The year is coming to an end as I write this reflection in early December. It has been another exhausting year with many changes.
The Covid pandemic still rages around the globe. The new Omicron variant has recently been identified by South African scientists. While vaccines, lockdowns and other measures have managed to stabilise the pandemic, the socio-economic impacts have been especially severe for poorer countries.
This article contains my end-of-year reflection for 2021. I believe in the value of openly sharing my after-action reviews, and you can read what I wrote in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Here is a template that I developed to help you with your own reflection.
I write these reviews to help orient myself and reflect on how I must do things differently in the future.
This has been a year of massive change for me. Amidst the July riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, my wife and I accelerated our plans to move from South Africa to Scotland, and we moved countries in late November after four months of frenetic activity. We made it to the United Kingdom about two weeks before South Africa was red listed again for international travel. My career has steadily been shifting internationally and this is a much better base of operations for me.
What was going on around me this year?
South Africa continued through a second and third wave of the Covid pandemic, and as I write this reflection, it has just entered the fourth wave. All around me, non-profit organisations and social enterprises struggle to serve their beneficiaries while having only a fraction of the resources they need. Unemployment increased, and local municipalities struggled to deliver the services that were due to their citizens. I don’t have much positive to say, other than mentioning that the organisations that I dealt with had become more adaptable and resilient amidst these challenges.
I felt very distressed by the widespread riots (possibly an attempted insurrection) in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal in July of this year. These riots destroyed tens of thousands of jobs and small businesses, and were only stemmed by the deployment of 25,000 SANDF troops. I was sadly reminded that it is so much easier to destroy than to build.
What did I do this year?
The trend for my work to become international continued into 2021. About three-quarters of my work was for large multi-year projects in Zambia and Kenya, and more broadly within the East African Community. I worked with the team at Imani Development to manage impact investment funds that focused on agricultural value chains, and to improve the quality of cross border trade through the removal of non-tariff barriers.
Unfortunately, because of the pandemic and lockdown, I was unable to travel to these countries as I had hoped, so I had to do this work remotely and work with our local partners.
These projects continued the trend for me to be increasingly involved more directly in trade, impact investment, value chains and local economic development – all things that I have been thoroughly enjoying.
For various reasons, I have increasingly struggled to get work in South Africa, despite this being my home-base where I have worked hard throughout my career to build my skills and reputation, and despite dedicating my career so far to helping to develop the country.
However, amidst several bits and pieces, I did manage to get two noteworthy projects in South Africa. The first involved developing a community development strategy for a large foundation that operates across five local municipalities, and the second was an income-generation strategy for an association of non-profit organisations that provided palliative care.
I struggled with the concept of ‘hope’ as I had become demoralised with South Africa’s strategy to reduce poverty and grow its economy, and by the declining ability of the government to deliver services to poor communities. I also began to realise that the rest of the world considered South Africa to be ‘expendable’. I felt that I lacked the agency to influence these outcomes. I wrote, ‘Be hopeful, not optimistic’ when exploring how leaders can cultivate hope.
What did I succeed at?
In addition to the work I have just mentioned, I also published 11 articles on my website, and here are some that I have not yet mentioned in this review.
In February I wrote about what I’d learned from working with impact investment funds in Africa and updated the Strategy and Social Enterprise Glossary.
In March I wrote an article on how founder’s syndrome undermines the legacy of strong leaders – something that makes me very sad and angry.
In June I published an article where I suggested that virtual organisations and remote working requires more than technology to succeed, which shows that a change in systems, culture and leadership is also required.
In June I also wrote about deductive and inductive reasoning. Researching this article helped me to refine my thinking on this subject, and provided me with several breakthroughs in my thinking about complex problems and strategy.
Then in July, I wrote, Five ways for a non-profit organisation to earn more income – an article based on all the questions I continued to get on this subject.
In September, I published my longest article ever, which explains how organisations adapt to change, and how they can use the OODA loop to do this more effectively. I had originally intended to write an ebook on this topic, but ended up shortening it considerably to 13,500 words in order to wrap it up and move on to the next topic. I wrote this article over the course of a year. This OODA loop governs how I think about change and how I orient myself and make sense of things in an ambiguous and fast-changing world.
The highlight of my year has definitely been moving from Cape Town in South Africa to Glasgow in Scotland in early November. This had been part of my long-term plans which I had accelerated in July. Scotland is one of the biggest hubs of social enterprise in the world. I have heard Scotland described as ‘the heart of social enterprise in the UK’. Throughout the second half of this year, I have engaged with leaders from Scotland’s social enterprise sector and have been overwhelmed by their kindness and willingness to help me to get established in this country. This move to Scotland will enable me to refine my skills, find new mentors, and work on challenging projects in the UK and Europe. I intend to continue to work on projects in South Africa where they can be done remotely, and with local partners. I will also continue to visit and work on projects in Southern and East Africa.
What did I fail at?
I struggled to get work in South Africa, even though I am more skilled and connected than I have ever been, and have insight into the socio-economic issues facing the country. I felt that my consulting business that I had built over the past two decades was sliding backwards, which I attribute to the nature of my work and the lack of funds of my clients due to the pandemic and the current economic situation in South Africa. I also found that the B-BBEE procurement and employment-equity policies have increasingly constrained me, and made it very difficult for me to win contracts, or take up positions, with large and/or more formal organisations. The government has said that it intends to intensify these policies.
Overall, my income took a big knock for the second year in a row, and continued at half of its pre-Covid levels.
How will I do things differently next year?
I expect next year to be a big adventure and require me to rapidly learn a lot of things.
I expect many things to be different from what I’m accustomed to as I will be spending the majority of my time in a new country with a different policy environment, work culture and mix of social and economic problems.
I hope to continue working closely with Imani Development, and their UK team which is centered around Glasgow. I also expect to pick up some retainer contracts with local organisations that support social enterprises. There is also the possibility that I get offered my dream job, and I will let you know if that happens, since it will fundamentally shift the trajectory of my career.
I also intend to continue to do remote work with South African clients, as I have done so since the start of the pandemic. For obvious reasons, I won’t be able to do work that requires me to be there in person to facilitate face-to-face workshops and conduct site visits etc. For projects that include such activities, I will continue to work in partnership with the local experts who I have worked with for many years.
This has been a difficult year for me, with a massive turning point in July during the riots.
I have most probably embarked on the biggest adventure in my life – moving countries at age 49 with my wife (and cat). This will help to accelerate my career and enable me to expand my impact on the world.
I also expect to have many exciting challenges and adventures, and I’ll get to tell you about them in next year’s annual review.