Was Dagobah a blue planet?
15 May 2020 by David Bott
This “start the week” saw the triumphant return of the much-rested Fearless Leader. There was much discussion about the purpose and attendees at the various IBM-Imperial meetings and so it managed to fill most of the available time.
It was followed by an Innovate 2010 Steering Group meeting, where EPSRC had bizarrely come to pitch that they should organise all the “sustainability” stuff in the extra hall we are adding this year. It turned out that they have developed a new “brand” – Pioneers – and that this is unique to them and so we were in danger of letting them have the lead in the area where we have (arguably) had our best-known achievements and in a manner that would upset the other Research Councils. We asked them enough questions that we ended up with the idea that they would work with the other Research Councils to use the Pioneers idea to demonstrate that many of the product and service ideas we would be showcasing had come from basic research and that we worked closely with the Research Councils to find the products and services of tomorrow – or similar. Let’s see what they come back with.
That segued into a meeting of the (one day they will be) magnificent seven. We are still striving to understand how and why some things come out of nowhere and then return there after a lot of fuss, but with no discernible impact. We also had the first of several (this week) discussions about the expenses system. It seems to have been designed to be difficult to work on the road and, given that the Executioners agreed last month to look at the Expenses Policy, it does seem to be rigorously enforcing a policy we had mostly ignored for 2 years and 10 months and are intending to re-write, so there are some surprised and disadvantaged people working for us at the moment.
In a day of back-to-back meetings, this gave way to a Governing Board pre-meeting where we discussed and fine-tuned our input to the Board. The big question at the moment is what our over-arching strategy is and how we refresh it (or define it according to where you sit on the belief spectrum about whether we currently have one). Next Jools had managed to lever in a few minutes to tell me what I was doing and feed me agendas and tickets, and then it was back into the second of the “Competitions Sign Off Meetings”. Sadly, after the free-form nature of the first one – where Cyrus told us that we need to co-develop (see how easily I use the new jargon there) this process – we only got a hard core of people. This was a shame because we have started to get the process right, and ended up dragging various of the Technologists who own upcoming competitions into the room to give evidence. We found differences between the funding spreadsheets, the competitions spreadsheets and the aspirations of the Technologist, but logged them all and now need to stay lock-step to deliver them. Cyrus could have delivered a Shakespearian speech about those who were not there thinking themselves lesser beings, but he didn’t. This is an important meeting to take part in.
Cyrus then called a meeting with me and young padawan – because we have been the most vociferous about the CRM system – to discuss what we need to do next to make it right. We described the needs of the Technologists, the complexities that we have left in the CRM system and the joke process we seem to have gone through to put data into it without thinking the output through. We agreed to form a small group of users to define the need, agree the process and get it all back on track. I ended the day with 5 minutes with Fearless Leader about the meeting that would start Tuesday – so that we both knew what we were doing. I then had a depressing Marriott meal with Miller-san to tell him we had volunteered him to help with the CRM “challenge”. He took it well. (for the avoidance of doubt, it was the food that was depressing!!)
Tuesday started with a meeting that turned out to be with IBM about the Deep Blue Death Star proposal. Considering how many times we touch IBM, it was depressing to see how little they understood what we did and how we did it. FL gave the basic introduction slide set and they described their goals. The outcome of the meeting was best summed up (anonymously by FL himself) as “we like you, but your friend is a dog”. What is obvious is that IBM are heading straight for the same convergence territory that we are, but trying to make money out of it for themselves on the way. I suspect that most of the large IT companies are on similar tracks, so we will need to make sure we work with them all to avoid the blatantly obvious charges of chairman induced nepotism. This was followed by another fruitless interview and a short time catching up with “stuff” before a short ride to Malmesbury. FL had received a request from the head of R&D at Dyson for more contact but now only does CEOs these days, so I got sent as a sop. Actually, it was great fun. Charles Collis had talked to Peter Flynn and Nick at an Innovate meeting (he said 2007!!) and taken some very odd messages away about what we did and how we did it (there’s a theme emerging here). I reprised the talk FL had given for IBM in the morning and answered questions for 90 minutes and expect further interaction. Bizarrely, it turned out that there are personal connections with 2 of my outside interests and that James had a demo of one of them – small world!! Then it was the long drive to Guildford for the Governing Board meeting. The dinner proved interesting – mainly in the “getting there” bit. Our taxi driver didn’t know where the restaurant was, but Andrew Milligan went into a bar and came out with a woman he had persuaded to give us a guided tour of the campus!! Given that it was Tuesday, Philip Rycroft managed to say a few words about the new Government but otherwise, it was a discussion of how more universities should have “hospitality management” courses so that their entertainment offerings were this high level!!
