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Downton Abbey – no escape from austerity, even for aristocrats

September 27, 2012

The new series of Downton Abbey is set in the aftermath of the First World War, and sees the Crawley family threatened with the loss of their fortune. Where wealth seems to be indicated by hat size, it doesn’t matter whether you think it’s a stirring melodrama or so ludicrous it could be a spoof parody by The Fast Show, it’s entertaining either way.

Downton’s appeal to me is the contrast of the upstairs-downstairs, so asking us to sympathise with the repugnant Crawley’s financial crisis is a bit much, I’m loving their turmoil! They’re bone idle and posh, living in a lavish palace the size of a small Lancashire town.

Hugh Bonneville, playing the sixth Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, sobs as he admits that the family wealth has vanished – he invested heavily in the Canadian Grand Trunk Line, which hit the buffers and gone bust. As a result, his accountant advises If there isn’t enough money to run it, then Downton must go!  Deflated, he returns to the grand home he faces losing to learn that a new footman, Alfred, has been employed, an extra wage the family can’t afford – and who authorised the recruitment? He doesn’t know how to serve soup properly!

Cora, his American wife with an odd accent, confronts him: Are you really telling me that all MY money has gone? After a pause he tells her: I’m afraid so. Cora is less afraid of the future than her husband is, she’s much less afraid of change. The clash between the aristocratic old guard and the upstart Americans is just warming up. As the #FreeBates campaign trends on Twitter, we had The Case of the Burnt Dinner Jacket and then The Case of the Missing Dress Shirts. Endeavour Morse, where are you? Then the oven wouldn’t heat up, and the cook, Mrs Patmore, was both calm and hysterical at the same.

Then there was Mary and Matthew’s wedding. Their glee at being able to snog somewhere that isn’t amid deep shrubbery or in the bowels of the sprawling house was plain to see. However, Matthew had better watch out he doesn’t meet the same end between Mary’s thighs as that nice young Turkish diplomat from the first series. Matthew is the closet male heir to Lord Grantham and their union will secure the future of Downton. But despite the dire situation, Matthew may or may not accept a lump sum inheritance from Ginger Lavinia’s dead father. Mary saw the dollar signs, but Matthew was having none of it. Time to call the bailiffs?

Finally, to finish setting the financial scene: Shirley MacLaine (aka Martha Levinson) is minted. An American wearing moose fur (given the size of it), she’s no Lady Rockefeller and her dollars aren’t about to brave the 1922 exchange rate of US: £0.22 and pour her millions into English Estate. She did enjoy the chicken drumsticks on the carpet picnic, but like most of the landed gentry I suspect she was secretly hoping for cold pheasant pie.  The end of the picnic culminated in Martha saying a resounding NO to saving Downton, she cannot understand why they want to keep it. Typical American, no class, no heritage.

Now, if the family is to be turfed out of Downton, have we overlooked some source of revenue previously untapped? If only we had coal deposits under the Orangery or farmland to sell off for development. Like any enterprise facing a crisis, now is the time for some disruptive thinking. Perhaps they need a kick in the seat of the pants or a whack on the side of the head? Roger Von Oech, a creative thinking expert would advocate such having written books with those titles, as the Crawleys are stuck in the past, refusing to let go of the cold hand of history.

When you’re trying to solve a tough problem or come up with new ideas, creative thinking is crucial. The process boils down to changing your perspective and seeing things differently than you currently do. People like to call this thinking outside of the box, which is the wrong way to look at it in my view. Everyone is capable of innovation, you just have to strip away the imaginary mental blocks (or boxes) that you’ve picked up along the way.

Here are some habits found in highly innovative and creative people that I’ve summarised from the thinking of Scott Berkun, Roger Von Oech and Michael Michalko, that would be helpful to the fretting Lord.

Take risk, make mistakes Innovation is more about psychology than intellect. Lose your fear of failure, expect that some ideas will fail in the process of learning. Be agile, build prototypes often, test them out on people, gather feedback, and make incremental changes. Experiment is the expected failure to deliberately learn something – Scott Berkun.

Create the space, think, and write it down The more relaxed we are the more receptive we are to tap into our intuition – ideas often come to me in the bath or while out walking the dog. Many innovators keep a journal to jot down ideas and thoughts. Recall Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook was purchased by Bill Gates for $30.8m!

