Away day to nowhere

It’s fashionable to poke fun at corporate away days. There’s even a Famous Five parody devoted to the subject. Many of you will no doubt be familiar with these events. They usually start with some fine words about openness and trust then finish hours, or even days later, with a set of statements on flip charts.

Such things were the original inspiration for the title of this blog. For, all too often, no-one actually believes in the things written on the flip charts. Either that, or they are so ambiguously worded that people can interpret them in any number of ways. It often takes as long to wordsmith the statements as it does to come up with the ideas in the first place. The result is that people sign up to what is on the flip charts, then go back to their day jobs and carry on pretty much as before, while slagging off their colleagues and complaining about what a waste of time the away day was. As a result everyone will start next year’s away day with even lower expectations, which will duly be fulfilled.

It sounds like the Cabinet’s away day was a classic of the genre. From what I’ve heard it had much of the usual paraphernalia, including breakout rooms. You have to have breakout rooms. And the result was predictably meaningless.

“So, we’re going with Canada Plus Plus Plus and Managed Ambitious Divergence then. Are we all happy that we are strategically aligned on these principles?”

“Yes. Looks good to me.”

“Should we have another Plus, you know, like Canada Plus Plus Plus Plus? Might that look a bit more ambitious?”

“Actually, I think we’ve already got too many pluses. Another one will just look silly.”

“But David has already talked about Canada Plus Plus Plus, so if we lose one it’s going to look weak.”

“OK, OK, let’s go with it. I’m not that fussed either way.”

“Right, so that’s agreed then.”

“Hang on, Managed Ambitious Divergence, that’s M.A.D. That spells mad.”

“Oh bugger! That’s true. Right. Anyone got another idea?”

“Er, how about Ambitious Managed Divergence?”

“Yeah, that’ll do. Just draw an arrow, Amber, so it shows we are swapping the words around to read Ambitious Managed Divergence.”

“No, write it all out again, Amber, otherwise we’ll get confused.”

“Write it in capitals.”

“Shall I use a different colour?”

“Look, get a new flip chart and write the whole thing again.”

“What, all of it?”

“Come on, Amber, it’s not that bloody difficult.”

“Well if you’re so clever, Boris, you come up here and do it.”

“Give me that pen. Look. AMBITIOUS. MANAGED. DIVERGENCE. There. Job done. Are we all agreed on that? Good. Now can we go for dinner?”

I jest, of course, though it is usually one of the women that ends up doing the flip charts. So too, it’s often a bombastic man whose contribution to the process has consisted of content-free grandstanding and rhetorical hand grenades who complains about the lack of pace and progress.

Executive team away days can work. I have seen people come up with useful stuff. I even saw one team spend an entire day-and-a-half exploring lots of ideas only to discount them all. That was time well spent because by eliminating what they shouldn’t do, it helped them to focus much more clearly on what they should. The trouble is, away days have a bad name because, a lot of the time, they simply paper over the cracks.

Team events fail for four reasons, which I call the 4 Cs: Capability, Conflict, Courage and Collusion.

  • Capability – where the team doesn’t understand the problem and/or doesn’t have a clue what to do about it;
  • Conflict – where members of the team are at loggerheads, either because of personality clashes or opposing vested interests;
  • Courage – where no-one in the team is prepared to acknowledge either of the above and challenge their colleagues, which leads to:
  • Collusion – where everyone tacitly agrees to paper over the cracks with an inane statement that all can agree on because no-one’s position is challenged.

The result of this will be that the elephants in the room are left alone and the sleeping dogs are left to lie. None of the important issues are addressed and they are still there at next year’s away day, when the whole process starts again.

How long a management team can keep going like this depends on the organisation’s external environment. If the market is changing rapidly, if there are hostile predators or if there are far-reaching regulatory changes, the management team’s inertia may get found out fairly quickly. However, if the environment is relatively benign, an organisation can trundle on for years happily avoiding any difficult decisions.

