Senior managers in the public and private sectors are recruited primarily for their purposeful and decisive planning skills: strategic planning, operational planning, action planning, implementation planning, risk analysis – you name it. Planning is the raison d'etre of senior managers, underpinned by mission and vision statements which are intriguingly similar from councils to private equity companies.
Senior planning roles are often fair-weather occupations, relentlessly tested in severe storms. For instance, when the university COVID crisis unfolded in halls of residence, the wise aforethought of university chiefs, who insisted on the students return despite online teaching preparation, had staff further down the pay scale shaking their heads in disbelief. When Dido Harding's 'world beating' implementation of the test and trace system failed to record data of 16,000 cases, it was due to a technical 'glitch'. Similarly, when the new centralised flu vaccination process was revealed to demonstrate NHS winter preparedness, it too had 'glitches'.
What were these planners thinking? Who thought it was a good idea to instruct the elderly and vulnerable to travel to some stadium or other to be vaccinated, instead of administering a two seconds vaccine at the surgery or in the safety of their own homes? Who thought it was a good idea to cram students into accommodation blocks in the middle of a pandemic? Who thought Excel was a database? It's little wonder we have so many 'glitches'.
To be fair, few risk assessment lists probably didn't include the black swan of a raging pandemic. That said, you would wish these master-planners would raise their game by lifting their heads from their Excel spreadsheets. As much as we would like to blame politicians for these 'glitches', undoubtedly they believed that the plans of highly paid senior managers would be worthy of their status. But management is not a precise science. Intuition plays a crucial role, especially in a crisis. Because in a crisis, somewhat counter-intuitively, managers would be more effective if they bypassed rigorous, analytical planning and turned to intuition or common sense.
Good managers further down the hierarchy – which means they are still practicing – are more intuitive. Intuition in conjunction with rapid, rigorous, creative planning make the most effective managers. Intuition is not a mysterious property or a caprice. Nor is it irrational. It is a cognitive capacity honed by experience. We need more of it in these glitch-ridden times. In other words, we need to listen to intuitive, experienced folk at the coalface.
That life will never be the same again when the pandemic is done with us, is an uncomfortable intuition, but not a groundless one. Andrew Latham, professor of political science, wrote a fascinating piece in The Conversation this week about three prior pandemics which triggered massive societal shifts. Firstly, the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) is credited with converting the Roman Empire from its religious roots in paganism to Christianity, which up until that point had been an obscure sect with no historical impact to speak of.
The Plague of Justinian (541-549 AD) is credited with ending the Roman Empire in the West, ushering in the so-called Dark Ages, and leaving only a rump in the east in Constantinople. The last of the big three was the more familiar Black Death of 1346-1358, which carried off between 25-40% of the population of Europe. Historians maintain that this plague speeded up the demise of feudalism and the birth of the modern labour market by freeing serfs from their fief to seek higher wages elsewhere, since labour was in such short supply.
In brief, plagues have had an impact on the spread of world religions, the fall of empires, and the death of feudalism. COVID-19 has nothing like the mortality rate of the big three, but our pandemic could be seismic in other ways. One of the impacts suggested by Latham is that 'the unravelling of long-established patterns of work will have repercussions that could affect the future of office towers, big cities, mass transit, to name but a few'.
And sure enough, according to a survey from the British Council for Offices published this week, the pandemic has changed working patterns for good. We are never going to go back to how things were before, apparently. Whether this is a societal good or not, it will most certainly be transformative. Latham's own stark conclusion is that the 'implications of this and related economic developments may prove as profoundly transformative as those triggered by the Black Death'.
On an entirely different note, according to the The Rough Guide to Scotland 2020
entry for the Hebridean town of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 'aesthetics are not its strong point' and its coffee is 'execrable'.
True, Stornoway architecture is not to the standard of the buildings on Bute. Pebble-dashed, small-windowed, boxy houses are ubiquitous in the Hebridean town. Rudimentary weather protection, given the wind-swept, oceanic micro-climate of the Outer Hebrides, is perfectly understandable. It has to be said, unlike Bute, there are no palm trees. In fact, there are few trees at all apart from those imported – along with the soil – for the grounds of Lews Castle. Recently, I was treated to the utterly delightful experience of living in this neo-gothic 'castellated pomposity' (according to one guidebook) for a week's staycation.
The landscape of Lewis and Harris is spectacular. Beaches, which would be the best in the world if the climate were Mediterranean, are truly breathtaking. But I'm glad the Hebrides are damp and windy. Tourism is slight, so the experience of glorious beaches, sparkling white sands, wet bare hillsides and wild coastlines is one of life's profound aesthetic pleasures.
And let me tell you, Rough Guide
, the little café called Artizan has the best carrot cake I've ever tasted, washed down with the most excellent coffee. Throw in its black pudding and Stornoway's aesthetics can be forgiven. Being in such close proximity to one of the most awesome landscapes in the most beautiful country in the world – as voted by Rough Guide
readers – means even the pebble-dash should be ignored in polite silence.