thinking about this issue. Even at the corporate level, companies that can hire the best available management in the market cannot do without a corporate vision or a mission statement. This is simply because the various managers, the members of the corporate team, need to know the direction in which the company intends to develop; the employees of the company need to know the objective so that they could align their efforts to a common goal; and the shareholders need to know to determine if they wish to support the vision with their money. If a company cannot function without a vision how do we expect a country to do so?
Countries do not need to define their national vision every day but the broad contours of the prevalent vision become visible whenever the visions are redefined. For example, in the case of the first movers in East Asia the adoption of the export-oriented economic model represented a new vision. In the case of China, the transition from the Maoist vision to the Dengist vision was hard to miss. In the case of India, the reforms at the end of the 1980s marked a departure from the Nehruvian vision to an alternative that would thenceforth guide the attempts to solve the problems of the country.
In this perspective, having established that management can only be effective within the envelope of a corporate or national vision, we can ask the relevant question: What is the national vision in Pakistan? And, are our problems getting worse precisely because of the absence of a national vision?