19 02 2012

Modernisation. New Labour loved the term and adopted its use to the forcing through of unpopular policy very successfully. David Cameron and his coalition colleagues were watching closely and learned well. As a tactic, ‘modernisation’ sounds far more palatable than ‘divide and rule’ and yet that is exactly what it is. However, where it should be easily countered it appears that time and again its opponents fail. Why?

It may be wise to start with an explanation; the way ‘modernisation’ is applied in today’s politics is not the way most people understand it. It is applied cynically as a way of painting the preferred option as the only way forward and painting any opposition as ‘dinosaurs’ – as individuals or groups who are opposed to change, who want to live in the past. If you are not for the politician’s version of modernisation, you are against it and are painted as opposing progress.

Cynical this may be but it has proved to be a highly successful tactic in that it pitches apparently reasonable against apparently unreasonable; it pitches those embracing change against those who appear to cling to the past.

Take the current debate around the reform of the NHS. David Cameron, Andrew Lansley and many of their coalition colleagues regularly refer to the need for reform, the need for modernisation. Their position is portrayed as intelligent, sensible and positive; after all, what intelligent person would oppose reform, modernisation of an institution everyone agrees needs reform.

It is simple divide and rule dressed in far nicer clothes. You are either for modernisation or you aren’t. You are with change and progress or you are a dinosaur, entrenched in the past.

Opponents fall for it time and time again. And time and time again fail to consider that most important component of good strategy – review what went before, learn from it, come back better prepared and stronger.

When politicians play the modernisation card it is no good to simply be against whatever it is they propose. In doing that you are playing to their tactics and not employing your own. By being opposed you take the unreasonable position they have selected for you, you make yourself the dinosaur, the opponent of change. You put yourself in a position where defeat is far more likely than victory. That is never a good strategy.

As David Cameron’s government seek to push ahead with their modernisation of the Health Service they will now apply another tactic much-loved by the moderniser; consultation. By consulting the moderniser further assumes the sought after stance of ‘reasonable.’ What the moderniser is very careful about is who they do and do not consult with, a wide consultation will take place but the consultees will be carefully selected and managed.

Meanwhile, those opposed to change continue to voice opposition. The moderniser repeats the (reasonable) need for change, now supported by ‘wide consultation’, often with ‘the experts’.

Tomorrow (Monday 20th February) David Cameron will do exactly this as he invites numerous health care experts to Downing Street to discuss the modernisation of the NHS. Afterwards he will push ahead with reforms and claim that the modernisation plans were widely consulted and that a range of experts support them.

It is classic modernisation.

Meanwhile organisations including the British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) have not been invited to tomorrow’s ‘consultation.’ Then again, they are all opposed to the Coalition’s Health Service reforms; why would they be invited? They serve no purpose to the moderniser other than to be an opposition which can be painted as dinosaurs.

It is a difficult situation, combating this divide and rule tactic. No matter how reasonable your opposition to the proposed modernisation, that very opposition further entrenches you as the opponent of change; it allows the moderniser to cast you in the role of unreasonable opponent of the future.

Stop. Think. Why does it?

The moderniser’s tactic only works because the opponent chooses to engage on the ‘battlefield’ of the moderniser’s choosing. What would the ‘granddaddy’ of strategy Sun Tzu make of that?

Bonkers – or its Chinese equivalent – would be his very sensible reaction. He would ask why these opponents don’t draw the moderniser onto the battlefield of their choosing.


Consider this; as long as all you do is oppose, there remains only the modernisers version of the future ‘on the table’ – in short, you play on their battlefield, you allow them to be for the future and to portray you as stuck in the past.

However if instead of opposing you offered your support for change but also offered one or more alternative views of what the future could look like you remove the moderniser’s strongest weapon, his reasonableness. You also remove your biggest weakness, your (apparent) unreasonable resistance to change.

As things stand the NHS reforms are the future if for no other reason than no comprehensive alternatives are on the table. We all know about the opposition to them, in voicing their disappointment at being excluded from tomorrow’s Downing Street consultation while reconfirming their opposition the BMA, the RCN and the RCGP do not advance their own position one jot. If, instead they put forward a viable alternative view of the future of health care in the UK they draw the fight to a different battlefield, one where the fight is no longer change versus status quo, the future against the past and instead becomes one of which version of the future we embrace – all sides become modernisers in the true sense of the word, not the cynical politically hijacked version.

