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Clear Thinking Case Study of the Month


The Story

Nov 2012

“Turning Concepts into Products - the difficulties in implementing ideas in an un-Balanced Team” 

Several ideas from David Cameron’s Government are visionary and well-intentioned but have encountered major problems with implementation. The ‘Big Society’ concept has been quietly shelved but recent ideas have also faced difficulties, generating cries of “omnishambles” and “another good idea botched”.

We examine why concepts have a nasty habit of failing to reach successful fruition … if badly thought out and planned. We also ask if Mr Cameron’s Cabinet Team works as a Whole-Brain Team, ie a team having a good balance of the four Core Thinking Styles: Visionary, Reasoning, Task, and People Thinking. An un-Balanced team is one of the key causes of ideas and plans going wrong.

Key points of the Story

Valuable lessons, almost daily 

... in Visionary but in-Flexible, un-Clear Thinking by an un-Balanced Team

The UK Government continues to provide a valuable source of lessons in in-Flexible, un-Clear Thinking. The Police Commissioners elections were deemed a ‘shambles’ with a record-low turn-out. And the ‘knee-jerk’ vague idea of forcing energy companies to offer consumers the ‘best deal’ lost its impact when the new Energy Bill threatens to put prices up anyway. In fact, this ‘best deal’ idea will probably raise prices for many people, which can’t have been the intention (Unintended Consequences).

The £5bn back-to-work scheme produced worse results than normal processes. The city-mayor idea was almost a total flop. The Business Bank idea has stalled. Press comments include “failure to deliver on everything from visas to broadband”. And the latest ‘excellent’ idea of a minimum price of alcohol has the drinks industry threatening legal action. On the positive side, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, looks to be pushing through reforms to cut costs at his department that could act as a model for other departments. And the ‘Free Schools’ concept also has had a decent start.


Analysis and Lessons

Concept Thinking … Enquiry Thinking … Precision Thinking … Consequence  Thinking Business Thinking … Customer Thinking … Customer Questions … Leadership Thinking … A Team (defined) … Balanced Team … Reasoning Thinking … Task Thinking … People Thinking … Visionary Thinking

Concept Thinking is hard to do

Concept Thinking is arguably the second most important Thinking StyleEnquiry Thinking being Number One (Leonardo da Vinci was famed for his curiosity).

Concept Thinking is thinking about a particular concept, either an existing or a new concept: what something is. Most people, even experienced business professionals and academics, struggle to explain what Concept Thinking means, even what a Concept is. We asked a group of academics what Concept Thinking is and got the reply “Surely all thinking is conceptual”. This completely misses the point, and demonstrates the lack of understanding many people have about concepts and Concept Thinking.

Concept Thinking requires the help of Precision Thinking

David Cameron had made a surprise announcement (presumably in response to the hue and cry about energy price rises, up 63% since 2008) that he would force the energy companies to cut the number of tariffs and offer customers the ‘best deal’. It sounds a good idea and was designed to win votes.

However, the concept of ‘best deal’ may seem simple but in fact is rather vague – it lacks precision (Precision Thinking). And lack of precision makes any concept hard to define and implement. ‘Best’ for whom exactly, at what time/s, under what sort of contract agreement, which payment method, how is ‘best’ defined and measured – by whom, etc? These concept questions are still being ironed out.

(Unintended) Consequence Thinking

Unfortunately, one presumably unintended consequence will most likely be that the common practice of offering discounts to entice customers to switch supplier will be abandoned. The net result will probably be that all customers will pay the un-discounted prices. Some analysts predict all bills will be higher, even before the hike for the cost of green-energy. Whether the Government applied Consequence Thinking here is unknown. But this Thinking Style is also essential when thinking about and planning any new concept.

Timing, Impact, and Business Thinking

Shortly after the announcement of the ‘best deal’ idea, and more details of the idea, the Government publicised its long-awaited Energy Policy. The news that we are going green with nuclear and wind had a sting in its tail: energy prices would need to go up again to pay for it. This news overtook the ‘best deal’ idea and has left most people not knowing who to blame for what. Planned news feeds? Hard to say, but time will tell how effective these ideas will turn out. But Mr Cameron was clearly right to push the energy companies to simplify their tariffs, apparently numbering over 300 in total.

 “Confuse the customer” might seem good Business Thinking when selling a commodity such as gas or electricity. But taken to excess this strategy runs the risk of regulation, not to mention customers switching to a more trusted new entrant.

The Police and Crime Commissioner Concept – a 15% success? 

A record-low electoral turnout for a potentially good idea. What went so badly wrong? And how did we get a result where a former Detective is now in charge of a Chief Constable? And only 12 of the 41 roles were won by Independents, ie not a main political party. The answer must be that this new concept was badly thought out - in terms of what it is (or should be) and how it was implemented (or should have been).

 What went wrong with those elections?

No. 1: Poor Communications


Any new concept needs explaining. The public received a voting card in the post, with no explanation whatsoever. Appalling! When the writer later had some publicity information through the letterbox from his local Conservative candidate, his first reaction was probably typical of many of the electorate: “Why is this political?”  The information was never read. In fact this was the response of many ‘would-be’ voters, who wrote similar messages on their voting cards. Poor Customer Thinking.

 The public were not told anything that they would have needed to know. For example: what is this job? – what sort of person could do it? – what powers would they have? – how would their performance be measured, and by whom? – and many other key Customer Questions such as information on the actual candidates.

 What went wrong?

No. 2: Poor Leadership

Any new concept needs promotion by its Leader. In this case the idea was seen as David Cameron’s but he failed to promote it enough. A leader needs to be seen to be driving a new idea in order to give it credibility, to encourage followers to believe in it, to persuade them to bother doing something about it. It appears that Mr Cameron assumed that the concept would sell itself, without the need for his promotion. Poor Leadership Thinking.

 Is the Cabinet a Team?


Look at these two newspaper headlines: “Ministers blame each other over low growth” and “Osborne’s £58bn devolution plan sets collision course with ministers”. A Team works together to achieve common goals. These headlines (and many others like them) imply that this Government team is not ‘working together’ and that they haven’t agreed their ‘common goals’.

One ‘excuse’ of course is that in a coalition you will have two teams. But they still need to work together. In fact there would appear to be two levels of teams, in addition to two coalition teams. The top team of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, and Alexander, and the rest of the cabinet. But, again, this top team is a coalition, not a conventional Team. 

 Are they a Balanced Team of Thinking Styles?

The Duke of Wellington was a successful leader in large part because he was a very strong at Reasoning Thinking and Task Thinking. He was able to analyse the requirements of men and resources, and where to best position them for battle (Reasoning Thinking). And he planned his battles in great detail (Task Thinking), especially thinking about “What could go wrong?” (Contingency Thinking). His Emotional Intelligence was also pretty strong – he rarely showed emotions in battle but he felt the loss of his men deeply, in private (People Thinking).

 On the evidence of the delivery of the concepts described above it would seem that Mr Cameron’s cabinet team is strong in only one of the four core Thinking Styles that make a Balanced team – Visionary Thinking. In short, they may be good at thinking up ideas but not so strong in analysing them or evaluating them, or thinking how to plan their implementation in detail, thinking about “What could go wrong?”, or thinking how people might react to the ideas or plans or communications. 


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