29 03 2012

It may seem that the general lack of understanding of strategy so regularly displayed by our politicians offers little of a positive nature. However, if we look at examples of their general misunderstanding they can provide great opportunities to learn and to improve how we conduct strategy in business and in our day-to-day lives.

The ‘Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia’ has made the news this week for all the right reasons. The UK really does need to up its game when it comes to tackling the poor understanding and low standards of care afforded this condition.

The aspirations and goals laid out in the document are likewise laudable and all are steps in the right direction. So, what of learning from the mistakes of politicians to the benefit of business?

I am going to focus on one general and one specific point which, if addressed in your business (or elsewhere in life) will directly lead to sounder strategy thereby greatly enhancing your chances of success.

The general point is to highlight a common misconception about strategy not confined to Westminster but regularly seen in all walks of life; that of confusing goals for strategy. The Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia lays out a number of aspirations, a pre-requisite for strategy but not the strategy itself. Yes, you need to know where it is you wish to get to, but it is in describing the journey which delivers you to that destination which is the strategy.

In fairness, nowhere in the Prime Minister’s challenge on dementia does it describe itself as being a strategy, the development and delivery of the goals (the strategy) will be the responsibility of the NHS. It is David Cameron himself who confuses things when he refers to the document as such in other communications, perhaps reinforcing the view that politicians simply do not understand what strategy is.

The more specific point business (and others) can take from the document as one of learning is in one of the ‘key commitments’ listed within which define each aspiration.

Key commitment 6, Dementia-friendly communities across the country, reads:

By 2015 up to 20 cities, towns and villages will have signed up to become more dementia-friendly.

It is a fundamental requirement of good strategy that success is clearly defined, that it is specific and can be measured. This should be as true for your business as it should be for an elite sports-person, as it should be for someone aspiring to lose weight, as it should be for government.

How the government, or the NHS, will measure success on this key commitment is far from clear. There is a big difference between 20 cities and 20 villages signing up. There is an even bigger difference between 20 cities and only one village. Yet the latter measure (one village) could be included as a measure of success by the inclusion of the words “up to” in the commitment. In short, as long as someone signs up, the government can claim success on this commitment. It is hardly a commitment born of a hunger for excellence, more an acceptance that mediocrity will suffice.

Consider this when planning for your business or other aspirations in your life. How clearly, how specifically have you defined success? Are you driving excellence or accepting mediocrity?

While many of us continue to despair at the poor understanding of strategy demonstrated by our current crop of politicians, at least we can turn this to a positive by ensuring we learn lessons for our own lives from their poor performance.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, March 2012

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18 03 2012

Guest Blog by Danny Bermant of Brainstorm Digital.

There are only two weeks to go until the Facebook Timeline changeover happens. This means that your branded Facebook page will completely change in appearance. Make sure you don’t get caught out.  Here Brainstorm Digital’s Danny Bermant shares the seven key things you need to know.

Bye bye landing pages.

Up till now you were able to automatically send new visitors to a customised page with a special offer. From March 30th, you will no longer be able to do this. All visitors will automatically be taken to your Timeline.

Instead of five thumbnail photos, you will have one large photo at the top of your page.

You will need find a landscape image that illustrates what your business is about. It could be an image of your staff, or it could be an image of your products. The ideal dimensions for this are 851 by 315 pixels. The thumbnail image that sits beside status updates is 180 x 180 pixels. If you want to find some good images for your Facebook account, go to (see visuals). Images sell for as little as £1.

The section that used to be buried in the “Info” tab on your company page is now front and centre along its very top, so make sure you fill it in!

Keep it short and to the point; think mission statement rather than an entire company biography. Ensure you have a completed profile. Missing information looks unprofessional. E.g. If it’s a company page, make sure you fill in: About, Overview, Missions, Products / Services, website address etc…

Control how your posts are displayed.

With Timeline, you can pin a post to the top of your Facebook page for up to seven days to highlight popular or relevant content. You can also change post dates, which will help you prioritise up posts that you want to keep at the top of the page. e.g. An ongoing event or promotion.

You can “star” a post to feature it more prominently, increasing the size of the post to take up the full width of your Facebook page.

This is great if you want to post YouTube videos. But this means you want to use higher res photos that end up on your Facebook page; you’ll need them sized at a minimum width of 851 pixels so they can be featured as a “starred” post without pixelating.

You can add company milestones.

You’ll be able to create company milestones on your Timeline, which gives you an easy way to promote key events in your company history to Facebook. You can also feature events such as client briefings or product launches.