We know what you are against. To have a chance of winning the fight we need to know what you are for.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


16 02 2012

Whatever walk of life you ‘perform’ in, it is usually a mistake to settle for being “good enough.” In the world of elite sport this is widely recognised and the pursuit of excellence drives standards ever higher.

But what of other sectors? What of your business? Are you genuinely seeking performance, chasing excellence or have you allowed the mediocre mind-set of “good enough” to settle?

In many cases business owners do just this and don’t even realise they have done so!

“Good enough” can come in many guises; among them, good enough to turn a profit or good enough to stay as we are or always have been. And if you are happy with average, content with mediocrity who am I to criticise? After all, yours is not the type of business I aim to work with.

But hold on a minute. One of those guises tells the story of why ‘good enough seldom is’ better than many others and recent news has demonstrated, catastrophically, why.

The owners of the cruise liner the Costa Concordia believed they were good enough and the law supported them in that belief. The law stated (and still states) that all new passengers must be put through life boat drill within 24 hours of boarding.

This potentially leaves 23 hours and 59 minutes during which passengers on board a cruise liner have not a clue what to do if the ship gets into trouble. But that’s okay, it’s good enough; the law says so.

As we now know, tragically the Costa Concordia did get into trouble and a number of passengers and crew lost their lives. Yes, there were other factors but honestly, with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, would you agree that merely being compliant with that law was good enough?

It’s an extreme example but compare that philosophy of being good enough to being good enough in your business. Legally compliant you may be but have you considered whether that compliance really is good enough for you, your staff and your customers?

Are you one of those businesses that have no strategy because, well, we’ve always done things one day to the next, we have always done things this way and, so far, that has always been good enough?

There are any number of businesses in the UK and the world who believe themselves to be good enough, not all of them small businesses either. Kodak believed they were good enough, Woolworths believed the same.

A vital component of any good strategy is to run it through a series of ‘what if’ scenarios. In planning for excellence, it is vital to be prepared for problems, for adversity too. And, regardless of excuses, more often than not these problems can be predicted – ask the owners of the Costa Concordia!

Settling for good enough is risky business. Unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia but like some of his passengers simply being good enough could end up in you going down with your ‘ship’.

Mediocrity may seem safe, but “good enough” seldom is.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


9 02 2012

When you consider that a good strategy has to act as a communication tool, one that is understood by all those involved in its direction, management and delivery, the fact that some of the language of strategy can be somewhat confusing seems contradictory. 

At Cowan Global, our advice is generally to use plain English, to think about the language used by those to whom you wish to communicate and therefore be understood by. Simplifying the name of something does not alter its function but by making it easier to understand can vastly improve the chances of strategy becoming successful strategy.

Of course, if others are using these confusing words and expecting you to understand, you need a definition.

This confusion applies to the distinction between ‘Outcomes’ and ‘Outputs’. Here is our explanation of their meaning along with some more ‘user-friendly’ terms for applying them.

I will begin by confessing to having made an assumption in the title of this article; I have assumed that you know what an Objective is. So perhaps the best place to start is with some definitions:

An Objective is what you are aiming to achieve.

An Output is what you actually deliver.

An Outcome is what you gain from your output.

In general, if you can see it, feel it or move it about, it is an output. If it is a level of performance or achievement it is an outcome.

On a practical level in business outcomes generally come down to one of two things; increased revenue or reduced overheads however how the business goes about achieving and measuring these will vary greatly.

In simple terms that company might seek the outcome of increasing revenue via the objective of implementing an online sales site, the establishing of which will be the output.

In real terms it is rarely that simple. That same company might have recognised that satisfied, motivated staff have a positive impact on production and sales and will therefore seek to achieve the objective of improved staff satisfaction. This objective will need to be broken down into a series of processes (outputs) in order to deliver it including (e.g.) staff appraisal, reward and recognition, benefits provision, etc. The improvement of staff satisfaction can then be measured (the outcome) against (e.g.) the number of staff achieving set standards on the reward and recognition programme.

