Picture the scene. Night had fallen, it was snowing heavily, and an alpine pass beckoned.
‘I’m not so sure this is a good idea, ‘I said to my friend. ‘Driving over the Alps in this weather. Perhaps we should find a hotel for tonight and try in the morning’.
‘Don’t be such a worrier, Rog’, said my friend.
‘I’m not a worrier,’ I responded. ‘I’m a planner’.
Well, to be truthful, maybe I am a bit of a worrier too. It’s a fine line between worrying and planning. And an even finer one between worrying and anxiety. But if either leads to a plan, then that’s surely a good thing. Let me explain.
If you’re doing something that’s a significant departure from the day-to-day, then it’s surely better to think through how it’s going to play out. A holiday, for example, is more likely to be enjoyable if you’ve packed everything you might need and catered for every eventuality.
Whether you’re talking about a trip to the Med or landing human beings on the Moon, it’s simply better to have a planning mindset. It’s a way of thinking that tries to look into the future and anticipate how to deal with it. It’s about worrying, attention to detail, not being complacent. It’s about inoculating against Murphy’s Law (‘that which can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible time’).
The planning mindset isn’t something you can adopt haphazardly – it’s something that you learn through experience and education. It becomes ingrained, and never leaves you.
You don’t have to do it that way, of course. It’s perfectly possible to wing it. As Sir John Harvey-Jones famously said, ‘The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression’.
Hmm…risky. And translating that into the current crisis, I just wonder the extent to which the country’s political leadership has led with a planning mindset in fashioning the nation’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hazarding a guess, I’d be very surprised if the current incumbent of No. 10 was someone possessed of a planning mindset. The estuary airport, the garden bridge, the water cannon – none speak of someone overly familiar with Gantt charts, risk registers and critical paths. Or even Agile.
But then everything changed in February 2021. All of a sudden, we had something that looked like a plan: the Covid roadmap. Data driven, with clear milestones and review points, an end point – all the planning boxes ticked, at least superficially. It’s possible that Mr. Johnson had taken himself off to a programme management course, but more likely that the weight of evidence in support of a planning mindset had forced his hand (together with the relative weakness of any Parliamentary opposition to such a plan).
Maybe the success of the vaccination programme gave some pointers. Interesting that the former head of the vaccine taskforce, Kate Bingham, has lauded the contribution of Ministry of Defence officials to the vaccine effort – the MOD is, of course, a Department which isn’t short of planning mindset.
Also interesting was the extent to which the Government stuck by the data-driven approach to lockdown easing, with constant reminders that the timeline could change if the data suggested it needed to (and, by the way, there’s a debate to be had here about the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom which I’ll tackle in a future blog). Anyone with a planning mindset would have recognised what was happening here: the discipline, the step-by-step approach, the alertness to factors with the potential to throw us off our critical path. All going so well, until…
…the Indian variant, B.1.617.2, came along. Whatever the Government says, the thesis that putting India on the red list for international travel was postponed to avoid causing offence to a significant future trading partner is credible.
It’s realistic to assume that politics will sometimes intervene in the best-laid plan – that’s just life. But on this occasion, having almost seen a good plan through to fruition, Ministers might have considered the impact on the critical path of something like B.1.617.2. They should have been worried. Time, perhaps, for the precautionary principle to have been brought into play. The first rule of having a plan is, after all, not actively to undermine it yourself.
Any plan is only as good as its constituent elements, and if it’s true that 20,000 people entered the UK from India during April, without adequate test and trace in place, then an unpredictable variable might at that point have been injected into the plan. How was the thinking on UK border controls and new variants baked into the Government’s thinking?
Mr Johnson’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings is scheduled to give evidence to MPs on Wednesday this week, so maybe more light will be shed on the subject. The same for next year’s public inquiry, the timing of which, we have to hope, isn’t driven by a desire to kick the can down the road. There is a clear and pressing need to learn lessons from this experience, in the same way that Chilcot helped us learn from the UK’s Iraq intervention.
Whatever these exercises tell us, I’m confident that one major learning point will be a reinforced need for a planning mindset in dealing with national crises, notably at the political level in Government.
Without one, we arrive where the current PM’s hero, Winston Churchill, suggested we might:
“Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”