I love deadlines – the whooshing sound they make going past
14 April 2022 by David Bott
Although it was difficult getting up after a 4 day break (at least that’s what I assume from the smaller number of people on the road and in the car park), I made it to the “start the week” meeting. And a rarefied meeting it was, with less than half a dozen souls around the table! But that meant it was mercifully short! It was followed by a similarly elite and truncated Catapults meeting which gave me time to catch up with Cell Therapy Catapult Boy and talk about how we explained the interaction of the short, medium and long term goals of the Cell Therapy Catapult without raising the blood pressure of at least one random person! The problem is that we will need to work with a small number of companies in the early days to both support their development and fine-tune the support mechanisms themselves – but within the state aids framework. Since they will be (exceedingly) pre-revenue, they will not be able to match funds – so we will have to effectively subsidise them. Or that least that is one way of seeing the relationship. The truth is that we need them as substrates to develop the right mechanisms for support or we will not be able to build the right set of tools for the medium and long term. Getting the language right has never been more important.
Then it was a meeting of the Heads of Innovation Programmes. We started with the current issue of InterimGate and the movement of people from contractor terms to either “normal” employment or a half-way house whereby they are paid without pension or performance related pay but at an equivalent cost to the organisation. This is because the exhortations from the mandarins is to take account of “value for money” to the taxpayer for public service – whilst ensuring that they do not have the opportunity to optimise their tax position! This process is inevitably disrupting a number of our employees and HR Woman is a mite stretched!!
This led on to a discussion about Performance Related Pay and the annual Pay Rise. We discussed the likely approach to assessing and quantifying the PRP component of our salary package. (This is an annual problem and those with weak stomachs should not read this section!) We have a complicated and process driven performance system which no-one in our group either likes or feel underpins an effective discussion of performance. There is also a difference between those who deliver their objectives according to the letter of the law and those who understand the spirit of the law – and deliver with style, grace and elegance! A strict numerical process is therefore not really as ”fair” as it seems. This is why we have the annual “moderating meeting”, although it usually ends up debating the process rather than the content! This year we will meet as teams in the morning and the EMT will convene in the afternoon to discuss the locally moderated numbers. Having not really resolved this issue, we discussed how best to apportion the measly 1% or so we get as a pay rise every year these days. Part of the problem is that we have been getting increases well below inflation every year, but those we are targeting through our recruiting campaigns have not. We are therefore now skewing our pay structure in favour of recent recruits. Discuss?
We were on a roll, so discussed the coordination of Innovation Programme activities with SBRI competitions. There was a feeling that it had got better under Stephen ( honestly, they said this!) but we were still missing lots of tricks for joined up engagement with government departments and coherent presentation to companies.
Then it was Catapults. The recent meeting with the Scoping Advisory Group had given us the opportunity both to (refine and) put our case more coherently, and to probe their discontent. This gave Sustainability Man and I a chance to tease Finger Man, but more importantly we got to develop our understanding of a process that both works and is easy to explain. They all put up with my standard harangue about language and taking time to consider how we could be misinterpreted with more than usual forbearance!
After lunch, it was my quarterly beating from FL. Happily, he long ago ignored the over-complex, computer based performance process in favour of his little notebook and so we had 6 simple objectives to discuss and agree that my performance had been patchy. We also discussed whether I had a job post June and the attraction of the McLaren MP4-12C as described by a man from Bristol (see – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mKB-8WUB5k&feature=related).
The final formal meeting of the day was with Development Man and would have been my chance to pass on the unsympathetic treatment I had received earlier. Good job the Emerging Technologies and Industries process and output had been so successful!!
Wednesday was a London day, but started later so I had a lie-in. Unfortunately, I had forgotten this was half-term and I shared the train with a very large number of excited children! The first real meeting (discussions with the Innovation Group of BIS don’t really count!) was with Frank Boyd, the new Director of the Creative Industries KTN (see – http://www.crossoverlabs.org/people/15). It feels like Development Man has decided to apply the basics of “courageous networking” to our latest KTN Director and, on the basis of this discussion, it appears to be a really great idea! We talked about how we derive our priorities, how decisions made between areas are made using the same criteria as we use both between and inside competitions and what the opportunities are for creative industries in the Technology Strategy Board universe. Meanwhile, at the other end of the BIS coffee shop, FL was hob-knobbing with Imran Khan (not the cricketer, but the guy from CASE – see http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/).