Outside the business sector outcomes may be more diverse than those attached to commerce although it is worth bearing in mind that the two given (increased revenue and reduced overheads) will impact positively in all sectors.

A non-business sector example might be the objective of both past and present governments of getting more people physically active. The output might be people taking up sport and the outcome would be how many more people take up which sports. It could, of course, be argued that in fact even this example comes back to the two business outcomes in that more people being physically active should have a positive impact on UK plc’s bottom line, e.g. in savings for the NHS.

To return to where we began, what impact does knowing your outcomes from your outputs have on the successful delivery of strategy? As long as you know what you want to achieve, what it should look like and how you should gain from it, the terminology is nice to know not need to know.

Strategy is (or should be) about how you go about achieving your vision, a plan for achieving one’s goal. The better that strategy is communicated, the easier it is for all involved to understand, the higher the likelihood of success. Understanding the terminology is important on an academic level but in the real world success is measured by what you achieve and communication by what is understood.

Perhaps I should have titled this article ‘knowing what it is you want to achieve, what it looks like and how you will know when you’ve arrived’ for in understanding that we can design strategy which has far higher chances of becoming successful strategy.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


5 02 2012

As the London Olympics get ever nearer, if your inbox is anything like mine it is a rare day when you don’t receive some form of promotion offering ‘Olympic expertise’ or the chance to ‘do it like an Olympian.’ 

But how many of these opportunities are from people with genuine knowledge and experience and how many from people seeing the chance to piggy back the greatest show on earth? 

For those readers unaware of the term, ‘Caveat Emptor’ is Latin for ‘let the buyer beware’ and it is a term you would be well advised to keep at the forefront of your mind if considering employing advice and/or training from someone offering ‘Olympian’ knowledge.

Typical offers sound like; ‘learn the secrets used by Olympic coaches (or athletes)’ or ‘lessons from the podium for your business’ and include claims that you will learn how top athletes plan or prepare and become a gold-medal winning company.

I took a look at some of the offers arriving in my inbox and found that, far from offering any expertise the vast majority of these promotions offer little other than carefully spun titles which take advantage of raised public perception of the elite sporting show which is about to hit town.

Most offer the same as they offered before under a different title. In short they apply the same standard business models they did previously but throw in some random Olympic, elite sport and high performance references to make them sound better informed than they really are.

Then there are the new(ish) offerings from people with some experience in business who might have read an article or two on how sports people prepare and then sell that as ‘expert’ knowledge your business can benefit from.

Also in my inbox are promotions from business people who have a reasonable grasp of sport at the grass-roots end of the spectrum and who assume that elite preparation is not dissimilar. In short, they invite you to mimic the preparation used by the mediocre masses in the mistaken belief that when applied to business it will have a higher value outcome.

There is a smaller group of former elite sports people and coaches who have little or no business experience but who, somehow, know which lessons from their background to apply to your business. Great for motivational speaking maybe; less so for business learning and development.

Of course, there is a minority who do know their stuff but they are only in a minority hence my ‘Caveat Emptor’ warning. The trick is to know how to recognise those who do know the topics which are important to you and your business thus gaining value from working with them.

What they understand is that the nearer you get to the top whether in sport or in business, the more personalised your ‘programme’ needs to become. They will not therefore be among those selling one-size fits all ‘Olympian’ solutions; they know there is no such thing. They will however advise your business on the relevant lessons should you wish to benefit.

Knowing how to prepare for elite sport without understanding business is akin to a business owner believing he/she has the knowledge to advise an Olympic champion on his/her preparation. Whether this is delusional or arrogant depends on your standpoint.

Caveat Emptor; don’t buy a great sounding product today which does not take you where you want to be tomorrow.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2012

About the author: Jim Cowan has an extensive knowledge of elite sport including working with a world champion, a world record holder, other elite athletes and acting as a consultant to elite sporting teams and organisations around the world. He now blends that with knowledge of corporate strategy, business planning and experience of working with businesses from one man start-ups to £multi-million organisations.

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal