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United, a sustainable proposition?

The consequence of taking time out is that new thoughts come crashing in to fill the void left by the suspension of day-to-day routine. The Christmas break created an overwhelming flow of new ideas arising from a new environment generated by firstly, the potent mix of a business outside of the European borderless market and secondly, the vaccination fuelled potential of a return to normality at some stage in 2021. I sought to organise these in a framework familiar to me and one in which I have been working with organisations for the last 25 years and respond to the question: how can the United Kingdom sustain its success over the long-term?

But treat the national example as a metaphor, particularly if you read this from outside of the United Kingdom; my intent is to provoke thought for each of our organisations. It has already done so for me with Telos Partners.

I am going to emphasise the long-term because in the immediate term there will always be the distraction of short-term political expedience and it would be too easy to focus on what any particular party might or might not do. Our long-term success will depend on different governments of different political hues working within a framework that will deliver and sustain national prosperity. And in focusing on the long-term, I will take statements made recently as authentic declarations, so enabling me to park my political preferences.

The framework I will use has been affectionately adopted by our business as ‘The Swirl’ and is made up of seven components:

© Telos Partners

Applying this to United (no, not .com: there are dimensions that need to be explored in much more depth than would be needed in even the most enlightened business) there are three things that struck me:

  1. Any national vision cannot be owned by one party alone

  2. Implementation of a strategy for its achievement requires engagement of a diverse audience of nearly 67 million people, all with different needs and views on how the country should be run

  3. There are some required elements that are already in place, but may need more oxygen to make them effective.

If we are to be a ‘United Kingdom’, we may need to suspend our political bias and our habit of explaining why it is everybody else’s fault and look to what we might each contribute to a shared destiny as a nation.

Let’s explore each of the seven steps.

1. Self-determination and ambition

Our current Prime Minister announced his ‘vision for Britain’ ten years hence late in 2019 to include:

  • Safe streets

  • Cleaner air

  • New hospitals

  • Improved literacy and numeracy

  • Opportunities spread across the country

  • Leading position in scientific research

  • Vibrant business environment

  • Improved infrastructure, both transport and broadband.

Summarised as a proud and strong United Kingdom.

Since then, we have heard more about:

  • Innovation, arguably an essential if we are to remain competitive

  • Taking a leading position in ‘green’ developments. With climate change an ever- increasing threat and recent experience of the adverse impact of the human invasion of the natural world, some sort of environmental vision will be essential to the overall credibility.

What’s not to like? But I can hear chuntering from parts of the ‘United Kingdom’ that might balk at the concept!

He might see this as a vision, but I see this more as a laundry list. Nothing wrong with the elements, but probably useful only as an expression of ambition rather than to demonstrate a unifying vision. We will come to that later.

In our experience at the heart of all successful organisations is a driving force to be able to determine destiny for the organisation itself. Clearly this has been a political driver and whether or not you believe that we were sovereign within Europe, I doubt that anyone could argue that the United Kingdom is anything else other than self-determining. I guess there will be a tricky path to tread if self-determination is to be felt in all nations, and regions, in the United Kingdom.

The one piece of advice I would be giving to a client CEO in this situation would be to engage key stakeholders with the vision and this will necessarily include opposition parties and the media. And this part of the process needs to be completed out of public view in preparation for the broader publication of a unifying ambition.

2. Leadership formation

Probably the trickiest part of the journey. The political environment is fractured and operates through special and diverse interest groups whether party, business, unions, young, old or any other classification that might come to mind.

I would struggle with a method to unify all interests but that should not stop a concerted effort to do so. Taking the ambition and assuming that all believe that to be a good thing, should there not be a way to sign all parties up to a unified effort to deliver it? Yes, there may be different ways to deliver the ambition, but it should not be beyond the wit of intelligent people to unify around an agreed goal. Of course, this will come back to a compelling vision and we will get to that soon.

