Life in these Islands
:: my weekly column in The Freeman


It happens so often that we have a description for it in the vernacular -- ningas cogon.

Wish I could remember the title and author, but in college I stumbled on a book which enumerated the positive and negative traits of the Filipinos. The fatalistic "bahala na" attitude is one. So is "pakikisama." Depending on how one looks at it, the bahala na and pakikisama traits can either be good or bad. Ningas cogon, on the other hand, is definitely a negative trait.

Certainly, what good is there in our propensity to embark on new projects with much energy and enthusiasm only to lose interest before the project takes off or before it is completed?

Many government projects start off that way, with much hype and publicity, then pfffttt ... The next thing you know, when people start to ask whatever came out of it you have red-faced officials passing the buck to one agency or office, or indignantly shrugging their shoulders and whining "why do you expect so much from me, I can't do everything!"

Yet, examples of ningas cogon are found everywhere. It is not a bad trait monopolized by publicity-seeking politicians.

Look around, you’d notice this also applies to clubs, organizations, and associations – school, civic, religious, business, professional, social, cooperative. And it afflicts the organization when it is most vulnerable, that is, newly-formed and experiencing birth pains.

In most cases we embark on new, bold, well-meaning projects. Usually with lofty goals and more responsibilities than we can handle.

Believe it or not, when it comes to planning activities and programs the government and business execs are more pragmatic. They usually list down no more than five goals or objectives, each accompanied by detailed action steps and assigning the person or group responsible for carrying it out. Maybe it comes with first-hand experience for organizing with limited time and resources. Maybe it comes from being results-oriented (hey, if government programs appear ill-planned it is usually because the desired results is only to look good).

What the other groups lack in experience for organizing, they make up for in enthusiasm and sincerety. But no one can run a good program on enthusiasm and sincerety. They certainly are not lacking in good ideas and good intentions. My boss has his own quote for good ideas. "They're worth a peso," he declared, "but a plan to implement that idea is worth a million." This is where many group efforts often fall flat.

Take newsletters. Everybody wants to publish their own newsletters. Clubs, organizations, associations, departments, companies. But how many newsletters ever get past the 10th issue?

The editorial staff call for a meeting and pretty soon there is a long list of suggested sections, features, and articles. The agreed deadline comes and the harried editor soon realizes that the correspondents would rather demonstrate their creativity in giving excuses than in filing stories. Soon the weekly becomes a monthly publication, then a quarterly newsletter. The number of pages and the size of the paper is noticeably shrinking. Editorial explains it is part of cost-cutting and environment-friendly measures. But then you notice that nearly all the articles are written by one person -- usually the editor -- if a byline appears at all, although the staffbox carries the name of a dozen people. Pretty soon, there is even no byline anymore, just an acknowledgement that starts with "reprinted from ..."

Look around again, but organizations that have achieved a degree of maturity are also less likely to succumb to ningas cogon. It takes years but it occurs when the organization has achieved a state of maturity and the group dynamics have gelled. In the extreme case, they may be accused of being complacent, predictable and boring. People are comfortable with tried and tested formulas. They don’t want to innovate or take risks. If this was a pole vaulting competition – excuse me FVR – the participants are happy to hurdle the same bar over and over again and they don’t see the need to raise the bar a notch higher. Thy might even say their track record speaks for itself and that there’s nothing to prove anymore.

Ah, but they forget what Robert Browning once said: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a Heaven for?”

Then again if we look around some more there are organizations and projects that strike a balance between ningas cogon and complacency. These are marked by two distinct characteristics: inspired leadership and good teamwork. Their third and less obvious asset – and in the final reckoning it all boils down to this -- follow through. This is what determines whether your organization, your performance, or project will be just another flash in the pan or a worthy, sustainable effort.

February 12, 1999

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