Scotland, referenda, business units and change management

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LONDON — Clearly there is a disturbance in The Force. Our old ‘sovereigntist’ leader of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, has called it out thus:

“Sovereigntists today stand before a field of ruin,” Mr. Parizeau said in excerpts obtained by Radio-Canada. “There is confusion in their spirits that I have not seen in a very long time.”

If you’re not familiar with M Parizeau, imagine a cross between Alex Salmond and the Monopoly Man. He’s probably an economic genius of sorts who set up one of the first Sovereign Wealth Funds, the Caisse de dépôt et placement, in Quebec almost 50 years ago.

And almost 20 years ago he stood on a stage in Quebec as our second independence referendum went down by a score of 50.6 to 49.4% and said that it was all the fault of “money and ethnics”. He was, as the British press would say, very tired and emotional at the time.

There are people who study and speak bravely on the power and risks of nationalism, like Anglo-Canadian Michael Ignatieff. And great books on the topic of liberal nationalism, like the recent one by my friend Dr James Kennedy. But the issues raised by the recent Scottish referendum can also be seen reflected simply in business.  They are about ownership and belonging.

Business units, divisions, offices, regions, brands can all often see good reason to go it alone. How long did AutoTrader have to support The Guardian? How does Xbox feel about Windows hogging the limelight? And there are companies like Baxter Healthcare that are choosing to split themselves in half voluntarily.  And some who have already done so successfully, like AbbVie and Abbott Laboratories.

However those seem to be the exception.  Most businesses, like most countries, tend to manage their internal struggles within their borders. Brands, business units and offices are generally made to believe that managing scale and sharing back-office resources is more effective and will lead to greater prosperity than by doing it yourself.  Clearly there are times when those goals and those results are in question — and that’s when management and often change management comes to the fore.

In Scotland, like in Quebec, like in businesses, it is about managing expectations and understanding the implications of change. My wife recently lamented that as a family we have been involved in three independence referenda and have never yet been on the ‘cool’ side. Unfortunately, doing something new and breaking away, saying an emphatic ‘yes’ to breaking with the past, is the coolest thing to do. Who wants to vote for the status quo?

“Sign here if you’re completely satisfied with your life…”

Not a lot of takers.

Like in the politics, businesses have often been going the other way.  We have found ourselves advising an increasing number of clients on how to bring things together, rather than take the apart.  That’s not to say that we are fundamentally ‘centralists’, because we’re not. However, separatism, in business and in nations needs to be more than a romantic idea.  And often the sums don’t add up.

I should maybe have said that to Jacques Parizeau the only time I met him.  But somehow the St Andrews Ball, which he loved to attend in Montreal, didn’t seem like the right occasion to do so.


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