One Pager for Business Polo scrunchers. Two pager for a Bureaucats
Poor use of Time costs us all Money
I worked for a gentleman who was busy, gave me my break into big business and taught me the value of being direct.
Having taken the major decision to leave working for a small business with fairly unique products, I was given a break into what was euphemistically called productivity consultancy — we were hatchet men looking to make savings, usually people being made redundant with some systems changes but rarely investments as everything was short term bottom line stuff.
Time is money.
I lost the soles off my shoes in the acid baths of a failing metal bashing and skimming plant in Sheffield before getting my project management break in Stirling looking at a plant making whisky bottles tops. Steep learning curve every bit as tricky as driving the winding road back to Dunblane come the evening. This, ten years before the school massacre, still, thankfully, the worse in the UK’s history. No indication of such craziness with us but the tensions of job losses were there and threats against ‘English takeover bastards’ were made.
My boss came up to offer support and give me guidance as I set up the project while learning how to define what and where we would make savings. Our fee was totally built on the percentage we would cut costs over the lifetime of our engagement in the plant site. I was told I had to do a weekly report to accompany the weekly invoice submitted to the client company. Decent money back then as we aimed at savings running to seven figures. A rented Ford Escort took us from the plant toward Dunblane. I handed my report to the boss as we left Bridge of Allan and, after a few moments, the boss said:-
‘Crooksie, what am I doing?’
Swiftly taking my eyes from the road to look at the boss flicking the piece of paper over and back, over and back, over and back.
‘Turning over the paper Ian.’
‘Do you know why I pay you as much as I pay you Crooksie?’
‘To do a quality job’
‘Yes, and quality job means I don’t waste time turning over paper. Get it on one side otherwise find yourself another fucking job’
Shocked, I struggled to keep the pace up in the driving. I had driven with this gentleman when starting this assignment. We had left a nondescript office in a nondescript industrial park in a nondescript satellite town to the west of London to go to Worcester. To the home of Worcester Sauce in fact.
‘You drive Crooksie. Want to see how you handle time’
We touched 140 miles per hour. Made it in what I thought was decent time. Did the initial interviews with the Worcester Sauce people — I sat, watched and listened to a master at work. Learning how to spot make-work in an open office, savings to be made in paper pushing. Big savings cutting middle managers shuffling reports, coordinating coordination, reading data making no difference to delivery. The boss then said he wanted me in Scotland for tomorrow morning. A flight had been booked. He had better drive since I had dilly-dallied on the way up.
Now, on the road to Dunblane, I was being driven at pace, drifting through corners to come to a band brake turn parking in the gravel car park of our little hotel.
‘One side Crooksie. OK?’ Was the call as Ian went to get the beers lined up for us.
‘Yes Ian. Got you. No more flipping pages. Unless to the sports section in The Times’
Time is money. Give us what is going to happen because of what has happened. Don’t need history. Need where to make decisions.
I flew back to London with the boss on the Friday evening. He took a nap. Woke, took a packet of Polo peppermints from his pocket, ripped them open and scrunched his way through the lot — holes and all. Sweat pooled on his forehead and under his arms staining his Jeager shirt and his Hugo Boss suit. We dressed well. We lived a disastrous life.
The lesson from this?
All these years later, I am handling a request to do a two page summary of a set of documents already with an executive summary. A summary of a summarised report and include the presentation as well. Already synthesized and presented synopses of summaries and summaries of synthesises. And still we are asked to condense to the point of making what point? Is this really the way to take decisions on how taxpayer’s money is being spent? Time is definitely allocated according to money. Surely for money to be allocated, quality time must be allocated on how to take decisions of tremendous importance? Surely the people I am synthesising for are paid to look at detail and gauge the relative merits of the different factors working to deliver a foreign aid budget? There are things you never outsource and making decisions on spending money is surely the critical one never to lose a grip on.
Time must be required to understand how we work given the complexity of operating in places where giving someone a job can mean the difference between a family being fed or another young man being disgruntled. Disgruntled young men have this habit of heading to take up a gun for one of the violent extremist organisations still managing to influence so much of what we do across Africa and the Middle East with clear ramifications on the wider World.
In this age where we have continued to seek the end of paper, the phrase — ‘Do me a two pager’ has significance. It is a sheet of paper but how many people are printing it out? Are we even using the right media to demonstrate decision processes? Are we really getting to grips with what drives young men, and increasingly women, to extremes? Extremes where violence regularly is the expression of frustrations. Frustrations far more serious than those of my former boss as he quit smoking, started flicking paper over and back, over and back and scrunching whole packets of Polos.
Does a two pager do justice to those people’s frustrations and allow us to make decisions on plans and strategies impacting thousands of lives? The Devil is in the understanding. Command of your brief is an imperative. With my boss all those years ago, he hired me and expected me to be him when he was not there. Team and task were to the fore as he supported me 100 percent. The one pager was an aide memoir; nothing more. Now I am being asked to do a two pager on which decisions are to be taken with no real manifestation of the team to manage the task.
What is the answer? It certainly will not appear magically in a two-pager or in the regurgitation of endless diatribes of analysis without real, on-the-ground, involvement. So many of us are serving systems where feedback loops are not being linked to the delivery of outcomes resultant from two-page synopses. We need fundamental thinking on what we are trying to achieve with systems far too heavy on processes not reflecting the operating environment. The one pager fully thirty years ago fitted to a dynamic setting where trust and reciprocity were the basis of further work.
Trust and reciprocity in the Leviathan’s of aid and development: Are we expecting people to pass through the eye of the Polo mint on their way to making decisions?