30 12 2015

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.


28 11 2012

Photo: RoSPA

There is drinking and then there is driving and for many right-minded people, ne’er the twain shall meet. But is there a place where putting them together makes sense? A place where combining one with the other would add up?

I have been watching the unfolding debate about a statutory minimum price per unit of alcohol with some interest. Not for the same reasons as many others but more from the perspective of, yet again, watching a government in action which quite plainly does not understand the difference between strategy and good strategy nor (worse) the difference between tactics and strategy.

What has this got to do with mixing drinking and driving? Let me explain.

The Government’s logic is to introduce a minimum price of 45 pence per unit of alcohol as a way of reducing the binge drinking culture evident across England and Wales (there is separate legislation for Scotland from the Scottish Parliament of 50 pence per unit).

On the face of it, what the Government calls a ‘strategy’ is actually a tactic to address the issue. If booze costs more, people will drink less. It is somewhat simplistic but few alternatives have been put forward and there is the unfair burden on the non-binge drinking tax-payer of policing and health costs caused by the issue which might be met out of the extra income raised by the State.

But pause a moment. That is not what is actually happening. Yes, there is a 45 pence per unit increase on the way but, strangely, on Sky News’ Sunrise programme this morning, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt stated that this is not a revenue raising measure.

Not a revenue raising measure? What did he mean? Within 20 minutes Sky’s team of reporters had dug and found the answer; the extra money is retained by the seller of the alcohol, the State is not raising a single extra penny through this ‘booze-tax’.

It’s a good job the country is flush and doesn’t need to raise any extra income through genuine taxation at the moment.

Only it does. That is why the Government is umming and ahhing over whether to keep or cancel the proposed 3 pence per litre increase in fuel levy due in January.

This is where my drinking and driving analogy comes in. The media and others call it ‘joined-up thinking’ which is what we strategists call integrated planning (or more precisely, in this example, vertically integrated planning).

We have a struggling economy; we need to get business moving. Take me, picking a random couple of days from my recent diary as an example.

On 8th November I drove from Nottingham to Potters Bar for a client meeting in the morning. In the afternoon I went on to Woking to meet another client before heading for Goodwood and a business dinner that evening. The following morning I headed from Goodwood to Royal Wootton Bassett for two days work with another client before heading back to Nottingham on the evening of 10th November.

The relevance? Like many other businesses I can only carry out these essential journeys by car, which means putting fuel in that car, which means paying extortionate taxes on that fuel. The train would prove both inefficient and expensive, even without the above inflation fare rises announced today. If the Government’s plan is to get cars off the roads and their drivers onto trains then that part of their strategy is badly lacking in ‘joined-up thinking’ or integration (in this case horizontal).

Who bears the cost of these types of expensive journeys? Initially me, but in the end, you.

Yes; you. Whether it is me allowing for my costs in what I charge my clients and they then pass on to their customers or any other form of petrol or diesel driven transport used for business, ultimately the cost comes back to you. Everything, right down to the food you buy in the supermarket gets there because it is transported by vehicles reliant on heavily taxed fuel. Even if you don’t own a car, you are indirectly paying the fuel levy in almost every purchase you make.

Now, let’s try some of that joined-up thinking. Imagine two commodities; one is essential the other is not. Let’s name these two commodities; we’ll call the essential one ‘fuel’ and the non-essential one ‘alcohol’. Let’s then assume we need to raise income for the exchequer in a fair and equitable way. Assuming VAT on both, on which one would you add further taxation; the essential or the non-essential? Would you consider it even moderately sensible to tax (heavily) the essential while increasing the price of the non-essential without exchequer benefit? Especially at a time when even further taxation on the essential is being considered?

On the face of it putting up the price of alcohol and taxation on petrol are unrelated. But start thinking strategy not tactics, start thinking in an integrated way not in silos and the absence of common sense becomes more apparent.

This thinking should spread through the many arms of government as it should through all businesses; I have used drinking and driving only as examples as they are both currently in the news. But taking that example; how would your business fare if the quality of strategy, the difference between the strategic and the tactical and the depth and breadth of integration were examined?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, November 2012

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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



17 09 2010

I believe the Government are right. With the national economy in such a fragile state it is necessary to make drastic cuts to public spending. But I believe they are wrong in that this doesn’t necessarily mean we should face cuts to public services as a result. 

So I also believe the TUC are right, many public services are worth saving. And then I believe the TUC are wrong, saving many of those services does not mean we don’t have to make cuts to public spending. 

The TUC - right but also wrong


The problem here is that both Government and TUC are not thinking in a vertically integrated way. I know I have talked of vertical integration of strategy in this blog before but I make no excuse for doing so again and will continue to do so until key decision makers start to show signs of ‘getting it’. 

Vertical integration of strategy; planning in a way that means every action considers the impact and needs of every other action; or in this case, every department/service on every other service. 

Let’s take the police as an example. Nottinghamshire police are opposed to any combining of forces to create a larger East Midlands force. Whether you agree with that stand-point or not, do forces need to combine to share resources for improved efficiency/effectiveness? Of course not. 

It is the same in many local authorities. While times were good no one examined the waste created by employing only horizontally integrated strategy. Now they are so used to thinking only in a horizontal way that they fail to see how many of the services they provide could be maintained (or at least cut less) if they considered looking at how different departments can work together and share resource. Indeed, a whole generation of managers has grown up not knowing there is any other way to plan. 

There have been a tiny number of ‘eureka moments’ around the country. Only this week three local authorities in Leicestershire announced that they are to combine support services as a cost saving measure in order to maintain front line services. 

I’ve picked on the police and local authorities but during the good times we have seen the same bloated bureaucracy of employing more people than an organisation needs because that organisation cannot think beyond the horizontal. We have seen it demonstrated worst of all in the NHS but also in sport and in much of the ‘Third Sector’. 

Sadly taking such measures will undoubtedly mean cutting jobs something the Government have recognised and the TUC have opposed mistakenly thinking jobs and services are the same thing. 

Structure should always be the servant of strategy, it is part of the process designed to best achieve the strategic objectives, to reach the Vision. Yet by maintaining a system of horizontally integrated planning far too many organisations (including businesses) are making strategy the servant of structure and drastically limiting their potential during the good times and putting services at risk during the bad. 

It’s time for a national rethink on how we do strategy. 

For more on Vertical and Horizontal Integration of Strategy see: 

‘What’s All This Vertical And Horizontal Integration Stuff?’ 

‘An Accidental Demonstration Of The Need For Vertically Integrated Strategy’ 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2010 


Twitter @cowanglobal