31 01 2011


Tottenham or West Ham? Or a smokescreen debate disguising the lack of real legacy?

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday lunchtime pint however the locals, knowing I used to be an athlete, were keen to get my take on the big Tottenham v West Ham match. No, not a football match; the Olympic Stadium and the whole so-called legacy. They were surprised by my view.

So called legacy? Are you serious? Isn’t this a serious debate about a legacy for athletics in the UK?

But is it? In what way exactly does West Ham’s proposed saving the track at the Olympic Stadium provide a legacy for athletics that Tottenham’s proposed redevelopment of Crystal Palace does not?

Let’s face it, after the embarrassing withdrawal from the hosting of the 2005 World Athletics Championships, it is unlikely that event will be visiting London soon. So, after 2012 what use will a 60,000 seat stadium be to athletics? Very little. The annual London Grand Prix might sell that many tickets but that is unlikely and so the harsh truth is that in maintaining the track at Stratford we would be creating a white elephant legacy of the kind Coe, Jowell & Co said we would not do, of the kind they pointed to in Sydney and Barcelona and Athens.

Double Olympian and leading coach John Bicourt is another former athlete who agrees. Last Friday (28th January) he was quoted in the Mail reminding us all that actually, post-Games, the original plan was to reduce the Olympic Stadium capacity to 25,000 to create a dedicated venue for athletics. As Mr Bicourt states; this was a bid promise.

But still, what of legacy?

The whole stadium/legacy debate is little more than a smokescreen to deflect our gazes from the lack of the legacy that was promised as part of the London 2012 bid; that of more people doing sport. Watching an athletics meeting in front of 60,000 empty seats is hardly likely to inspire future generations to take up what is fast becoming a minority sport.

I have written fairly frequently in these pages of the lack of strategy for the development of sport in this country. I have also pointed out on numerous occasions that throwing initiatives at the problem will not create any sustainable legacy for sport. I won’t repeat myself, those articles are still available on this blog for anyone interested however I will point out that we will not guarantee the legacy of increased sporting participation via the sort of ‘cross your fingers and hope’ planning seen by both current and previous Governments.

Professor Mike Weed in his excellent blog wrote on 26th January;

“Today BBC London published a poll that found 63% of Londoners believe “It would damage the legacy if the stadium cannot hold athletics after 2012“. Lord Coe has said that London 2012 is “morally obligated” to preserve an athletics legacy. But, in the haystack of words that have been written on the stadium legacy options, there are very few needles on the nature of the athletics legacy that the stadium is expected to deliver, and not even a pin on what EVIDENCE exists for such legacies.

In short, while the quantity of comment has been extensive, the quality of debate has been poor. No-one on either side has detailed WHAT the athletics legacy is intended to be (more participants? more elite athletes? more elite events? all of these?), HOW retaining a track at the stadium will develop such legacies, WHO is intended to benefit and, most importantly, what EVIDENCE exists to suggest that the WHAT, HOW and WHO is viable? Perhaps the postponement of the stadium decision will give advocates on all sides the time to consider their moral obligation to improve the quality of the debate!”

Ill defined then, but smokescreen? Oh yes. For while Sport England are telling us how successful the funding of

Athletics - fast becoming a minority sport? (pic: BBC)

athletics has been in driving up participation in that sport, research by others tells an entirely different story.

For starters, Sport England’s statistics include everyone who jogs once a week. Yes, seriously, if you jog once a week you are part of the Government’s ‘evidence’ that athletics is growing nicely, that the legacy is falling into place.

So concerned are they that the truth is being misrepresented, the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC) commissioned their own research into current levels of participation in track and field athletics. In other words, they asked how many people take part in what the general public understand to be athletics.

The answers, published on the ABAC website as a series of ‘fact files’ will astound those who think the publicly funded pursuit of legacy is thriving.

