FLOODS HIGHLIGHT WESTMINSTER’S INCOMPETENCE ON STRATEGY

30 12 2015
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Photo: bbc.co.uk

Recent weeks have seen parts of the UK battered by storms leading to the worst flooding on record. Many of those suffering are the same families who have suffered in other floods in recent years and the question has to be asked; how could successive governments get flood prevention and flood defence strategies so wrong?

It is a recurring theme in my blogs, that of government incompetence when it comes to strategy. And it is not a party political issue, it is a cross-party one. The assumption (as in many other walks of life) is one of assumed expertise and, when things invariably end up going wrong, the excuses expose the flaws in the planning processes.

We could start by asking who in their right mind would think a deliberate plan of house-building on flood plains is a good one? Many spoke out at the time and now John Prescott’s grand, but flawed, design for partially solving the UK’s housing crisis has been exposed as a poor strategy based on finger crossing and hope rather than considered thought and informed research. And successive governments of all hues have continued Prescott’s flawed strategy so none can be absolved of blame.

Of course, many of the homes and businesses suffering pre-date recent governments and the policy of building on flood plains. They were therefore reliant on competent strategy for flood prevention and flood defence being in place.

On flood defence, despite the evidence of the past few years that things are getting worse, spending has been cut and planning has been of that flawed variety which considers only historical data, basing all decisions on that alone.

How  many times in the past few days and weeks have we heard the spokespeople for both government and Environment Agency tell us that the defences were strengthened and improved but were based on that once in a hundred years event and therefore were over-run by these more recent, worst ever floods?

Given we know the effects of climate change will lead to stormier, wetter conditions than ever before, shouldn’t we be asking; “why wasn’t climate change factored into your planning?” Shouldn’t we be asking why ALL available information including scientific predictions for future weather patterns were not factored in to planning for defences? Should we also be asking why our taxes were being spent on flood defences which were obsolete before they were started, let alone completed?

This is not advanced strategic planning for experts; this is Strategy 101 – be informed by ALL the available, relevant information; avoid the classic ‘schoolboy error’ of utilising only historical data.

And what of flood prevention? Experts have been telling us for years that strategies aimed at preventing floods ‘downstream’ need to be put in place upstream. We need agricultural land capable of holding excess water, we need more not fewer trees and foliage to assist in slowing the rate of flow and we need flood plains to be free to be just that – plains where flood water can sit, not places on which to build new homes.

It is a tragedy for those people whose homes and livelihoods have been hit yet again by severe flooding but questions must be asked as to the continued acceptance of incompetent politicians employing flawed thinking when designing strategy.

It is time our elected officials accepted their limitations instead of assuming non-existent expertise. The people who they represent deserve better but, instead, can only hold our breath and wonder as to where flawed government strategy will have negative effects next?

I fear this is far from the last time I blog about how politicians are a prime lesson in how to get strategy wrong. The only good news for the rest of us is that, inadvertently, they provide an exceptional study in how not to devise and execute quality strategy for those willing to look closely and learn.

© Jim Cowan, December 2015.





GOVERNMENT TACTIC ON DRIVING STANDARDS LACKING STRATEGY

9 06 2013
Transport Minister Stephen Hammond (pic: bbc.co.uk)

Transport Minister Stephen Hammond (pic: bbc.co.uk)

Earlier this week the UK Government announced new measures to address the poor driving standards all too frequently evident on the nation’s roads. But while the changes may appear sensible, once again the politicians have applied initiativeitis where competent strategy is required; they have employed a tactical approach without considering bigger picture strategy.

As someone who clocks up a high number of miles on Britain’s motorways and main roads, I have seen more than my fair share of the types of poor driving the Government is seeking to address via this week’s announcement. Tailgaters, middle lane hoggers and the rest are a constant frustration to anyone regularly driving on the motorways connecting the towns and cities of this country. All too often I have seen the M1 effectively reduced to a dual-carriageway by motorists who sit in the middle lane regardless of traffic, speed or any other consideration.

Transport minister Stephen Hammond said: “Careless drivers are a menace and their negligence puts innocent people’s lives at risk. That is why we are making it easier for the police to tackle problem drivers by allowing them to immediately issue a fixed penalty notice rather than needing to take every offender to court. We are also increasing penalties for a range of driving offences to a level which reflects their seriousness and which will ensure that they are consistent with other similar penalty offences.”

It sounds just what is needed and you would therefore think that I would welcome the announcement. And, in principle, I do. The policy is not where the flaw lies, the flaw lies in the execution.

In the way policy from governments of all shades frequently does, the initiative, the tactic deployed, has failed to consider the bigger picture. Most, if not all, police forces are under-resourced and given hard choices place policing the highways a lower priority than tackling crimes of other, serious natures. Police patrolling our major roads have become a rare sight, many of our highways seemingly policed by speed cameras and little else. That is not the police’s fault, they can only work with the resources at their disposal and prioritise accordingly.

