head shot of Mo Ibrahim

Most companies struggle to implement strategic and operational changes.  Only about a third are successful.  Imagine, then, how hard it must be to change a continent.  Yet that is precisely what Mo Ibrahim is trying to do in Africa.  Even if your ambitions are somewhat more limited – transforming, say, a Fortune 10 corporation – you can learn from how Ibrahim has taken up his mega-challenge.

Ibrahim is a billionaire who made his fortune in telecommunications.  After he sold his company Celtel, he turned his attention to improving governance among African nations.  Plenty of critics dismissed Ibrahim’s quest as a fool’s errand.  But he persevered, creating positive incentives for change and drawing international attention to the issue of governance in Africa.

Ibrahim holds a contrarian point of view about the relationship between governance and one of the biggest problems facing Africa — extreme poverty.  Mainstream policy experts view it as the cause of poor governance.  Ibrahim turns that relationship on its head: poor governance, he claims, makes Africa poor.

With the money he made in his business ventures, Ibrahim funded a lucrative prize, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, awarded to heads of state who willingly step down when their term of office is completed.  He also established an index composed of over four dozen variables that assesses the quality of governance.  In 2006, when the rankings were first published, Somalia had the lowest score and Mauritius the highest.

You can quibble with the criteria used to select recipients for the Ibrahim prize and the variables behind the index.  Many critics do.  But the fact remains that Ibrahim is having a positive impact on mind-bogglingly large problems.  Raj Shah, the U.S.A.I.D administrator, describes the index as “just brilliant.”

There are at least two lessons about change to be learned from Ibrahim.  One, his index defines the problem of governance in a way that makes it manageable.  About this point, Ibrahim observes: “I’m a businessman.  And I’m an engineer.  As an engineer, you don’t talk about things.  You define them. . . . We wanted to define governance.  And we wanted to find out how to measure it.”  Two, he gives leaders a tangible incentive that speaks to their self-interest: the prize allows them to retire with a sizeable nest egg.

If Ibrahim can make a difference in Africa, you can transform your company or organization.  Attempts at organizational change fall prey to a variety of predictable problems: status quo bias, turf-mentality, conflicting interests, and loads of other psychological barriers.  One of the most common pitfalls is, not surprisingly, distraction.  Half of all projects fail because people stop paying attention to them.  There is simply too much going on to keep track of everything you have to do.  All of these problems exist in Africa – and more.  Yet Ibrahim has already accomplished more than anyone could have imagined when he first set out to improve governance in Africa.

To increase the chances you will succeed at changing your organization, follow Ibrahim’s lead.  Don’t just talk about things, as Ibrahim said.  Address people’s interests – after all, everybody is self-interested and acts accordingly.  Therefore, give people a reason to change.  And define the problem you are trying to solve in the simplest possible terms.  You may not be able to do everything but at least you will be able to do something.