You can control posts on the activity log:

This admin panel lets you hide and reveal posts, “star” posts to feature them, and change post dates. For example you may have a repeating event. Rather than advertise the same event as a new post, you can resurrect an existing post.

The new Facebook layout may be harder to customise but on the plus side it’s far more visual, enabling you to post large images and videos far more prominently. For Facebook audiences, photos and video say a lot more than reams and reams of text, so I think that ultimately, Timeline will be a change for the better.

Danny Bermant is Director of Brainstorm Digital an online marketing agency that trains businesses how to profit from social media. Brainstorm Digital are members of Branduin Business Support Limited.


© Danny Bermant, Brainstorm Digital Ltd, March 2012

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14 03 2012

“There is not a manufacturing company in the world that could afford to abandon close to 15 per cent of its production capacity, and the same applies to every country whether it is small, like Scotland, or enormous, like China or India.”

A little over a week ago, I wrote about a couple of horrendous and inexcusable gaffes by two large organisations. I went on to state that when it comes to equality ignorance is not an excuse, that shaking your head before stating ‘it is common sense’ won’t wash. I suggested that we all take a look in the mirror and ask where we could do better. I stated that for business equality needs to be a question of strategy, of planning to reach those people with one or more of what are termed ‘protected characteristics’ in the 2010 Equality Act.

Since writing that article a number of people have asked me to explain what I mean by this and, in real terms, what is the business incentive?

The quote above is from double Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart’s excellent autobiography ‘Winning Is Not Enough.’ It is more than the usual sporting biography, in that it covers his career after Formula One where he went on to become an extremely successful businessman.

A common thread throughout the story is Stewart’s struggles with Dyslexia. How he went through his childhood believing he was “thick”. How despite being one of the most successful sportsmen ever to live he was continually aware of a sense of inadequacy. Until a chance meeting with a doctor who was running some tests on his son led to him also being tested and, in his 40s, finding out he wasn’t thick after all. He has a learning disability called dyslexia.

Ten per cent of the population of Britain is dyslexic (source: the British Dyslexia Association). Think about that figure. That is six million people. Four per cent are severely dyslexic; that is 2.4 million people.

It is right and proper that every one of those people should reasonably be able to access the products and services that everyone else does. It is also right and proper that every one of those people should reasonably be able to expect the same treatment as everyone else does. Indeed the 2010 Equality Act does not insist that companies make all adjustments it asks only that they do what is reasonable.

But beyond that, can your company afford to reduce its potential market by 6 million people because of something as inexcusable as ignorance? Surely not, it is common sense isn’t it? And yet thousands of companies do exactly that every day simply by (through ignorance) using inappropriate fonts or colour schemes in marketing paraphernalia, in communications (sic) documents and on websites. In short, they deliberately reduce the potential size of their market.

I call that ignorance driven insanity.

That is ten per cent of the population. Where does Jackie Stewart’s 15% come from? Dyslexia is different from but shares characteristics with dyscalculia, dyspraxia and colour blindness. Individuals with one of those disabilities often have one or more of the others. In total they make up fifteen per cent of the population.

Nine million people. More people than live in Greater London. 9,000,000 people. More people than live in Scotland and Wales combined. A lot of people.

I recently came across an example of this ignorance driven insanity when attending a business meeting at a hotel. During a break I nipped out of the meeting room to visit the toilet and found them easily enough. However it struck me that the signage did not consider one of the characteristics often seen in people with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and/or colour blindness – the tendency to take things literally.

During the lunch break I revisited the task of finding the toilets but this time took every sign I saw literally. In short, the signs took me via a couple of stair cases on a loop back to the place I had started, not to the toilets. I double checked with a colleague attending the same meeting who is dyscalculic. “Yes,” she said, “it took me a while. In the end I waited until someone else wanted to go and went with her.” Good thing she wasn’t desperate!

What has this got to do with business? Putting a couple of signs in the right place would cost very little. Being in ignorance of the discrimination caused by their absence could cost……? The hotel will never know because the dissatisfied customer might say nothing but simply never return. And among fifteen per cent of a population you can be sure there are more than a few decision makers who will be booking conference facilities based on their judgement of suitability.

One step removed, companies booking the facilities at this hotel are trusting their corporate reputation to the hotel’s ability to deliver. Think about the feedback; “great conference but poor venue.” That’s more lost business for the hotel as that conference goes elsewhere next year.

And if you are in competition with that hotel……do you really need me to explain both the gap in the market and the potential market in the gap?