Unfortunately, our government doesn’t have that long. The EU has already dismissed the output from its away day. Ambitious Managed Divergence also contradicts what the EU thinks the UK government agreed to in December. Essentially, Paragraph 49 of that agreement commits the government to keeping Northern Ireland in some form of customs union with the EU and Paragraph 50 commits it to preventing barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If you follow the logic, that means the UK staying in a customs union with the EU. The contradiction between the December agreement and the away day statement will have to come to a head soon if any progress is to be made in the rest of the negotiations.

The output from away days is often rendered irrelevant by subsequent events. That from the Chequers event may be particularly short-lived. Six months from now we will probably have forgotten all about Ambitious Managed Divergence. Another flip chart consigned to the shredder of history.

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27 Responses to Away day to nowhere

  1. bill40 says:

    The thing that annoys me most about the away day is that I confidently predicted it would come out with nothing but a mix of the improbable and impossible, unfortunately everyone else predicted this too so I can’t claim credit. Divergence = barriers and only a Canada Dry is available with the comforting +++ of a triple Canadian Club of rye whiskey.

    There is only one sane way to Brexit and that is via EFTA/EEA as was obvious from the start. Cakes and cherries are in very short supply.

  2. Blissex says:

    Ah this is very welcome, because indeed the cabinet’s exit subcommittee “away day” was bound to be the ultimate “flip chart fairy tale” example”. Now a small correction:
    «Essentially, Paragraph 49 of that agreement commits the government to keeping Northern Ireland in some form of customs union with the EU and Paragraph 50 commits it to preventing barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If you follow the logic, that means the UK staying in a customs union with the EU.»

    Yes and no: D Davis weeks ago declared that was not binding, and anyhow ¶49 and ¶50 apply *only* to the six areas mentioned in the GFA, which are education, environment, health, tourism, transport.

    Also some notes: “ambitious managed divergence” is the same as “pick-n-mix” or “have our cake and eat”, because it means that the UK government should have the right to decide in which area of the EU CU and EEA be inside and which be outside, at any time, unilaterally, without paying, that is to have more flexibility at lower cost than members of the EU and of the EEA have.
    Even worse, “pick-n-choose” is forbidden by WTO rules that do not allow sectoral agreements, and require extending concessions to all other WTO members.

    The only possible purposes of that choice are to play the blame game against the EU27 (“the Brussels dictatorship reject our right to choose in a sovereign and independent way what we want to punish us”) and to try and undermine the EU by telling some members that if they vote to give more flexibility and lower cost to non-members they can have their cake and eat too.
    I am not surprised that the first reaction by D Tusk was “pure illusion”.
    There is a delightful press question time with Juncker in which he says that he cannot answer a question about the “day away” because he is not the UK PM, and if he were that would be better for the UK, at minute 2 of:

    https://tvnewsroom.consilium.europa.eu/event/informal-meeting-of-heads-of-state-or-government-february-20-199db/arrival-and-doorstep-ec-president-juncker-part-2-19dd5

    That is sort of significant, because it is not terribly complimentary toward T May, and if a totally experienced and diplomatic guy like Juncker allows himself to make a joke like that implies that he has pretty much written off some possibilities…

    • Dipper says:

      Turkey has a sectoral customs union.

      Ideally the civil service have done lots of work and can give a pretty clear steer on where practically and legally we can end up. Ideally being the key question here.

      • Blissex says:

        «Turkey has a sectoral customs union.»

        It is not sectoral — it is all manufacturing (and then only manufactured goods made in Turkey, so no frictionless trade as rules of origin certifications must be checked). “Sectoral” means cars yes but electronics not, or insurance yes but banking not, which is forbidden by WTO rules. The WTO rules allow only all manufactured good, or all agricultural products, or all services, without pick-n-mix which sectors within the three big categories.
        That is incompatible with “ambitious managed divergence”, where it is the kipper government that in their sole discretion decided where and when to diverge or converge.
        Also the absence of market access payments is reserved only to developing countries.

  3. Dipper says:

    The post is accurate but I feel misses the point. This is about process, and particularly when this goes wrong being the good guys and not the bad guys. The cabinet has worked together to produce a reasonable united position that takes into account EU considerations so Tory MPs will have a hard job voting against it. If it goes wrong it will not be our fault.

