Scotland sails into stormy waters

Some years ago I discussed the nature of democracy with one of my American colleagues. The question of Scottish independence was on the political horizon, so I asked him how the USA would react if the Southern States decided to break away from their Union. “Well they tried it once and we fought them, if they try it again we will fight them again”.

The United Kingdom has agreed scotland-independence scissorsto the most forward leaning demonstration of democracy in the world – the breakup of a 300 year political, economic and cultural union that had brought stability and prosperity, in the interests of the betterment of a single nation. It’s an interesting experiment for academic observers but for the people of Scotland it is the start of a voyage into stormy waters.

We should be under no illusions about the impact of the referendum, regardless of the outcome. It’s about change on a grand scale with uncertain outcomes and it’s already generating considerable conflict.

Most people liken change to turning a supertanker. It might take time but if you hold the course long enough you will accomplish your goals. Unfortunately it is simply not that easy. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development indicates that only 30 – 40% of changes in business achieve their stated goals. Those that fail usually result in loss of market position, removal of senior management, loss of stakeholder credibility, loss of key employees and decreased motivation of staff. Business is one thing but changing a nation will be much, much harder.

Bristol_Riots_of_1831

Bristol riots of 1832 following the rejection of the Reform Bill

The fundamental problem for those seeking change is that human beings hate it. Change unsettles them and threatens their values. Aside from the purely practical issues, change is a deeply emotional matter. Just ask somebody who has moved house or changed schools recently.

People forget that the decision to change direction is only the first step on a challenging road. The change must be planned, implemented and consolidated to ensure a smooth transition. You force through change at your peril as illustrated by the continuing In/Out debate about Europe, 30 years after the UK’s last referendum.

The Scottish Referendum is the starting point and in itself will not guarantee a successful outcome. It will, however, open fault lines within Scotland. The problem is that a referendum is an adversarial contest. Its about argument rather than debate, positioning rather than consensual agreement. Someone will win and someone will lose.

We all know how we feel when we back a party that loses an election – disbelief, denial, anger and finally acceptance with the rationale that it’s only 5 years. However, this referendum is for something permanent, something with which future generations will have to live.Change-Curve 02In these circumstances it is quite possible that those who lose will never make the The Pit of Despairconversion from anger to acceptance but might remain trapped in what is best described as the “pit of despair”. If this happens Scottish politics could well be redrawn on separatist and unionist lines, splitting communities and families in a bitter political war that would make the miners’ strike look like child’s play.

The second issue is the complexity of the arguments.  Few people are able to work their way through the various effects of independence with both sides producing visions of future sunlit uplands. How do we know what is right, if those people who look at these issues for a living cannot agree amongst themselves?

Laurence Brunton, landlord of the Castle Hotel on Dunbar High Street still has to make up his own mind on the referendum question. “I keep swithering, and I think a lot of people are the same. Are you better with the devil you know? One side says you’ll be this much better off, the other says this amount worse off. It’s a gamble.”

pg-1-halmond-gettyBased on the most recent polls the 30% of undecided voters hold the key to independence and how they vote on the day will be crucial. Persuade enough of them and Alex Salmond will achieve his life’s work. It must be a tempting thought to promise people the world to attain the political dream.

Politicians on both sides of the argument must remember that the voting will be emotional, more emotional than in any previous election in Scotland. Any failure to deliver on expectations and promises will result in a catastrophic backlash. A referendum won on the basis of broken promises or unfulfilled expectations will be regarded as betrayal and as I have written previously, betrayal is the worst sin.

So, will Scotland’s southern neighbour fight to prevent separation? No, absolutely not, but the Scots may well fight amongst themselves unless there is good, honest leadership. Unfortunately, as we have all come to realise over the last two decades, these attributes are rare commodities in modern politicians.

