The need for firm foundations was never more apparent
15 August 2019 by David Bott
I am sure there was a “start the week” meeting, but I can no longer remember it!! Afterwards we had a discussion about the way we manage publicity within the competition process. What we discovered was how much people assume there are rules and “ways we do things” and there were several very good ideas that came up during the discussion – like asking the consortia to submit what they would like say about their project if they were successful, so that we don't waste time asking for it after they have been. Given that once they are into the second stage of most of our competitions, they have a 50% chance of succeeding, this is not a big ask. Lady Claire was tasked with rewriting the rule book.
Next up was a visit from RWE a.k.a. nPower. They had noticed our Ultra Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator and wanted to know how they could get involved. Amongst a lot of “we were doing all this many years ago” and “we may have got our timing wrong” comments, Andrew’s presentation about the consortia that shows they are the only power company not involved seemed to surprise them. I suspect they will be our new best friends for a while. The final meeting of the day was with Christian and Mike. With the resolution of the MNT Centre Review and a fresh level of interest in nanotechnology in government circles, we thought (actually they did) that we ought to crystallise our nano-strategy. Which we did.
Tuesday was down to London. Actually it was one of those days in London with several small meetings built around a big one that got cancelled, so I had a hole in the middle of the day with minor stuff around. First up was a meeting with the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership - http://www.lowcvp.org.uk/ They are part of the confused landscape in the area and, although we have been involved in some of their activities, we see them as subsidiary. Their CEO wanted to convince me that they were important players, but failed, and then wanted to know why we haven’t joined. Firstly, their website says we have, but we cannot see why we would, so I told him that we didn't see the point of one government funded agency joining another. I think we still parted amicably. :-0
As luck would have it, the hole in the middle of the day was filled when I got a panic phone call from Jackie Hunter of GSK. They are putting together their case for government support for a bio-incubator on their Stevenage site. We are very supportive, but it does sound like between BIS and GSK, the UK may miss this opportunity. GSK have this belief that because the Dark Lord said “yes” to their CEO and because Peter Perfect showed interest that the civil service will open the cheque book. That it has been put in the hands of a pretty junior person in BIS is an indication of how they see it, and I fear the worse. I also had coffee with an old friend and accomplished cynic, who gave me an update on many ex-colleagues while we sat and watched the road diggers of Victoria Street pack up at 3 o'clock.
Wednesday started down in Swindon – with 2 interviews for a new Lead Technologist for Materials. The first was unbelievably shallow but the second showed both curiosity about technology and business and also enough breadth of learning that suggested he knew how to indulge his curiosity!! Fearless Leader, Allyson and I then met with Sara Murray – one of our new Board members. She had obviously shown interest in those areas which she already understood or where she could see direct benefit for her current activities – so is showing all the sign of being a good businessperson!! The final Swindon meeting was to discuss how we might suggest we organise the Board away day next month. Since they want to focus on metrics, we needed to build a structure that showed that we hadn't been totally making it up as we went along, but had used some inherent goals and measures of progress. I think we convinced ourselves that the problem was as much one of poor communication as poor management. I sincerely hope so. I then sped down to London on a train to have dinner with Sebastian Conran. I heard his view of the “Hot Products” competition – where the Design Council are upsetting many other participants by trying to grab the branding – the new Nissan electric car – he has just returned from Japan and a “design” meeting with Nissan – and the state of the UK economy.
Thursday started in London. First up was a meeting at DfT on Omega 2 - http://omega.mmu.ac.uk/. The story so far is that Omega was set up with £5m of HEIF money, did some good research and is now looking to set up a 5 year £25m programme. They have asked the main research councils and us and we have all (seemingly) said “no”. The meeting was called by DfT and started with them saying that we had all agreed to support Omega 2. This started a less than positive discussion about alignment of strategies, quality of proposals and fit with remit (the last one was us). Since the “prospectus” had us and the EPSRC down for half the money between us, it is fair to say that the meeting did not go well for Omega and the DfT have gone back to the drawing board. Everyone said that the area was relevant and would be supported but not with a single un-reviewed limited geography proposal.
I got back to Fortress Kingsgate in time to join Fearless Leader on his way to the headquarters of SPECTRE (otherwise known as the MRC). The man with the white cat was away and we were meeting his Number 2. Actually, Number 2 has only recently joined SPECTRE from GE Healthcare and a string of other real world organisations so we mostly just explained what we did and why we did it. We also asked him to chair the Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents Innovation Platform Steering Group, although he expressed what he described as “healthy scepticism” of whether the UK could compete in the field until such time as the NHS assembled its poop in the field of procurement. Before it all goes horribly wrong, I would like to point out that Meredith and Penny chose him!! :-) Another trip on the Hogwarts Express got me back to Swindon in time to meet with Chris Snowden, who expressed real pleasure at discovering that the people he met had shown both breadth of vision and depth of knowledge.
Friday was another Swindon day, starting with a meeting with the assembled RCs on measuring the success of our interaction and how we might improve going forward. It was a productive use of 2 hours with real engagement on both sides, although the omission of the STFC and MRC did say many things. I then joined the “metrics task force” for another couple of hours. What it suggested to me is that we are still poor at bringing new people into the organisation and explaining to them what we do and how we do it. And everyone is so keen to make their point that they often don't listen to others. Since this is probably a sign of their desire to solve the problem it needs to be managed rather than stopped. I think we reached agreement on the building blocks, which haven't changed much over the last 4 years I have been hearing this subject discussed, but I don't think everyone is not convinced of how they inter-relate and feed into one another.
Anne, Heidi and I then had a discussion on how the payment of full-time staff (whose salaries seem to be a bit random when looked at in the light of responsibility and performance) and interim staff needs to a bit better balanced. This led into an interesting wider discussion and staff planning, so we agreed to do it more often. My final meeting was with Michael to understand some of the labyrinthine interactions we have taken on in space – so that I could sign off a couple of PAFs with a clear conscience.