23 06 2012

Online, in person and in print; there are any number of places you can seek advice on developing sound strategy but in the rush to get on with the planning, don’t overlook the importance of properly defining what it is you are planning for…..

Lewis Carroll’s novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (commonly called Alice in Wonderland) was first published in 1865. It is generally considered to be one of the best examples of a genre known as ‘literary nonsense.’ And it is probably reasonable to think of it as nonsense as it tells the tale of a girl called Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and who then meets a number of strange anthropomorphic creatures. However, behind its enduring popularity lies Carroll’s ability to use logic to relay significant parts of his tale.

Consider the moment when Alice, lost, comes across the Cheshire Cat:

“Excuse me sir,” Alice enquires, “could you tell me which road to take?”

Wisely the cat asks, “Where are you going?”

Somewhat dismayed, Alice responds, “Oh, I don’t know where I’m going sir.”

“Well,” replied the cat, “if you don’t know where you are going, it really doesn’t matter which road you take.”

The Cheshire Cat imparts sound advice not only for Alice but for anyone involved in strategic planning. The temptation is to rush to the planning, to start describing the journey, the ‘how’ part of reaching the destination.

But pause a moment and consider the sage advice of the cat; if you haven’t taken the time to get a clear picture of what success looks like, to properly define and describe your desired destination, then how can you accurately plan to ensure you arrive at your desired destination?

Having a strategy is not the key to success many think it is; the key lies in having a good strategy. And without a clear defined destination no strategy can be considered good.

But don’t take my word for it; ask the Cheshire Cat!

*I am grateful to Richard Smith of the Internet from Redhill (UK) for pointing out to me that the original of this blog contained an error in that I assigned the quote to the caterpillar and not the Cheshire Cat. Thank you Richard, quality feedback is always more than welcome.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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18 06 2012

We have all been there, getting increasingly frustrated when confronted with that “it’s not my job” mentality. Sometimes it’s a call centre, other times it’s face to face but we have probably all encountered companies whose staff appear happy to avoid helping you, safe in the knowledge that it isn’t their job.

It reflects poorly on them and it reflects poorly on the organisations for who they work. And yet, every now and then hearing someone say; “it’s not my job,” far from being frustrating, is a breath of fresh air and a sure sign of a well-run business.

The 24 hours of Le Mans. More than a race it is a test of man (or woman) and machine, of speed and endurance, of engineering excellence and motoring reliability. In this environment, everything has to be planned to the nth degree; the tiniest malfunction can finish you.

Add to that the pressure of being a team not only expected to secure overall victory but to do so using a new technology making its first outing at this classic event.

This was the position Audi found themselves in over the weekend. They had four cars entered; all diesels but two were also showcasing Audi’s E-Tron Quattro technology, a hybrid engine.

With less than three of the 24 hours to go the two E-Tron Quattro cars were vying for the lead when, out of the blue, a potentially race wrecking incident occurred. One of the Audi’s (car #2) was surprised when lapping a back-marker, expecting it to break one way and leave a space, it broke the other. Driver Allan McNish took avoiding action and in the blink of an eye was off the track and hitting the Armco barrier.

McNish carefully drove his heavily damaged number 2 Audi back to the pits and a seemingly huge repair job commenced.

Eurosport dispatched an interviewer to find out what the damage was and whether the car would even rejoin the race.

Visibly excited, the interviewer asked Audi’s Head of Motorsport, Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, “What is wrong? Can you repair it? What is happening in the garage?

Calmly Dr Ullrich replied; “I don’t know. That is not my job.

This was no passing the buck, frustrate and move on, ‘not my job’ comment. This was a comment born of supreme confidence. Confidence that every possible angle had been planned, confidence that everybody in the Audi team knew their job and, importantly, also knew what was not their job. It was confidence that he didn’t need to interfere, that if the car could be returned to race, it would be.

Less than three hours later the Audi’s crossed the line to complete the twenty-four hours of Le Mans in formation, taking a clean sweep of the podium with the E-Tron Quattros in first and second place. Incredibly the number 2 Audi had not only been repaired but had finished the race only one lap down on the number 1 Audi.

This was not only a feat of engineering and mechanical reliability, nor only of exceptional driving. This was a feat of planning, planning so specific, so detailed that every eventuality could be (and was) covered effectively, efficiently and economically.

I wonder how many Chief Executives, company Directors, business owners and middle managers have the assured confidence in their strategic planning and preparation that Dr Ullrich had in his?

Could you ever hear yourself saying; “I don’t know, that is not my job,” without worrying that you don’t?

Why not?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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13 06 2012

Photo: The Telegraph

Since I started writing this blog a little over two years ago, the theme I have returned to more often than any other is that of the paucity of quality strategy to service the participation legacy promised by the UK when awarded the London Olympics seven years ago.