    Language is important. To Blissex’s point the EU sneering at UK politicians will I’m sure have been noticed across the land. Come on Remainers, do you want to spend the rest of your days in a “union” with people who give no ground to you and laugh at your elected politicians? What kind of influence do you think you will have? I sense views hardening across the country.

    • Blissex says:

      «do you want to spend the rest of your days in a “union” with people who give no ground to you»

      That’s ridiculous — the EU institutions have scrupulously given exactly the same treatment to the UK as to any other member, and the treaties forbid giving any ground to a member that is not given to all other members by the EU institutions.
      When the ECB wanted to eliminate London from the the candidate sites for the euro clearing agency, the ECJ told them that the UK was a member like any other and even without euro adoption it had the same rights, as the opt-out was a treaty concession.

      «and laugh at your elected politicians?»

      Well, quite a lot of Conservatives voters laugh (or cry) at the politicians they have elected, never mind the Labour or SNP or other voters. When JC Juncker said that he probably would be a better PM for the UK, that is fair cop for many UK voters.

      • Dipper says:

        As a voter, you can laugh at who you like. But as the President of the European Commission he really needs to learn to keep a straight face. When he laughs at an elected representative he is laughing at the voters who put them there. A really very bad look.

        If Putin had laughed at the Baltic states presidents and said he would make a better leader of than the current incumbents would that be a different matter?

        • Blissex says:

          «When he laughs at an elected representative he is laughing at the voters who put them there.»

          In the case of T May, B Johnson, M Gove, L Fox, G Davidson, J Hunt, their voters too deserve fully to be reminded that JC Juncker, basically just the mayor of Luxembourg, and a man with his weaknesses and limitations, would probably do a far better job, even if he says so himself :-). “Lesè-Majesté” for elected politicians or their voters is a ridiculous idea.

          Looks like JC Juncker has figured out that bunch of self-serving spivs are wasting everybody’s time and there is no -point in buttering them up. It is sad when England’s representatives are such small figures, yet their voters whoop enthusiastically for them.

          • Dipper says:

            No. The behaviour of the EU is highly dangerous. Most politicians are self-serving delusional incompetents. There is no reason to suppose that ours are any worse than anyone else’s. But there are some conventions about respecting opponents that should always be observed, and those conventions exist for good reason. European politicians have repeatedly crossed them. One day, from some direction, retribution will come. They will call out for their friends to come and help them and find they don’t have any.

  4. P Hearn says:

    Ha – so funny. I went on several “away days” when I was a wage slave in the late 80s at a big corporation. All were an unmitigated disaster.

    Always run by some utter spiv of a consultant, who’d managed to capture the ear of the senior management with a few graphs plotting unrelated factors on an x/y axis. From this ludicrous set of charts, he’d pronounce the two words that struct fear into the management that were already too afraid to admit they hadn’t understood a word he’d been on about: “culture change”. These charlatans were always called something like Fred Bloggs Associates, and this meant they worked from their living room, their business acumen being so limited they couldn’t form a functioning business with actual employees. Today they’d have some mashed-up Latin name like “fartisignium” or “ripofficus”, but the stench of bull manure would be just as pungent.

    And lo, I found myself variously at various plush hotels in Brighton, the Cotswolds and Derbyshire, and on two occasions, at army-style bootcamps in the Brecon Beacons for the full Reggie Perrin experience. During a caving expedition in Wales, the boss of my section had a complete panic attack and spent the remainder of his career being sniggered at for chickening out in front of the team and crying for him mummy. I don’t recall any away days after that.

    I’m glad these utter wastes of money have not completely died out. They’re a good way to move resouces into the hard-pressed country house hotel market, and represent a tax on the stupid which is always lucrative (c.f. National Lottery).

    • Blissex says:

      «capture the ear of the senior management with a few graphs plotting unrelated factors on an x/y axis. From this ludicrous set of charts»

      That is a simplistic view: my impression is that the “away days” that are “team building” oriented are almost always designed to humiliate the employees, to remind them brutally that they need their job more than their employer needs them, by making them bend over to keep those jobs.

      There is another type of away-day, and it is the “workshop” style one, where there are presentations of substance that get discussed and there is some kind of actual communication, and they are often quite useful, if senior management attend, drive the process and actually have something to say that matters.

