Would somebody please stick a rocket up this country
Business and political leaders and civil society must fire up the engines and outpace the past's clawing gravity
Escape velocity is the minimum speed a free body needs to escape the force of gravity a larger body exerts on it. A rocket needs sufficient thrust to escape the gravitational influence of Earth, get into orbit and then go, with marginal new impulse, and explore the boundaries and opportunities of outer space.
If the rocket launches with speed less than the escape velocity required it will fall back to Earth, overcome by the force of gravity, and crash.
The logic in this rule of celestial mechanics can be applied analogously to many circumstances we find in our everyday personal and business lives.
If a business cannot attain economic escape velocity, it will fail. The financiers (or voters, if you like) of new, or turnaround, or however otherwise future-uncertain ventures (or lives) need to be convinced that, at some point, the entity they are funding or supporting will achieve independent financial sustainability. Where potential funders (voters) have choice, the outcome is expected to go beyond sustainability to profitability, to reward the initial risk taken (or faith shown).
Social imperatives have a different return currency not measured in money, but in the achievement of the social obligation. This is a very different world, requiring an entirely different management approach and outcome metrics. Within public service organisations it is the duality of these social and commercial purposes that must be managed and balanced.
Generally, no matter how clever the idea or how inspiring the effect may be on consumer behaviour, if it doesn’t have sufficient thrust to pull free of the gravity of servicing its funding costs, it will fail.
It’s not just start-ups. Firms entrenched in the ways and people of their past will eventually succumb to the weight of being out of date, and crash. Technological advances have practically eliminated the wisdom of the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, which must now give way to “if you want it to compete, change it”.
A prohibitive force working against the future growth of individuals or even a nation can be the gravity and weight of the past. Ours is massive.
You’d have to be inert to not feel the increasing levels of uncertainty and personal acrimony that have become part of our everyday discourse. We seek out people to sacrifice, to find peace with our lot. Even the media have taken to fighting with one another about what they said about the past. That’s not news. Let’s rather debate future solutions.
After a decade of economic destruction, we’ve found ourselves in the blame game – celebrating the discovery of error rather than diagnosing cause and cure. The past is the focal point for the future.
As a collective of peoples within a nation, we must face the truth of the past so we can see clearly enough to define its weight, to share its burden, to determine the thrust – and trust – required for our escape velocity.
The fact is that there is no escape from our past; we can’t leave it behind. It seems more present now than it may ever have been.
Our challenge is not to escape the gravity of our past, but to carry it with us, and still move on. We’ll need a lot of fuel to take off.
In the corporate world the gravity of past failure is easier to escape, if it is indeed your purpose, and the suppliers of thrust – the shareholders – have enough fuel and are prepared to burn it fast enough to get away from the bad habits of the past in time to grow anew.
Enormous quantities of fuel are required to achieve escape velocity from a standing position, let alone when you’re going backwards. The good news is that once escape velocity is achieved, it requires no further effort to keep moving away from what held you back.
At some point you’ll never come back. Any additional energy applied will result in a net positive movement into the future, further and further way from the force of the past that held you back. In our case the rocket blueprint design responsibility lies with the vision of our new political leadership and the open-mindedness of business leaders to consider radical transformation. The fuel will have to come from direct foreign investment, once we convince them of our rocket flight path.
It is surely time for us to begin the launch sequence, again, towards a better life for all.
• Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.