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Ivor Kenny: UCD Dean’s List Dinner

It was a Nobel prize-winner, Niels Bohr, not Groucho Marx, who said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” The longer I work with manager, the more I am impressed with our inability to forecast the future. The future is not some fixed entity that awaits us in time. The only thing that is real is the present. The first implication of this is that an organisation must be capable of adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Peter Drucker said that the question is not what our organisation should do tomorrow, it is, “What do we have to do today for an uncertain tomorrow?”

If the future is unknowable, what then about vision, what about strategy?

Vision is not a far horizon, a picture of an unknowable future – an oxymoron, if ever there was one. It is a statement of the purpose, values, skills and creativity of an organisation that strives continually to be more effective that it is now. Vision is a journey, not a destination.

What we need is a continuing creative tension between present reality and an articulated vision.

Analysis will never generate a vision. To believe that strategic change can come about as a result of analysis is to fall into a reigning Irish error: thinking we had solved a problem because we had described it. Failure is caused by substituting analysis for vision, in the belief that, if only people understood current reality, they would surely feel the motivation to change. Here I have a confession to make because I once believed that too: that people are stimulated to change when confronted with the situation as it is. My work can make the need for change starkly apparent. It can reveal people’s dissatisfaction. But it is not enough. Looking back over the studies I have conducted, the ones that worked really well were those where there was a strong and decisive leader who could articulate a clear vision. And, at least as, if not more important, a leader who builds a team who share that vision in their bones. The energy for change comes not from analysis alone, but from continually holding up a picture of what could be that is more desirable that what is. By changing a company’s vision of itself, new energy is set free.

The creative tension between what could be and what is constitutes a fundamentally different approach to the time-worn and tedious planning process: one in which forecasting still has a role to play, but where we are not forecasting just demand or sales, but rather where we have a driving clarity of purpose to compete successfully in the future.

Our task, therefore, is to build a flexible arsenal of essential skills and capabilities, a rapid reaction force, ready to meet whatever the future throws at us in the acute realisation that there is always a bullet out there with our name on it.

Focusing on what we can be has also a more subtle benefit. It lifts our eyes beyond the horizon and away from the multitude of grinding day-to-day problems. If a strategic discussion begins (and usually ends) with present reality, all we get is a cocktail of disagreement which degenerates into blame-laying. Looking beyond the present to the kind of organisation we would like to be, is, when well led, an optimistic and cheerful exercise.

But, without the vision and the shared drive to win, there is no reason for us to suffer the work involved in developing strategy. If we are not clear about where we’re going, there’s no need to advertise the fact. Everybody notices soon enough.

The death of strategy is to get mixed up with budgets. Budgets give a naïve illusion of control. I am dismayed by manager’s devotion to them. Budgets are coffins. Beginning in August, certainly by November, the number of man-hours wasted on detailed budgets for the following year is frightening. They encourage micro-management even by enlightened managers. They are the death of the long view. They are anathema to creativity. What is needed instead, in broad brush-strokes, is the financial envelope within which the company must operate. Budgets hi-jack the always-limited time to discuss what is really important.

There is confusion between winning today’s battles, which is one thing, and making tomorrow’s battles winnable, which is quite another. The first question asked is, “How are we going to solve this problem?” when it should be, “Why is this problem at present insoluble?”

Remember Brier’s First Law: at some time in the life-cycle of virtually every organisation, its ability to succeed in spite of itself runs out.

Let’s look at what we know. We know that autocracy does not work for too long. We know that autocracy is the death-knell of creativity. We know that, in innovative organisations, there is a need for the job as an experience in itself, not as a present burden for future reward. We know that there is a desire for greater collegiality, for teamwork, that there is an increase in assertiveness and a diminution in deference – people don’t say “Sir” any more. We know that management must demonstrate competence and co-operation, rather than depend on an adolescent hierarchic authority.

But we also know what St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Or, what Ovid said in the Metamorphoses: “I see the better things, and approve; I follow the worse.”

Matthew Arnold finished the quatrain:
We do not what we ought;
What we ought not, we do;
And lean upon the thought
That chance will bring us through.

Sure – chance, luck, circumstance play a part, but getting from A to B and beyond needs teamwork, creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination and courage – none of them responsive to compulsion.

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