A week of under-achievement
10 July 2020 by David Bott
Another Monday, another “start the week” meeting. What is there left to say? It was followed by some frantic “seeing people” ahead of a closed-out day of meetings, but I did manage about half of the ones I planned and several of the ones I didn’t. It was then into a “Heads of Innovation Programme” meeting. We discussed the traffic light system we are trying to put in place for Innovation Platforms and things that look like them. I think everyone has had a go and we need to compare and take the best of breed approach. We discussed again the underlying things to monitor – based on the presentation I gave to the Governing Board the other month and are probably still on track to deliver next month internally. The next “opportunity” was the question of proven value for money. We have circled this one for a few meetings and come to the conclusion that it cannot be a delegated task and that the technologists are the only ones who can assess whether the projects have delivered what they said they would. This means that it is the Technologists who must go through all the closeout reports and check that they aren’t telling porkies, and then decide when and how to go back and check that the developed ideas have reached commercial fruition. In the end Heidi was volunteered to lead this effort until she leaves – I think the tacit acceptance by the rest of us was that she had the best process skills amongst us and would make it move faster than any of us could achieve. We then had our usual and ritual moan about process overload. As we start to use the new computer based PRP system, the single page we used to capture our quarterly progress against objectives has ballooned into a multi-page examination that will probably lead, over time, to its devaluation and avoidance. I walked out of this meeting into one with Forum for the Future. We have been talking to them at various levels for most of our existence, but at the last meeting we agreed to get serious. We will be commissioning them to map out what could be done in the business sustainability space and then evaluate our activities to date with the goal of identifying and evaluating any “white space” we find as a result of the analysis. This is easy to say, but now we are down to the detail, the question of how to describe let alone map the space is taxing the best brains on both sides. The good news is that if we get it right, we can retire and write the book. I walked out of this meeting into the Technology Group one. Will had asked me to talk to them about the evaluation of the past projects because, due to history, the bulk of the projects – and therefore the bulk of the work analysing them – will fall to these Technologists. I talked through what we need to do to prove our past contribution (and thus get better at estimating the value of our future contribution) and how any project they came across with a challenge led aspect could be moved into the relevant analysis bucket and off their patch. They liked that bit!!
I then went into the young padawans PRP. Luckily for both of us, his computer has died and so we did the process in the old-fashioned manual way, with bits of paper and eye-to-eye contact. He tells me that the bruises don’t show, so that CIA training obviously worked. Next up was a Competitions Sign-Off Meeting. We are still waiting for the promised output of the last one, but Cyrus had bailed out to London with some weak excuse, so the newly appointed Operations Julie walked into a meeting with a majority of the Innovation Programme Heads, all fired up to make this work and with nowhere to go. So we talked philosophy. I hope she’ll speak to us again sometime!
The final task of the day was to talk to Bob Driver of UKTI. This started with some background co-ordination of the Clean and Cool Mission Progress Report meeting in London next week, but moved into wider co-ordination and planning. We met with UKTI almost 2 months ago and there are still no minutes with agreed actions, so we’ll probably have to have another meeting to agree what we agreed.
Tuesday promised to be an interesting day. The morning was given over to the second part of the Mercedes “smart” car giveaway under our Low Carbon Vehicle Demonstrator Programme – this time is Birmingham. Although I got a lie-in, the trains into Birmingham were delayed because the “nicking copper signalling wires” disease has spread from GWR to Chiltern, so I was a bit late. I had watched the Media Dominatrix last week at the London event, so I thought I knew the moves. I cosied up to the head PR person, I introduced myself to everyone and explained the role of the Technology Strategy Board and then I went off for a coffee. (I don’t think I learned that bit from Lady Claire, but I was desperate for a coffee, so I winged that bit) Three exemplar cars were being given to their (corporate) programme owners (the Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, Aston University and Cenex) , and as the lady from Heart FM, the guy from Midlands ITV and the slew of local papers did their interviews I kept checking back with the PR person about people wanting to learn about our role. It turns out that the local people wanted to know about why local people had joined the programmes and what it would do for Birmingham, so the national perspective was largely surplus to requirements. I solaced myself with some serious networking and the realisation that our Media Relations “Manager” is actually an effective player-manager and that I will never be in her league as a media hustler. There goes another alternative career.