Wednesday started with another not totally efficient transport process as we drove past SSTL before turning back to find it. We got a good introduction to the company and a cursory look at its facilities. Unless they were lying, they seem to have broken open the business model for the provision of satellite based services. They deliver on time and on budget by making sure the specification is well thought through rather than “indicative”. They play the field for launchers – the fact that the Russians are using up all their old ICBM as launchers and they were cheaper that the French equivalent was just one of the interesting facts we learned. They are doing what we have talked about in linking “space” to services on the ground and we ought to follow up on several fronts. With the preliminaries over, we got down to the Board meeting. The morning was taken up with FL’s monthly activity report, David Way testing the appetite for taking forward the Hauser recommendations, and me describing the learnings from the Innovation Platform pilots, which we are now in the process of closing. In writing the paper and presentation, I was increasingly aware that we need to record more of the decisions (and the underlying reasoning) we make and that the Board has no corporate memory for things they have heard or agreed before. The afternoon was fairly stochastic discussion of the aspects of how to derive and agree an over-arching strategy – one that informs decisions rather than giving us a snappy by-line. Mark has suggested a process and timeline, which the Board agreed with, but the various fragments of discussion about content showed more fault-lines than overlaps in their thinking. In an inspired set of closing comments, FL managed to make it sound like we had made progress, but for me, this was yet another Board meeting where they had proved they were more comfortable with operational rather than strategic activities. I managed to get away just in time to only meet a little of the madness that is M25 traffic, but saw my family for the first time in the week!
Thursday meant a drive down to Swindon for the monthly Executioners Meeting. We had discussed (in the absence of FL and David Way) a week or so ago, the purpose and output to the risk register discussion, which had evolved into a “think about it outside the meeting, update the spreadsheet and we’ll discuss exceptions” process. A month or so ago, FL had used the phrase “this keeps me awake at night” (hopefully as a metaphor rather than a description of reality) and so we agreed to go through the 43 risks and think about them as a team. It may have blown 2 hours, but I now think I understand what I should pay attention to – and that my understanding is the same as the rest of the Executioners – so I am happier that we have a better process. Now we have to address the other things of the monthly agenda in the same way!! We went though the finances and HR with a more interrogative approach but managed to short-change the “strategy” discussions again. There is never enough time to do this stuff properly.
Friday saw the 3rd of the IBM-Imperial meetings in the last week or so as FL, Nick, Richard and I made our way to the Death Star itself. It was a classic Imperial meeting, with David Begg playing the “give us the money or the kid gets it” role, David Gann being creative and slightly disorganised and a range of storm-troopers arranged around the room to bulk out their numbers and intimidate us. There were also the IBMers from the Tuesday meeting and the shadowy figure of the US based ex-IBM man who was now a visiting professor at Imperial and who had been flown in to impress us, and Vice from the EPSRC. Rashik from IBM set the challenge first, both in terms of whether IBM had a future and the integrated societal challenge for cities. David Gann then managed to lose most of us with a disjointed review of how good Imperial was before putting up the slide we all agreed with – it was now an hour into the 2-hour meeting!!! The USP is to bring together all the data streams into an integrated model for how cities operate. There is still a lot of work to be done on the integration of the mechanistic models and (as Richard pointed out) the people in them make the weirdest decisions and that needs to be accounted for. Begg kept up with his, “we are good, give us the money” routine, but Gann started to understand where we (and IBM after our Tuesday rapprochement) were coming from and moved ground to try to explore what could be done. FL asked for a time-out and the EPSRC and us went into the next room to build a plan. Part of the problem is that we could probably use the “large projects” route but whereas there is only one large manufacturer of aero engines in the UK, there are many companies in IBM space, so we could be accused of chairman related bias. We worked up a three-part plan. We suggested that IBM, and some of the other large companies in the space, co-funded a “feasibility studies” front end to open the challenge up to the wider UK community – both university and SME. EPSRC have said that they would entertain a responsive mode proposal to fund the research required to develop of the integrated model of the city. And we pointed out that they could submit a proposal under the upcoming £18m Digital Britain competition for the first 2 years of the implementation programme. We were therefore allowed lunch!
Nick, Vince Osgood and I then caught the train back to Swindon – Vince having a first class ticket that was half the price of my standard class one – what’s that about? After a short time spent seeing the new media analysis tool that the Comms team are using, we went into a Funders Panel. For those who don’t know, these are held after the Assessment Panel and give us a last chance to understand what we are committing to – sort of the mirror image of the Competitions Sign Off Meeting we held on Monday. Unfortunately, the Technologist whose competition we were discussing, having accepted the Outlook invitation, decided not to turn up, so all the questions Cyrus and I had about the proposals were left unanswered. Although there were questions about 3 of the 4 proposals, the timing meant that we couldn’t really delay unless we had serious reservations, so only one is still in the hopper. We need to get everyone to understand that these meetings are critical, and that Technologists must turn up and that the relevant Head should also be aware and be invited.
The final meeting of the week, was the internal interview for the new Head of Energy role. Happily, the candidate had come up with some new ideas, fresh insights and was able to cope with me and Cyrus being miserable, so they will get the job.