Hugh Everett was right - there are parallel worlds and I have seen them
20 December 2018 by David Bott
I actually made a “start the week” meeting so found out what my colleagues were doing this week and next!!
Then on to an interview for Head of Technology. This was the one interview from about 60 applicants and 3 through the assessment centre. It was still a profoundly depressing experience. After some catching up time, I went into my performance review with Fearless Leader. This was cut short by his need to take part in the Audit Committee meeting in London, so I don’t know how I am doing or how I am to be developed. It was obviously going to be an HR day because I then spent some time with wrongly spelt Ian discussing where we have got to in our quest for the required human resource – only 4 – and what we should do next.
Tuesday was the Governing Board Meeting – held this time in the Royal College of Surgeons. Given our inverse Midas touch from the last one, I think Guy is being careful about commercial locations. It was a cordial affair, with the Board worried about the potential impact of the economic downturn on our activities and looking for hard data that we don’t yet have. That said, we managed to convince them that SAMULET was a good investment – given the run of comments at the last meeting, David put a really good case not just for the specific output of the project, but the wider dissemination of advanced manufacturing techniques into other supply chains. It seemed to be this aspect that convinced the Thomases and they tasked us with making sure that the Roll-Royce aspects were “sticky” (a new term introduced by Drayson to capture the fact that the long game of any project needed to stay in the UK) and driving the knowledge transfer. Next up was a paper on SBRI which recognised that Government departments were cautious beasts and we need to find new ways to encourage them to get engaged. Aligning them with Innovation Platforms and co-funding seemed to hit the sweet spot, but this remains an important challenge where we need to find new ways of being creative. Allyson provided the light relief with a discussion of our planned cocktail party in Brussels and managed to get them to buy into a higher level of European engagement on the back of it. Good job the Daily Mail wasn’t in the room. After lunch I updated them on the progress of the Sustainable Agri-Food Supply Chain – a follow on from the last meeting – but was not really prepared for his Spittlenesses question “why are we in this area anyway?”. Luckily, Fearless Leader and I remembered enough of the data from 6 weeks ago to be able to placate him, but it does show the importance of considering all the angles with our Board. The final agenda item was how we should prepare for the next spending review (which, for new readers, could be anytime!). Once again his Spittleness set out to raise our game by pointing out that we have a plan but no content. This ended up with us being tasked to come up with real plan within 14 (of his) working days.
After a quiet dinner in London – and a couple of walks across London (to save taxis fares) which gave no indication of any economic downturn – we held our Executioners Meeting the next morning. The main subject was Steve Price’s thorough analysis of our needs. I think he started with how to make the grant payment system simpler, but like any good systems designer, he has worked out that we are pretty badly served in a number of areas and is suggesting an integrated approach to answering our needs. Considering we have been waffling around this area for 18 months now (longer, as David pointed out, because this was recognised as a need in the DTI) I do find it amusing that we can still believe we are credible to internally manage this process. It costs a lot, but since the rest of the organisation is dependent on effective internal data and information sharing, this has to be a priority and, as Steve pointed out, there is a considerable saving if we automate or bring inside a small amount of what we pay for in East Kilbride and Melton Mowbray. This was followed by the ritual sharing of the scorecards.
