A Week with Juan Valdez: Good Food, Good Coffee, Good Friends and Great Disruption in Colombia

Chris Surdak Jerks in ColombiaIn May, I traveled to Colombia for my first trip to South America.  I had always wanted to visit the continent next door, so close in proximity yet so far away in culture, history and outlook.  In the week that my team and I spent in Bogota and Medellin my world grew dramatically bigger, and quite a bit smaller, from what I experienced and from the people I met. As a human, I was touched by the openness, friendliness and warmth of the people.  As an American business person, I left shocked by how open Colombian businesses were to the need for change, and their willingness to do so.

This was in stark contrast to what I have experienced in hundreds of meetings with tens of thousands of American, Canadian and European business people over the last decade. In those meetings two perspectives were dominant: 1. Fear and 2. how to change your results without actually doing anything different.  There is a shared awareness that our world is changing dramatically and that “old ways” of doing things no longer work.  But there’s also a shared sense of dread over this realization.  The executives in these countries are almost universally terrified that they might have to change what they do and how they do it, and instead just wish for new outputs from their same old inputs. This is not a recipe for success.

Rest is for the Weak and Under-Caffeinated

We arrived in Bogota after midnight, tired but excited.  We met our hosts, gathered our bags, and made our way to our hotel.  Our first day started at 6am; oh the posh, posh traveling life (from “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang,” if it sounded familiar). After a quick breakfast, we were off to work. And, as my colleagues discussed elsewhere in our blog, the coffee down here truly was other-worldly.  While our hosts tried to convince us otherwise, I’m certain that Colombians keep “The Good Stuff” here for themselves, and send us the leftovers for our morning cups of joe.

Over the next six days we would give fourteen presentations of the material in my new book, “Jerk.”  I had only presented the material four times before this trip, and I had only completed the book three weeks before.  As a result, it was still fresh and new to me, and I was under the gun to wrap my own head around it over the course of the week.

We met with hundreds of business people from a wide range of industries across Colombia: Telecommunications, Retail, Insurance, Construction, Banking, Investment Management and Oil & Gas.  In each case, the executives sponsoring the discussion brought many of their leaders to the session, which ranged from 50 to 500 participants. The message was one of change, disruption and Jerk, and every audience was not only engaged, they seemed to be completely mesmerized.  They were there to have their own beliefs about change in our world validated, and to learn some steps they could take to start addressing this change.

With every presentation the response was the same, and it was a polar opposite of the response from American executives.  The Colombian audience wasn’t trying to rationalize-away my message of disruption, coming up for excuses why it wasn’t really happening or why they weren’t being affected by it.  The Colombian executives weren’t saying, “We can’t be Ubered!”  Rather, they were saying, “We want to be Uber!”

I’m not sure if this is a difference in culture, history or need, but it was very refreshing.  Rather than fighting against the changes going on around us, these business leaders were trying to figure out how to harness them, and put them to work. Somehow these leaders had gotten past all of the more reactive, emotional, juvenile responses to change, and had moved on to the view of “What do we do about it?” This perspective was evident in every one of our meetings, and what started out feeling a bit foreign and weird felt empowering and exciting by the end of the week.  These people were on a mission to change, and merely needed some guidance and direction in how to start making significant progress.

Acceptance is the First Step to Solving a Problem

I was struck that this didn’t bode well for their competitors in larger economies like the United States.  There, companies were still assigning committees, who would nominate tiger teams, who would launch a study, to analyze a concept, for developing a model, with an ROI analysis, for creating an RFI, for an RFP for launching a pilot, of a prototype, of a strawman… next year.  Apparently, the best way to deal with change is to keep yourself stupendously-busy analyzing stuff, while never actually doing anything.

The other behavior I see in American companies is their struggle to determine the PERFECT platform and technology that will immediately solve all of their problems the moment it is purchased from this vendor or that, and implemented by this consultant or that, just as both promised in their latest zillion-dollar proposal.  Their new technology called HADOOP, HIVE, PIG, BLOCKCHAIN, ‘R’, HANA or maybe GIRAFFE, PORK RIND, TOAD STOOL, SOY SAUCE or whatever other ridiculous new name they choose, is the latest digital messiah that will magically solve every problem any business has ever had.  All you need to do is spend X millions of dollars, wait twelve months (it always starts at twelve months) and BOOM, you’re transformed into Google or Amazon or Apple.

Now, of course their technology deployment will take at least six months longer than planned, and the price will likely at least double, but apparently there’s a degree of comfort that comes from being predictably inaccurate, insincere, and just plain wrong.  This behavior should infuriate business executives, but it seems that these sorts of failed outcomes are so typical, so normal, that all of us simply expect it. In the tech world we always say that customers believe that “No one has ever been fired for hiring IBM, Accenture, Oracle, HP, or insert large company name here.” Apparently there is safety in being reliably unreliable.

You’d think that after 60 years of doing IT this way we’d learn that this is the path to disillusionment and failure.  You’d think that, but apparently and unfortunately you’d be wrong. Conversely, the executives that we met in Colombia recognized that this me-too thinking is a disease that needs to be treated with a significant dose of do something different.  It was refreshing, it was unexpected, it was and will be disruptive.

Worry Yourself to Death?

There are American companies with whom I’ve been talking about the need for change and disruption for over three years.  For three years I have seen them talk and talk, fester and brood, pontificate and perseverate. They worry and bother, but yet they still just talk.  Three years of worry has got to be bad for your psyche and your physical health, let alone your business. Doing nothing in the face of change may appear to reduce risk.  But in the end, maybe it just ushers in “the end” more quickly.

By comparison, several of the Colombian companies we met with have either signed us up, or are nearly ready to do so, only three weeks after we met with them.  That’s impressive.  Their willingness, eagerness, even determination to change, RIGHT NOW, rather than a few years and a few tiger-team-studies from now, leads me to believe that not only are these companies embracing the right approach to change management, they are also extremely likely to succeed at making change in dramatic ways.  I applaud their willingness to act and their openness to the unknowns that they may find around the next bend in their road.

Bravery isn’t acting without fear.  Rather, bravery is acting despite your fear. We rarely celebrate those who do nothing in the face of great odds, we celebrate those who act, even to their loss.  Most movies or television programs show both extremes: the hapless victim who is frozen with fear at the critical moment, and the brave protagonist who rises above the odds and the risks and saves the day.  There’s a reason that Hollywood uses this storyline: Humans have been telling such legends for hundreds of thousands of years as the example of how we should live.

We admire such big screen heroes, or business people who take such risks largely because we hope that we would do the same thing when faced by similar circumstances and odds.  But, when the time comes, do we act on those desires?  Do we act bravely and push ourselves through our fears, or do we crouch behind the tow truck, hoping against hope that the Indominus Rex doesn’t find and eat us (the movie Jurassic World wasn’t too bad).  It’s the same in business.  If facing your monsters was easy, you would have already done so, one would hope.

By this measure, my new Colombian colleagues are some of the bravest business people I have ever met, and I’m pleased to place my bets on them.  After all, 90% of making a good decision is deciding.  Dithering just makes you a velociraptor empanada.


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