Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Creativity and Imagination - the keys to recovery?

Despite regular claims of a few ‘green shoots’ of recovery, we have a long way to go to get over the worst recession since 1929-31 with one of the largest peace-time budget deficits this country has ever known. The scale of challenge is staggering. Whilst economists and politicians argue about how far and how fast, there is clear consensus on the need to reduce that deficit by cutting public expenditure. Failure to act may well see the UK in a similar position to Greece and Ireland and events there may well be repeated in other European countries, but were there warning signs that might have saved us from our current mess?

How did we get here – was it a failure of imagination?

The financial crisis and resulting recession have many complex causes; surprisingly perhaps, one of those causes appears to have been a failure of imagination – as this exchange in the House of Commons on 18th November 2010 demonstrates:
Mr Jenkin: “. . . did you ever hear of an organisation called ARAG?”
Mr Cameron: “No.”
Mr Jenkin: “Well, it was an organisation based at Shrivenham Defence Academy. ARAG forecast that there would be a banking collapse and that it would be the largest risk to the security of the nation. Unfortunately, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, excluded it from his national security strategy-he very deliberately did so-and it [ARAG] was abolished to save £1 million. Do you agree that there is a lack of such strategic thinking capacity in government?“
Mr Cameron: “I think that the answer to that is probably yes . . . I accept the general premise that there is not enough strategic thinking in government as a whole.”
(Source: Hansard[1])

Astonishingly, Gordon Brown had a scenario that suggested that a banking collapse was possible. Leaving aside whether this was a prediction, a forecast or merely a possibility, the fact that such a strategic threat was ignored – worse, buried – defies belief. How little we learn from history; George W Bush also ignored a security scenario for being implausible that was painfully close to the reality of the 9/11 attacks[2]. 

The way out of the recession: the roles of creativity and imagination

In both of the last two recoveries, it has been the knowledge economy that has been the power house of growth[3]. It is the quality of our creativity that will help to pull us back from the abyss.  Nowhere will this be more crucial than in Government; firstly, to set direction – to steer rather than row – setting out a new vision for the UK and defining the outcomes that must be achieved. Secondly, to ensure that the necessary cuts to the public sector expenditure don’t amount to a wholesale dismantling of vital services. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water.

All the more worrying then that a recent Government report stated: “If we now have a renewed need for National Strategy, we have all but lost the capacity to think strategically. We have simply fallen out of the habit, and have lost the culture of strategy making.”[4]

To add insult to injury…a senior manager in a major central government department was recently overheard saying that that thinking was now a ‘luxury’, the civil service should just ‘do’ and not think.  Sir Humphrey Appleby would turn in his grave.

The road to recovery: ideas in to action

Clear thinking and the creativity that comes with it is not a luxury, it will be the driving force behind the UK’s recovery. That does not mean ponderous processes or navel gazing. It means rigorous analysis and the use of tried and trusted creative thinking techniques (such as change driver analysis, scenario planning and logical modelling). All of these can be done at pace and make a substantive difference in terms of results achieved.  It also means slaying some sacred cows, taking bold decisions without the normal luxury of time to build consensus amongst the senior civil service.  This will not be easy for an organisation used to working in extremely long timeframes, but this is where private sector experience can make a valuable contribution and a real difference. The government’s aim must be to unlock the creative potential and talent that is latent in the civil service, with outside help if necessary – but critically they must not treat them as an unthinking and subservient machine.

If you would like help in unlocking the potential in your organisation, please contact us here.

[1] Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence:  (neither witnesses nor members have had the opportunity to correct the record).
[2] Several sources, including a US intelligence report titled the “Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why”
[3] Will Hutton “Them and Us”, Little, Brown
[4] Who does UK National Strategy: first report of Session 2010-11, reference HC 435

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