Oh, well, if it’s going to be difficult, forget it

Spent most of the morning in a state of some anxiety at a Financial Services Forum event about mutuality.

Why anxiety?  Well, the thing is, pretty much everyone involved with any kind of mutual has spent the last God-knows-how-long searching for their own mutual-sector Holy Grail, which is of course the answer to the question about how to turn the theory of mutuality into a meaningful consumer benefit which actually motivates people to choose mutuals in preference to proprietary companies.  And of all the Holy Grails that different people on different quests go looking for, this is the one which, some three years or so ago, I actually located.  I know the answer.  I can tell them where to find it.

For a consultant, this is a good position to be in – but it’s only a really good position if no-one else has made the same discovery.  That’s why my main motive in going along to the event this morning was to make sure that none of the speakers, panellists or contributors from the floor showed signs of thinking along the same lines.

One – the very last one – did, and somewhat troublingly, over the last three years, I’ve presented my thoughts on the subject to his boss and to several of his colleagues.  Could be a coincidence, but I have a feeling that on this occasion my role as grail-finding satnav has led to the clients deciding to go grail-digging unaccompanied, rather than reward me with a nice big consultancy project.  Oh well.

But anyway, taking the event as a the whole, if you’ll forgive the analogy-switch, this morning felt a bit like one of those games of Battleships where your opponent’s shots are landing all round your fleet but somehow they’re all just missing and your ships remain unscathed.  Which was good.

You may wonder, if I am indeed a consultant, if I have indeed been going out to talk to clients and prospects about all this and if I do indeed have the map reference to the Holy Grail, why my thinking hasn’t had a transformational effect on the mutual sector, not to mention my own reputation, profile and fee income.  You may even suspect that I’m kidding myself.  Perhaps it isn’t the Holy Grail after all.  Perhaps it’s just a Fool’s Grail.

No.  Definitely not.  My confidence is unshaken by your doubts.  My presentation goes down a storm.  People absolutely bloody love it.  Almost everyone who’s seen it knows that I’m right.  It’s a true lightbulb moment.

But then…

Then I go away, and they think about it, and they realise that the implications of what I’ve been saying are really difficult.

It’s not just a question of a new marketing campaign, or redoing the website, or making some tweaks to the product range.  It’s about big, sweeping, top-down, bottom-up, in-from-the-sides change.  It would be expensive, difficult, time-consuming and, I suppose, not without risk – and, perhaps, even worse, it would result in change that would ultimately make the people who implemented it less rather than more powerful.

Frankly, I don’t think this should come as a huge surprise. Having been run for a century or more as second-rate, off-the-pace PLCs, mutuals have got to be kidding themselves if they imagine there’s some way of reinventing and redefining their raison d’etre by fiddling about with the website or the Ts and Cs.

But voluntarily beginning a process of really transformational change is hard, and although it’s really good fun to think about it, it’s really scary to do.  To my knowledge, a couple of mutual organisations have made some progress.  But what I find a bit disappointing is that even among those organisations who – with or without my help – have managed to dig up their own Holy Grails, hardly any have yet been brave enough to see what happens when they lift the lid.


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