After a passing conversation with another interim to reinforce the simplicity and rigour of our available offers, it was time to meet up with Bob Driver from UKTI. It is often the case that FL meets Nick Board, and Bob gets to talk to me to work out how to make the agreements work! The main point he wanted to raise was about the interaction with India. The main point I wanted was to agree how to treat the Future Health Mission to Boston this Fall. We had alighted on October as the best choice only to discover that there was a “normal” Trade Mission that month to Boston on MedTech!! Bob has suggested combining the missions, or at least running them concurrently, but I am worried that the short term, “we have products now” part would dominate the minds of those supporting the activities and so am pressing for temporal separation! I may need to repeat and reinforce this message. By way of distraction, Bob fielded his new boss Crispin to swap histories (mainly about real world credibility, his being more recent than mine!) and “bond” and then wheeled in Alex to talk about Missions and the whole Olympics activity – where we seem to be less active than they had hoped?
I then rushed up to Paddington to meet with Catapult Communications Man and a mystery web graphics person to discuss pictures and icons. I can really recommend the Krispy Kreme lemon meringue donut (see – http://www.krispykreme.co.uk/doughnuts/doughnuts-new/?id=7&doughnut=classic) for sugar rush!
Then it was back to our favourite hotel to rendezvous with a slightly tired and emotional FL and walk up to Covent Garden to meet up with Baron Eric. This is an attempt to co-ordinate our activities with the fast-moving Tech City Investment scene (see – http://www.techcityuk.com/) but also to solicit Eric’s support for our more extreme ideas – it was Eric’s patronage than broke through the “you can’t do that” attitude of the BIS Innovation Group last year and get LaunchPad (err…) launched! We had quite an interesting discussion on whether anyone could have conjured the cluster into existence and what the value of the Number 10 inspired marketing campaign actually has been, but there is no doubt that the drive for inward investment and our part of the story has helped a number of companies that might otherwise have either failed or spent years bumping along the bottom. It turned into an evening of “wine, food, a little personal abuse and the universe going foom” à la Milliways and we need to repeat it!
Thursday morning saw me getting up early for a telephone conference that was cancelled 10 minutes before it was due, so I hung around in the Starbucks on Vigo Street waiting for Oli Barrett (see – http://www.olibarrett.com/) and my 9 o’clock! Oli has been a fixture of Missions since their inception and I wanted to get his feedback from the recent Clean and Cool Mission (see – http://cleanandcoolmission.com/) and to agree a path forward with him. We talked about the Future Heath Mission to Boston and he agreed with my stance on separating our early stage company missions from “normal” trade missions. He is also excited about moving away from our Silicon Valley focus and seeing if the concept can be transferred to Boston. I also told him of our developing plans to take the next WebMission to Bangalore early in 2013 and the next Clean and Cool Mission to China in the Fall of 2013. He thinks both of these ideas would appeal to SMEs in those fields and wants to stay involved! He then came up with his own contribution to the programme – we now have the alumni of 6 missions (just over 100 companies) that have experienced the “transition” from local to global interests. They all keep in touch with their “class” but Oli wondered if mixing them up might be a good idea. We rapidly developed the idea of a Missions Christmas Party to bring them all together – possibly with some added investors and officials. We started with a “cool” venue but then realised it would be better to pick a relevant venue – like a low carbon building or a digitised hospital! Now we have to think!
Then it was down to St James to meet Anne Glover. This was a hangover from earlier – the attempt to talk to Anne in detail about the third phase of Catapults – but had been around for so long, it took on another dimension. Anne is about to step down from the Governing Board and seemed to be carrying a lot of frustrations about what is happening. From this conversation, there are 3 aspects. Firstly, she feels that the organisation and the executive now understand a lot more than the Board about the political context of our activities. Whereas earlier Board meetings had always included a narrative about the political environment, this seems to have been de-emphasised recently, but then decisions appear to have been made (or imposed) outside of the normal governance process. Her plea is that we explain the political drivers and restrictions much more clearly than we have done so that the Board can support or protect us as necessary. Her example was some of the Catapults, where she perceives that decisions have been made by Ministers rather than us! Her second worry is that, with her and John Brown leaving, the Board will become more “corporate” than “entrepreneurial”. She fears that we are losing the strategic understanding of the SME environment that the Board used to provide – both from the funding and behavioural angles. The third observation is that we appear to no longer “trust” the Board and present to “cover up” or “patronise”. As an example, she pointed out that I could easily have presented the case for the extension of the Low Carbon Vehicle Innovation Platform as a politically driven necessity, but asked for help in determining how we would know when we have done enough and could reasonably wind down the activity. Whereas the current pressure on us to continue from both business and government can be understood, the longer we maintain the activity, the more difficult it will be to close it – we should decide now what the closure criteria are and publicise them. Then, when we decide to stop, it won’t be a surprise for anyone. Getting that right would be a useful activity for the Board to discuss and agree. As always with Anne, the points were considered and clearly made – it’s up to us to think and respond!
