South African parcel
June 17, 2021

Tony’s story: lesson learnt from a late South African parcel

By Tony Boobier

Following on from Hanne’s heartwarming personal story, thanks for that, it’s time to hear about a parcel delivery in South Africa.

As I mentioned at the start of Hanne’s story, I challenged our panel of guest bloggers to share a personal story. Something that had happened to them from which they have learnt or changed as a leader.

Always up for a challenge, our next contributor in this series is Tony Boobier with his tale of a delayed South African parcel. Regular readers will know that Tony is an AI & Analytics mentor, consultant and author. He has shared with us previously on topics including Shakespeare’s leadership lessons, healthy skepticism and his book on the future of banking.

What do we do when nothing happens?

As leaders we often have an expectation that when we take an action or make some sort of a decision, then there will be a consequence. If there is no consequence or ‘outcome’, then we naturally start to reflect on that original decision. Why did I make that decision in the first place? Was it worth making?

Sometimes the outcomes occur at a time and in a manner which are least expected. This apparent lack of predictability can come either as a surprise or a disappointment.

My simple story was about how I had hoped to make some sort of personal impact in South Africa, and how, frankly, nothing happened. I had worked out there in the past, and knew that the market was likely to be ready.

The story of my parcel for South Africa

The episode goes back to 2018, when I was chairing a conference in Amsterdam. It was in the good old days when people would physically get together not only to hear the speakers but also to network. During the Chairman’s introduction, I spoke about how the insurance industry will be transformed through the use of data. Insurance is a 300-year old industry which mainly still operates according to the original principles and practices. No wonder that so many are looking in its direction as a business area which is set for major transformation.

I waved a copy of my first book about Insurance Analytics at the audience, as a takeaway for the first person who came to claim it. It was an inexpensive stunt, as most publishers send you a box of books as promotional giveaways.

One of my fellow speakers based in South Africa subsequently approached me, reminding me of the size of the opportunity not only in South Africa but also the wider African continent. We discussed how we might work together. I agreed that the first step might be to send him a couple of books, which I did in June 2019. Nothing seemed to happen after that. Sometimes that’s just the way it is. I didn’t mind too much as other African opportunities subsequently arose from different angles. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

A few days ago I had a reply. Not from him, but from the South African Post Office. The books had arrived in JoBerg by December 2019, almost sixth months after posting from the UK. They waited for someone to claim them, but when they were not collected, the South African Postal Service sent back to me in January 2020. They arrived in June 2021. The ‘round trip’ for the books had been about two years.

How long can it take? Do I yet know it hasn’t worked?

Perhaps in their defence, postal disruption might have been disrupted because of the pandemic – but what form of postal system can take so long? The parcel was clearly marked and labelled airmail but what type of plane had they used? Perhaps they had used the services of some wild birds flying south? According to Google Maps, I could have driven there in about 170 hours, or about 4 weeks, assuming I had the right vaccinations.

I shared the story with an older colleague. Once, he said, he had requested a magazine from Europe which arrived several years later. On his parcel was a simple label which said ‘Delayed due to Shipwreck’.

I wondered about all that had happened to us all, in the time between originally posting the parcel and getting it back. If I could have written something to a future self and put it into the parcel, what might I have said?

Embracing what we can’t control & remember the ‘last mile’

What is the moral of this story, if any? At face value, posting a parcel (with all its ‘behind the scene’ processes) seems to be a much simpler activity than a complex business transformation, but ultimately success is often dependent on the lowest common denominator. After travelling half way around the world, the book still needed to be collected. Some might say that this was one of the easier bits of the process, but it’s where the system had broken down.

Whilst the risk of failure can be mitigated by effective project and stakeholder management, perhaps at the end of the day we should occasionally realise that complete success for many projects can still be outside of our control. That’s life.

Even so, even in failure the proverbial glass should always be considered half full. There is always something to be learned. In this particular situation, without failure having happened there might have been no blog to write on this sunny morning.  And of course, if anyone wants a couple of free but extremely well-travelled books on insurance analytics, don’t hesitate to track me down and let me know.

What have you learnt from what you’ve assumed?

Thanks to Tony for his personal story. As well as making me chuckle, I did relate to the practical lesson. All too often, as a leader and business owner, I’ve assume that not hearing back from people meant they are not interested. It can be all too tempting to give up rather than follow-up.

Are you making that mistake in your business or with your customers? Stop for a moment and consider what you actually know. Sure, that stakeholder or customer has not responded or taken up your offer. But do you know for a fact that your communication got to them? Do you know if they had time to read it properly? Do you know what lack of communication back to you really means? Do you know their intent?

For me, one of the lessons learnt as a leader is to not assume as much. To pause any internal chatter or emotional reactions. Often that also prompts me to actually get in touch with the person and ask them what they want to do next. Many stalled ideas require one side to be proactive in pursuing the opportunity. Why shouldn’t that be you as the data or insight leader? What “parcel” could you follow-up as a leader (even after some time has passed) to show that you are still committed to making a difference? What are you going to do about that today?