Building Islands of Success
Successfully solving for a narrow set of issues can build momentum towards bigger and bolder reforms
I have hated doing cardio my entire life, which is ironic given that I play sports and exercise regularly. Over the last few weeks, I have realized that I hated cardio because I could never build momentum and improve my times, my heart rate, and my distance.
I held myself back because I feared failure.
But then things changed. As we started to go stir crazy, my wife and I decided to buy a Peloton bike. This, I felt, was the only way to make sure I continued to maintain my fitness and lose some of the extra weight I had put on during the pandemic. A month and change in, my times have improved significantly, my heart rate recovery rate is up, and I am thoroughly enjoying doing cardio for the first time in my life.
On the first Pakistonomy podcast of this year, Hasaan Khawar made a similar point when I asked him about his theory of change. He argued that there are a lot of problems in Pakistan and rather than trying to solve everything at once, what policymakers need to do is identify a few areas of focus, build teams to solve those problems, and then build on from there.
That sounds very similar to my strategy with cardio: do a 20-minute ride first, then see where you can do better, and build on it. In short order, I found myself doing 45-minute rides and building endurance to a level that I thought was impossible.
Success is infectious.
The conversation with Hasaan made me think deeply about this idea. We often mourn the decline of institutions in Pakistan — which makes you cynical over time. From the PIA (which failed to make lease payments for an aircraft) to the Pakistan Railways and the bureaucracy, there are a whole host of problems that need to be solved.
This can be overwhelming.
But if you look around, you will find what Hasaan calls islands of success: Ehsaas (which has been built on BISP) NADRA, National Highway Authority, and a few other institutions show that reform and success is possible.
Raast is the most recent example of an island of success (potential yet to be realized but I am supremely confident of its success).
The challenge is how to generate the momentum and build the confidence to do more.
Which is where understanding Hasaan’s theory of change is so, so important.
How do you breed success?
Given the breath and depth of problems faced by Pakistan, working on a narrow set of challenges might be a great idea. Here’s how I would want policymakers to think about it:
Identify 3-4 pressing problems that you need to solve — these have to be tactical problems, not strategic. For example, reforming the bureaucracy isn’t the pressing problem, but improve demand projection and ensuring timely ordering of LNG supplies is;
Select an innovative change-maker from within or outside the system to solve these problems;
Give this person the mandate, time, and resources to solve the problem;
Empower the team that they build and stand behind them, even when status quo actors try to subvert attempts to reform; and
Once the team solves the problem, take the best performers from that team and deploy them elsewhere.
Rather than trying to solve all and sundry, I think a more incremental approach to problem-solving might be a better path forward. This doesn’t mean that you don’t pursue radical innovation to solve issues. The idea is to narrow your focus and make an attempt to resolve it in short order.
Once you have solved a few problems, you build momentum and credibility, which creates the space for dealing with even more pressing problems.
This is an approach that you can of course use to solve other problems, from your fitness goals (cardio for me) to your long-term investment targets.
What do you think about this theory of change?
Agree but would still recommend preparing a comprehensive country level transformation plan to agree on future state. We can then prepare a list of prioritized initiatives. These will be a combination of initiatives which have the highest impact in a short period of time and strategic ones that will act as building blocks for other initiatives.