A historian has said, “We should always beware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” He could have added what now lies in the present. At some point in the future, wherever we are, we are going to look back on the nightmare year of 2020 and ask some basic questions: what could we have done differently? What did we learn? What must we change?
One thing that is certain to be clear in looking back will be that everyone made mistakes. Especially in the early stages of the pandemic, some of these mistakes were inevitable. Decision-makers were confronted with enormous uncertainty and painful and complex choices. The blamers in our blaming culture will have a field day.
Other mistakes, however, were not inevitable, unless you assume that mistrust, deep division, cowardice, incompetence, and – that all-time favorite – human stupidity are, in fact, inevitable. The film director Claude Chabrol once said that “Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating than intelligence. Intelligence has limits, but stupidity has none.” We should never underestimate its role in our failures.
If you listen to any discussion on the response to the pandemic, there is a subtext than runs through every one of them. Sometimes it is stated, at other times not. That subtext is bad news for a lot of places, the Virgin Islands included. It involves the fundamental need to absolutely reject the belief (see Trump administration, along with many others) that having an idea and implementing it are pretty much the same thing.
This subtext is the critical importance of execution, defined in simplest terms as the discipline of getting things done. Bluntly stated: execution = success, and flawed execution = failure. If Virgin Islanders look around in the territory, and ask, why didn’t that, (whatever “that” is or was), get done? the correct answer most of the time – despite what people say – is going to be: because we didn’t execute well.
Failure to execute isn’t a Virgin Islands issue. It isn’t a public sector issue. It isn’t an American problem. It is a universal issue. But, based on decades of observation, I would have to put the territory toward the bad end of the scale in its capacity to execute. In some ways, failure to execute is the territory’s Achilles heel, a major source of pessimism and mistrust.
There are lots of reasons for this unhappy reality, but none of them, if they are addressed, need to be as damaging as they have been in the past. On the other hand, given the historic forces that have now been unleashed, any place or jurisdiction that cannot plan and execute going forward is, to use the technical term, screwed.
Here is a simple starting point, the one at which the nature of the execution challenge starts to become clear. Put the territory’s leaders in a room, give each of them an index card, and ask them to complete the following sentence, “Our biggest challenge is….” What do you think the chances are that everyone would give the same answer? Again, based on experience, and not just in the Virgin Islands, I would put it right around zero. An initial goal is to get to the point where everyone, or almost everyone, in that room gives the same answer; and, going forward, everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Then comes the hard part, the checklist of things that are essential to solid execution, to defeating the negative – and self-fulfilling – norm that “nothing ever changes here.” And to build the positive norm of “Yes, we can do it.” Here are the critical items on the checklist: Do we have a clear and shared vision for what we want the future to look like? Do we have a real strategy and realistic plans for getting there? Do we have the right people in the right jobs and roles? (A tough one) Do we have basic systems and work processes that get the job done? Do we have solid planning, tracking, communication tools? Do we have a work culture of performance, collaboration and accountability?
Here is the good news, the really good news. When any place or organization gets to the point where they can answer “yes” to all or most of those questions, they will be immune to failure. Success is guaranteed. And most important, especially in these bleak times, the sense of hope and faith in the future of communities will be on display for everyone to see and feel.