The piece of advice to a CEO in this situation? Identify all key stakeholders and take the ambition to each to describe the (positive) impact that his/her ambition will have on them. I suspect that this will need more than the energy of one person and I would be looking to form a guiding coalition, possibly comprising predecessor leaders (it has always struck me as odd that greater wisdom arrives at the doors of ex-leaders, but that it is rarely harvested) and others who would be accepted by the nation as wise and principled souls.

3. Core ideology

Yes we will get to vision, but first, what do we believe in? What is it that distinguishes us from other nations? What is our collective purpose and how do we want to live in this United Kingdom?

Let’s park purpose for another time. I suspect that the purpose of most sovereign nations is to protect their people and facilitate prosperity, but maybe there needs to be more to it and the subject of a more fundamental examination. But how do we want to live in the United Kingdom?

I am ashamed to admit that I was not aware of the official articulation of what constitutes ‘British values’ until I started to think about this article. But, with the help of Google and two colleagues who have recently become British citizens (welcome both) here they are:

  • democracy

  • the rule of law

  • individual liberty

  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, and for those without faith.

We can split hairs as to whether these are values or some other sort of guiding principles, but do they reflect how I see the world as part of a United Kingdom? Largely yes, but I suspect they could be more compelling if mutual respect and tolerance was extended to all aspects of human diversity rather than just faith groups. And I suspect discussion of potential conflicts would help to further define what we mean by these words. For example a reconciliation of individual responsibility and collective accountability. Or the rule of law as an enabler of individual liberty rather than a potential constraint.

If these really are values then would it not be helpful if they were translated into the behaviours we would expect to see demonstrated and for which we might be accountable in our own bit of the nation? And behaviours that will help us to relate to all others in the country and, dare I say, other countries. Difficult to see how one tiny island can impact on climate change and global prosperity without collaboration being built into behaviours rooted in individual liberty and respect and tolerance.

My advice to my client CEO? Test the values far and wide and check their authenticity. They can’t be imposed, they need to reflect the reality of those who are expected to live by them. No doubt these were developed through consultation with various groups at some stage (but I cannot recall any such consultation). And then bring them to life through observable behaviours and constant reference to the ‘values’ as a driving force in the way decisions are made, actions taken and collaboration stimulated.

This is a big ask and will require the country’s leadership to demonstrate their adherence through their own behaviours. Possibly in the ‘too difficult’ box but without attention it will make execution of even the simplest tasks very challenging. Adherence to a well-defined behavioural framework based on authentic values will build trust, a precious commodity in an increasingly ambiguous and uncertain world.

4. Vision and strategy

At last! I have been deliberate in delaying consideration of the vision component as it can drown out the early definition of the desired culture. Once we know who we are and what we believe in, it is easier to describe what future success will look like.

This is where we take the ambition and turn it into a unifying statement of intent. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a more captivating expression of vision that really excites all parts of the United Kingdom? And a statement that would enable each part of the nation to define its part in achieving success. So let’s take the laundry list that we saw in the ambition and work it up into a picture of what the successful United Kingdom will look like down the track.

What would be my advice to a ‘CEO’ in this situation? Search for a compelling image for life in ten years from now; make sure that the vision can be delivered long after you have gone (yes, that means talking to everyone in the political spectrum) and recognise the reality that someone else may be in ‘power’ (always wary of that expression, when governments should merely govern) in ten years, so some honest milestones to mark the end of your tenure.

Now to consider the strategy for achievement. Once we have a compelling unifying vision, we can then break it down into its separate components. I can see a matrix with each element of the vision (yes, back to the laundry list) on one axis and stakeholders impacted and responsible for delivery on the other. A simple method to ensure that we have collaborative coalitions to deliver, instead of divisive special interest groups competing for attention. A really complex task, but there are nearly 67 million of us to pick from.

My CEO client would receive this advice: the elements of the vision are likely to be interdependent so focus on collaborative endeavour rather than individual achievement of any one element.

5. Engagement and mobilisation

This should be where all the careful preparation should provide payback. Well thought out expression of intent, a compelling picture of the future speaking to the authentic belief system of everyone in the country. But it will only do so if:

  • Communication is clear, consistent and constant. The single message is received by all stakeholders and it remains consistent over time.

