From things we should have done to things we might do
01 May 2020 by David Bott
Down to Swindon for the “start the week” meeting – but because it was chaired by Cyrus in his Blofeld mood, we finished in 25 minutes and had a chance to catch up with some back office stuff before we went into our first “Competitions Sign Off” meeting. This is something we sort of had at the beginning but had lost in the later melee. The idea is to align everyone at the beginning of the process – the Technologist who is driving the competitions needs to capture what they are trying to achieve and how it aligns with their and the overall strategies, the Operations Team need to make sure they have the right resources available at the right time and are set up to measure the right things once the projects start – you get the idea. There was the usual discussion about the goal of the process, the priority of the individual elements and the balance between process and outcome. We suffered, as we are doing a lot at the moment, in that the process is designed to be easy to do on a computer, but the systems are not yet in place. The upside of this is that we can design the process to be right before we implement it. Cyrus keeps telling people that this is a journey, but everyone wants closure, so there is a need to do this again soon.
From this meeting I went directly to the (currently quite frequent) meeting of the (one day they will be) Magnificent Seven. We had quite a debate about the process bound nature of several things we are doing at the moment – the HR Review stuff – especially the risk register part of it – the competitions stuff we had just discussed, the Connect space and the (one day it will be finished) CRM system. There is a deal of frustration among the Innovation Programmes team that they are not consulted until the process design is quite well advanced, that their concerns are not heeded and that everything is late anyway. That said, we are beginning to see the overlaps, underlaps and convergence of our programmes, so our part of the overall strategy feels pretty firm.
After a quick catch-up with Jools to find out what I was doing for the rest of the week, it was into a new type of meeting. Since the Executioners Meeting itself is now regularly full of “stuff we have to do”, we have decided to “pre-meet” and discuss what we are going to discuss. This meeting was about the risk register and “metrics”. The risk register is an interesting case of us forgetting why we do things. We now have 43 risks and I am sure that some psychologist somewhere can prove that human beings cannot focus on that many things in an effective way. We no longer talk about all of them but focus on what the register tells us in important. At a recent meeting Fearless Leader had pointed out that the one thing that “kept him up at night” (I am hoping this is figure of speech rather that a description of his nocturnal habits) wasn’t on the list. If we have degenerated into these potentially valuable management processes being merely ways of avoiding being criticised by the auditors, then I feel we have lost the plot. Having aired all this stuff, we then went on to discuss metrics. I think we all accept that the presentation made to the Governing Board a few months back did nothing more that buy us breathing space, but we haven’t made that much progress since and FL has added SBRI-dude to the mix. He noted, as we ought to have remembered, that the only thing worth measuring is progress towards your strategic goals, so the absence of an over-arching strategy means that what we have been doing is work on a lot of complementary strategies. This means that His Spittlenesses favourite question – how do we make decisions between funding streams? – incredibly difficult to answer.
The final task of the day was to have a telecon with Bob Sorrell of BP about the upcoming EGS Steering Group meeting. It is always nice to work with an external who gets what we are trying to do and has enough experience to add to our endeavours.
The next day was down to London. First up was the second meeting of the Automotive Council Supply Chain Sub Group. This was chaired by a nice man from GM, who cannot be as charming as he was here and keep his job. There is an element of too much top down strategy from the chair of the Automotive Council and I am not sure we achieved much in the 3 hours we sat together. They want to “rebuild the UK supply chain” but haven’t thought about why it needs this treatment, who or what caused it and therefore are in danger of treating the symptoms rather than the underlying problem.
The afternoon was dedicated to the much-delayed “summit” with UK Trade and Investment. We do a lot with UKTI but (there’s a theme developing here) without an over-arching strategy for engagement, both sides are feeling that we are missing things. There is definitely things we can do to support their drive for inward investment and things we can do together to support companies who are developing new technologies and see an opportunity to sell them overseas, but I am not sure we arrived at an agreed framework for cooperation of means to get there, so this may yet go down as another nice meeting with no real outcome. It also went on longer than first planned, so my time with the ETI Board papers was severely limited and I am not sure I did them justice. I am beginning to think their “virtual board” process is a good way to sneak things past the Board – maybe we could use it?
Wednesday started as another Swindon day. First up was the need to review the proposal for the next competition under the Creative Industries area. We are on to some good ideas, but we need to avoid the temptation to “lead the witness” and tell people what we think the answer is – this is a good way to limit the outcome of the competition by our limited creativity rather than use the “challenge led” approach to engage the creativity of the whole community.
In the afternoon, I had promised to attend the Strategic Partnerships Group with RCUK and its constituent parts. It turned out to be the usual semi-political affair, confusing looking god with doing good, so it wasn’t a wrench to have to leave to go to London for an FST Meeting on science funding (but it was apt!) Unfortunately, yet another fatality on the line meant that I got back to Swindon 45 minutes after leaving it and faced a long wait for the line to be cleared. Instead I elected to drive nearer home and catch an alternative train – I was going to miss the meeting anyway and this set up an easier end to the week in travel terms.
