29 06 2010
Can we have a strategy please Minister?

It could only happen in the ‘say one thing, do another’ world of politics. A politician announces a sound, new policy which will overturn a decade or more of poor policy and then, barely a month later does exactly what he said he was going to eradicate.   


In the Daily Telegraph of Friday 21st May, the new Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson announced an end to what he termed ‘initiative-itis’ and this blog applauded him for it.    

And yet yesterday, only five weeks and three days later, Mr Robertson proudly announced the launch of a new, nationwide initiative which, the Minister tells us, “will provide a tangible sporting legacy from the London 2012 Games.”    

Inside The Games reported:    

The new Olympic and Paralympic-style schools sports competition will create a new sports league structure for primary and secondary schools culminating in an inaugural national final to be held in the run up to the London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012.    

The scheme will see schools compete against each other in leagues at a local level from 2011 with winning athletes and teams qualifying for up to 60 county finals.    

The most talented young athletes will then be selected for the national finals while schools will also be encouraged to host in-house Olympic-style sports days so that children of all abilities have the opportunity to compete.     

There will be a Paralympic element at every level of the competition for young people with disabilities while the ambition is for the competition to continue after 2012.    

Robertson claimed that the competition is a key part of the Government’s plans to create a lasting sporting legacy from hosting the London 2012 Games and to maximise the sporting opportunities available to all.    

Robertson told insidethegames: “I think this is an incredibly exciting opportunity and I think it partly answers the question of, ‘What is the sporting legacy from London 2012?’     

“The legacy from 2012 is coming out of this because every single child going through the school system in England today has the opportunity to play competitive sport and they are inspired to do that by 2012.    

“That is the best possible use of the London Olympics.”    

The new initiative sounds great, it should excite, inspire and motivate generations to come and should place competitive sport back at the heart of school Games and PE.    

So why am I criticising it?    

I’m criticising it because it has the same flaws a decade of other well meaning initiatives have had. It stands in splendid isolation; it is not a part of any vertically integrated sports development planning. It is a standalone initiative, all be it a vast, ambitious one, which assumes that all of the many structures and systems needed to create the proper developmental pathway are in place.    

I’d like to ask Mr Robertson; where is your strategy, the properly thought out, integrated strategy which fully services the sports development continuum of Foundation, Participation, Performance and Excellence?    

It isn’t in place. Mr Robertson, having criticised ‘initiative-itis’, has now launched a huge initiative and crossed his fingers instead of planning.    

He has crossed his fingers that clubs covering every sport on the new events’ programme exist close enough to every participating school (that’s all of them) to service the demand created.    

He has crossed his fingers and hoped that where those clubs do exist, the coaching and non-school competition structure is in place to support the hoped for influx of eager young people.    

He has crossed his fingers and hoped that teachers are sufficiently well trained and versed in such a range of sports that the programme can be properly introduced to beginners in an appropriate way. Or has he crossed his fingers and hoped that an imaginary army of coaches are standing by to support these teachers? Remember that primary school teachers receive very little formal PE training in any sport as part of their training, typically less than a month of their degree courses.    

He has crossed his fingers and hoped that at a time when budgets are being slashed in local authorities, the nation’s biggest sports facility providers, that there will be adequate facilities for this boom in new interest in sport remembering also that as a non-statutory requirement sport and leisure are likely to face significant local authority cuts. Perhaps making provision of and support for sports facilities and sports development gaining statutory status would be a sensible 2012 Legacy Minister?    

He has crossed his fingers and hoped that after cutting £7 million from County Sports Partnerships there will be sufficient local sports development expertise to support the growth in interest.    

He has crossed his fingers and hoped that the funding, the tutors, the courses will be in place for the training of the new coaches the new young sports men and women will require. That is assuming the local clubs have found the volunteers to train as coaches in the first place.    

Should I go on?    

Mr Robertson quite rightly told us that ‘initiative-itis’ was a flawed way to develop sport. Initiatives can only work properly as planned, targeted elements of a properly devised, greater strategy for the development of sport. Initiative-itis is not the way forward.    

This new initiative will undoubtedly enthuse new generations to a lifetime of sporting participation and, where talent permits, the pursuit of sporting excellence. It may not sound like it, but I applaud it. It is better to have it than not have it but to maximise its effect, to fully exploit its benefit to the nation please Mr Robertson sort out the wider, urgently required strategy. Do not offer all these young people a taste of the Promised Land only for them to discover the infrastructure to pursue it is not in place.    

Please Mr Robertson, can we see a genuine sports development strategy in place of this cross your fingers planning?    

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited 2010


19 06 2010

Maybe it was the preparation, not the players?


 As the inquest into England’s poor showing against Algeria in the World Cup continues, the suggestions as to what the problem, or problems, may be cover everything from individual players to the coach to the formation, to nerves and fear and a lot more.    

But what if it is none of those things?    