There is a serious business imperative for getting equality right. Ignorance is no excuse. Equality is a very wide area and is not just about minority groups, women, for example, are a majority group (30.6 million/51%).

I have focused on only one group of people who sit under the broader umbrella of disability. In all, people with one or more disabilities make up 25% of our population (15 million potential customers).

Other ‘protected characteristics’ covered by the Equality Act are age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

In advising companies on equality strategies I have come across all kinds of oversights, some even driven by being well-meaning but, nonetheless ignorant thinking. These are just a small sample:

  • The sports centre accessible toilet whose door opened inwards.
  • The ‘buy 2’ special offer which was more expensive than buying two singles.
  • The government agency equality monitoring form.
  • The ‘required’ qualifications on a job specification.
  • The bus time table.
  • The university marketing campaign.
  • The white ‘design feature’ at a conference venue.

Fortunately, none of these organisations assumed knowledge they lacked. None allowed themselves to be led by ignorance. However, sadly for equality, unfairly for significant sections of society and unfortunately for the businesses concerned, I do encounter those who clearly didn’t ask on a more than daily basis.

Understanding equality is good for business. Don’t be guilty of ignorance driven insanity.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, March 2012

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9 03 2012

With Vince Cable questioning whether the government he is a part of understands vision and evidence increasing it does not understand strategy, I felt it time to revisit the question of whether the Coalition grasps strategy.

Earlier this week the Business Secretary Vince Cable warned that the government lacks a ‘compelling vision’ beyond tackling Britain’s record fiscal deficit. While I agree, I am left wondering why fewer commentators and no other politicians (including the opposition) appear to consider the point hugely (or even moderately) important.

It is not only important; it is vital to the UK’s economic recovery that there is a clear, concise, compelling vision of what business will look like and how it will operate in the coming years.

In December last year I raised the matter when pointing out that while David Cameron had been correct not to sign up to a Eurozone agreement that penalised the financial sector our economy is so reliant on. However, I also suggested that to continue to be so reliant on income generated via the Square Mile (11% of GDP) and not have any vision-based strategy for the diversification of British industry was “foolhardy indeed”.

One politician showing signs of understanding strategy is Margaret Beckett who has been at pains this week to point out that despite the fact we have been aware of the crisis in the Eurozone for several months, no one in government has yet thought to put in place strategy in the event it collapses (plausible if not probable).

Beckett chairs the joint committee on the government’s National Security Strategy (NSS) and while the committee welcomed the government’s decision to publish the NSS alongside the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review; it said that “a clear over-arching strategy” had yet to emerge. In Beckett’s own words; “A good strategy is realistic, is clear on the big questions and guides choices. This one does not.” (Source: BBC).

While her definition falls somewhat short of being a good definition, it is advanced thinking for Westminster. What Beckett fails to point out is that this lack of quality thinking around strategy is not unusual in Westminster; it has become ‘the norm.’

While the text books list hundreds of versions of strategy, to all intents and purposes they are all either vision-based or issue-based in one format or another. Issue-based is short-term strategy with the sole purpose of problem resolution. Vision-based, what most people actually think of as ‘strategy,’ is the medium to long-term pursuit of a clearly defined vision.

In its tackling of the fiscal deficit, in its swathing cuts and in its austerity mind-set, the Coalition has addressed (and continues to address) the immediate problem. However, issue-based strategy cannot drive recovery, it can only halt decline. To continue to employ a strategy of only addressing the present and very real threat, the government neglect the future. And, as Cable rightly points out, without a compelling vision there can be no cohesive, effective, targeted strategy for the future.

Understanding cause and effect is key to good vision and strategy. I have reported the government’s poor understanding of cause and effect in previous blogs, principally in November last year when I looked at how raising income by increasing taxation on fuel was unsustainable; firstly because there is a critical point at which drivers will simply be forced to buy less and, secondly, because higher fuel prices feed increases in prices in everything reliant on fuel for its production and delivery (everything else). Thus, there is a critical tipping point at which higher taxes mean revenue from fuel tax dropping at the same time as high street spending also reduces.

That point has been revisited this week amid concerns that the Chancellor will seek to raise further revenue by (again) increasing the tax on fuel. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has published a report suggesting that instead of increasing fuel taxation, a reduction of 2.5p in the levy would generate 180,000 new jobs. Despite Vince Cable’s questioning of the vision it appears George Osborne has forgotten that without people spending in the economy (i.e. the High Street) there will be no recovery, there will be no increase in national income with which to pay off national debt.