It is a tale of poor strategy, of excuses and of blame. Most of all it is a tale of making big promises and then failing to plan for their delivery. 

For all the political spin and media hype over the Olympic Legacy, there was one key legacy promise made on the nation’s behalf which has not been delivered and all for the simple lack of quality planning, the absence of good strategy; that of a measurable increase in levels of participation in sport in this country.

I was therefore interested to hear of Hugh Robertson’s lunch with the Sports Journalists Association which took place last Thursday (7th June) and to read comments the Minister for Sport made.

Mr Robertson is the Minister who coined the term ‘Inititiveitis’ shortly after the last election, a term he used, correctly, to describe the poor strategy displayed by the previous government when pursuing the participation legacy. In short, in place of quality strategy addressing the sports development continuum, the policy had been one of producing a seemingly endless number of initiatives in the hope they would somehow deliver on the promises made in Singapore on behalf of us all in 2005.

Unfortunately, since coining the term, the Minister has continued with more of the same, a stream of initiatives but still no clear, integrated strategy for the development of sport in the UK which services the full sports development continuum. In July 2010, after claiming to have such a strategy, he was challenged to produce it. We still wait.

You will understand my interest, nearly two years on, to hear what sort of update Mr Robertson would provide for the assembled journalists.

He is still scornful of the previous government’s efforts to service the legacy promise. He rightly points out that the target of one million more people being active by 2012 was “just idiotic.” Having an unattainable target gets in the way of quality planning as surely as having no target.

Over two years into his role as Minister for Sport and just under two years after promising he had a (still unseen) strategy for the development of sport in the UK, it was good to hear that he does at least have a clear aim.

One of the things being in the Army taught me,” Mr Robertson said, “was always have a clear aim. It is our absolutely clear aim to deliver a successful Olympics, and part of that is having a successful team.

This is good to hear. It is reassuring to know that he understands the need for a clear aim. However, knowing he understands makes the absence of any new target for the physical activity legacy baffling. He was right to get rid of the unachievable ‘one million’ target but what of its replacement? What is the new, realistic aim which will drive planning for this part of our nation’s legacy promise?

Sadly, we don’t know. Two years after getting rid of a bad target we still await news of its replacement. And, without that clear aim, quality strategy to achieve it cannot be put in place. Perhaps this is why we are still yet to see the strategy promised two years ago?

Two years (at least 40%) into this government, I do not believe it is unrealistic to have hoped for more from the Minister who recognised Initiativeitis for what it was and who professes to so clearly understand the value of a clear aim.

Two years into office, the lack of planning and any shortcomings within his own department and within its delivery agency (Sport England) cannot be blamed on the previous government. The buck must now stop at his own Ministerial door.

If the advice he receives is flawed, it is time to change the advisers. If the lack of clear, quality strategy is the responsibility of someone (or some agency) under his direction, it is time for a clear-out and for new, more capable strategists to come in. And if the lack of clear progress towards an undefined participation legacy target is frustrating him, he should try being in our shoes!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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7 06 2012

BPR or Business Process Reengineering was one of the big management ideas of the 1990s. Although less fashionable today, its underlying principles still make sense especially for older, larger companies which have become somewhat stuck in their ways.

The foundations for Business Process Reengineering, or BPR for short, were laid in 1990 when Michael Hammer published a paper calledReengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliteratein which he proposed that in place of automating work which did not add value, companies should get rid of it. In 1993, with James Champy, he expanded on the proposal in the bookReengineering The Corporation.’

Where previously management had started and finished at each departmental door, BPR took a bird’s eye view of a business as a whole, prizing open the ‘silos’ which had, over time, developed. The basic premise was that customer needs involved processes which cut across these old, established silos and that activities should be reassessed to reflect the full process.

Hammer and Champy defined BPR asthe fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical, contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed.’ BPR’s recurring question is; “how do we add value for the customer?”

The four highlighted words used in the definition were chosen carefully. BPR is fundamental in that it asks often overlooked but basic questions such as “why do we do this?” or “why are we doing it this way?” It is radical because it starts with a clean sheet, making no assumptions and ignoring existing structures and procedures.

In seeking to make substantial improvements rather than marginal tweaks BPR is dramatic; processes because they are pivotal to BPR’s success. Where historically (and in many cases still) companies were split into departments with processes split into tasks further split between those departments, BPR reviews the tasks against their ultimate purpose focusing sharply on customer needs.

Hammer and Champy provide an example in IBM’s credit approval process which, at the time, took an average of six days and could take up to two weeks. This slow pace often meant that a customer was lost to the competition before approval was granted. The process involved five steps:

1.    The salesperson called in with a finance request which was written down on paper by an operator in the central office.

2.    The paper was sent to the credit department where the customer’s credit was checked. The result was noted on the paper which was then forwarded to the business practices department.

