28 08 2012

The debate over whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport has re-emerged over the last couple of days with opinion split. However being for or against a third runway at London’s main airport is avoiding the important question; why is government strategy on transport so poor?

It is a topic I have covered on this blog before; that of the absence of an integrated strategy for transport. In January, news of the new HS2 high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham broke while last month investment in electrified rail lines was the latest announcement from government.

Linking the two together was an apparent recognition of the future importance of Heathrow. HS2 will have a spur added to link it directly to the airport while Wales and the West Country will gain direct links thus avoiding the need to travel into London and back out for flights.

What no one has announced is any research which clearly defines what future transport in, around, to and from the UK needs to look like in 10, 20 or 40 years’ time. This is important because without knowing this, no one can be sure that these are the right trains running between the right places.

It is something that doesn’t only impact on planning our railways and on Heathrow’s expansion (or not). Neither does it only impact on our road networks and all of our airports; it impacts on all aspects of transport including (for example) the possible use of canals as a green alternative for freight transport and, most importantly, how they all interlink.

Those for the building of a third runway at Heathrow, quite rightly, point out that London and the UK risk falling behind our competitors if we do not address the need for increased capacity especially for flights to and from emerging markets. What they don’t explain is why this capacity has to be at Heathrow.

Those against, quite rightly, point out the already high levels of noise and other pollution suffered by those living under Heathrow’s flight paths. What they don’t offer is an alternative solution to the problem.

Others, for example Boris Johnson, argue for a new airport in the Thames Estuary (nicknamed ‘Boris Island’) while Stanstead, Birmingham, East Midlands and others have all been put forward and dismissed at different times.

Meanwhile, while approving rail infrastructure plans which recognise Heathrow’s importance the Government sees no need to consider the need for increased air capacity until 2015 or later. As a strategy this is one of crossing the fingers in the hope the trains will be going to the right place instead of making decisions and planning now to ensure they are.

Such third-rate strategy negatively affects us all. The delay in making a decision could undermine Britain’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. Making what should be integrated plans separately risks far higher costs, especially if the solution used is away from Heathrow and (e.g.) a different HS2 spur is needed or further electrified lines are required.

The time to make the decision on Britain’s need for increased air capacity is now. The time to devise an integrated strategy for transport over the next three to five decades is now. Doing it piecemeal, addressing the railways without considering the roads, without considering the canals, without considering the ports (air and sea) is to apply third-rate thinking and third-rate strategy.

We will end up with what we get having missed the opportunity to clearly define what is to the nation’s best benefit from the outset.

It is not all negative though; the above provides a great warning for business when addressing strategy. Be sure to gain an awareness of the big picture before turning to detail and be sure to consider the impact of planning for one aspect of your company on those other, apparently unrelated elements.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2012

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Twitter @cowanglobal


19 08 2012

Much of what is written about and discussed with regard to strategy refers to ‘planning for success’ – but what happens next? Many businesses plan for success without contemplating the impact the success they desire might have on their business and the demands it might make on the staff they rely on…..

The success story that is British Cycling offers numerous lessons in strategic and tactical planning however twelve years ago such success was very new to the organisation and putting in place planning to accommodate the impact of the success they strived for was a new concept.

In the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996, as hard as it might be to believe in the light of current successes, British Cycling was among the also rans. The team picked up two Bronze medals ranking them twelfth in the cycling medal table.

Four years later, their now famous planning and attention to detail had started and the upward curve of success had started. Sydney 2000 saw Britain climb to sixth in the cycling medal table with Jason Queally picking up Gold and Silver medals and young unknowns by the name of Chris Hoy  (Silver) and Bradley Wiggins (Bronze) picking up the first of their now many medals.

Of course, this success was the reward for vastly improved planning and attention to detail but while the team enjoyed success in Australia, back in the UK the impact of that success had not received the same attention to detail and the small staff at their offices nearly drowned under the tidal wave of media and public interest.

As is the way with British Cycling, and with all organisations pursuing excellence, the lesson was learned and now along with achieving success, the impact of that success is always a consideration when planning.

The impact success can have on your business is not always as obvious. Consider the membership organisation I came across that consider themself to be a success. With 3500 members they are among the largest organisations of their type in the UK and they also lead the way with the recruitment of new members; around 300 a year. And yet, membership year on year is static, they are not only recruiting 300 new members a year they are also losing 300 members a year.

