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Why Nigeria May Never Produce a Google, Apple or Microsoft

News » Technology/Innovation


The first brainstorming session with my team in Nigeria went something like this: “Right! What do you guys think? What can we do better?” Ten pairs of eyes looked blankly back at me before quickly shifting away. They crossed their arms, they bowed their heads. The sound of silence was deafening. Ideas were clearly not welcome here. This was evidently no Google, Apple or Microsoft!

It took some time for me to realise that my young colleagues needed a little more than my enthusiasm and a few snacks to get them going. They needed permission, guidelines and assurances. Past experience had shown that engaging in a brainstorm without these conditions was foolhardy. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to share this valuable nuance with me.

You see, young people at the company where I work – let’s call it Acme Ltd for now – needed permission to participate. Typically this would come from the most senior person in the room. Although I was the boss, I was later told my “annoying” American accent, enthusiastic approach to everything and my insistence that everyone call me by my first name made it clear that I was not part of the local hierarchy.

My team also needed precise guidelines on exactly what participation was required of them, “What do you think?” was a little too vague. Again, these guidelines needed to come from the most senior person who would “chair” the brainstorm in a manner reminiscent of a board meeting. The chair’s role would be to set the agenda and tightly manage the participants’ contributions. I had not yet learnt to do this.

Finally – and this was the real clincher – my team needed assurances that their contribution would not get them fired or elicit ridicule and abuse because corporate bullying at Acme Ltd was actually considered “good sport” for senior people like me. Apparently, many careers had been built on its practice and, like a family heirloom, it has been handed down through generations of management.

Without these three conditions in place, no one at my first brainstorming session was going to indulge in any sort of out-of-the-box thinking.

Young people at Acme Ltd (and the numerous companies just like it across corporate Africa) prefer to stay in the box until they are given permission to step out. No one has ever been fired for operating inside of the box. Acme’s management would complain about the box and blame the education system, which I am sure did not help, but nothing would be done. When a young person dares to step out of the aforementioned box it is with justifiable trepidation. I was told that when you have witnessed or been the victim of a ruthless put down by a senior person in full view of your peers, you too will learn.

To modify George Bernard Shaw’s quote that “Youth is wasted on the young”, in companies like the one where I worked, youth was simply wasted. The environment at companies like Acme Ltd has created “survivors” – not the scheming, reality-series type but a breed of fearful youngsters who lack initiative, the desire to shine and the chutzpah needed to take any form of risk in the working environment. But without risk takers there are no new ideas. Without risk takers, my team, and ultimately Acme Ltd, will stagnate. There will be no innovation and things will continue just as they are for years to come, until Acme Ltd dies a lingering death from inertia.

And this is the reason why Nigeria and arguably Africa (with some exceptions), might never produce the next Google, Apple or Microsoft or nurture the next Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. These are companies that thrive on innovation and out-of the-box thinking, staffed by bright young minds – a commodity which Africa does not lack. These are the companies and the minds that are needed to navigate the fast-paced and unpredictable future ahead of Africa. They are exactly the kind of new corporate animal the African continent needs to compete in this technology-enabled world.

Perhaps we should stop equating age with wisdom and experience with knowledge because the dynamics have changed. In a world where “finding” the facts is as good as “knowing” them; the person with the fastest browser and a nimble smart-phone will win every time. And it is unlikely he will be the most senior person in the room.

In my brainstorming sessions I have started doing things according to the new rule book. I take control of the meetings, call out individuals by name, praise them frequently and reward them by letting them keep their jobs. I even let them call me by my initials – JC – and not my first name to prove I am “in”. (For some reason they added in an extra J and it seems to have stuck. I actually like being called JJC). These days when I call a brainstorming session and 10 pairs of eyes look blankly at me, I take a deep breath, apply the rules and wait for the ideas to start rolling in. And roll in they definitely do!

Article Credit: Ventures-africa

Updated 5 Years ago

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Tags:     Nigeria May Not Produce Google     Apple Or Microsoft