A second news story in the last few days exacerbated the issue. Good strategy requires what is often referred to as ‘joined-up thinking.’ Joined-up in the way that even if an increase in fuel taxation was accepted as sensible, an alternative cheaper way to travel would exist for those forced out of their cars so they might still have something left in their pockets to spend in a way to boost our economic future.

No such luck. This week in a move demonstrating yet again the government’s ineptitude at all things strategy, they announced that they are going to reduce subsidies to the railway by £3.6 billion a year up to 2019. Joined-up thinking? Not even close.

Yet again the government has overlooked cause and effect. Not only is Vince Cable correct in that the government lacks a compelling vision beyond tackling Britain’s fiscal deficit – that lack of vision leaves them without any comprehensible strategy aimed at building Britain’s economic future.

We are almost back at Big Society again. Almost tangible; almost comprehensible; but impossible to describe. As I once stated, it’s a bit like trying to pick up mercury – you know it’s there, you just can’t grasp it.

And if you can’t grasp it, if you can’t describe it, if you have no vision for it, you definitely can’t plan for it!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, March 2012

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4 03 2012

With the London Olympics and bookmaker Paddy Power joining the rapidly growing list of individuals and organisations making gaffes around the issue of equality, how can you avoid making the same (or similar) mistakes?

Ignorance really is no excuse; if you don’t know or don’t understand – ask!

The last couple of weeks have seen two rather public gaffes from large organisations who really should know better. I’m not talking about bankers and their bonuses, I’m talking about getting equality right.

First, the bookmaker Paddy Power thought it would be a real hoot to mock one sector of our society in an advertisement which asks the viewer to play spot the difference; “stallion or mare.” The advertisement was set at Ladies Day at the Cheltenham Festival and involved spotting transgendered women in the crowd.

Harmless fun? To many maybe, but to that section of our society which is transgendered (an umbrella term covering various forms of gender dysphoria such as cross dressing, transvestism and transsexualism) it wasn’t so amusing.

The Advertising Standards Authority said the general nature of the complaints was that the ad was “offensive, transphobic and derogatory towards transgender people”.

You may or may not agree however consider the current debate around racism and homophobia in football and transplant the Paddy Power commercial to a football stadium and ask the viewer to ‘spot the gay’ or ‘pick out the black man.’ Offensive? You bet!

I’ve heard more than one person say; “it’s different, they choose to be that way.” I also remember when some people used to say that about homosexuality; talk about publicly announcing your ignorance!

Gender dysphoria is a recognised medical term, transsexuals do not choose to be that way, they are born that way and, in case you are in any doubt and need the law to guide you, it is a ‘protected characteristic’ under the 2010 Equality Act.

The second gaffe I refer to was in the official London 2012 Games Makers Workbook, an official document staggering in its lack of knowledge (and therefore research into) disability.

In the section ‘Understanding Disability’ four categories of impairment are listed; Visual Impairments, Hearing Impairments, Mental Health/Mental Distress and Learning Disability. You will note there is no mention of physical impairments however the gaffe I wish to pick up on is the listing of both Cerebral Palsy (CP) and Epilepsy under ‘Learning Disability’. Neither are; both in fact should be listed under the absent physical impairment category.

There are other gaffes in the document which some might say are excusable, after all the term disability covers a wide range of impairments and conditions.

I disagree; ignorance is no excuse. If in doubt there are a range of organisations that will be happy to advise and educate, in the case of the 2012 Games Makers Workbook, how hard would it have been to (for example) pick up a phone and speak to CP Sport for guidance?

Ignorance is not an excuse, it never is. If you don’t know or you’re not sure do the intelligent thing and ask someone who does know. Admitting you need guidance now and then is not a sign of weakness or stupidity, it is a sign of understanding and awareness.

And before you start shaking your head and muttering under your breath “its common sense” look in the mirror. Do you know which sections of our community are ‘protected characteristics’ under the 2010 Equality Act? Does your business (or organisation) do everything it reasonably can to make itself accessible to all sections of society?

It is a far bigger question than one of ‘common sense’ or even one of legal compliance. It is a question of sound strategy. If you haven’t considered how you speak to the many different sections of our society or how and whether they can access your services or products then you are grossly under-achieving.

Not understanding equality doesn’t only affect minority groups (although it should be noted women are a majority group) it affects us all and we should all be sharing the responsibility for a fair and equal society.

If you still think it isn’t your problem, remember the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller (1946):

When the Nazis came for the communists,

I remained silent;

I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,

I remained silent:

I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,

I did not speak out;

I was not a trade unionist

When they came for the Jews,

I remained silent;

I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,

There was no one left to speak out.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, March 2012

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