The business concerned considers the ‘lost 300’ to be normal, an accepted churn rate. But closer examination showed the impact of a very successful department within the business not being considered across the business.

The sales team was well resourced and had a range of exceptional benefits to offer prospective new members. As a result they were highly effective. Meanwhile the member services team was under-resourced and struggling to keep up, failing to deliver on benefits promised as part of the sales process. The impact of success in one department had not been considered when resourcing another. The result was that for every new member recruited one was lost and, largely ignored by the Board, the organisation’s reputation among its remaining membership for delivering on promises was poor. The organisation’s poor planning was undermining its own potential for growth and its reputation.

When pursuing excellence for your business which model will you choose to follow, the one that plans for success and for the impact of that success or one which plans for a version of success limited by its capacity to recognise the impact on it of one successful department?

Continued success and increased success can be reliant on recognising and planning for the impact of success. Don’t undermine your

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13 08 2012

As the London Olympics close no one is doubting they have been a huge success. Team GB have finished an unprecedented third in the medals table, fantastic crowds have turned up to watch, huge television viewing figures have been attracted and people young and old have been inspired to somehow get involved.

Now we look to the future, to the legacy, the promise that these games would inspire more people to take up sport, the very pledge on which the Games were won in 2005.

Over the last week, ‘legacy’ has become the bandwagon that everyone has wanted to jump on without really considering what legacy is and what was promised. Talking on the BBC on Saturday evening (11th August), presenter John Inverdale asked his studio guests, “is this legacy?” when talking about the sudden increase in interest in playing sport. Excitedly, his guests and others talk of hoping legacy is what we are seeing. Now we have hosted a successful Olympic Games it seems all we need to do is hope that a generation will now be inspired.

There is a term for this and it isn’t legacy. It is ‘Wimbledon Effect.’

It is that effect we see every summer during the Wimbledon fortnight and, sometimes, for as long as two weeks after where ‘inspired’ people take to the nation’s tennis courts before gradually they return to previous interests or jump on the next fad that grabs their fancy.

The challenge hasn’t changed since before the Golden sixteen days we have just enjoyed, since London won the Games in 2005. The challenge is to avoid relying on hoping and have in place strong, sensible, integrated planning; it is in putting in place a dedicated strategy for the development of sport in the UK for the first time ever.

Governments past and present have promised such strategy and talked such strategy but delivered only a seemingly endless stream of initiatives. Current Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson even promised he had such a strategy but was not able to produce it when asked.

The focus of the legacy debate these last seven days has been on two specific areas; the continued funding of elite sport and the quality of school sport. A cynic might suggest that debate was deliberately framed to ensure popular support for yesterday’s announcements from Prime Minister David Cameron that elite funding will be maintained and that competitive team sports would become compulsory in all primary schools. Both are announcements that it is difficult not to support and yet both are, yet again, populist initiatives plugging gaps where no fully functioning strategy for the development of sport exists.

The funding news is fantastic but maintaining a healthy peak to any pyramid is folly when the strategy to build and support what sits beneath is not in place.

The news that competitive sport will become compulsory in primary schools is also welcome but in isolation does not address many other gaps in sporting provision in primary schools. For example, training in PE for primary school teachers is woefully inadequate and it is those teachers who will be in the front line of delivering the Prime Minister’s new initiative.

The benefits of a healthy sporting nation – where more and more take part in physical activity – cannot be underestimated, not only to the ‘pipeline’ of elite sport. It has value in healthy people making fewer demands on an already stressed health service, in keeping crime down and fighting anti-social behaviour as well as in understanding the ethics of hard work, of being part of a team and of having a well organised life.

In short, done well this is not money spent, it is money invested. But simply having competitive sport in primary school is not doing it well; it is doing something but not the right thing. For every person like me who is eternally thankful for being good at sport and for the advantages it has given me in life there are two or more who missed out because they weren’t as good, they were the twelfth player in football, the ones who walked around at the back in cross country. How do we involve them?

The most vital lesson for sport and for a life of healthy physical activity we can teach in our primary schools is not competitive sport; it is the skills that enable the participation in sport. These skills (collectively termed ‘physical literacy’) are best learned during the primary ages of 8 to 11.