I left a bit later than planned, so was walking down Piccadilly trying to retrieve my next telephone meeting – with Em to discuss next week’s RCUK Research Group Meeting. Instead I ended up mostly discussing the afternoon meeting I was returning to Swindon to make. It ended when I had to catch the tube!
At Paddington, I got a free cup of tea from Eddie Obeng as he pumped me for ideas on how to propagate his Qube (see – http://qube.cc/). His problem is that he has a specific application for a channel that is rapidly commoditising and he needs to find the right marketing strategy. We discussed viral marketing in the manner of 2 people who would only recognise it with hindsight, but he seemed happy. Maybe he spends too much time teaching?
On the train back to Swindon, I read the papers and started to wonder what parallel universe I was about to enter. It was a meeting of the Strategic Partnership Group, except that when I arrived, I realised it was a much-depleted group. The BBSRC, MRC, AHRC and STFC members had all voted with their feet by not attending, so we had Catherine from the EPSRC, Adrian for ESRC, Steven from RCUK and 3 of us (which means 2 of us had ducked out too!). The discussion started with feedback from the Daresbury interaction. It turns out that Celia had written up the RC perspective (but I only got to see it when Em forwarded me a copy 2 minutes before the meeting) and that the RCUK rep hadn’t actually talked to Rick to get his view. It felt a little like a lot of badly prepared people trying to sound like they had a clue. It’s a personal perspective, but my view is that we didn’t ask any clear questions at Daresbury, so no-one really knows what we got as answers. That won’t stop this type of committee interpreting and actioning the output – and possibly wasting a lot of time in the process! For the record, I expressed some frustration with the hijacking by STFC of the “successes and opportunities” session. Then we started discussing the content of the meeting next week. We have a list of 20 or more “priorities” for joint working and no-one is happy that we are delivering. Bizarrely, since it had been cited as the biggest success to date at Daresbury, the Low Carbon Vehicle Integrated Delivery Programme was not on the list! I think we decided that we should have a smaller list of things that needed “strategic guidance” but that otherwise we should let the workers get on with the job?
Having made the tactical error of being in Swindon at the end of a day and my car being in Warwick Parkway, I therefore took the multi-step trip home. My only distraction was trying to work out whether the blond woman sitting opposite me on the train looked familiar because we had known one another in a previous life or was someone famous. The fact that the train was going to Manchester and that she was yawning a lot eventually got me to the fact that it was Carol Kirkwood (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Kirkwood) who I usually see in my hotel room as I stagger around trying to wake up.
Friday was to be another Swindon day, but promised to be more enjoyable and productive. It started with a PDR for Energy Man, where we reflected on a year where the Energy team grew (admittedly by some internal moves as well as external recruitment), the programme was re-evaluated and the strategy got written (although it is still stalled in Communications!).
At 11 o’clock it was time to join the opening of the Open Data Institute Assessment Panel. In what had evolved to be a joint ICT/Digital effort, we had nurtured a very academic and ill-defined proposal to be worthy of spending time assessing it. The 4 assessors (one dropped out too late to find a replacement!) were all of very high calibre, quickly understood what the task was and almost distracted me from my other commitments by the quality of their early questions and comments. I explained the background to the proposal – and the political context – and Operations Woman explained the process. At various points I had to drop out for Jools’s PDR (how do I justify what we pay our Assistants given how vital they are to the work of our organisation?), a catch-up with Development Man (as he re-vamps the Emerging Technologies and Industries Steering Group) and a PDR with Finger Man (interrupted by being called back for the answer to the ODI question!). The answer to the ODI question wasn’t 42, but was that the idea, mechanisms and goals were all good but that delivery will be critically dependent on the appointment of a business CEO – because the panel sensed the strongly academic impulses of the mandated directors! That led to a Finger Man special – the idea that we could use some of the assessment panel on the interview panel for the CEO!
The final meeting of that day was with the terminal secondment from the BBSRC auditors about my declaration of interests (apparently I am first to submit this year) and the Director’s Annual Assurance Statement on Internal Control. As I understood it the terms of this discussion were more like “how do we capture what we do?” rather than the standard auditors approach of “have you done what you said you would do?”, so it was a an enjoyable exploration of how we could improve our processes and mechanisms. Who’d have thought that a discussion with an auditor could make me leave the office on a Friday smiling?