Waiting is the hardest part

In the early seventies, I went to the University of Sussex. It is about 4 miles outside of Brighton, where many of the students lived. There were buses and trains to cover the distance, but the preferred means of getting back into town was hitch-hiking – it was an almost industrial process, with a self-organised line and amazing efficiency. It was so much of an institution that the Students Union welcome pack for students contained the (pre-enlightenment) quote “Patience is a virtue, or a pretty girl. Both of which are useful when hitching”.

I have learnt, in the many years since I left Sussex, that patience is a useful virtue to have in business – and certainly in government. However, it is sadly lacking.

In the Technology Strategy Board, we were often asked for hard metrics to prove that we were doing a good job. Given that we funded early stage commercial projects (the state aid rules allegedly prohibited us funding work too close to commercial reality) that lasted up to 3 years, and that there would inevitably be a period of time after a successful project before money was made, it made little sense to ask us after a couple of years for data it would take 5 or more years to accumulate – and several more years to be statistically significant! Sometimes the questions were about our “fame” – whether we were recognised as a potentially useful organisation by companies we could have helped. There were a couple of reasons this was difficult. One was that most companies were not constantly interested in how they could work with a government agency and so paid no attention to the sorts of schemes we ran until they needed them. They were not constantly scanning government brochures and websites to keep up with the latest re-structuring of how government offered help. So it would take time for people to look for what we did and therefore get to know about us. Also, if any of our schemes were worthy of journalistic coverage, they quickly became “government programmes” not Technology Strategy Board (or now Innovate UK) ones.

My latest exposure to this sort of manifestation of unrealistic impatience occurred last week in Paris. The back-story is that a couple of years ago, I was inducted into the Transitional Advisory Board of the European Technology Platform for Nanomedicine. This was set up to help projects in nanomedicine to get help and support to take their new healthcare technologies – diagnostics and therapies – to market quicker and with less risk. The organisers had assembled a group of 10 business people with experience of taking projects through the development and regulatory processes in the healthcare industry who would provide hands-on advice and support. Companies could apply for this help, and were triaged for those who would provide the maximum health impact and highest pay-back. These then got a couple of the experts “on their case” to ask questions, suggest connections and do all the things that help. It has been going for a couple of years – although I missed much of last years activities because of my role as a mystery shopper for the NHS described here and here. Last week was a strategy meeting to discuss how we would report back to the European Union on our progress, justify further funding and/or “become sustainable”. As with the TSB question, it is nonsensical or badly timed. The companies we met in the first round are still in the midst of implementing the results of the discussions, and (particularly given the length of the regulatory cycle in healthcare) it will be years before we know if we are doing exactly the right things. The problem is that politicians of every hue are on a justification cycle that is significantly shorter than the timescales of the benefits of whatever they start. They do not seem to understand this and therefore keep changing things before they have impact. Even if the change is cosmetic, the people they seek to help do not pay attention to every move of government and so they just make it more difficult for everyone.

For clarification, I am not suggesting that patience should last forever. My experience of industry was that many subscribed to a version of Bob Cooper’s Stage-Gate© as the standard. This articulation of best practice simply states that you should constantly check that what you are doing will lead to where you want to go. This means assessing the cost of going on against the likely benefit if you do. This requires an understanding of the time required to achieve anything.

It is important that those (primarily in government) who commission schemes like these (Technology Strategy Board/Innovate UK and the Transitional Advisory Board of the European Technology Platform for Nanomedicine) understand the timescale on which they will have effect and at what point their impact becomes meaningfully measurable. If not, they will never realise the potential returns but instead pay for a series of uncoordinated and ineffectual soundbites.

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