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Robert Halfon: Only the paranoid survive – especially in the world of Conservative politics

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I haven’t yet read Dominic Cummings recommended tome, High Output Management by Andrew Grove, the extraordinarily successful, former Chief Executive of Intel. For one thing, when I tried to order it a few weeks ago, it had mysteriously and temporarily sold out, probably because of a civil servant raid of Amazon. I did, however, buy another book by Grove entitled, ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’ – probably better suited to my temperament, anyway.

The core argument of this book is that, however successful a business or organisation may be, at any time it will face a ‘Strategic Inflection Point’ (SIP) – a major change or disruptor, that will see a competitor emerge with a new product, that could have huge impact on the viability and profitability on that business.

The SIP could come at any time and is often hard to predict. It could happen at a time when the company is seen as almost invincible, yet because the business fails to respond in the right way to the challenge, it ends up being swept away by the tsunami of the new SIP disruptor.

All through the book, there are examples of companies where this has happened, including SIPs facing his own organisation, Intel. Although Only the Paranoid Survive was written in 1995, Grove predicted the major disruptor effect of the internet, in terms of software, media and connectivity.

I can think of others. Remember Blackberry (I am one of the few that still have one – as I love keyboards)? It used to be one of the most popular mobiles in the world and democratised email through handheld devices. Yet in just a few years it lost its market share because the management failed to understand the rise of the Apple iPhone and the democratisation of smartphone apps. By the time it did, it was too late. Only a few years ago did Blackberry start selling mobiles with Android Apps. Now, Blackberry is just basically a software security company and contracts out to other companies the making of keypad android phones.

Grove argues that the best way to respond to SIPs is through open debate within the company, initial chaos and then a clear and unbending vision of how to succeed. He notes that, “all eggs should be put in one basket”, rather than trying to do a bit of everything, seeking to please everyone. He does warn, however, to  “watch the basket”.

It is also important to listen to those middle-managers and sales force, i.e. those at the coalface, as they can often see best what is happening and identify emerging trends. Interestingly, he notes that data, however important, is not everything. You need instinct, anecdote, and emotional intelligence, too:

“You have to be able to argue with the data, when your experience and judgement suggest the emergence of force that may be too small to show up in the analysis that has the potential to grow so big as to change the rules your company operate by. The point is, when dealing with emerging trends, you may very well go against the rational extrapolation of data and rely instead on anecdotal observations and your instincts.”

Why does this book matter? The answer lies in what Grove says about fear and complacency:

“Fear can be the opposite of complacency. Complacency often afflicts precisely those who have been the most successful. It is often found in companies that have honed the skills that are perfect for the environment. But when the environment changes, these companies may be the slowest to respond properly. A good dose of fear may help sharpen the survival instincts.”

I have lost count as to how many Conservatives I have recently met or spoken to (and I’m absolutely NOT including the brilliant, new, Northern MPs who have been elected – quite the opposite), who assume that we will be in power for the next ten to fifteen years and that it is all over for the Labour Party. That worries me.

Not only is this not true psephologically, as recently highlighted by Lewis Baston in The Critic magazine (the Red Wall faces major challenges), but Conservatives are also not winning younger voters to the cause.

Moreover, the Labour Party, a historical movement, is not going to be steeped in the mire of Corbynism forever. At some point, they or something else, at an unpredictable moment in time, will represent a strategic inflection point to the Government. Who is to say that if Labour elect a Corbynista person mark 2, that individual will still be there in two years time? Half a decade is an eternity in politics.

This is why, continuous change and reform, both in Government and in campaigning, is vital, if Conservatives are to withstand a Strategic Inflection Point when it inevitably happens.

The electorate remain volatile. Party tribal loyalties grow weaker every political day. Huge voter swings in one direction one time, could become huge voter swings in another way the next.

It is worth reading this book. As Grove notes – a man who survived Hungarian fascism, Nazism and Communism and arrived in the USA as a penniless immigrant – fear stops complacency and can mean continued success. Only the paranoid survive, especially in the world of Conservative politics.

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