I have discussed this issue before in July of last year and little has changed since then. The new initiative assumes a strategy which is not in place; it assumes resources which are lacking. In short, it assumes too much and knows too little. In Westminster ‘initiativeitis’ still reigns where strategy is what is required.

There is however good news. Businesses and organisations in all sectors can learn from Westminster’s poor understanding of strategy. Tactics on their own will always fall short of successful delivery of the goal. Tactics (initiatives) are a vital component of good strategy but they should not replace it, they should not ignore it. They should service it and the strategy they service should properly consider the bigger picture.

Next time you are tempted to rush to action before considering how that actions fits in the bigger picture, think carefully about what you actually want to achieve and the bigger picture surrounding that aim.

Or, as quoted in that blog from July of last year, unlike our politicians, heed the sage words of Sun Tzu from 2500 years ago; “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Previous blogs by me concerning policing and strategy:

Speeding to Action Before Thinking About Strategy (July 2012)

The Future of Policing in the UK – Where To? (August 2011)

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2013

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THATCHER: A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY MISSED?

23 04 2013
pic: guardian.co.uk

pic: guardian.co.uk

A week on from Margaret Thatcher’s funeral I am left wondering whether one of the most important lessons from her time as Prime Minister has been missed. To those with right leaning tendencies she appears unable to have ever done wrong while those to the left insist she could do no right.

Right or left, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, something politicians of all hues have been doing since she left office and, no doubt will continue to do into the future.

Whichever space on the political spectrum your views occupy, there was one thing about Margaret Thatcher and her time as Prime Minister everyone appears to agree on; she polarised views. However the problem with such polarised views, such extremes of adoration and hatred, is that they get in the way of reasonable analysis.

That same thing; reasonable analysis of the available data, should be at the heart of the development of any kind of quality strategy and its absence from the politics of the Thatcher era (and, indeed, since) has seriously undermined the quality of strategy coming from government then and since. Then and now we are served a diet of initiative-led rather than strategy led policy delivery and that can only serve up problems for the future.

To explain what I mean, I will use two of Mrs Thatcher’s flagship policies as examples and explain how delivering them as single initiatives rather than integrating them into longer term strategy has led to some of the problems we face today. I should emphasise that this is a modern-day cross-party problem, not simply a ‘throw-back’ to a bygone era.

The first of those policies was that of allowing council house tenants to buy their homes. Surely, not a bad thing and at the time a very popular initiative. Unfortunately, in implementing the initiative little consideration was given to cause and effect. The policy was not examined in terms of what else needed to happen for it to prove successful in the medium to long-term and hence no strategy integrating the servicing of all requirements was developed. Reasonable analysis was absent.

Cause and effect? Today we have a massive housing crisis in the UK. Social housing stock was sold off and never replaced. Those who purchased their homes in the 80s and 90s have seen the value increase enormously while those now looking for a home either cannot afford their own home or struggle to pay private rents and have little or no hope of ever finding social housing. More over 30s live at home with their parents than at any time in history.

The second policy which seemingly made sense at the time was the wholesale privatisation of energy and utility companies (denationalisation). The thinking was that the State was poor at running them properly and that private companies would do a far better job. The public liked the idea and hundreds of thousands of people bought shares in the newly privatised companies.

Cause and effect? One of the primary responsibilities of the Board of any private company is to their shareholders. Profit is king. Although few have joined the dots from privatisation to where we are today, the result is energy companies seeking profits and customers far from happy with ever-increasing bills. A very popular initiative/policy had failed to look to an inevitable future. Reasonable analysis was absent.

I am not suggesting that either policy was right or wrong. What I am suggesting is that a lack of good strategy, of analysis of cause and effect on future generations and national need meant that the policy/initiative of eighties contributed to the issues of today.

We cannot change the past but we can learn its lessons. Primary among those lessons is the importance of politicians thinking beyond the initiative of now and applying sound long-term strategy to their policies. Had that happened in the eighties the housing crisis might have been averted and household energy bills might be more manageable.

Unfortunately politicians of all parties have continued to put initiative led policy before policy led by sound strategy. They put aside or ignore that reasonable analysis of history’s lessons, of likely cause and effect to which I referred above.

Regardless of your personal political beliefs, perhaps we should agree that the most beneficial legacy left by the Iron Lady would be if our current day and future politicians learned a little more about cause and effect and the value of good strategy.

The lessons are there to be learned if any of them care to look.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, April 2013

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ATHLETICS BECOMING A MINORITY SPORT – IS THIS THE OLYMPIC LEGACY?

24 02 2013
pic: telegraph.co.uk

pic: telegraph.co.uk

I have now written about the Olympic Legacy on a number of occasions; most frequently questioning the lack of competent strategy in fulfilling the promise our politicians made to us and to the world in 2005; that the Games would bring an increase in sporting participation.