Sport England tell us that 158,000 – 165,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 15 take part in athletics ‘regularly’. Sport England define ‘regularly’ as once per month. ABAC’s research reveals that even in the best case scenario and even calling once a month ‘regular’ participation, the absolute maximum number of 11 to 15 year olds taking part in athletics is 51,000, only 31% of the Sport England figure.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the real figures for senior athletics participants are even further apart. Sport England tell us that 1.876 million adults ‘regulary’ take part in athletics, not forgetting they include jogging. ABAC’s research was limited to senior athletes between 20 and 34 years old and told us that fewer than 2000 regularly take part in track and field athletes in that age group!

I can’t speak for others but my own feeling is that the athletics legacy being chased by successive Governments will be in no need of a track at ANY venue, let alone one with 25,000 or 60,000 seats. Track and field athletics will be a thing of the past and joggers will be the new athletes. Perhaps the IOC will introduce jogging to the timetable in time for 2012?

I used the word smokescreen and that is exactly what it is. If legacy is to mean anything it must include participation in SPORT, not a redefinition of what sport is to fit the available figures. As I said to the locals at the pub, whether Tottenham or West Ham win their battle is probably irrelevant to athletics as there will be insufficient participants remaining to require very much of any stadium!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal



From a personal, footballing view-point, I should point out that I support neither Tottenham nor West Ham. I am a Chelsea supporter who believes in football belonging to its communities. On that point and that point alone I support West Ham’s bid to occupy the Olympic site. As for the siting of the track, I have no issue with Tottenham’s proposals.

The ABAC research was conducted independently by one of the world’s leading athletics statisticians, Rob Whittingham. For the sake of transparency I should report that I am an elected official of the Association of British Athletics Clubs, an organisation run entirely by volunteers and funded solely from members’ subscriptions.


23 01 2011

In amongst all the questions, make sure you are asking the right ones

Part of the challenge of acting as a consultant is in ensuring that when conducting consultation on behalf of clients we do not end up with responses which either take us nowhere or, worse, take us in the wrong direction.

Indeed, the difference between a good consultant and an average one is often in the quality of the questions asked, in ensuring the right response as oppose to simply a response.

That ability crosses many professions and yet is a skill which itself is rarely questioned. As long as someone is doing the asking, we rarely ask; “are these the right questions?”

I recall watching a coach working with an athlete on improving a skill a number of years ago. At the conclusion of a set of drills the coach asked, “how did that feel?” gaining the response, “not right.” Without pausing for breath let alone consideration the coach said, “okay, try it like this……”

The coach had asked a question but had he gained any real intelligence with which to work? What if he had followed up his initial question with; “in what way didn’t it feel right?” Might his next instruction have changed? Possibly, even probably, for in not gaining sufficient intelligence to make his decision, any advice/instruction offered was, in part, based on guesswork.

The same is true wherever information is being gathered whether by open consultation, cross-examination in a court or a public enquiry. Consider the enquiry into the Iraq War which has recently been back in the headlines. During the first round of questioning Gordon Brown was asked whether Britain had sufficient helicopters with which to go to war. His response? An emphatic “yes!”

He might well have been correct however the important question went unasked. In the same way that the coach overlooked the important follow-up question, the enquiry panel also failed to gather the correct and full intelligence they sought. We are left to wonder what the former PM’s answer might have been had he been asked, “…and how many of those helicopters were serviceable and ready for action?”

Of course, asking the right question can be awkward, even difficult and can make the person asking unpopular but, provided the reasoning behind the question is genuine, that should not prevent the question being asked. Indeed, Cowan Global have, on occasion, been employed to conduct consultations which the client knew may prove unpopular thus allowing the client to keep that unpopularity at arm’s length!

It may be that the recent student demonstrations across the UK were as a direct result of poor questions being asked by the powers that be; not that asking the right question would have proved any more popular. For instead of asking by how much student loans need to be raised to ‘balance the books’ in our new economic reality, perhaps a more pertinent first question might have been, “how many student places can the nation afford to support at the current level of student loan?” or even, “how many graduates (and in what) does the national economy require on an annual basis?”

