Thursday 9 June 2022

The title of this piece comes from a quote by Charles Suckling, who first synthesised halothane, an inhalational anaesthetic in 1951 while working at Imperial Chemical Industries. Charles Suckling went onto various senior roles in different ICI divisions before ending his career as General Manager Research and Technology at the company’s HQ in Millbank, working closely with the board.


He contributed greatly to the recognition of the importance of managing R&D and linking it to the business objectives. After ICI he served on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution for 10 years and worked part-time with the University of Stirling where I first encountered his work on R&D management while I was working on my PhD in the Technological Economic Research Unit.


The quote seems relevant to much of the discussion of decarbonization and net zero. We know what the overall objective is, transition to a net zero economy but there still seems to be an issue translating that society wide objective into objectives, and plans within individual companies or buildings. One contribution to this is down to lack of capacity i.e. knowing what to do, but a large part of it comes from excessive focus on the constraints. We know that decarbonization is difficult, but many things are. If we focus on constraints and forget the objective we will never get anywhere.


I have written before about leadership being the short resource and it really is. Leaders need to set the objectives and drive / help / cajole people to overcome the constraints. We see our role at ep group as building capacity and enabling leaders to be able to set clear, sensible decarbonisation objectives and then manage the process to achieve them.


The history of innovation has many cases of leaders focusing on the objectives and pushing through radical change; the Ford V8 engine, the first V8 light and cheap enough to be mass-produced is one example. Many engineers thought Ford was crazy. A more recent automotive example of course could be Tesla, Elon Musk’s focus on the objective and driven behaviour, which I imagine is not always pleasant to be around, has created Tesla, as well as Space-X.


Only by focusing on the objectives can we reach a net zero economy, constraints are always present.



There are 2 comments on “Constraints are obligatory, objectives are optional”:

  • Mike Parr on June 9th, 2022 at 2:09 pm said:

    I have no argument with the point about focusing on objectives – not constraints. However, I disagree with the emphasis on individual leadership. Although the author gave some examples of this, I can give a counter example where groups/teams worked together to deliver a highly complex system – I refer to the combo of the aircraft themselves, Fighter Command and the chain of radar stations that ensured that the UK survived the existential crisis that it faced in summer 1940. Did you know that the concept of “operational research” arose in the period 1938 through to 1940 because of the above team work.

    Societal de-carbonisation is as complex if not more so than the example above. Achieving it will require team work in a range of areas. Obviously there will be the need for a supervisory element, but I remain unconvinced that inspirational leaders are the answer.

    Coming back to 1940 & inspirational leaders, Churchill had precisely zero impact on the development of the complex defence system or indeed its operation. But in fairness, he did make sure that the chap that operated Fighter Command was sacked shortly after winning the Battle of Britain, thus was success rewarded.

  • Alf Robertson on June 10th, 2022 at 8:13 am said:

    If I may I would like to edit/expand a little on the title: ”Constraints are obligatory, objectives are essential, common sense is required (but often missing), sustainability is the key, climate change is real but not why you think it is, and it is simpler than you think”. Many people in this space we operate in (renewables, green energy, low-carbon, net-zero, climate change – to coin a phrase or two) do so in a fog of ignorance and some in a landscape of downright misinformation seized upon by the media and churned out for the consumption of the population.

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