Lord Digby Jones spoke at Synergy, PMI UK Chapter’s event for International Project Management Day earlier this month. Previously Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, he spoke about the economy and the financial situation that project managers find themselves working in.
“What is the tapestry against which we are all operating?” he asked, before going on to give us his answer on that.
He started with some statistics and said that the percentage of GDP in Shanghai in the private sector is bigger than all the UK’s major cities except London. “This, my friends, is Asia’s century,” he said. 800m Chinese earn under $2 per day, “and every one of them wants your lunch.” He talked about moving the wealth west into the rest of China and filling the vacuum left in the east with the work we do. Therefore, he argued, we should be focusing on what we can deliver to a growing nation of consumers, or in upskilling ourselves so that the work we do is not off-shored to skilled workers in China.
He said the same principles applied to India as well. Three quarters of the population in India work on the land, he explained. As education rates go up, and industrialisation reaches these areas on a much larger scale, this will change. He also explained that he didn’t see this competition as anything like a threat – instead it is an opportunity. “This is no threat, if we provide the stuff, and the services,” he said. “Brazil, India, China, they are all getting richer so we need to provide the stuff that they want to buy.”
Europe in the globalisation stakes
He talked about what he considers the flawed model of European economics (although he didn’t actually use that term). “What we do in Europe is dumb it down to the lowest common denominator so everyone can get a prize,” Lord Jones said. “Well, I’ve got news for you: to get a gold medal, someone has to lose. We might all be equal in Europe but the only race that matters is the globalisation race. We’ve got to move away from everyone being the same.”
The advantage of this is that we can take the best from every country instead of trying to even the playing field. For example, he said that, “delivery from middle managers is better in France than anywhere else.” He also spoke highly of Germany’s ability to deliver infrastructure projects and the benefits of our UK labour market. “So why don’t we use our labour market, the German infrastructure build model, France’s middle management delivery and standardise to that?” he asked. “That’s the tapestry against which we all operate.”
Lord Jones on the economy: the new normal
“This isn’t austerity,” Lord Jones said. “This is going to be normal. How are we going to live in a world where there wasn’t ever enough money and we’ve only just been told we can’t have it all?” That’s the challenge for all of us – not just project managers.
He suggested that there were three ways to get to grips with this new normal.
First, “We’ve got to get building projects,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we equip the nation.” If we don’t build capacity, Lord Jones believes that the UK will move into the second tier of European countries. He said that was fine as a strategy if that is what the government wanted to do (although it wouldn’t be the sort of place he would want to live). He believes that we can invest in this sort of project even in times of economic difficulty because “infrastructure takes a while to produce and a while to pay for.”
Second, he advocated for a more efficient public sector. If we want the public sector to be more efficient, it is pointless saying work harder, he said. The answer is in smarter working practices. Adding value through innovation, qualifications and growing skills is key. One third of adults are functionally illiterate, he said. “We need an education system fit for purpose – children should be able to read, write, add up and use a computer by the age of 16,” he said, “or parents and teachers have failed.”
Third, he stressed the importance of leadership. “If you are going to deliver on projects, none of it happens without leadership,” he said. Leadership is not the prerogative of captains of industry and big wigs – it is down to you to lead your project team. “You are in a position to change someone’s life for better or worse,” Lord Jones said. “You can bring on or knock down. That’s what we need. Popularity is not what you are in leadership for.”
Lord Jones was a challenging speaker with some big ideas, and while inspiring at times and a good storyteller, it was certainly a ‘bigger picture’ speech. It was a good way to open the day. “Don’t you let anyone tell you that leadership is for someone else,” he concluded. Whether you agree with his views on the economy and Europe or not, I think we can all agree with that.