My partner and I went to Rwanda a couple of weeks ago. Our mission was to trek up the country's highest mountains to see the mountain gorillas that inhabit these bamboo forests.
People had told us that this would be a "life-changing experience" and indeed both of us came back changed. But it was not seeing the gorillas that changed us. It was being in Rwanda.
Most people will have a vague recollection of the terrible genocide that ravaged the country 20 years ago when people, often neighbours, turned on each other during 100 days of bloodletting. More than a million people died.
Yet now people appear to live in peace with each other and the country is prospering. How could this happen and what might we learn from it?
I realise it's trite to make any comparison between the terror of a genocide and the organisational life and change that I study. Yet I feel I've learnt a great deal from my experiences in Rwanda and wanted to share them because it seems to me that there is a great deal to learn. Here are four insights:
- Facing up to the truth. The truth in the genocide was beyond imagination. Yet painstakingly and courageously, families and communities faced up to what had happened. First in courts and then in community groups the truth of what happened was openly discussed and confronted.
- Removing negative symbols of the past. The hatred between groups prior to the genocide was fuelled in part by cattle owning. Some groups had more cattle than others and their superiority was demonstrated through cattle ownership. After the genocide the government stopped the grazing of cattle on public ground - all cattle had to be kept in domestic yards. They also ensured that every family - however poor - owned a cow.
- Creating pride. Rwanda is spotless - not just cleaner than any African country, but cleaner than London. Every month the whole community get together and clean their space. It's an act of enormous pride. What ever their past, this is a community capable of competence, they can keep their street clean.
- Creating a sense of the future. Almost every young person we spoke to felt positive about their future. They did not want to describe themselves through their tribal grouping but rather as 'Rwandans'. They felt positive about the future of the country and trusted their leaders.
These are four lessons that anyone involved in corporate change knows. What the extraordinary change that Rwanda tells us is that it's possible - by following these four lessons relentlessly - to turn around from even the darkest of moments.