  • The message is matched by behaviours observable in the leadership of the nation and of each component of the vision.

It might be that the latter will be particularly challenging, but we know that the single most important element of an engagement strategy is the way that leaders behave. Say one thing and behave in a contradictory manner and you may as well not have started.

Note I refer here to engagement, not communication. If you want people to really commit, they need to be engaged; invited to participate. Just receiving a message will not be sufficient.

My advice to our (probably now feeling over advised!) CEO will be to commit to regular updates, constant reference to the belief system as well as the vision and alignment of leadership behaviours with the values. And this will mean that anyone carrying the message, but not living it, will need to be encouraged to move out of the organisation.

6. Alignment

Here will be a potential strength for the nation. We have a professional, objective and disciplined civil service that has the potential to deliver consistently over time. Policies, systems and processes are largely well crafted to be able to support the government of the day. There is no doubt that there is potential for simplification, but I would not start there. I would charge each department to examine their own systems and processes as they support execution of their part of the strategy.

Worth a look at one important part of the Whitehall process, the Treasury Green Book. I was impressed to see that there has been a recent revision to the section covering appraisal of the impact of government spending:

The appraisal of social value, also known as public value, is based on the principles and ideas of welfare economics and concerns overall social welfare efficiency, not simply economic market efficiency. Social or public value therefore includes all significant costs and benefits that affect the welfare and wellbeing of the population, not just market effects. For example, environmental, cultural, health, social care, justice and security effects are included. This welfare and wellbeing consideration applies to the entire population that is served by the government, not simply taxpayers.

A good start in developing a measurement system by which the impact of proposals and action plans can be monitored. And a good start to guiding non-governmental forces in society as to the factors that are important to the nation. A point of convergence for the Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) agenda?

We are driven in our organisations by the apparent need to get precision into our measurement systems. My advice to the CEO? Think about the art of measurement as well as the science. By this I mean there will be some things where success will be self-evident even if difficult to measure. And there will always be opportunities to improve precision in measures so don’t let precision get in the way of progress.

7. Renewal

If care is taken with each of the first six steps, renewal becomes an easier task. However, there will be some actions that will need attention throughout. Possibly time to air the concept of stewardship. I am going to borrow a statement from the Charlton Athletic Supporters’ Trust (oh yes!): ‘Here before you and long after you’ve gone’ and I can’t think of a better way of expressing continuity. What needs to be put in place now so that the journey can continue long after the demise of the current leadership.

My advice to the CEO will be to ensure that you know who will take over from you (we believe this should be a priority when taking up a new position: make sure you can see a pipeline of talent that will be ready when you move on). Of course, I acknowledge this will be difficult in a political context. Nevertheless, if the vision is agreed, and the core ideology is embedded, the particular political hue would be less relevant. There is potential for a process to assure the adherence to an agreed vision and possibly another role for those who have held the post previously.

Renewal will also need to embrace the continuous review of the vision and culture. The principles won’t change but the expression may, even just to acknowledge the evolution of language. It is this that will facilitate the ongoing engagement of all 67 million of us.

I hear you say ‘You don’t understand the complexity that we face at a national level, nor the reality of our political system that can determine the way things actually work’. And you would be right.

But, imagine what the impact through the Covid-19 pandemic could have been if:

  • We were clear on British behaviours

  • We sought consensus between all parties up front and

  • We unified around a single version of the truth.

Would we have fared better?

If we are to be successful as a stand-alone nation, and if we are to be a truly United Kingdom it is time to look at United as a sustainable proposition. There may be a lot to do, but a lot of the basics are there. Some attention to crafting the ‘values’ and assuring their authenticity and some clarity on a vision for success would be a good first step. Involving all on the journey would have the potential for unifying a currently fractured nation.

But even if this is too difficult at a national level, following the seven steps in ‘The Swirl’ can help us to develop healthy and sustainable organisations under our leadership.

United, a sustainable proposition?

Written by Peter Ward, Senior Consultant at Telos Partners 03 June 2020


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