Snakes and Ladders

Watching a building under construction in Addis Abeba is interesting to say the least. What I find most interesting is the scaffolding used by the majority of contractors. Made of Eucalyptus poles and sticks, the scaffolding is kept together by nails only and looks rather fragile and instable from a distance. Watching the carpenters erecting the structure is scary as they balance themselves high above the ground without much to stand on or hold on to. Somehow it branches itself up and along the concrete structures to provide support to the workers on site, like the masons, the brick layers, plasterer, plumbers, pipe fitters and the painters.
As the construction normally takes a number of months or years, the slowly growing building surrounded by the wooden sticks, becomes a familiar sight in the neighbourhood. And then all of a sudden the building nears completion and the scaffolding is dismantled in the same frightening fashion as it was erected and makes way for a fresh and clean façade. It often takes me by surprise and I find myself wondering how this new structure all of a sudden rose from the ground, while in fact all along it was hidden behind its scaffolding.
It is like seeing a colleague coming to the office after a fresh haircut, while you got used to his long uncombed manes which had been growing slowly over the past 8 weeks or so.
While being dismantled, the sticks are thrown down one by one and taken away from the site. They provided essential support during the construction and now they are no longer needed.
Allow me to compare this reality with the relationships we build during our lives. As we go through the different phases of our lives, we meet many different people, some of whom become friends, colleagues or our boss. They may play an important supportive role in our lives, coach us, provide help and advice, some more than the other. Then again, we lose touch and we move on to another phase of our lives and we meet other people again who support us or we are now able to provide support to others ourselves. Important to realise here is that at a certain moment we don’t need the support anymore of the people who supported us during a particular period of our live or career. We move on. We don’t forget them but we move on.
We need scaffolding at some point and we can stand on our feet another time, while we may become scaffolding for somebody else instead.
It reminds me of “Snakes and Ladders” we used to play as children. “Snakes and Ladders” is a board game, now also available in electronic version, the aim of which is to reach the end of the numbered track first, moving forward by throwing a dice. However, the track is not straight. It is a winding road with short cuts and detours. There are snakes and ladders that the player meets on the way and there is also competition from other players. Landing on a square with a ladder, the player is allowed to move up some steps. Landing on a number with a snake, the player will slide back some steps. Also here we can make a comparison with our lives. We meet situations and persons on our way that help us move up a bit faster. We also meet situations and persons that cause us to slide back. The important thing is to know who our snakes and ladders are. Who will be able to provide support and who will block our way? What is an opportunity and what is a threat? Once we are able to recognize them we need to grab the ladders and let go of the snakes.
The thing is we cannot go it alone. I have never been able to manage projects or programmes without the support and input of others. By others I don’t only mean workers or staff. No, I refer also to people who in one way or the other have advised me how to go about things. Often this advice was provided in an informal way, out of office and working hours. And most of the time by people who cared about me or about the activities I was engaged in. Many times I have also hired professionals for a short period of time to advise me on specific issues I was dealing with. I have hired consultants to evaluate programmes, to facilitate a strategic planning process, to carry out an audit, etc. I have had good experiences and I have had bad experiences. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the informal advisor is more effective than the hired consultant.
In any case, once we turn to somebody for advice we may develop some sense of uncertainty and some of the following feelings:
Not being sure whether the advisor is the best choice.
Emotionally uncomfortable to share sensitive issues with somebody else.
A feeling of losing control.
Feeling unconfident. Suggestions for improvement imply that things haven’t been managed well.
Feeling exposed and that some personal information will be revealed.
Feeling concerned that the advisor will not understand the specific circumstances.
These are real and serious emotions and if some of these fears come through, it is no wonder that the advisor’s advice will not be heard. Such emotions need to be appreciated and dealt with in an effective way, so that the advice will be followed up.
Giving advice is in fact complex material with a lot of psychology involved. There are skills involved that are not taught in formal education, but that are critical to success. Most important of these skills is trust. Without trust advice is doomed to fail sooner or later. Just like the construction worker has to trust the scaffolding to be strong enough to stand on while concentrating on his job, we need to be able to trust those that support us moving up the ladder of our lives. Trusting the snakes amongst the people who surround us will take us only down. Watch out and know who are your ladders and who are your snakes.