  5. Blissex says:

    Now for an amusing argument,arising from a discussion elsewhere: there is a direct link between “ambitious managed divergence” and Duterte.

    That link is G Williamson, our extreme far-right MoD secretary, who has recently boasted that he regularly reviews secret lists of potential criminals, whom he then sentences to death, and has the sentences carried out secretly by MoD+MI6 death-squads. He is that link because:

    * He obviously has read the analysis of the “Leave” vote that reported that the single biggest predictor of voting “Leave” was being favourable to the death penalty.
    * He is obviously ambitious to compete in the next leadership contest for his party, where members choose the leader, and members are almost all both kippers and supporters of the death penalty.
    * He got as expected a whooping reception to his Duterte-style boasts by the usual “Leave” oriented section of the press.
    * Both “ambitious managed divergence” and the death penalty for potential criminals by death-squad have the same kipperesque appeal: they are unilateral, simplistic solutions.

    As to unilateral, simplistic solutions addition I suspect that many kippers still think as if the era was that in which a poet and MP for Salford wrote the verses:

    “Whatever happens we have got
    the Maxim gun and they have not.”

    Replace “the Maxim gun” with “ambitious managed divergence” :-).

    • Dipper says:

      Gavin Williamson is, I gather extremely unpopular amongst many Tory MPs for reasons we are now discovering.

      And this old chestnut about kippers and empire. Kippers realise the world has moved on; it is Remainers who like to think that UK influence and diplomacy amounts to much who are stuck in the days of Empire.

      • Blissex says:

        «And this old chestnut about kippers and empire. Kippers realise the world has moved on;»

        Some kippers like you do realize that (even if sometimes you make entirely illusionary points too), but the typical tory “home counties” kipper does not, and there are too many reports of that. Talk of Commonwealth 2.0, of the “buccaneering spirit”, the unilateralist attitudes, Rosindell MP talking of the burgundy passport of a humiliation, B Johnson trying to pander to kippers (what he always does) by reciting Kipling in Burma, etc.

        The case for exiting the EU is entirely about exiting the political union (regardless of other consequences) because it is not Conservative enough, as T May very well expressed in the Florence speech, but reduced to that it is really very weak. So it has to be embellished with imperial nostalgia and £350m for the NHS claims and resenment from the “left behind”, else “Leave” would not have gotten 52%.

        • Dipper says:

          “The case for exiting the EU is entirely about exiting the political union (regardless of other consequences) because it is not Conservative enough”

          So that’s why Corbyn has been anti-EU all his political career. Not Conservative enough.

  6. Dipper says:

    just thought I’d pop on here for consideration that:

    – The legal government of the UK is engaged in significant negotiations with the EU over sovereignty.
    – The main opposition party conducts side-negotiations with the EU in which they outline what their favoured terms are which are more favourable to the EU than the elected government’s.
    – The EU looks now to be likely to offer harsher terms than hitherto seemingly with the intention of bringing down the elected government and replacing them with a government more favourable to the EU.

    This all seems to be passing without much comment from the BBC or other pro-EU organisations.

  7. yorksranter says:

    Bloody hell, sleeping dogs AND an elephant in the room? I mean, God help you if the dogs woke up and started barking, or even bit the elephant. You’d do well to keep quiet.

  8. Dipper says:

    I’ll just leave this here https://twitter.com/AFP/status/971100971165212672

    we all know what comes next.

  9. Dipper says:

    and just to keep you all up-to-date on the NI/RoI border, as of yesterday we have this.

    http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/exiting-the-european-union-committee/the-progress-of-the-uks-negotiations-on-eu-withdrawal/oral/80702.pdf

    So this is all feasible and within the timescale.

    • Blissex says:

      All that Karlsson says in the report is that it all depends on «where the security level needs to be in these three elements“, and that if the level of trust in traders carrying good across the border is high, there is no need of border controls. The entire system is predicated on there being no smugglers:

      «I am saying “very little friction” because for the Northern Ireland-Ireland application there could be traders who would not be in the system I described. There needs to be a model for them as well, even if it is less than 1%.»