Before putting forward a theory, I should emphasise that I have no insight into the England camp and my theory is based only on what I saw over 90 minutes on my television. Therefore, some of what I discuss may or may not be in place in Rustenburg however, just in case, I shall contribute my two pence worth to the debate.    

We often hear the term over-training in sport, where the training load out balances the allotted recovery and the performer ends up feeling weary and the performances are sub-par, leaning towards the mediocre. The symptoms are heavy leggedness, decreased motivation and drive, the requirement for longer recovery, lower concentration levels and a drop in coordination adversely affecting skill. No matter how hard the player tries, it just doesn’t happen for him.    

Does that sound like a description of the ‘three lions’ who took to the pitch in Cape Town last night? To me it does and yet it is unlikely that over-training was the culprit for the performance (or lack of) if reports of one training session per day, long recovery periods and more rest and sleep than many of the players are likely to have experienced in their day to day club lives are correct.    

And it is in that extended rest and recovery period that the causes of underperformance syndrome take hold, a problem which manifests itself by displaying the same symptoms as over-training. There are no WAGs on the trip, there is reportedly a lack of things to do for the players, and there is a lack of distractions. This can cause players to over-focus on the task in hand leaving some of their performance in the hotel. It can cause players to sleep more than usual, resulting in lower quality sleep than usually experienced.    

When the players are at home they have a life and distractions away from training; they have families, homes to look after, some have children, there are sponsor commitments, social lives and hobbies.    

Any sportsperson who has been away on training camps or extended camps for competition will tell you the biggest problem to overcome is alleviating the boredom. Not managed properly that boredom can create a vacuum into which performance is gradually sucked.    

Having the right distractions at the right time as part of their routine is an essential part of preparation for sport at the highest level. Last night’s England performance left me wondering whether England’s management have considered that in their preparations.    

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global 2010    

(Jim Cowan is a former athlete and elite level coach who has also coached fitness in professional sports including football, rugby union, basketball, motor sport and surfing. He has organised and managed training camps in places as diverse as the Algarve, Oman, Kenya, Australia and Japan).


16 06 2010

As a business which includes the dreaded word ‘consultant’ in the description of what we do, I was amused to receive the following tale by email the other day. I hope you enjoy it.


 A lesson on how consultants can make a difference in an organization.

Last week, we took some friends to a new restaurant, ‘Steve’s Place,’ and noticed that the waiter who took our order carried a spoon in his shirt pocket. It seemed a little strange.

When the busboy brought our water and utensils, I observed that he also had a spoon in his shirt pocket.

Then I looked around and saw that all the staff had spoons in their pockets. When the waiter came back to serve our soup I inquired, “Why the spoon?”

“Well,” he explained, “the restaurant’s owner hired Smart Consulting to revamp all of our processes. After several months of analysis, they concluded that the spoon was the most frequently dropped utensil. It represents a drop frequency of approximately 3 spoons per table per hour. If our personnel are better prepared, we can reduce the number of trips back to the kitchen and save 15 man-hours per shift.”

As luck would have it, I dropped my spoon and he replaced it with his spare. “I’ll get another spoon next time I go to the kitchen instead of making an extra trip to get it right now.” I was impressed.

I also noticed that there was a string hanging out of the waiter’s fly. Looking around, I saw that all of the waiters had the same string hanging from their flies. So, before he walked off, I asked the waiter, “excuse me, but can you tell me why you have that string right there?”

“Oh, certainly!” Then he lowered his voice. “Not everyone is so observant. That consulting firm I mentioned also learned that we can save time in the restroom. By tying this string to the tip of our you-know-what, we can pull it out without touching it and eliminate the need to wash our hands, shortening the time spent in the restroom by 76.39%.”

I asked quietly, “After you get it out, how do you put it back?”

“Well,” he whispered, “I don’t know about the others, but I use the spoon.”


 I like the story because it demonstrates fantastically well the benefit of the advice of a good consultant through the spoon, the nonsense of the time spent recognising the spoon issue (probably costing more in consulting fees than the business would save in real terms) while parodying the fact that other consultants are prone to giving advice without actually considering the consequences!

As for Cowan Global Consulting, we don’t deal in spoons but if you are seeking common sense consulting in the areas of strategy, sports and leisure or sports sponsorship, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited 2010


13 06 2010

I have received an email asking me if I could explain the difference between horizontally and vertically integrated strategies with an explanation of why I consider one to be far superior to the other. Apologies to those who already grasp the concept but I will attempt to keep my explanation simple and easy to understand (therefore basic). Anyone wanting more should please feel free to email me.

Nearly all strategies that are produced in the UK today are ‘Horizontally Integrated’ which means that each aspect is planned as a separate area, a silo if you like. A ‘Vertically Integrated’ strategy on the other hand considers all aspects of planning and seeks to plan in a way that ensures one area of function fully compliments and supports others.

