Dominic Cummings said many important and interesting things in his interview with the Times (£) yesterday. But what rang truest of all was the impression he gave of a Downing Street operation that just doesn’t want to hear about the fundamental challenges facing the Government.
This isn’t a charge that can be levelled at David Cameron alone: 99 per cent of all political effort goes into keeping things skimming along the surface. Deep diving is not encouraged.
A general unwillingness to face up to fundamental flaws and oversights also bedevils the business world. In an environment where getting ahead is all about being the man-with-the-plan, the man with the reasoned critique of the plan does not make himself popular.
The issue is addressed by Gary Klein in a guest post for the Harvard Business Review:
“Projects fail at a spectacular rate. One reason is that too many people are reluctant to speak up about their reservations during the all-important planning phase. By making it safe for dissenters who are knowledgeable about the undertaking and worried about its weaknesses to speak up, you can improve a project’s chances of success.”
There’s usually less reticence after the disaster happens. Indeed, it is at the post-mortem that one hears just how many people knew what was going to happen all along – often for the very good reason that they did know (or, at least, had a pretty good inkling).
Because post-mortems have a habit of coming too late to save the patient, some businesses are using a new management technique called the ‘pre-mortem’:
“A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.”
According to Klein, there’s evidence that “prospective hindsight – imagining that an event has already occurred” helps people to identify the underlying causes:
“A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic.”
Imagine if a pre-mortem had been performed on the plans for the 2010 Conservative election campaign: what might a reasonably intelligent group of consultees have had to say about that misconceived effort?
Well, they may have pointed out that when you’re promising austerity, the underlying message should be about security and protection, not change and hope. It’s also possible they’d have advised against using a weirdly airbrushed image of David Cameron on poster sites across the land. And, who knows, they might even have insisted on a proper definition of the Big Society before making it the key theme of the manifesto.
Still, that was then and this is now. While one can’t imagine Dave or George having a pre-mortem, Lynton Crosby might have the balls for one. But whether he does or not, the fact is that Labour is six points clear in the polls – and Ed Miliband is still on course to become Prime Minister.
Whatever might go wrong in next eleven months already is going wrong and we need to put it right very soon.