      The system for 99% is essentially the TIR system of custom posts existing but not being at the border, and the only check made at the border be that the cargo is still sealed.
      And the system for the 1% is… Border checks:

      Dr Karlsson: I have stated this in my report, and sometimes that is used in the discussions to say there needs to be infrastructure. Say we have a situation where we develop, design and implement a trusted-trader programme, with a trusted trade lane that takes care of 99% of trade in a very good environment. If that is the case, we still have this 1%. … Normally, you would say that one of the roads is a customs road where you have more traditional ways of doing this at the border. The other roads, however many there might be — whether it is 200 or 25 does not matter — are the ones where the other system is applicable, where you do not have infrastructure. That is how you normally solve this type of situation, as in North America or Scandinavia.
      Stephen Timms: That is ruled out in this context.”

      The alternative is to do inspections on all the roads leading to the border, but not at the border itself:

      Dr Karlsson: … Then you have somebody who is not following the rules, who is breaking the customs laws and the different types of national legislation that will be there on both sides. They will be held accountable for that one way or another.
      How do you detect it? There are different ways of detecting that. … But you can use a zone on both sides of the border to intervene against different types of transport that are not
      following the rules that are there.”

      The subtle problem is: how do you know in the first instance that they are not following the rules without inspecting every lorry on every road coming from the border to see if it is still sealed, and every passenger car’s trunk, or a large enough sample of them, on all the roads leading to the border?

      In the end the scheme that will be adopted is not difficult to foresee: there will be “inspection posts”, they will just be a few km away from the border, to pretend there are none on the border itself, so they won’t be called “border posts”.

    • Blissex says:

      The funny thing that is that Karlsson did not look at the VAT/tax and rules of origins aspects:

      Dr Karlsson: It is not the reason I focused on it. I was commissioned to look at borders, not at other types of regimes and how you find ways of deferring a payment or other ways of handling the tax and revenue situation. I have not looked into that. That is the reason, really, why I have focused on the border.
      Let me just say one thing, sir. Again, whatever regime there is to find the best way to collect tax and have the least possible friction in trade, we still need to solve the other issue: how do you make sure that the rules of origin, for instance, for goods are applicable?”

      The whole proposal is based on the “trusted trader” concept, who will voluntarily declare all goods, pay duties and taxes, and ensure regulatory compliance, before sending the goods. And again the way to deal with untrusted traders is to simply let them do whatever they want with no inspections, or to have inspections on every road leading to the border, only a few km away, so they need not be called “border posts”.

      As simple as that!

      • Blissex says:

        «The way to deal with untrusted traders is to simply let them do whatever they want with no inspections, or to have inspections on every road leading to the border, only a few km away,»

        They also need not be at the northern Irish ports so there are no “internal border posts” either.

        «so they need not be called “border posts”. As simple as that!»

        As always when difficult problems happen the first grasp of managers and politicians is to play semantic games, as they cost no money, and tell a lorryload of flipchart fairy tales.

        And note that Karlsson never mentioned the “people” side of things: even with “trusted traders” for goods what is going to stop a busload of cambodians or mauritanians from crossing the “frictionless” border into the UK, or viceversa a busload of mackems or boltonians from crossing into Ireland to find jobs in France or Germany?
        What is the UK immigration police going to do? Their only option is to check all passports at all northern Irish ports and airports, but that would be an internal UK border, and “That is ruled out in this context” too.

        • Dipper says:

          There is clearly a solution that would work if both sides wanted it to work. Arguing the toss with hypothetical cases is just a smokescreen for negotiating in bad faith. No one I’ve spoken to here in England cares about the border; it is just a straw that die-hard Remainers are clinging to. If the EU and the ROI government would prefer a hard border to a negotiated softish border they are welcome to it.

  10. BenM says:

    Just popping in – the date is, oh, the 13th April, and the phrase “Ambitious Managed Divergence” hasn’t been mentioned since!

    And the poor old quitling “dipper” will be crestfallen by the Times article on the Ireland border posted here:

    https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/visit-the-irish-border-and-you-see-why-we-must-keep-eu-tariffss-wqzj9jsk3

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