I had to run out early to catch the beginning of the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (NAIGT) meeting. This was set up by BERR about 6 months after we announced the Low Carbon Vehicle Innovation Platform and, like all IGTs, was designed to find out what the sector thought about their opportunities and challenges. We were not actually invited to join (that is not as bad as it seems, we are not an automotive manufacturer!) but as they focused on the low carbon agenda we found ourselves with a confused business sector, not knowing who to talk to. We asked for a meeting with the chairman – which took 3 months to arrange – and then got told about meetings with a couple of days notice. This ended up with some justified criticism from the businesses about joined up government, a series of intemperate e-mails and me re-arranging my diary to make this meeting. When I was young, I read a book called “The Land That Time Forgot”. After 15 minutes in the meeting, I was forced to remember it. It has to be said that the people in the meeting were not living in the same world I was. Climate change is a passing fashion, Julia King is the anti-Christ, the Government need to give them money because they were an important part of the economy and so on. The first presentation, by a young blade from Judge, was about justifying how cars were the bellwether of the economy, and that there ought to be trade barriers to protect local manufacturers. There was a reasonable analysis that car production was going to developing countries – to which the room largely responded that they weren’t playing fair and were using low cost labour and new technology to gain an advantage – and an analysis of what made the UK attractive to global companies – to which the answer is the flexible workforce and low barriers to exit. Next up, Jerry Hardcastle ran through the product and infrastructure challenges. A lot of emphasis was placed on the roadmap, the establishment of a “leadership council” and what they call “test bed UK” which is a large scale demonstrator involving infrastructure as well as cars. The next presentation was about the “hollowing out of the supply chain” which presented no real data but relied on anecdote to say the Tier 1’s and2’s were no longer in the UK and we need them back. Because the chairman was from that area, skills got lots of mentions and the old arguments trotted out. This has been a challenge for many years and successive solutions have been abandoned within a few years in in favour of alternative models, so we haven’t really had a good go at this area yet. Finally, we got to “business environment”. This started with a rant against VED (I saw the Julia connection at this point) and went on to blame Government for not understanding how cars were different and shouldn’t be taxed. It was all a bit depressing, with most of the problems being someone else’s fault and no coherence about the priority of the snag list and no self-help on the agenda. I caught the train home. It worked fine.
Thursday was back to Swindon and more HR stuff – starting with the new Head of HR (checking us out before she finally signs?) and 2 new starters – the Programme Manager for the LCV IDP and the second ICT person. Filomena is particularity pleased that our Italian count will go up again!! This lead seamlessly into our “Informal Christmas Gathering” with Fearless Leader adopting a crash sweat induced diet regime!! After that, wrongly spelt Ian and I listened to the feedback from the Creative Problem Solving Course. The basic messages were that we have got our balance between process and output wrong, we are seen as stifling our people creativity, that we have evolved to a culture where they feel they need to ask our permission for everything, and so on. We have a large opportunity, if only we could get a coherent internal message, to unlock a lot of innovation and energy in the only resource we have direct control of. Shame on us for not doing it so far. :-( In the evening, the homeless of Swindon went for a curry and talked about cross department communications, the weight of laptops and how much money Tim could spend in a year!
Friday started off in Swindon with a meeting of the Heads of Innovation Programmes, and our continuing struggle to impose a logic on our competitions programme. I think we made real progress, but mainly at the expense of Pauls’ confidence!! The afternoon saw me slip away to London (via much delayed trains) to take part in the interviews for the “executive search consultants” to find the new Governing Board members. I am not really sure how I got this gig, but it involved reading quite a few proposals and then not getting upset when DIUS ignored all my input. This was interviewing the 3 shortlisted candidates. The first came in and described what they usually did, gave us a list of the great and the good (all past retirement age) that they had placed and basically used the “we’ve worked with you government johnnies before” routine. When Fergus and I explained how we saw the perfect candidate they seemed a little perplexed – like we were being innovative or something. The next guys had done their homework. They produced a critique of the Technology Strategy Board that was pretty spot on and made a few suggestions about getting in the sort of people we had told the previous guys we wanted. They were obviously well informed, understood us and wanted the job, but since they recruited Peter Davidson, most people in DIUS don’t rate them. Finally, we had a joke entry, who had done cursory research, got it wrong, didn't listen to our questions and used the office junior to make the pitch. It’s a shame that the people who came over the best in interview might be blackballed and the job would go to the boring, safe pair of hands, but hey, we’re part of Government now, so the risk-reward balance is different. A train ride back to Swindon, broken by phone calls from Fearless Leader and wrongly spelt Ian, led to a a long drive home, so Christmas didn't start until this morning when I didn't have to get up!!