25 years ago I was getting ready for my first Christmas after leaving the UK Civil Service and setting up my own business. As Christmas approaches in 2021 I was reflecting on what I had learned over the last 25 years that might be of help to someone else.
- I started with a clear mission and avoided being deflected too much by short term opportunities that could have been a distraction. Approaches to plan access to opportunities are as old as the hills, but in the 1990s technology started to offer a whole range of new possibilities. New ways of enabling access have growing importance, and in 2021 accessibility goals are now much more broadly and accurately defined than they were in 1996, further strengthening the attractiveness of these ways of working. I have seen so many small businesses in the transport sector rise and fall over the last 25 years because the new opportunities they were chasing were more transitory.
- It is important to be lucky. Most luck is not random, but mission driven businesses are often unlucky as they are too focused on their mission to notice their luck. Small businesses often miss out on luck because they don’t have a ticket to the lottery. Ensuring the business is visible in publications, at conferences, and in other networks helps co-incidences to happen.
- Learning what you don’t know is often more important than promoting what you know. It is often easier to resource work based on shared inquiring minds. The temptation is always to proclaim what you know rather than what you don’t. There are allies everywhere when we choose a journey of discovery.
- When you change job you also need to change your allegiances. When I started out, I thought my networks of former colleagues would be my greatest asset. I was wrong. I found that many people I had regarded as friends were only being nice to me because they perceived me as being on the way up as defined in their terms of government hierarchy. One former colleague I had thought was a friend even said to me “I did not like your ideas much when you worked in here, so I won’t even give you the time of day now”. However, what I found was an army of new friends with business goals better aligned with the mission of improving access to opportunity. Even within government my best new friends in the civil service were often different people from the colleagues I had previously relied on most.
- The most useful advice often seems the most brutal at the time. When people explain why they think new approaches will not work they are being as helpful as they can be. Many of the ‘great and the good’ of the transport profession explained to me why I had no chance of success, showing me the obstacles that needed to be overcome. Given my relative inexperience in my early 30s, without being told about the pitfalls, I would have fallen at many hurdles. With much more experience now, I personally try to be that critical friend, because I know from experience that the people that are nice about new ideas actually are not helping much.
- It is important to have role models. Learning how people overcame difficulties in the past its critical, but so is learning what difficulties they did not overcome. Back in 1996 my wife (concerned about what I might be taking on) observed “so all your role models have died of heart attacks by their mid 50s”. The pressure can be intense when the buck stops with you. Getting stressed about problems is inevitable, but keeping risks manageable has been vital, and when things go wrong work has been the best medicine. It is always better to work through the night to fix problems as they arise than see problems spiral out of control. There were some tough times, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crash when long term partners closed their businesses or collapsed leaving huge holes with unpaid debts.
- Learning from those with the best experience usually gives the most useful insight. Back in 1996 perhaps the question I was asked most when talking about accessibility planning was “is that to help disabled people?”. My answer was always “yes and all of the other challenges that people face when accessing opportunities”. Everyone faces challenges but the people with real experience are often missed out. If we want to solve transport’s huge social problems, we need a far broader perspective on society than we get within the usual professional and government circles. The highest profile programme I had the privilege of leading, spanning more than a decade in projects for Cabinet Office and DfT, united people across local and central government, academia, community groups and businesses, around the shared agenda of access to opportunity, to tackle growing unfairness in transport services. However the highest impacts were not the top level “Making the Connections” policies of government, but the thousands of individual solutions developed in communities across the UK that made people’s lives better. I am not sure whose lives we have made better by working on large lucrative transport infrastructure projects, but I know we achieved something good when particular individuals lives were changed for the better, accessing work and other opportunities through planned approaches.
- A healthy diversity of clients and partners helps to ensure resilience. Viewing society as a monopoly breeds fear and weakens the capacity for improvement. Perhaps the most important motivation in 1996 for me to step out, was that I needed to work within a business model better able to shape the future of transport through collective action, rather than focused on government action. Government is an important agent helping to achieve shared policy goals, but society is far richer, broader and more powerful than government. We saw this so clearly again at COP26 in Glasgow a few weeks ago when relatively weak action by governments showed the limits of their power within democratic political mandates. The capacity of society is so much greater than that of government and often the greatest power comes from small groups of people gathered together such as we saw in the coffee shops of Glasgow in 2021.
Looking forward from current pandemic troubles to the growing challenges of global inequity, conflict and environmental disaster there will be storms ahead. Each of us will have our anchors to hold on to but: having a good mission, choosing to work with good people, observing evidence of success and failure honestly, and above all focusing on the diversity of people’s needs and capabilities is an approach that has stood the test of time for me.
It has been a huge privilege to work with hundreds of different clients and thousands of different people over the last 25 years. I hope that I have helped our staff and partners as much as they helped me from the graduates that worked with us for their training in the transport sector, to the partners that have been on the journey with us for over 20 years. Through consultancy services under the DHC brand and technology services under the Loop Connections brand we have achieved far more than I ever imagined 25 years ago, but there is still lots still to do in the coming decade.
Derek Halden December 2021