You're invited to a bonding

William Hague has said that he's taking all his MPs away for a weekend so they can get to know each other better and learn to work together. Can that be wise?
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So the Tories, having completed their downsizing operation in May, have moved on to chapter two of the management textbook. William Hague has planned a bonding weekend, all ensconced happily together in a country hotel, learning how to work better. Some of our MPs in the last parliament never spoke to each other, said one incredulous conservative manager. He might have added, but didn't, that it was because they hated each other.

But now the spirit of McKinsey is abroad at the top of the party. William Hague did time at the American-owned management consultancy as did other old boys, notably Archie Norman, the new MP who turned Asda from a basket case into a success story. What has worked, or may have worked, for the Bank of England, Asda, Burmah Castrol and Oftel is bound to to the Tories a power of good isn't it?

Before taking in the details of such bonding weekends, take pleasure in imagining the participants, Ann Widdecombe bonding with Michael Howard, Ken Clarke with Bill Cash and so on. Those are noted feuders, but politicians in general are not noted for loving one another, especially when they are in the same party.

"I've always fancied a weekend in a hotel with William Hague. We've never even had a conversation," Billericay MP Teresa Gorman told one newspaper yesterday. Though another is quoted as saying: "I'd rather spend a weekend up to my neck in muck than with Teresa Gorman." "Bloody ridiculous idea" and "American psycho-twaddle" were typical responses. A challenge indeed, then, for the young reformer who, by all accounts, has been following the McKinsey ethic since entering politics. He has taken members of his private office on morale-building weekends away and, on another occasion, even took them rowing on the Thames. So much for his private office - but can it really work for his party? Not only do many rarely communicate, but by its very nature politics is a world away from business. There is the push-pull of party orders vs constituency interests and the pull-pull of personal ambition. "The big issue is just who exactly do you report to when you come to parliament - the party, or your constituents," observes Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. "It is in an MP's own self-interest to vote against [the] party line when not doing so might jeopardise future local election prospects." Even in a successful team you find people who don't adhere to a common goal. [The] trouble is in politics, there's many more of them.

Few would deny the need for some sort of initiative. There's nothing the electorate likes less than watching a party tearing itself apart - which is just what the Conservatives did in the run-up to this year's general election. But can disarray amongst a group of politicians really be successfully tackled by management theory and consultancy tools?

Team-building initiatives have become commonplace in British business, championed by McKinsey and other management consultants who advocate time away from the office to "bond" with colleagues. At one end of the scale (not McKinsey's) are outward bound-based trips invariably run by former sportsmen and women or, worse, members of the SAS. The idea is the group of managers become "the company". "It's like a petri dish - participants have tasks to complete which become `the company's' business. At the same time, they must analyse how `the company' is working as an entity," explains one senior company executive.

"There's usually an element of something physically risky - a small amount of rock climbing, or abseiling, for example. Some people find this easy, others don't. The point is once you're roped together you have to confront and work around others' weaknesses, or a situation where someone refuses to go on. It's almost like group therapy."

No wonder Mr Hague's plan was greeted with incredulity by many older MPs who might have had a vision of such activities in their heads - not to mention the corpulent contingent. The prospect of Kenneth Clarke abseiling down a cliff face or Cecil Parkinson paintballing sends shivers down the spine.

Mr Hague, happily, has more cerebral pursuits in mind. Perhaps his MPs may like a little role playing? Exercises like "Describe your colleague as a plant/animal/item of clothing". What they would like most (if they have to go) are the comfort tactics favoured by governors of the BBC (another McKinsey client) who periodically retreat to the corporation's five-star country seat to discuss redundancies and budget cuts over exquisite wines and fine cigars. Sadly the Tory outing is probably not so lavish. Effective? Maybe (depending on whose side you're on). Insensitive? So it's a country hotel, group work on specific projects, no spouses but casual dress. And politicians will be required to make a contribution to the cost.

So will it work? One potential problem will inevitably be the common characteristics of the participants - it takes fierce ambition, egocentricity and drive to get into parliament. In other words, not the characteristics of your typical team player. However, Dr Nick Georgiades, principal consultant at management specialists NGA and a former director of human resources at British Airways, sees no reason why it can't help.

"The definition of a team is a group of individuals who collectively determine a course of action to achieve an objective," he says. "Simply throwing 20 cabinet members into a room does not a cabinet make. They have to be able to work together and behave like any other team. Given the encouragement and the right guidance, they can."

Besides, a key figure in the proceedings will be Archie Norman. The significance of this comes down to Mr Norman's achievements at Asda, where he built unprecedented staff co-operation and morale through a range of initiatives including compulsory name badges, a "Tell Archie" scheme for staff feedback and by encouraging executives onto the shop floor. Mr Norman, who insists the Tory love-in is "William's initiative, not mine", admits it has his full support. "Coming from my background, obviously I have ideas how to manage and motivate and inspire people. And these ideas are as relevant in business as they are in politics," he says. "Only in the world of Conservative politics would it be considered unusual for the party to meet together and talk."

Quite. But Mr Hague should be warned. Opinion is still divided on whether such away-day initiatives deliver a lasting effect - or whether participants simply revert back to their bad old ways when they get back to the office. And worse, those participants who praise the experience reveal a hidden danger. Often, the chance to consider better teamwork and clarify objectives and goals goes beyond the professional and into the personal. A number admit to changing job shortly after getting back to work with a clearer sense of vision of what it is they, rather than the organisation, actually want to do. Just how the Tories' remaining MPs respond remains to be seen. But watch this space for future career developments, with one or two of their number turning to alternative careers - supermarket management, perhapsn

Further reading from Virgin Net

McKinsey & Company

http://www.mckinsey.com/

Find out what management consultants actually do for a living. And if you like the look of it, you can apply for a job without leaving your computer screen.

Department of Trade & Industry

http://www.open.gov.uk/

Part of the DTI's Business Support activities is a project called Managing in the 90s, which contains some very useful notes about teamwork and organisation.

Ideas on Teams and Teamwork

http://www.oise.on.ca/%7Ebwillard/ideateam.htm

The full text of IBM's Annual Leadership Development Handout from 1992, all 38 pages of it. Includes sections on Characteristics of Effective Teams, and Leaders vs Managers.

Leon Harrel's Old West Team Building Adventure

http://www.ktc.net/Adventure/team.html

American businessmen are famed for their odd ideas about work, but "The Teambuilding Program That Utilizes A Platform Of Horsemanship And Cowboy Skills" could be their oddest idea ever.

The Independent Online

http://www.independent.co.uk

The definitive newspaper on the Internet, with all the latest news, sport and entertainment.

www.virgin.net

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Virgin Net helps you to find the things you want on the Internet.

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