HS2, the attacker’s advantage, and the decision dilemma


A debate continues in the UK over building high speed train connections between London and the regions. An old concept in innovation theory may be useful in examining the decision to act

There has been much debate in the UK over the proposed HS2 link. Some years ago, there appeared to be a reasonable political consensus in its favour. The issue is now clouded. Labour is indicating ‘no blank cheque’ if they regain power. There is opposition to HS2 from those opposed to big government or big technological schemes threatening environmental consequences.

No simple vision

A simple vision to share with the public vanishes if it is not presented as having a key factor. Faster journeys was a simple vision but the more complex ‘making travel nice, fast, safe and economically good value for money approach is much trickier to present.

The result is increasingly unconvincing arguments. Economic justification relies on experts commissioned by protagonists. Most large technological projects come with unexpected extra costs. Other costs might be anticipated but are covered up by those with a position to advocate. Benefits, the other side of the decision dilemma, remain too loosely coupled with costs.

The attacker’s advantage

Pondering on these matters, I recall a simplification offered in innovation theory by a McKinsey consultant Richard Foster. In his book The Attacker’s Advantage [still in print] he presents the change as a shift from one s-curve to another. Using rather simple economic assumptions, it is possible to identify a region over time in which the economic advantages of shifting is compelling. Sometimes there is no such region or window of opportunity.

The attacker’s advantage always struck me as more of a useful conceptual map or thinking tool than a decision-making algorithm. It is better at isolating a more ‘either-or’ decision between two competing technologies. Between, for example, costs to the tax payer and costs to the traveller. Who pays through taxes is a political decision; who pays in travel fares is a commercial one.

Where do I stand?

I stand for a more informed, more disinterested debate. The current efforts of politicians leave me suspicious of there ever being a simple resolution of the decision. It seems more clear that ‘doing nothing’ is accumulating the problems building up within the transport connections between the wealthy commercial South of England and what is crudely classed as ‘The North’ . In this case, the North w includes Watford (gateway to the North), Birmingham (North of Watford), Manchester and Leeds (North West and North East of Birmingham) and Glasgow (very North indeed, no country for soft old southerners, which may have border guards, by the time HS2 is built).

As I mull these arguments over, I reach a few not very startling conclusions. HS2 will not be built without overcoming strenuous opposition. If it is built at all, it will result in unforeseen advantages and disadvantages. And the longer it takes to decide, the narrower will be the ‘window of opportunity’ for an attacker’s advantage.

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