The higher you climb in your profession, the broader the view you should take.
The inaugural APM Fellows Forum brought together a large crowd of senior project professionals, who took time out of day-to-day work to focus on the big strategic issues facing UK business in 2019.
Speakers included experts on politics, economics and innovation and technology, who shared insights on the external forces that are affecting business today. And yes, the conversation did turn to Brexit.
Four global forces to watch
The panoramic view across London from RIBA offices (where the event was held) accentuated the birds-eye strategic perspectives of the CBI speakers. First up was John Foster, campaigns director, who took on the challenge of explaining the current political context for UK business, and why ‘political intelligence’ matters.
“The temptation is to dismiss it as background noise”, he said, when really the political environment affects decision-making in every business. Keeping your finger on the political pulse not only helps you future-proof your products and services, but also to conduct better competitive analysis because you know what the risks and opportunities might be. It pays to know “what is coming down the track”.
According to Foster, global political developments that could affect business in 2019 include:
- rising global protectionism – specifically the trade war between the US and China;
- the future of the WTO – whether this will be reformed or will suffer a credibility hit from the US;
- the UK’s attitude towards China and how it balances between economic and security priorities;
- change within the key European institutions - elections alter the composition of the European Parliament, which ultimately have a big say in the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK. There will also be a change of guard for senior EU leaders that will also affect negotiations.
In terms of domestic politics:
- The creation of the new independent group of MPs – can they be more than a Brexit party?
- At the end of June, the Conservative party’s two-year deal with the DUP runs out legislative programme with the DUP runs its course. A decision will need to be made as to whether or not to seek to renegotiate it or not. The Conservative party seeks to bring forward a new Queen’s speech. As Foster put it, “in times of uncertainty, intelligence is key to making better decisions.”
How to drive innovation
Felicity Burch, CBI innovation and digital director, spoke about the strengths of the UK, not least for its world-leading scientific research. “Our science base is a real asset”, she said – as are our universities – providing a great environment for business. And yet there are substantial challenges. “We have some businesses that are really great but, on average, we are average,” she said.
Research and development spending is strongest in the south and east and is “really, really concentrated”. The effects of Brexit means that eight out of ten businesses are stalling when it comes to making investment in capital expenditure.
“Innovation supports the adaptability of our economy,” explained Burch, and an innovative company will be much more resilient and successful over the longer term. The biggest obstacles to improving innovation within UK business include:
- too few UK businesses that are exporters (key to exchanging ideas);
- effective processes and skills that drive a culture of innovation are not embedded into enough businesses;
- not enough appropriate investment (particularly in back-office processes);
- a lack of visionary management and leadership.
The UK lags in terms of productivity, and Burch encouraged project managers to #bemoremagpie, meaning adopting the behaviours from companies that have improved their productivity levels.
To become more innovative:
- figure out your vision – why do you want to invest in technology?
- engage with your suppliers;
- think 80/20 on customising technology. If one technology can solve one problem quickly, don’t waste too much time on customisation;
- engage your people. “Tech lives or dies on whether people are on board with it. Bring in people right from the start – ask them what tech would make their lives easier?” said Burch;
- engage your networks. Go and see what other firms are doing and get recommendations.
See the CBI’s 2017 From Ostrich to Magpie report for more details.
How to influence
The final session was given by Maxine Bligh, who runs the CBI’s leadership programme. "Influencing governments and political stakeholders is not fully covered within MBAs and becomes increasingly relevant as you move up the career ladder towards board’", she explained. When it comes to lobbying, it pays to create a “dartboard”, with the decision-maker you want to influence at the bullseye. Who are their gatekeepers? Then map your alliances and coalitions, and tailor your message to your audience.
Find out more information on becoming an APM fellow here.