Nick's Notes

Embrace Opposition

It has been the political Party Conference season over the past few weeks. First the Liberal Democrats, then Labour and finally, as is traditional for the governing party, the Conservatives. Intermingled amongst those conferences were the minor parties as well. This is not a political blog, and I will not be making any party political points – at least not deliberately.

My summary take on these conferences is that the LibDems have temporarily given up, Labour is enjoying being a party of protest again, following the “New Labour” years and the Conservatives have realised that to win in 2020 they need to appeal to the so called centre ground – people who may have voted Labour were it not for the increasingly chaotic and left wing approach they seem to be adopting.

This is a good response from the Conservatives in my opinion. There is a small group who think that given the disarray of the serious opposition parties this is the time to return to “full blooded conservatism” (my words) following the Coalition. That would be a serious wrong step in my opinion. The British people, by and large, do not do extremism of any flavour, are compassionate and tolerant, and departing from that, no matter how unpalatable the opposition would be the kiss of death for any party.

I believe a strong opposition – formally Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, remember – is very important. Good ideas are tested, and changed when they fail a test, strengthened when they pass. This is a really key part of our constitution, because the British system can deliver substantial majorities, as first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair enjoyed. But that is not unfettered. The constant questioning, from Opposition and people who think differently within the governing party – ideally in a positive way, with alternative strategies put forward – tends over time to lead to better decisions. Criticising implementation is slightly different – but ultimately any good idea has to be delivered through sound execution, so different ways of achieving that are important too.

It is the same in business. Frequently there is a debate, and one side “wins”. Winning in this context is gaining the approval of the Board. Just like in politics “opposition” is somewhat stylised and ultimately it arrives at the Board in the form of alternative approaches, which are usually dismissed for one reason or another, often financial, in the appendix to the Board paper.

But that doesn’t mean there is no merit in alternative solutions or plans. It’s important not to revisit decisions – that way lies inaction – but it also important to listen to critics. Mike Harris, who founded First Direct, and Egg once said to a CIO Connect meeting that the most important thing is not to win over critics with logic or power, but to listen. If someone tells you something won’t work because … they are actually telling you what you need to do to be successful. Embrace that and your ideas will be stronger, your solutions more rounded and your plans more robust.

And how do you do that? Engage and communicate, educate and learn. It’s yet another reason to spend more time with your business colleagues, at all levels. Of course, not all input is of equal value, but it is the judgement and experience you have, that got you into your current post, that allows you to filter that appropriately.

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