The idea is perhaps best described by considering the fitness requirements of a sports person. Whatever the sport, position or activity within the sport, or the level of competition participated in we know that the fitness of all sports people can be broken down into five areas; strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and co-ordination. Those involved in sport may have heard these five areas referred to as the five S’s of strength, speed, stamina, suppleness and skill.

A horizontally integrated strategy aimed at developing the fitness of our theoretical performer will look at each of these five areas in isolation potentially creating more training than there is time for when all five areas are inserted into the training week or running the risk of overtraining and hence injury and/or illness.

This problem could be addressed by, for example, allocating 20% of available training time to each area which would undoubtedly help our performer gradually gain fitness but in a very non-specific, non-performance orientated way.

Can’t see it? Well consider the demands of a marathon runner, a sprinter, a formula one driver, a front row forward in rugby, a rhythmic gymnast or any other variation on what a sports person may be and you soon realise that the fitness demands of each are different and hence the ratios of the five basic fitness elements need to vary.

That would still be possible using horizontal integration; we would simply plan each element separately but to varying splits of the available time. Hence the marathon runner might spend more time on endurance, the sprinter on speed, etc. And in doing so we are already partially using vertical integration by considering the other, necessary components of the plan.

Further, these five components are not absolutes, for example strength and speed combine to develop power. Then there is the order in which each element is done in order to maximise the benefit of the training, it is little use seeking to improve maximum speed if (e.g.) already fatigued from a prior endurance session and unable to actually generate top speed.

Each performer will have further elements to consider if he/she is to maximise the effort they put in. Technique, tactics, psychology, recovery, even lifestyle all need consideration and all need to fit with each other to create the right training programme for the individual.

This is where vertical integration comes in. Elements are combined, their effects on each other considered and tailored to the specific individual requirements so that instead of a series of isolated plans all ticking their own boxes in ignorance of others, we have one plan which considers everything needed to get from the starting point to the end goal, performing in the best possible way.

What impact does this have on strategic planning in other areas? Consider a story told to me by a friend who worked at a local authority facility. There was an event on the Saturday and so the department which marks the appropriate lines on the infield came on the Wednesday and painted the lines required for the stalls and other demarcations. There being an event due, the department responsible for cutting the grass also came to play their part in preparing of the facility. Unfortunately, they came on the Thursday and in cutting the grass also cut away the newly painted lines.

According to my friend, both departments swore blind they had been operating to the agreed plans and it was the other’s fault. And, of course, they did have plans, horizontally integrated plans which considered only their small part of a far larger picture. Had this particular council adopted a vertically integrated planning system the (obvious) issue of marking white lines on playing fields and other areas having to work with grass cutting would have been picked up.

No harm done though? The white lines could simply be repainted. Yes, they could but consider the added costs in terms of materials, personnel and time and you start seeing the major benefit of vertical planning over horizontal planning; it is not wasteful of resource.

While this example may sound obvious, the less obvious is also picked up when vertically integrating strategic planning.

Consider the NHS, a few years ago it was reported that the NHS had over 353 strategies currently running, not including local PCT level strategies. It may have been more but no one could say for sure(!) In short, for every issue/problem the NHS has faced, another strategy has been produced. Each strategy has sought to service its own area/issue and largely ignored the rest of the NHS ‘business’. This is horizontal integration of strategies; everything necessary is covered but without cross reference resulting in millions in wasted resources which might otherwise have been shared, better targeted or, given the current economic climate, saved.

Under a system of horizontally integrated planning, the NHS and its 353+ strategies cover everything required but ‘production output’ and overall performance is seriously affected, even undermined,  by the lack of an overall strategy which attacks the big picture and allocates resources appropriately, specifically and economically (i.e. vertically) – even with 353+ strategies in place to (attempt to) service every need.

While many mock the NHS and other public bodies, we also see this thinking applied in business everyday but horizontal planning has become so integrated into British thinking, so accepted among managers and directors that no one even notices any more. Worse, it undermines the performance of those businesses just as seriously as it would the performance of our theoretical sportsperson. It is a blind acceptance that being good enough is replacing the pursuit of excellence.

A word of caution, the vertically integrated strategy does not negate the need for ‘departmental planning’ what it does is ensure that the silos are removed and that everyone’s plan is co-ordinated with everyone else’s to overall benefit, direction and achievement of the whole.

I have used military analogies before to explain elements of planning but consider this; what would happen if military planning was conducted horizontally? Air strikes at the wrong time to support ground troops? Or even attacking different targets from where needed? I trust I do not need to labour the point. When lives are at risk only vertically integrated strategic planning will suffice. When it is your organisation’s success, failure or some mediocre half way house on the line, why plan using an inefficient method?

Horizontal planning is easier, less time consuming and (kind of) points you in the right direction while giving the impression of action. Vertical planning is more difficult and takes longer to get right, but if it is success you are seeking (think of the sports performer), why would you compromise?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global 2010