Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim

Yet another missed opportunity to enjoy the "start the week" meeting!  Instead I was on a train to Sheffield, where I popped in to be part of the University Audit Committee.  It comes with the Council appointment but I was dreading it.  I have been in other Audit Committees and they have been entirely procedural and lacking in any form of human life.  Happily, this turned out to be a bit quirky.  I started asking the "why do we do this?" question as a diversion and engaged many of the university people in my quest for rationale.  It infuriated the auditors from a well-known firm at the same time so was doubly satisfying.  All too soon it was time to eat the reconstituted fillings of the sandwiches and catch a train north for my real goal of the day – the Reykjavik of the South!

On the way, MD had booked me an interview with Research Fortnight about the PACEC Report that we had snuck onto our website last week (see –  Since it was carried out from a train it was less a single interview than about 20 short parts of an interview carried out sequentially.  The main thrust of the questions was that the report states that projects involving universities were more likely to be successful than those without and would we require all projects to include an academic partner.  I pointed out that these projects were mostly started in the DTI days, that they were not "challenge-led" and that they involved companies that were mature in their interactions with universities and so I would have been disappointed if they weren't better founded and therefore more sustainable.  We had changed our mode of operation since the bulk of these projects were started and I tried (in vain it appears) to point out that the data shows projects started "post 2007" were 3-4 times more rewarding, but instead the reporter chose to highlight my intransigence in requiring projects to include a university (see –  MD has pointed out that I probably made friends with businesses but ought to avoid universities for a while!

Eventually I reached Edinburgh and joined the Offshore Renewable Energy Technology and Innovation Centre workshop.  On the basis of learning from the Cell Therapy workshop, we changed a few things and – on the face of it – things seemed to be going more smoothly.  Being from Missouri, I worried that people were being more friendly because they thought we might take the money off the table (a threat I made at the Cell Therapy one).  There were 4 leadership teams represented and I made the usual observation that the UK could only do one of these and therefore everyone had to be involved.  Of the 4 teams, one was highly impressive (at the personal level), one was personally impressive (but a bit over-confident and economical with le veritie) but organisationally weak, one was organisationally strong but had obviously sent their B team and the last one was deeply unimpressive.  Happily, the large spider seemed to be eating all the tiny ones, so we may get lucky!  On the second day, a wider group of stakeholders (if we can still use that word) joined and responded to the better honed vision statements and added their wish-lists.  

I also had a diverting series of texts, phone calls and discussions about our part in the rapidly evolving "graphene" story.  FL, David Delpy and others all wanted to know what we thought about the commercial potential of graphene!

At the end of the day, and in total disregard of our commitment to low carbon transport, I was one of 6 Technology Strategy Board employees at Edinburgh Airport – catching 6 different flights to different airports – and ended up buying them dinner when my fellow Director went to a different restaurant!  Later than evening, I rendezvoused with FL in the bar of our favourite hotel to discuss his presentation to the Board for the next day!

The next morning, I talked to the young padawan about several outstanding issues – including his ritual sacrifice to the Governing Board, then met up with the Low Carbon Vehicles team to discuss the state of flux in our negotiations with OLEV about becoming their "delivery agent" for this CSR.  Nice work, building on years of collaboration.

Then it was off to Euston to meet up with Strategy Man and make the trip to Milton Keynes and on to the Royal Society's Kavli Centre.  Governing Board meetings are always a bit unpredictable.  The mood of individuals rapidly infects the whole Board and we either finish early or have "robust" discussions.  Today it was destined to be "robust".  FL's canter through what he does went okay, and we got on to the status of Technology and Innovation Centres.  Although we didn't convey the complexity of the discussion at the Assessment Board brilliantly, some Board members had obviously decided that this was a test case for who made what decisions – so they ignored the recommendations of experts in the field and made their judgment – at one point, a couple were decided that we shouldn't even have a TIC in this area.  FL used his full "powers of calmness" to ensure that no decisions were made on the basis of no information (usually what they accuse us of!) and we calmed down.  It is interesting to note that several Board members admitted to conflicts of interest and then paraded them for all to see, that – left to their own devices – the Board was heading for making decisions almost completely orthogonal to those the Technologists are heading towards and that the diktat of evidence based decisions making obviously doesn't apply to the Governing Board!

FL then went through 46 slides in 30 minutes to capture what we had achieved in the last 4 years.  The speed necessitated a dropping of all the inference and subtlety and left him breathless!

They then went into "closed session" - presumably to discuss how awkward the Executive are – and the Executive mostly went to the bar to discuss how awkward the Governing Board are.  Things haven't really changed much in the last 5 years!

The evening was much better, with Peter Knight at his unctuous best as the host and Richard Friend making a persuasive case for more effective engagement between universities and companies – based on his own experiences founding Cambridge Display Technologies, Plastic Logic and Eight19, then FL got some champagne to toast His Spittlenesses's last meeting and everyone became best friends.

Next morning, we had decided to share the pain and the young padawan gave 2 presentations – the first on how we answer the Governing Boards challenge that we keep bringing individual cases to them for approval but never talk about the things we choose not to do.  Bizarrely, their first response, was "this is procedural, why are you telling us this?" and then they dove off into what felt like an internal Board debate about whether they were executive or non-executive.  After a break he gave another presentation on the work of the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group and – profiting from the experience of the first presentation, adjusted his personal style and cited the (very powerful) membership of the steering group (I suspect they have made more impact and money that the Governing Board itself!).  Also, as Obi-Wan observed, most Board know when they have overstepped the mark of good behaviour and, as if to compensate, revert to begin pussy-cats.  Whatever, it went "quite well".

Cyrus talked about risk and the Board got suddenly serious and constructive (well, some of them did) and the meeting ended, having decided that we hadn't actually done what they wanted us to do, but that they never really told us!  FL and I met with a small sub-group to pull the Cell Therapy TIC out of the shit and Guy proved that he could make deadlines as a chauffeur as well the Board Secretary!  I also got yet another side of the graphene story from Fergus!

On the train back to the Midlands, I talked to Alok Jha of the Guardian – one of MD's groomed journalists – about graphene, which has suddenly became a material of interest in the wider world!

Friday was a Swindon day, and my first meeting was with a mystery person.  Then it was a combined PDR/DTCTTICOOTS meeting with Healthcare Man (work it out!) and a discussion with UKTI about a meeting they want me to attend with General Mills in a few weeks time – proving again that UKTI see us as a "come to the UK and get a TSB grant" part of their offer to large global corporates!

Next was the best meeting of the week.  Rashik Parmar of IBM wanted to try out his "disruptive technologies" presentation on us before he uses it internally.  We (Finger Man, Healthcare Man, Sustainability Man and Incubator Man) treated him as one of us and helped him develop his ideas by the combination of constructive criticism, interrogation that stops just short of CIA practices, swapping of relevant stories and jokes and good natured banter that characterise our internal meeting!  I love the smell of disruptive technology in the morning!

Nick and I faked a PDR whilst talking about urgent things, I got a consult from Jackie, Jools downloaded a lot of paper and I talked to the company MD has engaged to organise the media round table at Innovate next week.  Then it was my regular 6 hours of congestion and hospitals that persuades me system thinking ought to be applied more.

C'est la vie

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