Nearly eight years later, we still await any strategy worthy of the name and, for some sports, time is running out.

I have a lot to be thankful to the sport of athletics for. As a former athlete I spent many enjoyable years training for and competing in the sport. Later I became a coach and was fortunate to work with many talented athletes. I have made friendships which have endured the years and the miles, I have seen more of the world than I could ever have dreamed of and I learned much about myself as a person. Athletics gave me a base from which I worked in a number of other sports with many fantastic individuals and great teams. Other than my parents, the sport of track and field athletics contributed more to my being the person I am today than anything else. I am grateful, extremely grateful.

Why do I share this with you?

Because athletics in the UK is in serious trouble. Forget that ‘Super Saturday’ of last summer; forget the success of Mo and Jessica and the others. That is the glossy picture that fronts a sport in decline.

The official figures paint a picture far rosier than reality. Sport England’s annual Active People Survey reports 2.1 million adults regularly (once per week) taking part in athletics. That is more than 1 in every 20 people but few other than politicians and those in sport whose jobs depend on these figures believe them anymore. Grass roots athletics certainly doesn’t. Even when you allow for the fact that Sport England includes joggers as athletes the figures are barely credible.

But what about the sport the public think of as athletics? What of the sport of Mo and Jessica and the others? What of track and field athletics?

In 2011 the Association of British Athletic Clubs asked world-renowned athletics statistician Rob Whittingham to take an independent look at track and field participation focusing on the key adult competition age of 20 to 34. His findings were that fewer than 2000 people regularly participated in track and field athletics. That is 0.1% of people participating in what the public might term ‘real’ athletics compared to Sport England’s figure for their definition of ‘athletics’.

As a way of picturing 2000 people, let me put it this way; it is insufficient numbers to field even 182 football or cricket teams (that’s fewer than four per English county) and enough for only 133 rugby union teams (fewer than three per English county).

Since 2011 athletics plight has continued. Local, national and international facilities have come under threat of closure from Mansfield to Gateshead and from Cwmbran to Don Valley in Sheffield. Britain’s most successful ever athletics club, Belgrave Harriers, has had to withdraw from the British League because of a shortage of volunteers. For the uninitiated, Belgrave has been athletics equivalent of Manchester United having won 11 National titles in The League’s 43 year history. Now their top flight aspirations are over.

In the absence of any competent strategy from DCMS, Sport England or England Athletics, Belgrave Harriers are now going it alone and have developed a strategy which will develop new, non-funding reliant income streams which, given time, can be reinvested in the club to support proper development. Where once they led on the track, perhaps Belgrave Harriers are now leading in new directions which will benefit a sport in desperate need of leadership if it is to save itself.

This is not the sport of Super Saturday, this is a sport in transition from major to minor. The sport of my youth, the sport which gave me so much and which has the potential to give much to others has become a minority sport. Strip out the joggers and not much of a sport remains.

Despite the promises of 2005 we have still to see an integrated strategy for the development of sport in this country, one which recognises the full sports development continuum. There has been plenty of talk and lots of initiatives and more than a few bad strategies, but there has been little of quality and now athletics is paying the price.

If the Olympic Legacy is to mean something, if politician’s promise to the people of the UK and of the rest of the world is not to ring hollow that must change and change quickly. Competent, quality strategy is required now, for the bell is ringing for athletics’ last lap.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2013

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ENOUGH FANTASY: THE HIGH STREET NEEDS REALITY BASED STRATEGY

27 01 2013

His Masters VoiceAs more household names disappear from our High Streets on a seemingly weekly basis, it is time for that sector to start basing their strategies in reality and not in some fantasy world which doesn’t exist or in some bygone day which is not returning.

During 2012, I saw a sharp increase in organisations from one particular sector coming to me for advice and support in developing new strategies to carry them safely into the future. These organisations were seeing their world changing and historic certainties had become present day doubts almost overnight. Their world was changing and their strategies needed to reflect that fact if they were to have a safe, healthy future.

The sector I refer to is the Third Sector, that area made up of charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises although the description of a sector facing a new world of uncertainty after decades of security could as easily fit the High Street.

The key challenge, among many, faced by the Third Sector organisations that came to me was that of reduced funding. Government and local authorities have drastically cut what funding they have available for the sector while other funders have found resources limited by a range of issues brought about by the ongoing downturn in local, national and international economies.

In order to continue with levels of service, care, development and intervention provided during the last decade, these organisations are facing a stark choice; diversify your income streams or shrink and possibly die.

Of course, I have come across organisations unwilling to change. Prepared to cross their fingers and hope the next funding bid is successful rather than plan for life in their new reality.

The parallels with the High Street are uncanny. We see a minority of businesses adapting to changing consumer habits and tighter consumer budgets while others close their eyes, cross their fingers and plan for a world where consumer habits are unaffected by the internet age and disposable income has been unaffected by the economic crisis.

The strategies of these companies are based in fantasy, a place in which no successful strategy will ever be based. Good strategy is of the real world. It is, of course, informed by the past but it is not dictated to by history. The place a good strategy is taking you is the future and a better future at that.

Next time a High Street chain closes and blames consumers for shopping on-line; instead of blame they should ask themselves if they were aware habits had changed why their strategy had not reflected this reality. And, if they were not aware, why not?

The Third Sector is grasping the fact that the world is a changed place from even five years ago. The High Street chains need to do the same, and quickly, before more household names go the way of Jessops, HMV, Comet, Blockbuster and far too many others.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2013

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HOUSTON: IT’S YOU WHO HAS THE PROBLEM!

17 12 2012

NASAIt is a line which became synonymous with the early days of space exploration and it fell into common usage as a term used whenever things were going wrong; “Houston, we have a problem.”

Only today it is Houston or, more precisely, NASA who has the problem. Why? The organisation used by consultants around the world as an example of quality Visioning has forgotten how to do quality Vision.

I am among the many Strategy Consultants who, when asked to cite a great example of what a Vision should look like has quoted NASA’s Vision originally stated by John F Kennedy on 25th May 1961:

“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

As a Vision it had everything a good Vision requires. It was measurable, it had a clear deadline, it was inspiring and motivational, it was achievable and it clearly sign-posted the way for the focus of the ensuing NASA Strategy which ultimately led to its being achieved.

Fast forward from the 1960s to the 2010s and things have drastically changed. Much of the discussion around the future of space flight appears to emanate from the private sector within the USA or from other nations not previously viewed as ‘space powers.’ NASA is slipping behind.

A recent report from the Space Foundation declared; “NASA’s 2011 Strategic Plan is no longer viable.” Others are declaring that neither NASA’s workforce, the US people nor the international community are inspired or motivated to achieve the goal previously stated of visiting an asteroid by 2025. (Source: Aviation Week).

In short, the pioneers and early pacesetters have flown off course. But why?

I would suggest that they need to do little more that look at their current stated Vision* and compare it to that of 1961. They should ask themselves; “is this measurable, does it have a clear deadline, will it inspire and motivate our people to strive for its achievement? Indeed, is it even a Vision?”

The answer will be a resounding no on all points.

While NASA need to look to their past to recognise a better route to their future, for businesses large and small around the world they still teach a simple yet vital lesson in Strategy, a lesson so many still get wrong:

The more specific and clearly stated your Vision, the easier it is to plan for its attainment, the more likely you are to achieve success.

It is a lesson which you forget at your peril!

*NASA’s current stated Vision is:

“To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

It is classic bad Visioning; confusing Mission with Vision thereby omitting the very thing which gives Strategy direction!

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, December 2012

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LEGACY FIGURES BEGGAR BELIEF

9 12 2012

Active_People_logo_fullI have visited the sorry tale of the absent Olympic sports participation legacy on numerous occasions over the last couple of years. Absent or bad strategy, undelivered promises and political finger crossing have been the key elements of the tale to date, to which we can now add barely believable data…..

Last week (December 6th) Sport England released the latest set of ‘Active People’ statistics which, somewhat surprisingly, were reported by the media without question. Yet, to anyone taking even a passing glance the figures are barely credible. It would appear that having been unable to generate the increase in sporting participation promised by our politicians when winning the London Games bid, the solution has been to simply massage the data to match the promise.

Officially 750,000 more people over the age of 16 are taking part in sport at least once a week compared to 12 months ago. Surely this is good news? Well, yes, it would be if it were believable.

The headline figure offered by Sport England’s expensive Active People survey is 15.5 million over 16s regularly (once per week) taking part in sport.

Put that figure another way and it tells us that Sport England want us to believe that 1 in 3 over 16s in England regularly participate in sport. Seriously? Take a look around you – friends, work colleagues, family, neighbours – one in every three are playing sport regularly, that is what we are being asked to believe.

I can only speak for myself and, for me, that claim beggars belief. That the media accept it unquestioningly astonishes me. That the politicians who fund this expensive survey believe it continues to offer value for money (if it ever did) astounds me.

One in three. Take another look around you. Not one in three under 30s or under 40s, but 33% of all over 16s in England.

It appears the solution for successive governments poor sports development strategy has been introduced. Just make the figures up to fit the promise. And why not, it appears no one cares enough to check anyway.

We still lack a properly integrated national strategy for the development of sport. Young people are still missing out on learning physical literacy at the key age/stage of development and we are still missing any target by which success (or failure) of government policy can be judged. But take a look around you, 1 in 3 of your neighbours are playing sport regularly (ahem) so everything in the garden must be rosy.

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, December 2012

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