Assuming a disparity between current numbers and the response to the question and ignoring the quality of many graduates (both issues for many employers), the door opens on many more questions and, potentially, very different (but probably equally unpopular) Government policies. Even if the decision were to maintain current volume (quantity) but to tilt funding in favour of specific requirements (quality), it is likely unpopular policy would result. It could even be argued the route actually taken is the one likely to be the least unpopular!

Ignoring the benefits of proper, in-depth consultation (i.e. using the right questions) can also be a crafty tactic when it suits a larger purpose to ‘create’ two deeply entrenched but opposing views. By creating a situation where it is option A or option B with no alternative the supporters of both options forget that there might have been an option C (or D, E, F…) had better questions been posed. Indeed, those merely opposed to one option will naturally side with the opposed view on the basis of being against the alternative.

This is a tactic used by so-called ‘Modernisers’ in many sectors. They present their vision of the future and those opposed are instantly painted as dinosaurs, people opposed to change. The debate becomes about old versus new which suits the ‘Modernisers’ strategy well. What is frequently overlooked is that only one vision of the future, of change, has been presented making consultation and consensus at best artificial, at worst a sham and the divisions created can last for years and all for the sake of asking the right questions.

In our own field, that of helping clients create and execute effective, efficient and economical strategies whether for business growth or the development of sport, it is often overlooked that the success or failure of a strategy often rests in the consultation that preceded its creation. Get enough of the questions right and the answers provide a solid foundation on which to build vision, goals and action. Overlook or avoid the right questions and the foundations are, at best, shaky and the strategy will struggle to deliver.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal



14 01 2011

Confucius – business advice taken out of context? (photo: Reuters)

The explosion in the use of social media in recent years has brought with it a smaller but nonetheless significant explosion in the posting of famous and inspirational quotes by posters.

However the problem with these posts, regardless of the poster lies in the understanding of the reader. Via social media we are often communicating to larger audiences than we ever have before, more often than not without first learning valuable communication lessons.

One of these communication lessons is the knowledge that your message has two meanings; the one you thought you imparted and the one the receiver understood. It is important to bear this in mind before taking any inspirational quote at face value.

I recently read a post, quoting Confucius, which read; “when it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

On the face of it, sound business advice. But is it? Is that the way Confucius meant his words to be used? Probably not, he wasn’t addressing the board of Microsoft or Sony, he lived in a different time when life was very different and his words should be taken in context.

In the business world the veracity of Confucius words would depend on a number of factors. I won’t list them all here, this is a blog not a book, but consider this. Your strategic goals can’t be reached so you follow the advice offered and adjust your action steps but have you considered other possible causes? For example, was the intelligence gathered via consultation and other research (which then informed your goals) accurate?

The goals might simply be wrong for any number of reasons and enormous resource could be wasted pursuing them. External factors outside our control can have massive impact on business if we fail to react accordingly by (for instance) changing our goals to fit a new reality.

Applied literally, the seller of VHS would still be adjusting actions aiming to achieve volume sales of a product superseded by DVD and Blue-ray. The manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages might even still be pursuing production goals without considering the impact of the invention and development of the motor car. In the real world, the truth is that following the words of the great man would rapidly have forced bankruptcy on these companies.

Context, the era from which the quote comes, an extract from a longer tract, double meaning and more can all cloud the value of an apparently great quote. And remember, even if you understand those potential pitfalls, your audience might not. Remember, your message has two meanings!

It might be useful to use another oft-repeated quote, this one from Lao Tzu, to give an example how, although the words may be correct, the different methods of understanding them and of applying them can have vastly different outcomes.

“Even the walk of a thousand miles can only begin with the first step.”

How true. However, before you rush off to take that first step, consider this; if that step is in the wrong direction the walk will be of far more than a thousand miles!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal



10 01 2011

It's time to like talking bollox!

Are you a sports fan?

Would you like the opportunity to enter a monthly free draw to win sports memorabilia prizes?