This is not to say competitive sport doesn’t have a place, it just shouldn’t have the place in this age group. Not if we want a broad base and healthy pipeline for our well-funded pyramid, not if we want to develop a healthy, sporting nation that continues to participate well into middle or old-age. It is not a populist policy aimed at votes in the next election, it is doing the right thing for the long-term health and sporting success of our nation, laying foundations that will remain even if/when the funding reduces. Moreover, it is not expensive to do.

Physical literacy in primary schools is one important but overlooked element of creating and delivering an integrated strategy for the development of sport in the UK. There are others which service the sports development continuum providing a pathway through foundation to participation to performance and to excellence and which provide well thought out support structures at and between all stages (such as providing primary teachers with the training they need in PE). It provides entry and exit routes at and between all levels. It recognises that while the talented few aspire to and pursue excellence the vast majority will never move on from and be happy with participation. All is planned, nothing is accidental and use of the word ‘hope’ is eradicated.

We must move away from debate by sound-bite and delivery by initiative and start thinking more of what the long-term vision is and what the strategy is to get us there; the fully integrated, strategy for the development of sport in the UK which recognises and fully services the sports development continuum.

It is the difference between there being a genuine Olympic Legacy or yet another Wimbledon Effect.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2012

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Twitter @cowanglobal


6 08 2012

At a business event last week, I was amazed to hear a company owner refer to Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington as “a failure” for “only” winning a bronze medal. His view is not a common one but is also far from rare and I wonder, if the roles were reversed, how those pointing the finger at high performing athletes might stand up if the performance of their own business was put under the same microscope?

There is a disease in business. The symptoms are easy to spot. They are visible in the business which is doing okay but shows no desire to do better, or the company owner who dreams of success but doesn’t like the idea of working too hard. Then there is the symptom which shows itself in working exceptionally hard without generating forward momentum and there is the organisation which has a plan but which never challenges the quality of said plan.

Of course, none of these symptoms will be showing in your own company, but you will recognise them, you will have seen them elsewhere. Sometimes you even point them out to friends and colleagues. But, seriously, when was the last time you looked in the mirror?

I mean really looked?

I mean, how does how you plan for your business, how you organise your life, how you go about your business compare with the way an elite sportsperson does those things?

Watching the Olympics and Paralympics on television (or, for the lucky few, live) you will not see the equivalent of most of the businesses you meet every day. They are the park footballers, the three times a week squash players and the daily jog around the block. They can perform but have never found out how well they can perform. They are the business which is doing okay but, if they could be bothered, should be doing a lot better.

You won’t see anyone performing in the Olympic Stadium who dreamt of success but bottled it (or sought excuses) when hard work beckoned. Conversely, neither will you see athletes who went out and trained as hard as they could without first checking it was the right training of the right quality at the right volume at the right frequency with sufficient specificity to get them where their dreams desired.

The world is full of talented athletes who followed a plan and did everything it asked of them but who never made the Olympic team. Far rarer are those sportspeople who didn’t only do everything their plan asked of them but also made sure to do it well. Then there is that tiny minority who don’t just plan but who plan well, who also regularly review the plan to ensure it is taking them to the desired destination.

Which of these athletes is your business?

Would you qualify for the Olympic trials? Would you qualify for the Olympic team? Would you make the Olympic final? And if you would make the final, would you win a medal?

As for the disease I mentioned earlier, its name is mediocrity. You don’t see it in the Olympic Games, what you are watching is the elite few, the pinnacle. But you do see the disease far too frequently in business. In fact you don’t have to look very hard to see it every day.

While watching the Olympics, don’t forget to take a long look at your business in the mirror. Instead of criticising those who come so close to the peak of Mount Olympus they can almost touch it, think.

Think; what you can learn from these exceptional individuals about performance and about excellence. Think; what learning can you apply to your business. Think; how can you stand apart from the crowd infected with mediocrity.

And don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one ever won an Olympic medal without seeking the right expert advice along the way!


Strategy Consultant and Speaker Jim Cowan, is a former athlete and elite level coach who has worked with elite sportspeople around the world including a world record holder, a world champion, world medallists and numerous international athletes. By merging the lessons from elite sport with traditional corporate strategy models, Jim delivers performance strategy for businesses who aim to excel. Or, as Jim puts it; “if your performance doesn’t bother you, please don’t call!”

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal