22 07 2012

‘That Was The Week That Was’ was a satirical television programme from the BBC back in the early sixties. The last seven days would have provided the show with plenty of ammunition and, for strategists, provided lots of examples to highlight how things can (and should) be done better. I’ve picked the top three, not for satire but to highlight how seeing others getting things wrong should provide as good an opportunity for learning as for mockery.


Any infrastructure investment is welcome in the UK right now so how does the announcement of a £9.4bn package of investment for the railways qualify as a bad plan from which we can learn?

In reality it’s less about a bad strategy and more about an absent one. Back in January when the Government announced the HS2 high-speed link between London and Birmingham I made the same point; until there is a national transport strategy then any investment in the railways (or other forms of transport) is based on current understanding and guesswork not on informed, future need.

For example, with HS2 there is the idea of a ‘spur’ linking Heathrow and with the new investment there is the idea of new and improved electrified links to Heathrow from Wales and the West Country. It sounds great until you consider that until a decision is made as to where London’s much needed new airport capacity will be built new links to Heathrow might end up being investment in links to the wrong place.

Lesson: Ensure you look at your strategic planning from a globally integrated perspective to ensure it joins up. Planning (what should be) allied elements separately and independently does not guarantee your planning delivers the necessary outcomes.


Last week the IMF suggested that the UK Government should consider slowing the pace of austerity and boost spending to rescue the economy. The Government intends to continue with austerity. In the same week, the IMF also slashed the UK’s growth forecast.

Time and again during the Eurozone crisis we have seen Europe’s ‘leaders’ too focused on an unguaranteed future while ignoring the present, pressing need. Meanwhile the UK government has addressed that present need while not planning a route to the future.

Lesson: If you face a crisis, deal with it but don’t forget the need to also plan for the future. No one ever achieved the future they desire by ignoring it.

Lesson: If you face a crisis, deal with it. Don’t ignore it while planning solely for the future, if you ignore the crisis of today, tomorrow might become irrelevant.


The most surprising thing to me about the whole Olympics security issue is that anyone has been surprised by it happening.

LOCOG has escaped relatively unscathed and yet should be asked why it took five years from being awarded the Olympics for them to award the security contract for the Games. Given the July 7th London bombings took place the day after London won the bid, they can hardly claim security was a low priority.

Lesson: If you have a seven year window in which to get things done, don’t be surprised that if you do nothing for five of those years you make them more difficult to achieve.

G4S has taken the brunt of the flak and rightly so. They accepted a contract and in doing so must have considered its delivery achievable. And when the number of staff required trebled they happily agreed they could still deliver.

A bemused Nick Buckles, G4S Chief Executive, told the press that he had no reason to doubt his company would deliver as it had robust processes and plans in place. Except, patently, it didn’t. What G4S had in place was a plan not a good plan, a strategy but not the right strategy.

Lesson: Having a strategy in place offers no guarantee of success if that strategy is not adequate.

Lesson: A strategy should be a ‘living document’. Don’t write it and wait for it to deliver, constantly monitor it, check it and challenge it. Times and circumstances change, ensure your strategy does so too or, don’t be surprised if it falls short.

Time and time again I hear executives and managers of failed, failing and underperforming organisations recite a similar line to Nick Buckles; words to the effect of “but we had a strategy.”

Final lesson: Strategy is not the same thing as GOOD Strategy.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

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Twitter @cowanglobal


16 07 2012

In the UK the government is proposing lowering speed limits in order to make the roads safer. But will such legislation have the desired effect or is bigger picture strategy to address road safety being overlooked?

News broke last week that the government is contemplating reducing speed limits on certain roads. Streets in cities might face a limit of 20mph and country lanes might be lowered to 40mph. The idea was welcomed by some and opposed by others but what no one seemed to consider is why the government is making this suggestion at all?

To make our roads safer” might be a standard response but will that really be the effect?

Will a lower speed limit make a bad driver good? Is it speed that causes accidents or the inappropriate use of speed? We were told that more accidents are fatal on country roads than urban roads. Is that a surprise?

A bad driver will still be a bad driver, it is inappropriate use of speed that causes accidents and country roads will still be further from hospitals and harder for ambulances to access than urban roads.

If the aim is to make our roads safer, don’t we already have sufficient legislation on the books? The problem isn’t the legislation being less safe it is surely that it is inadequately enforced and policed.

I spend a lot of time in my car visiting clients all over the country. I regularly see tailgating, undertaking and inattentive drivers sitting in the centre lane on motorways while the inside lane stays empty. I see drivers pull out without indicating, people who appear not to know the purpose of a mirror and more, much more. What I rarely see is any police presence.

That is not to blame the police; they can only allocate the resources at their disposal according to whatever the priorities may be. And what new legislation on speeding won’t change is the resources police have at their disposal and their ability to enforce the new laws any more than they enforce the existing ones.

Last week I closed a blog explaining the difference between strategy and tactics with the following 2500 year old quote: ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat’ (Sun Tzu).

If the strategy is to deliver on the aim of making the roads safer, the policing and enforcement of existing legislation must be a key component. Without that, simply changing the law without providing the resources to deliver on the aim behind that change is ‘the noise before defeat.

As an example, consider a road not far from where I am writing this blog. Superficially this road was made safer by the building of a series of chicanes where drivers in one direction have right of way and drivers from the other give way. The problem is that no one polices the chicanes and it has become a little like Russian Roulette at times; will the car coming towards me stop and give way (as the rules dictate) or will the car accelerate and rush to get through the chicane before me ?

In an effort to slow cars down, the change has created a system where some people speed up, dangerously so, to make the gap before the car with the right of way. Not only cars but vans and buses do the same; I have even, on occasion, witnessed the police themselves do so!

Lowering the speed limit would have no effect on this behaviour, policing the chicanes and enforcing the law would.

Why don’t the police do so? A statement from Nottinghamshire Police explains their position:

We try to influence driver behaviour but realistically, it is down to drivers themselves not to be aggressive behind the wheel and to drive courteously and with consideration for other road users, something which would be relevant to concerns about the driving through local chicanes.

I emphasise, the police can only deploy the resources they have and if this is a lower priority they cannot police it. I’m sure we would all prefer they target murderers and rapists than chicanes put in place to make the road safer but which, because of lack of enforcement, have led to a different set of problems rather than a solution. But is a strategy of merely hoping drivers will follow the rules a sensible one? To what other areas of the law should we extend that thinking before its folly is exposed? But don’t blame the police, they don’t make the rules, they only police them and then with inadequate and decreasing resources.

As it is with chicanes, so it is with reducing speed limits without considering the whole picture. Would existing limits work if better enforced? Will lower/changed limits be any better enforced? Can a way be found to retrain bad drivers (not always also fast drivers) or to take them off the road? There are lots of questions to which we need answers before knowing the value of doing anything with speed limits.

On the face of it, lowering speed limits to make the roads a safer place appears a great tactic. But what of the full picture, what of the strategy?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

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Twitter @cowanglobal


11 07 2012

Walking from London to Lincoln

 Martin Hunt (pictured left) is the kind of person you probably pass and occasionally meet every day. He works hard at his job (he is a personal trainer), he loves his family and likes to try to do the right thing by others.

I first met Martin over 20 years ago when we were both athletes and about two years ago we reconnected through Facebook.

In the intervening years Martin has had a family and built a business. Nothing unusual there.

What marks Martin out as different, as a very special human being, is the efforts he goes to for charity. He recently announced that he will be walking from London to Lincoln to raise funds for two causes particularly close to his heart and I offered him some space here on the Cowan Global blog to let you know what he is doing and why he is doing it.

A modest man, he sent me the following email:

Hi Jim,

Here is a few words about my walk at the end of this month.

I am walking from London to Lincoln on the 27th July to raise money for my 7 year old twin nephews Nicky & Daniel, Nicky has a deletion of Chromosome 7, whilst Daniel suffers from Williams syndrome. This walk also follows up my walk from London to Birmingham in under 48 hours back in March 2012 for Autism, as I have an Autistic son (Myles, 4 years) I have many more walks planned in the near future. There is a lot of ignorance on society and I think we ‘able bodied’ people take many things for granted of just how lucky we are, so to me it’s easy for me to get walking.

I am open to any ideas of support from people and I am trying to get people to possibly split any donations between the 2 charities.

The links are: (Unique is a Rare Chromosome Disorder Support Group) (The Williams Syndrome Foundation)

In the picture of the twins: Daniel is on the left and Nicky is on the right.




Twitter: @oraclefitness

Many small steps become Big Leaps!

Please consider supporting Martin on his walk by pledging a few pounds (or a few pence) via the Just Giving links above. If you can circulate news of his effort among your networks, even better.

Good luck Martin.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


7 07 2012

For many, when talking about strategy what they actually mean is tactics. For some, one is applied but not the other while for others the terms are used interchangeably without full comprehension.

Matters are not helped when, as I found at a recent talk, some consultants and coaches use the terms incorrectly. It struck me that a plain English explanation of what each is and how they inter-relate might be useful…..

Let me start by disposing of a common myth; that strategy is the ‘what’ while tactics are the ‘how’. While this sounds convenient and is repeated in a number of articles on various websites and in a number of books, it is incorrect.

The ‘what’ precedes strategy; it is the vision, the goal or the aim. It is a clear description of what success looks like. While vital to successful strategy, it is not the strategy itself and is not what I am explaining today.

The definition of strategy I use is; ‘a plan or design for achieving one’s aims.’ Note that the aim(s) is (are) already defined, that the strategy is the plan, the ‘how’ which describes how that aim will be achieved.

A good vision will look to the long-term and therefore the strategy which delivers that vision will describe the journey over the medium to long-term. In doing this, there is a point at which planning in too much detail is pointless. The variables become impossible to describe, define and decide between. Therefore strategy tends to the bigger picture elements of ‘how’ deliberately overlooking fine, detailed planning.

That component of the strategy is best done short-term when variables are known and more easily managed. This element of the ‘how’ is called tactics. The definition of tactics is; ‘procedures or set of manoeuvres engaged to achieve some end or aim.

The tactics are a component of strategy, they are not separate. Where strategy is the big picture plan for delivering success, tactics are the detailed components which ensure the strategy stays on course and on time.

For many organisations the short-term planning, is all they do. For others the big picture is where planning begins and ends. For others the vision, the picture of success is vague leading to ineffective planning, whether strategy or tactics or both, in pursuit of an ill-defined aim.

Think of it like building a house. Before you can start you need to know what the finished article will look like. This is your vision. In order to build it you need to know what order things need to be built-in, where the walls go, how high the ceilings will be, how the eventual owner will access it and more. This is your strategy. However, before the house is complete and will ‘work’ you need more detail; central heating, double glazing, wiring, gas connections, lights, maybe a letter box, door handles, security features and more. These are your tactics.

In your business you should be able to describe what long-term success looks like (your vision). Without, what are you planning for? In pursuit of that vision you should have a plan or plans addressing the main elements that must be achieved and in what order (your strategy). Without, how will you achieve your vision? How will you know what you should be doing and when (to any purpose)? To ensure that strategy becomes successful strategy you should break it down into detailed plans which leave no stone unturned (your tactics). Without, you have no more than only a general idea of what to do but without specifics.

It is not wise to plan tactics too far in advance, tactical planning should be conducted no more than 12 months in advance, often less. Beyond that, the landscape is too changeable and unspecific, detailed planning becomes less reliable.

In summary, strategy is how you deliver success and, far from being different or separate, tactics are key components of every successful strategy. With strategy alone, with luck you might just get there, with tactics alone you are doing no more than being busy for the sake of being busy.

Or, as Sun Tzu put it 2500 years ago; ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

 Twitter @cowanglobal