I caught the train back down to London, only to find that the ticket issued by our travel agent was invalid and narrowly escaped being thrown in jail for being a travel criminal (it must have been that training the other week). I then spent a couple of hours with the woman FL shares with Socrates trying to articulate some of the underlying principles we hold and detail why I think some things work and some things don’t. It is worth noting that it was hard, and that I don’t think we do enough of this sort of thing. Once we have a proper elevator pitch, we need to ensure everyone knows it – too much gets lost within the organisation at the moment to the detriment of the wider communication the whole organisation is capable of. I then went out for dinner with a young entrepreneur who told me what he was planning to do next. It was the sort of thing we don’t do often enough…, oh, I’ve said that already but in another context.
I was in London for the Governing Board meeting but since the Executioners had been excluded, I had a polo shaped day. The first meeting was about Stratified Medicine – there has been much high-level activity at the moment, but I wanted to catch up with the details. Joe, Angela and the young padawan briefed me about the market valuation work and the focus of the potential first competition. It was going so well (and because I could), we ran over for an hour. Since we still do not have Wi-Fi at Tracy Island, I wandered off in the hope of scoring an iPhone 4, only to discover that there are none in London. Instead I ended up working in my hotel room all afternoon, in air-conditioned, broadband enabled luxury. The evening saw the dinner before the second meeting of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) Business Advisory Board. The first meeting had been an interesting affair, where the business people we had assembled basically told the academics who run LWEC that they didn’t explain the value of their activities too well (I think that the politically correct version of “an uncorrelated list of research projects expressed in unfathomable terms”). The dinner was an interesting affair, hosted at the ICE and with Paul Jowitt - http://www.ice.org.uk/About-ICE/Who-we-are/People/President as the speaker, it was perhaps inevitable that the infrastructure/planning bogeyman would arise. On a number of occasions, Dan Osborne had to throw his considerable charm about to cover Andrew Watkinsons’ almost complete lack of understanding of how business works, but we all survived. I didn’t go to the meeting the next day but I have had conflicting interpretations about how close we sailed to the position where the business guys give up on the academics.
Next morning, I caught the train down to Swindon, only to discover – via twitter – that FL was in the coach behind me. We were both on our way to the monthly Executioners Meeting. I got a preview of his description of the Governing Board meeting. The meeting was more or less as usual after the several hours spent catching up on the Board meeting. We debated some of our systems, talked about progress and risks and then played a game of “what if” about the various roles currently discharged by the soon-to-be abolished Regional Development Agencies. We finished early and I ran from the building before anyone caught me with more jobs.
Friday was designed to be a day working at home to catch up with things, but a series of telephone calls blew that idea out of the water. First up was chasing down members of the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group because our BIS sponsor had suggested that the minutes were not a true reflection of the progress and actions from the meeting he attended. Then I had an “interview” with a journalist from the Innovation Investors Journal. It was strange in that for the hour we talked, I think I learned more about what he thought than he learned from me. Lady Claire tells me that’s how you build relationships, and I have another attempt at closure booked for Monday, but nevertheless.… This was followed by a teleconference with FL and our BIS sponsor about the aforementioned Emerging stuff. I think we agreed a path forward, but we need to not get into such situations rather than bale ourselves out of them. After a short break, I was back into the Board Debrief, where we seemed to go through the same stuff as at the Executioners meeting but with a few other people. Sadly, the battery in my home phone ran out after 90 minutes so I missed the thrilling climax. A few other phone calls through the remainder of the afternoon and early evening rounded out a day where I could have done with a direct telephone jack into my brain, because my left ear was red and sore.