Waking up in London made taking part in the first meeting of the Energy Generation and Supply Steering Group a breeze. The EGS team had assembled a very strong group and the chair was brilliant. We talked through the role of Steering Groups in the context of Application Areas, comparing them with those of Innovation Platforms, and talked through how best to use the few days these guys could give us to maximum effect. They took conflict of interest discussions seriously, thought through how to help the EGS team and (most important of all) helped us sort out how to turn the lights on and off in Room 135 in Kingsgate House. What a team effort that was!
Leaving the meeting and missing lunch, I rendezvoused with Digital Man and Security Boy for a meeting with the new Office of Cyber Security. As I read it, they have power but not many resources, so we are an obvious choice for a delivery partner. It was nice that their new Director either sussed that quickly (or had been briefed accordingly) because the meeting was very action oriented, although we all agreed that waiting until we discover the cyber-intentions of the next ruling party would be a sensible action plan! Digital Man and I then moseyed down to the Imperial Death Star for a discussion about their proposal with IBM to steal a march on all the other possible university-large ICT company partnerships by putting in a responsive mode bid to EPSRC and ourselves. They had slightly ambushed FL a few weeks ago and we are having a large meeting with the principals in a few weeks time, but this was a below the radar meeting to discuss details. This interestingly resulted in the approach that they fielded none of the prime movers (presumably they are mainly “ideas” people) and Nick and I had the pleasure of talking to people who understand the guts of the proposal rather than the high level strategic intent. They truly don’t get how we operate (and are stuck in RC application mode) so the discussion got a little pointed at several points. The overall idea (as Nick and I understand it) is stonkingly good, but (aside from the fact that every other potential bidder will cry foul) the main weakness is not the conflation of many things they do well as components already, but their assertion that they can evaluate the new business models that will arise. When I challenged them that no-one in the UK seems capable of addressing this problem (through several of our competitions and (according to the ESRC) others) they conceded (I thought) that this was a new area for them. We left with a quandary for us – it is right in the middle of the space we see as our next move, it has two powerful organisations at its heart (and several important hangers-on) but we ought to have arrived where we are by a more open process.
I nipped back into central London to meet the young padawan and some people from Cancer Research UK. We are slowly developing the relationship with them as a potential partner in the (possible) Stratified Medicine Innovation Platform, and this was another step. Since our initial meeting, we have engaged at all levels and seem to have discovered they are soul mates. This bodes well…..
Friday started excellently in that my first 2 meetings were cancelled and I got a chance to catch up on the scribblings I had promised Paul W for the day before. This idyll was disturbed by a call from Jools who told me that Richard Noble had turned up in Swindon for a meeting with me. Neither of us recognised this, but agreed I could squeeze him in at the end of the day. The first meeting that actually happened was with OSCHR – although there were reasons I wished it hadn’t!! John Morlidge and I went in to describe our experience with the Composites Grand Challenge. Their process for choosing “clusters” for disease management has many similarities and I had offered to discuss our experience with them. John explained what we had, what we had done it, and what had happened as a result. They understood the logic but seemed a little cautious that their seniors wouldn’t understand and so took an action to discuss it internally and revert.
I rushed back to Tracy Island for a meeting with Data Girl and Sharpcloud. We have been evaluating their software for developing and communicating our roadmaps, so it was nice to see how they are developing their product. However much fun it was (and once again missing a lunch) I had to be at City Hall with Andrew Everett and Guy to meet Isabelle Dedring, who is Boris Johnson Chief Environmental Advisor. She and her team were on top of what we do and keen to discuss new ideas. Andrew talked about London and the Demonstrator Programme, they talked about the pollution problems after carbon dioxide (specifically NOx and PM10 particles) and we agreed to think about supporting answers to minimising them if they would think about how they can control the market with regulation. We probably confused them by talking about SBRI as a separate thing, but suspect that we overall made a good impression. We do need to follow up though.
I then went back to Marylebone to meet Richard Noble. I bought him afternoon tea at the Landmark, and he told me (again) about Bloodhound. There is an obvious but unfulfilled overlap of our interests but this is mainly because he has chosen to focus on skills and that is slightly outside our role profile. He currently has cash flow problems (it is a recession and he is engaged in a pursuit which many would see as optional) but we can’t help him with that. He needs a really good website to enable him to engage with both sponsors and those who are turned on by the Bloodhound quest, and since that does come close to what we need to do (get connection with more scientists and engineers) I promised to investigate how we could support him more than we currently do. Although his presentation is now a sprawling mess, it contains so much good stuff, I did wonder whether him giving the talk to the massed Technologists might gift him 50 extra apostles and make links into many more companies that he currently talks at. As we talked, I realised that he is now mostly stuck in transmit mode, so I consider a small personal triumph that I told him about the work of Diandra L. Leslie-Pelecky in the US and he listened!!