Be Curious Many innovators are just curious people who are inquisitive, and like to solve problems. Ask a lot of questions and challenge the norms, think around an opportunity to see what others have missed. Find a ‘curiosity partner’ – new ideas can surface as a result of bouncing ideas. Brainstorm together, set time each week for a ‘new ideas conversation’.

There is no ‘right’ answer We all search for the ‘right answer’. Truth is, one doesn’t exist. There’s often more than one answer, and the second one you come up with might be better than the first. Accept that there are going to be setbacks, and you will go down a few cul-de-sacs on the journey. Simply shrug your shoulders, turnaround, and move forward.

Have fun! Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors and European royalty have all consulted with fools, or court jesters, when faced with tough problems. The persona of the fool allowed the truth to be told, without the usual ramifications that might come with speaking blasphemy or challenging conventions. Give yourself permission to be a fool and see things for what they are.

Embrace ambiguity Almost every situation is ambiguous to some degree, and trying to force situations into black and white doesn’t help. The creative thinker rejects the false comfort of clarity and enjoys the chaos and fuzziness. Ambiguity is your friend if you’re looking to innovate. The fact that most people are uncomfortable exploring uncertainty gives you an advantage, as long as you can embrace ambiguity rather than run from it. As Thomas Edison said, Invention is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

Of course, there is rich irony in the story line of the drama for the property itself, Highclere Castle. Owners Lord & Lady Carnarvon have raised £11m to implement a significant refurbishment programme to take advantage of the thousand of visitors as a result of the drama. It was once home to George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt in 1922.

So who could the Crawleys look to for inspiration? Well, it has to be Apple. Having sold over 365 million digital devices over the last five years – 50 million last quarter alone, and currently averaging $4Bn in monthly profit and amassing $110Bn in cash, Apple has positioned itself to take advantage of several major trends in the new digital economy with its disruptive thinking.

Thanks to a combination of anticipation and luck, Apple, which nearly went bankrupt before the last tech boom, is poised for even greater heights if it can continue to out-think, out-innovate and out-execute its competitors. These are the three major forces the Crawleys need to embrace: Innovation, Opportunity and Execution

Apple has helped define the a generation with its range of devices, iTunes and Mac OS X. But for me, Apple’s biggest innovation was not a device, but rather a physical gesture – the right-to-left swiping motion used with Apple devices to navigate which is altering how we seek and absorb information.

David Payne, chief digital officer of Gannett & Co. Inc. parent company of USA Today, pointed out that the digital world changed when Apple introduced touch with the iPod and iPhone. Touch screens had been around for years, but Apple brought them into our daily lives with the iPhone. As a result, the way we engage and interact with devices has changed, shown by the dramatic decline in sales of the BlackBerry, and now with the explosive growth of the iPad, it’s about to change again. Payne referred to the swipe as the game-changer, or as he called to it, petting the cat.

Lord Grantham has to show the same personal motivation and innovation leadership skills as Steve Jobs, using his influence and emotional control to be a visionary in the crisis, following innovators as Walt Disney and Bill Hewlett/David Packard, and more latterly Mark Zuckerberg – the bond between the innovative leader and the organisation are inseparable.

Creating sustainable, agile innovation is a challenge for many organisations, so spare a thought for the stately Lord in his stately home as he eat his plum and almond tart. He has a recognised brand, an asset and a loyal customer (viewers) base – but no cash. In the absence of American Angel investors, he needs some fresh business thinking. Just goes to show that there is no escape from austerity, even for the aristocrats

Taking lessons from the innovation-led success of Apple, Salesforce.com, 37 Signals and Lady Gaga, Grantham may harbour dreams of a brighter future. Opportunities could include conversion to student accommodation, a joint venture with a leisure entrepreneur to build a Theme Park, the Head Office for a newly minted Russian Oligarch or a HQ for the World Cluedo Society (which would ensure all the aristocracy had jobs). Of course, he also has to consider death duties and inheritance tax planning. There’s so much to think about, it needs a fourth series to unwind it all, so lets take a break and have a cup of tea. Now, where is Carson?

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