“UK Plc” needs a facilitated virtual off-site, fast: my fantasy pitch

Imagine if the UK were a Plc and the Prime Minister its Group CEO then I would, this week, be pitching to him my facilitated virtual off-site program, which I piloted successfully during lockdown with a financial services client:

Dear Prime Minister,

UK Plc currently lacks a shared purpose (P), a shared strategy (S) to achieve that purpose and an agreed behaviour (B) plan to implement its strategy – a PSB, if you like an acronym.

This means that, even with your large majority, your administration is likely to end in tears in Downing Street as so many have done before you.

The difference this time is that not only do you risk failure on an unprecedented scale but in becoming the worst UK Plc Group CEO of all time because COVID-19 raises the bar considerably on how history will judge your legacy.

My virtual off-site program could help you avoid this disastrous outcome for UK Plc.

Back in the day I would have proposed that you spend two or three days in a country house hotel. You are spoilt for choice. Those I know include The Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Brooklands near London, The Celtic Manor in Newport and any number in Scotland.

But given COVID I wouldn’t, if I were you, risk a physical get together. Look what happened in Clifden last week? An EU Commissioner lost his job. Your off-site must make things better, not worse.

An off-site is designed for organisations “at a point of inflection” which is management speak for a dangerous crossroads. This week you are at a dangerous crossroads for what may seem like a not so obvious reason: the fuss about The Withdrawal Agreement has damaged you and your administration more than any other recent action because it means you have lost a type of trust you may not regain: trust that you will not knowingly risk peace. Knowingly is the key word.

You have created the impression that you will undermine peace, whether you intended to do so or not, and if you are willing to risk that impression your entire governance structure won’t be trusted at home or abroad as the backlash has demonstrated – particularly from the USA with which country you want to agree a trade deal in the fullness of time.

Your problem is, like all COVID-19 CEOs, that you need discretionary support from people at home and abroad at a time of pandemic. If you don’t garner that support your administration will struggle, despite your majority.  You now need to get everyone together and undo the damage by agreeing on a shared PSB for UK Plc over the next three crucial years.

Step 1 Agree your off-site participant list

Were you a Group Plc CEO I would propose three people from your main board and three from each of your “business units” – the four nations. Of course you have the tricky issue that England isn’t run like the other three nations (potentially part of your problem) so I propose you choose three mayors as a proxy – say Mr Burnham, Mr Khan and one other, perhaps? That would mean a participant group of 15 – a manageable off-site number.

Step 2 1-1 Zooms

Next I would conduct 15 x 90 minute 1-1 Zooms with each participant to establish their personal purpose, their personal strategy and their personal behaviour plan to achieve their purpose, on a strictly confidential basis.

Why does personal PSB matter? It matters because organisational psychology tells us that organisational purpose and personal purpose are interdependent. The success of your administration and of UK Plc is dependent on these (say) 15 unique personalities with their personal motivations, leadership approach and behaviour especially in how they behave with each other under stress.

The 1-1 Zooms are to help me facilitate the plenary sessions more adroitly and help me prepare each of the 15 to better contribute to those plenary sessions.

Step 3 Plenary sessions and follow up

Having completed the 1-1s I would facilitate as many 90 minute plenary sessions necessary to agree language on a shared purpose, strategy and behaviour plan (PSB) for UK Plc over the next few years.

Between each plenary session I would have further 1-1s with each participant and in addition I would use other technologies like Slido, What’s App and Slack to support productive interaction and mimic as far as possible over four or five weeks online what happens over two or three days offline. That said, it’s impossible to mimic what happens in the hotel bar.

There is little difference, I suspect, based on my experience of facilitating off-sites over many years, in the behaviour, conflicts and differences of opinion between members of boards and between politicians.

While I won’t be holding my breath waiting to hear your response in the unlikely event of your seeing this fantasy pitch, I’m convinced that unless you change your behaviour and that of your administration now in how it engages with the exhausting but essential process of agreeing a shared purpose for the UK at a time of pandemic then you, like all CEOs who avoid that type of pain, will come to deeply regret that failure but not half as much as those affected by it.

But, I dream on.

Ciaran Fenton

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