On the first day of 2019, almost a year ago now, I watched Dinner for One, a 15-minute show that, despite being made by two British comedians in 1963 and having been a regular New Year staple across most Northern European countries for five decades, was being shown on British TV for the very first time.
In what has become an iconic sketch, Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday at an otherwise empty table set for five people. That the other four guests have long since passed away is of little matter as her servant, James, pretends to be each guest in turn, drinking to the health of the host in a variety of accents with each of the meal’s four courses, and becoming ever-more humorously inebriated as the sketch goes on.
Before commencing on each round of drinks, James checks that his mistress wants him once again to undergo this ritual humiliation by asking: “Same procedure as last year?” To which Miss Sophie replies each time, “Same procedure as every year, James”, neatly setting up the sketch’s closing innuendo.
Repetition is comforting, familiar, and has long been a mainstay of oral storytelling and comic humour. But, as Einstein was almost certainly not the first to say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Bear that quote in mind as we move into the final fiscal quarter, as strategies are reviewed, initiatives proposed, and budgets come back a little short; there’s always space to cut back a bit here, stretch a bit there, balance it somehow. Same procedure as last year? Same procedure as every year. Same results, maybe, if we’re lucky, but the same problems, same unsatisfactory trade-offs, and the same frustrated tensions between those with big ambitions and those with big accountabilities.
There’s comfort in the process because we know what we are doing, we know we’ll get some numbers out at the end of it, but more often than not it’s the biggest missed opportunity of the year: a triumph of pragmatism over vision, of certainty over risk, of continuation over innovation. Our biases may want to reject that assessment, but our experience shows us it’s true.
Irrespective of what happens with Brexit and trade deals, the new Government, charity regulations and media explosions, 2020 will be very different to 2019. Demand will grow, funding will tighten, digitisation will accelerate, the demand for automation and personalisation will increase, sectors will be disrupted, social divides may deepen, investments may become less certain, talent will become harder to find and keep, and all the while, expectations will continue to rise. Same outlook as last year? Not remotely.
Any organisation whose plan for 2020 is essentially an extension of plans from previous years is probably going to face a tough year and is likely to be in a worse position at the end of it than it is now. But it’s not too late to change. Radical innovation takes time to get right, digital transformations take time to deliver, new strategies take time to envision, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is right now.
Dinner for One repeats its punchline five times, a drunken James trips over the rug at least ten times, the subtext is that the entire performance has been repeated for at least twenty years previously, and the show has been aired on German TV every single New Year’s Eve for the last 46 years. But business planning is not a comedy sketch. How long can you afford to continue repeating the same procedure as last year, before your script needs a radical rewrite?