Good luck to you all and mind how you go. It’s going to be stormy out there.Ship in a storm 1977 (13)

 

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Lessons must be learned

Agincourt. A village in France and a battle, immortalised by Shakespeare, that is known to all Englishmen. It stands in the pantheon of popular culture, alongside the Battle of Britain, as one of England’s greatest military victories.

Azincourt or Agincourt

Azincourt or Agincourt

It was a victory by a small but determined force against a superior but over arrogant foreigner. It was a “backs against the wall” fight for survival, which the English seem to relish, and embodied what would later be known as the “bull dog spirit”.

Agincourt, fought in 1415 came at the back end of The Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The English forces, utilising the devastating fire power of the long bow, dominated the French for almost a hundred years, despite the latter’s numerical superiority and internal lines of communication.

The Battle of Crecy

The Battle of Crecy

In order to put this in context you need to understand the chronology of the three main battles. In 1346 the English army, lead by Edward III, defeated a superior French army at Crecy using the novel tactics of massed bowmen behind obstacles designed to break up a charge by French knights.

The next major battle was in 1356 at Poitiers. The French knights charged with some effect. The English bowmen realised that their arrows were bouncing off the French armour so changed their point of aim to the horses. The French, unable to break through the hedge protecting the English, were eventually routed by The Black Prince.

It appears that the French understood the tactical lessons of these defeats. At the battle of Pontvallian in 1370, the French army under command of Bertrand du Guesclin, routed the English by attacking before the archers had properly established themselves, proving that it was possible to defeat the English if you attacked with surprise and speed.

But at Agincourt on 25 October 1415 all this was forgotten. The French army, commanded by Charles de Albret, who had fought with du Guesclin at Pontvallian, waited for the English move. For four hours the opposing armies viewed each other until King Henry V of England took the initiative, marched his army within bow shot of the French and started the battle that would end in a catastrophic French defeat. Same teams, same tactics, same result. article-1080497-023CD053000005DC-953_468x401

We are supposed to learn from our mistakes but the French failed to do this. You would have thought that the French military leaders might have sat down and said “ These English archers are really bad news, but if we hit them hard and fast before they can organise we can defeat them. Let’s come up with some innovative tactics for doing that”.

The problem of assuming that we will learn from mistakes is that either nobody will admit to mistakes, for very well proven psychological reasons, or we gloss over them as unpalatable truths. As a result we build on our experience slowly and are out done by those who can do it faster.

The simple truth is that lessons can and should always be learnt from any experience, good or bad, routine or extraordinary. Development relies on the exploitation of feedback provided by experience; quick feedback speeds up your development enabling you to get inside the development cycle of your opponents, rivals or adversaries. You get to change quicker which gives you the advantage.

In order to achieve this lessons must be identified. Solutions must be developed, implemented and subsequently embedded in the culture so they are not forgotten. This is in military parlance can be a “force multiplier”.

Yet, surprisingly few people or organisations exploit their experience in this manner and prefer to muddle along or lurch from crisis to crisis.

Lessons must identified, implemented and embedded to ensure that they are learned and not forgotten. That requires determined and sustained leadership.

How often do we hear leaders – politicians, CEOs, public sector appointees, generals – declare that there have been a terrible mistakes and lessons have been learnt? Ask yourself how many of these lessons will actually be embedded in the organisations culture.

Have we really learnt the lessons or are we just going through the motions? Are we likely to see another game of multi-billion roulette by the next generation of bankers once the lessons from the first decade of the 21st Century are forgotten? I wonder.

Joan of Arc Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Joan of Arc
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As for the French, well they did eventually learn their lesson. The catastrophe at Agincourt decimated the old military nobility, the king died and a young peasant girl emerged as an inspirational and innovative leader. The French went on to win the final quarter and finally kicked the English out of France by 1453; but this could have been achieved sixty years earlier if they had heeded the lessons of Crecy at the time.

So next time you are watching sport and see an English team supporter think of Agincourt and the need to learn lessons from experience. Then think how you can apply and embed it within your own business, organisation and institution.supporters

 Happy New Year