Sunday, 3 December 2017

The grand challenge of taking a decision without making a mistake

Edward Dahlberg was an interesting man. I use the term ‘interesting’ in the loosest sense of the word. He was an author and critic, writing many books between 1920 and the 1970s. During this time he met and knew, Joyce, Hemmingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Yeats and D H Lawrence. Sadly he and his literary work are largely forgotten today. Dahlberg had a very colourful life – once as a reporter in Germany, he got into a fight with a Nazi Storm Trooper in a café – he won the fight. Its alleged that he even received an apology from Hitler for the challenge that had been made against free press. Some have described him as being a deeply flawed man, a man with mercurial moods, often ungrateful, and prone to rhetoric of the highest order. His autobiography, Because I was Flesh is still available. If so inclined, you could always read it and make up your own mind. He appears to have been married 7 times, something that perhaps illustrates one of his best known quotes: ‘every decision you make is a mistake’.

I am not sure I totally agree with Dahlberg, but I do know some of the decisions I have taken, have with the benefit of hindsight, turned out to be mistakes. When I was making them however, I am pretty sure I thought I was making the right decision. This was the case when I was asked to take on a new role at the University, which after some initial reluctance I agreed to do. I am not sure why. I had less than 3 years to go before retiring, and was in a role I loved (well for most of the time anyway). I was the Dean of one of the largest Schools for health and social care in the UK. However, the new role on offer was a University wide one, and came with a promotion and some extra money. Above all else, it looked to be a huge challenge.

Our Vice Chancellor had, after much consultation, taken the decision to re-position the University and bring us closer to the businesses and industries we provide a future workforce for, undertake research with, and for whom we developed new products and services. Her vision was to create 4 Industry Collaboration Zones (ICZs). These were to be virtual and physical spaces within the University that could focus the entire resources of the University on 4 areas of expertise: Health & Wellbeing; Sport; Engineering & Environments; and Digital & Creative. It was a bold strategy that drew on our past heritage as a university and looked forward to positioning us as a leader in an emerging and very different world.

The VC wanted an ICZ Programme Director, and wanted me to take on the role. I had choices. I could stay in the School and wait for retirement to come around, or I could take on the new role. Much too many of my colleagues surprise I chose to take on the role. For me personally, and with the benefit of the aforementioned hindsight, it was probably the wrong decision and in ‘Dahlberging’ terms, a ‘mistake’. From the University point of view it was a success. Taking the decision to develop strong and very different forms of partnership with industry, and making this the University’s single strategic priority, meant our collective efforts were focused in a coherent, purposeful and powerful way.

Not everyone agreed with this new direction of travel. At times the rhetoric of support I experienced was undermined by some obstructive and challenging behaviours. Despite these problems great progress was made. Such was the pace of change in establishing the 4 ICZs that after just 2 years into the role, I was able to retire 6 months earlier than planned (which made me happy). And mirroring the ambitions we had for our ICZs, last week the UK government published its much anticipated Industrial Strategy. Unlike previous strategies, this one has 4 ‘Grand Challenges’ and 5 foundations of productivity against which considerable investment funding will be targeted.

The ‘Grand Challenges’: becoming world leading in the use of artificial intelligence and big data; sustainable clean growth for industry; the future of mobility; and meeting the needs of an ageing society and the 5 foundations of productivity: innovation; people; infrastructure; places; and the business environment are detailed in the 255 pages of the strategy, which can be found here. Thus the University’s decision to create our ICZs proved to be very farsighted – the Industrial Strategy commits £250 million a year to support university engagement with business and industry. I am proud to say as a university we are ahead of the sector in this approach and I’m pleased to have been involved in leading these developments. 

Whilst I believe our University is well placed to contribute effectively to each of the ‘Grand Challenges’ I was particularly pleased to see one of these being focused on meeting the needs of an ageing population. Many parts of the NHS are already beginning to experience the scale of this challenge. Services are really starting to be stretched beyond breaking point and Winter has only just begun. I don’t know who took the decision last week to release the NHS England Board paper on the implications of the 2018/19 Budget, but its content pulls no punches. If you want to get a glimpse of the emergent problems facing the NHS have a look at this paper. There are some tough decisions that will need to be taken in the not too distant future over what a 'comprehensive NHS' might look like. As my fellow blogger Roy Lilley said last week, ‘if you don’t read anything else about the NHS read this paper’. In my opinion it would be a mistake not too do so!