3.    The business practices department would modify IBM’s standard loan contract to reflect the customer’s special requests, attach special terms to the paper and forward it to the price department.

4.    The price department would determine the interest rate the customer should be charged and add it to the paper before forwarding it to administration.

5.    Administration produced a quotation which went to the salesperson who would deliver it to the customer.

IBM realised this was not efficient and tried a range of unsuccessful tweaks before an executive decided to apply BPR. He took a request for finance and then personally walked it through the entire process. Beginning to end it took him only one and a half hours! The problem had not lain in how long people took to do the job but in the structure of the process and in all the handovers.

Having established this, IBM analysed the process and uncovered a hidden assumption that every request was unique and required specialist assessment from four separate specialists. In reality most requests were fairly standard and could be dealt with by a generalist provided they were supported by an easy to use IT system.

The use of IT as an enabler is integral to BPR; not in using it to automate old tasks but in facilitating improved methods.

Hammer and Champy suggested the following BPR principles:

  • ·         Organise around outcomes not tasks
  • ·         Integrate information processing work into the real work that produces the information
  • ·         Treat geographically dispersed resources as though they were centralised
  • ·         Link parallel workflow activities instead of just integrating their results
  • ·         Put the decision making point where the work is performed and build control into the process
  • ·         Capture information once – at the source

It has been reported that up to 70% of BPR projects fail which has contributed to it being used less than in the 90s. However there are numerous reasons for BPR failure which should be blamed on the implementing organisation not on BPR itself. These include:

  • ·         Trying to fix a process instead of changing it
  • ·         Settling for minor results
  • ·         Giving up too early
  • ·         Skimping on resources
  • ·         Concentrating exclusively on design
  • ·         Placing prior constraints on problem definition or scope of the effort
  • ·         Trying not to make anyone unhappy

Another frequent criticism of BPR is that it lacks attention to the human dimension. This was not Hammer and Champy’s intention and Michael Hammer later advised that people’s values and beliefs should not be ignored.

Classic BPR is somewhat less popular nowadays with refined evolutions such as business process redesign, business process improvement and business process management being preferred. However, there remain many organisations which could benefit from applying BPR’s principles.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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4 06 2012

Following my last blog (Charity U-Turn A Lesson In Poor Consultation), I have received comment from a couple of politicians, one a current MP the other a former MP, questioning whether the Charity Tax is about politics or about strategy. Setting aside that the purpose of the blog was to highlight the importance of quality consultation to decision making, the comments raise an interesting question:

When discussing government policy and the implementation thereof, are we talking about strategy or is politics something altogether different?

For the sake of clarity, it might be wise to begin by establishing some definitions:

  • ·         Strategy – a plan or design for achieving one’s aims.
  • ·         Strategic – of or pertaining to strategy

These are not the only definitions that exist but these are the two that I use. Simplicity is often overlooked in planning (not to be confused with over-simplifying) and to me these two descriptions define the two words nice and simply leaving no room for confusion.

What about Politics? Is there a simple definition for the word?

I like the following:

  • ·         The art or science of power and government
  • ·         The policies, goals or affairs of a government or state or the groups of parties within it
  • ·         The methods or tactics involved in managing a state or government

The word ‘politics’ has a number of applications so there are other definitions but these three, in particular the last two, encapsulate the place of the ‘Charity Tax’ in this debate.

If a strategy is a plan or a design for achieving one’s aims then the Charity Tax was part of a plan intended to deliver the aim of closing tax loopholes for millionaires (whether good or bad is not relevant). It is therefore a component of strategy, it is strategic, it pertains to strategy.

For any government to deliver its political policies, its political goals, it will need to consider the strategy. Put another way, as with any business or any individual intending to achieve some aim, sensibly they will consider the ‘how;’ the how being the strategy, for strategy without the how is not strategy at all.

That does not mean that a lack of how cannot be strategic. For example a good strategy will be a plan put in place to reach a predefined state or destination, the vision, aim or objective. That predefined state or destination could therefore be strategic because it pertains to the strategy which will (should) follow its being established. Indeed, the strategy would have no purpose without it.

The third of the above definitions of ‘politics’ also contains an important word that often causes confusion; ‘tactics.’

Tactics are often and mistakenly assumed to be separate from strategy. Tactics are in actual fact the minutiae of strategy; the fine details that make the difference between successful delivery and failure.

Regardless of political beliefs, there is good and bad politics. However, whether good or bad, without strategy there is no delivery of policy and no achieving of goals. Without strategy politics is little more than a theoretical discussion. With strategy policies, such as the closing of tax loopholes, are put in place.

Which brings us to the difference between good strategy and bad strategy; a component of which is the intelligence, the consultation process which informs it. All of which brings us nicely back to my previous blog on the Charity Tax U-turn, a U-turn entirely avoidable had consultation been applied at the right time, in the right way and with the right people.

Is it politics or is it strategy?

It is both.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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