Bruce Cotterill: Raise the bar for better results


I sometimes wonder if we’re being deliberately dumbed down.

Not in an educational sense, although that’s been going on for years. But more in the sense of our own expectations of the society around us.

I believe we are all party to managing expectations. We do it all the time. We do it with friends and family. We do it in business. Public bodies do it to us. Governments do it from time to time. Our current Government does it a lot.

Right now it feels like our expectations are being managed downwards.

When we interact with another person, or for that matter an organisation, the response we get sets or re-sets our expectations of them.

In other words, if you meet an interesting person and you walk away impressed, you expect the same or even more from that person the next time you see them.

It’s the same with a customer experience. You have a great experience and your expectations are set. You might even tell others about it. Each time you do, the story gets better and your expectations continue to grow with every telling.

The reverse is also true. A less interesting person will lower your expectations of the next meeting and a lousy customer experience will have you predicting a poor experience if you ever return.

As readers of this column may recall, my Mum recently spent seven hours in a corridor in the emergency department of one of our hospitals. In my view, it was appalling. However, last week this newspaper published a story about a terminal cancer patient who spent 30hours in a hospital corridor waiting for a proper bed.

It made me think how lucky Mum was. Only seven hours!

The more of these stories we hear and experience, the lower our expectations become.

Last week, the country temporarily ran out of power. That’s what happens when you fail to invest in infrastructure for 40years, and then start taking away alternatives such as gas.

We’ve heard for a few weeks now that our ability to power ourselves is running low. We’ve seen stories of imported coal being driven in truckloads, thousands of them a year, from the Auckland port to the Huntly power station, to keep our growing and power hungry country going. We’re even firing up the diesel-powered generators to help us cope with the peak demands of a cool winter.

There is some irony in us importing coal and diesel to fuelthe powergrid sothe electric cars our Government so desperately craves for us can be charged. But I digress.

In going without power for a couple of days, our expectations are lowered and we’ll expect a similar inconvenience when peak demand strikes and it happens again.

Similarly, those in positions of power replace our carparks with oversized pot plants and yellow paint, because they don’t want us to take our cars to town. Of course, our public transport is in such a state that those same decision-makers don’t provide us with any alternative, so we leave a little earlier each morning in the knowledge that it will take longer to find a park or that we will have to walk an extra block.

Again, as standards drop, our expectations of an outcome are lowered and we find alternative, if less productive, ways to get by.

And the nonsensical decisions continue. Notwithstanding the events of the past few days, “Covid scare” tactics have been behind our inability to bring in migrant workers for a year now.

Despite the fact that our businesses, hospitals and schools are groaning under the pressure of staffing shortages, the Government-imposed constraints have continued during our long period of Covid freedom, and our borders have remained closed to all but a few. Businesses are told to hire non-existent locals and find other ways to cope. As a result, standards drop and expectations decline.

Lastweek welearned that we have lost our place in the Lord of the Rings production cycle. The LOTR is a global phenomenon that, until now, has been owned by Brand New Zealand. Next up was the loss of Sail GP, the latest sporting super series with a global audience, and in a sport in which we excel with teams full of Kiwi sailors.

I know someone who spent $50,000 bidding to become a supplier to Sail GP. Having won the opportunity, he’s spent more since, preparing for the regatta. That opportunity is now gone for the sake of 170 MIQ spaces which the Government wouldn’t provide.

Will he bother next time? What if it’s cancelled again? As expectations diminish, so too do aspirations and investment.

We have now been visited by the Delta variant of Covid-19, at a time when our Covid vaccination rate is appallingly low and is at the bottom of the developed world rankings. While the rest of the world gets back to business and travel, we are locked down because of our largely unvaccinated population.

Again, regular communications from Government ministers have been designed to set and reset our expectations downwards, telling us that our low rate was somehow a part of the plan. Hopefully this week’s news will result in a massive vaccination response that increases our aspirations and sets us on the right path at last.

In the meantime, as we continue to suppress services and businesses, standards will continue to lower over time. Delivery times drift outwards. Costs increase.

And as standards drop, the expectations of the people will decrease.

We have already seen this in the education sector. Our once shining reputation in English, maths and science is now in tatters. Over many years we have dumbed down the recruitment, training and delivery of teaching to the point that our students are now well below the global average. This is through no fault of the teachers of course.

They continue to do admirable work. But they are stuck in a system with an inadequate syllabus and idealistic initiatives that make their end goal of educating kids for the world outside almost impossible.

The downstream effects of lowering expectations can be devastating to an economy like ours. As those same students move on from school they are not as equipped to contribute to and participate in the economy of the future.

As our labour-constrained, infrastructure-light country attempts to move into the future, we will do so well behind the countries we are trying to compete with and supply.

Our international customers will require a level of service that can only be provided when you have the pieces of the puzzle at your fingertips. Those pieces include a reliable energy supply, availability of talent, worldly expertise and access to the global marketplace. All factors which are currently at risk.

Just think about the state of the country at the moment. Aside from power outages and worker shortages, we have underfunded hospitals at full capacity and homeless people occupying our motels in their thousands.

We have the aforementioned educational standards in continual decline and financially strapped universities losing their hard-won global status due to the loss of income and kudos from foreign students. We have necessary transport projects cancelled because we can no longer afford them. Our biggest earner, tourism, is broken due to circumstances outside our control. But we haven’t thought about how we replace that. Thus we are even more dependent on our heroes in the rural sector, for whom we are making life so difficult that they are protesting in the streets and, in many cases, walking off the farm. And now we have Covid back too.

I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault. I am saying that we should want to fix it.

If we want to have high expectations for our country, we need to be honest about our current position.

We also need to be competitive. To do that we need to set and maintain high standards.

That means we have to be aspirational. We need to have high expectations of ourselves and set clear goals for our country that are out of reach but not out of sight.

The opportunity for this country is to reset those expectations.

We should no longer be happy with being in the middle or at the bottom. We should want to have the world’s best education system, an amazing health system, first-class infrastructure and government services that can be relied on to generate outstanding outcomes for our people, irrespective of who they are or where they are from. And we should expect local councils that provide brilliant infrastructure to enable our cities to move efficiently and grow sustainably.

Let’s reset the expectations. It will take a generation to turn the ship around. Will it be worth it? You bet.

– Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout.

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