Of course you would!

There are no complicated forms to fill out if you want to take part in the draw. All you have to do is visit the Legends Talking Bollox! Facebook page and click on ‘LIKE’ and as long as you continue to like the page; you’ll be entered into the monthly draw.

At the same time, you’ll be showing your support for the fight to beat testicular cancer and as a fan of the page will be among the first to hear about new Legends Talking Bollox! events and receive ‘early bird’ booking offers.

What are you waiting for? Head over to legendstalking.com/facebook now and click on that LIKE button.

While you’re at it, why not tell your friends? We know you’d like to keep those prize draws to yourself but the more people we get signed up, the more we spread the word; by all talking bollox we can beat testicular cancer!

Legends Talking Bollox! supports Everyman’s campaign to stamp out male cancers

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011



Twitter @cowanglobal or @j_talkingbollox


5 01 2011

Successive Chancellors have handicapped small business by continuing the war on the motorist

Successive Governments have effectively declared war on the motorist through ever-increasing fuel levy, inflation busting road tax increases, compulsory parking charges imposed on local authorities and more.

The current Government has now declared that it is to bring to an end this war by doing two things:

  1. Allowing local authorities to set their own parking charges
  2. Removing the limit on parking spaces permitted on new developments

What effect will these actions have? None. Local authorities are struggling with cuts and will not suddenly further reduce income by lowering or removing parking charges and the removing of the limit on parking spaces will have an impact so marginal as to be negligible.

If the Government really believes that is the way to end their war, somebody really ought to ask them to come down from cloud cuckoo land and live in the real world for a while, for at the same time as they announced these two acts of ‘pacifism’, they were wringing their hands while the levy on fuel increased promptly followed by an increase in VAT.

Is any other essential commodity subject to a tax on tax as fuel is?

We could drive our cars less and use public transport more, except inflation busting increases in fares have also just been announced.

And all of this adds up to problems for many small business owners; the same small business owners who the Government has announced will drive the economic recovery.

Yet again displaying an abject lack of understanding when it comes to vertically integrating its plans, the Government has overlooked the fact that for many small businesses, fuel and travel are essentials and when the costs of those go up, either our prices rise or our profits drop (or both).

Let’s take a small business like Cowan Global, driving to service clients in a variety of towns and cities around the country which have recently included Brighton, Cambridge, Felixstowe, Lancaster, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Windsor and York.

To get to these places in time to complete a full day’s work we usually drive, sometimes the night before but generally at times that make train travel impossible or, at best, hugely inconvenient not to mention more expensive. If we did take the train, the time train travel consumes should not be overlooked either; try planning a day return from Nottingham to Felixstowe (allowing time for a day’s work when you arrive) if you don’t want to take me at my word!

These miles are essential miles as far as running Cowan Global as a profitable small business goes. Yet, successive Chancellors have seen fit to offer no tax break for that essential mileage. The tax allowance per mile remains at the same 40p it was a decade ago when fuel and road tax were half the price and the cost of maintaining a car was somewhat cheaper too (parts and labour have all gone up and are subject to the new rate of VAT).

Now consider other types of small business, for example the shopkeeper, already increasing VAT, also has to bear increased costs because he receives his stock from companies hit by the costs of the war on motorists. Also, don’t forget those parking charges driving his customers to larger businesses offering free parking only a mile or two further away. And what of the haulage companies? Can you imagine what these price hikes keep doing to their competitiveness and their popularity with customers, not forgetting what they then do to their customers own prices?

Picture a small business operating in almost any sphere and you will find a business which suffers in some way because of successive Governments war on motoring and their ignorance of the damage is does to business because they have been incapable of vertically integrating policy.

If, as George Osbourne claims, we are all in this together then perhaps as vital tax revenue is raised via the motorist an amnesty could be called by offering tax breaks for essential business mileage whether it is consultants visiting clients, van drivers delivering groceries or HGV rigs delivering almost every commodity we need?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal