THIS NEW YEAR MAKE THOSE RESOLUTIONS ACTUALLY HAPPEN

31 12 2015
o-NEW-YEARS-RESOLUTIONS-facebook

Pic: Huffington Post

Every year is the same; depending on which survey you read somewhere over 70%, 80% or even 95% of all New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail. Where will yours stack up in that statistical pile?

Here are a few tips to ensure this year your resolution becomes reality.

I spend much of my time helping businesses, charities  and other organisations become more successful by helping them be better at strategy. This means not only better at delivering strategy but also, importantly, in establishing challenging but achievable targets to pursue in the first place.

And every year, where so many businesses fall short of their potential (and even fail), most of the population follow. Every year people set targets (aka New Year’s resolutions) they have absolutely no chance of achieving.

Key to your being successful in whatever you resolve to do in 2016 is to be smarter when you set your target now. By smarter, I mean SMARTER because it is an acronym you can test your resolution against:

S stands for specific. If you aren’t specific about what you want to achieve how can you honestly know when you have succeeded? “I want to lose weight,” simply won’t cut the mustard; “I want to lose half a stone” will. It is specific so that you know what it is you are setting out to achieve.

M stands for measurable. You need to be able to measure progress or you risk losing motivation. “I want to get fitter,” is a laudable aim but is hard to measure. “I want to be fit enough to run 5km without stopping” puts a measure on it and you can tick off 1, 2, 3 and 4 km as landmarks along the way to help keep you motivated.

A stands for agreed. If you are involving other people, they must all agree or you will fail. Beyond that people have a penchant for setting resolutions they think others will be impressed by instead of setting targets for themselves. Put another way, your resolution must be something that, deep inside, you agree you can and will pursue, you must agree your resolution with yourself! Half-hearted = half-arsed = doomed to fail.

R stands for realistic. You will know people (you might be one of them) who have big, often alcohol driven dreams every December 31st and who wake on 1st January to realise there is no way on God’s earth they will achieve their resolution and it bites the dust before it sees its first sunset. Unrealistic can mean plain crazy (eg I’m going to swim the Atlantic using butterfly) or ill-conceived such as committing to hit the gym for two hours every day when you know that work and family commitments will make one hour every other day far more realistic.

T stands for time-phased. In short; give yourself a deadline and, if it is a large undertaking, give yourself some time-phased check points along the way. So, if you are going to run to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for charity it might be wise to have some progressive targets along the way as you prepare.

E stands for exciting. Does achieving your resolution excite you? If yes, great; if no, bin it and get another because if you aren’t excited by it now the further we get into 2016 the less you will be motivated to achieve it and that will lead to only one thing – failure.

R stands for recorded. Not just a record for yourself but a public record to which you agree to be accountable. This might be as simple telling your friends you are going to raise over £1000 for your favourite charity or it might be sharing your progress towards fitness, weight loss, giving up smoking or whatever else on a public blog. By recording what your resolution is you make yourself accountable for its success or its failure.

Whatever your resolution, good luck in achieving it. Have a great time on New Year’s Eve; see you the other side!

© Jim Cowan, December 2015

If you are looking for a challenge to make your aim for 2016, one which will test you, help get you fitter and help others, why not join me in doing the Rio 3 Peaks Challenge in November?

There’s plenty of time to get fit, raise funds and in doing so you will be helping Street Child United continue their fight against child homelessness.





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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THE F.A. v JOHN TERRY – HOW BUSINESS CAN LEARN FROM F.A. POOR PRACTICE

14 10 2012

Learning for your business?

The dispute between the Football Association (the FA) and John Terry has received lots of media coverage and comment from both the well-informed and the ignorant alike and it is not my intention in this article to add comment on ground already covered. However, unnoticed by (it appears) everybody in the eagerness to report the headlines were a couple of instances of poor practice from the FA which, if other organisations were made aware of, could provide good examples of where common mistakes could (and should) be fixed.

Inward-Facing or Outward-Facing?

On the eve of the hearing John Terry issued a statement that the FA’s case against him made his position as an England player untenable and announced his retirement from international football.

The FA was, apparently, bemused by this decision. The Independent reported that the FA’s General Secretary Alex Horne was interviewed on 24th September outside Wembley by Sky Sports News and told them; “I don’t see how we’ve made it untenable – they’re two very separate processes. It’s something that happened in a match between QPR and Chelsea ….. That’s a very different process, from my perspective, from our England procedures. They sit in different compartments and I could separate the two in my mind. But unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he could.”

This is an attitude which is, frustratingly for many consumers, becoming all too commonplace in companies in all sectors. It is the difference between being an ‘inward-facing’ or an ‘outward-facing organisation.

What does that mean?

The inward-facing organisation understands its own needs, its own processes and its own structures but takes little time to examine how they appear, or even work, for the external party – for example a customer. As long as everything works for them, for their convenience the world is rosy. If the customer doesn’t understand, well then, it’s the customers fault or problem. We can probably all think of examples of this type of company.

The outward-facing organisation, on the other hand, examines all their processes and structures from the end-users perspective. The customer’s experience is at the forefront of all thinking and, as a result, the company is far more likely to be ‘user-friendly’ – a joy to engage with. Sadly, we can probably think or far fewer examples of this type of organisation.

Re-read Alex Horne’s comments to Sky Sports News and you see a typical inward-facing thinking process. What he effectively says is; “We understand our own structure and where one department ends and another begins. It is clear to me.” What he forgets is that outside the FA’s front door what most see is ….. the FA, not its various departments. I wonder how many times FA employees get frustrated with other organisations that operate in the same inward-facing way. Frequently, I’m willing to wager. I also wonder how frequently they equate their negative experience with other organisations with their own. Very seldom, if ever, seems a fair bet.

And what of your company, what of the organisation you work for? Which are you? How often do you look in the mirror and reflect on whether your processes, your structures are designed in an outward or inward-facing way?

Discriminatory Behaviour.

Interestingly, given the John Terry case had at its roots a serious allegation relating to an area of equality, the second piece of poor practice from the FA related to their ignorance in an area of ….. equality!

It might seem sensible if handing out a ruling on an equality issue to ensure that the way in which that ruling was published was itself not discriminatory.

The ruling (published here) was written from start to finish in a ‘serif’ font – that is one of those fonts with the little lines above and below letters (like Times New Roman or Courier). I’m sure you are thinking; “yes Jim, just like hundreds of documents I read every day,” and you would be right. But while those documents might also discriminate, they are not publishing rulings on a case relating to equality, the FA was and should have been aware.

In publishing the document in this style the FA had given scant consideration to those who are dyslexic, recognised as a disability under the 2010 Equality Act. The British Dyslexia Association’s style guide suggests using a plain, evenly spaced sans-serif font such as Arial and Comic Sans. Alternatives include Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Trebuchet.

Not uncommon mistakes but now you are aware (as the FA should have been) you can act to make your own communications far more easily read to a significant minority of the population. Not to do so would be inward-facing, putting your own convenience ahead of your customer and potential customer (is changing font really that difficult?). Not to do so would potentially cut the reach of your communications possibly reducing your sales. Now that you know, not to so would also be discriminatory.

In publishing its ruling in the style that it did, the FA broke its own Equality Policy, it potentially discriminated against a group of people defined by the law as disabled. But then, as an inward-facing organisation, they can read their own communication, what does it matter if some others can’t?

What about you and your business? Are you any better? Have you checked?

 

(Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and colour-blindness are all closely related. Together, an estimated 10% of the population have one or a combination of them).

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, October 2012

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GOALS & STRATEGY – ARE YOU CONFUSING THE TWO?

3 09 2012

You know where you want to get to and you are highly motivated to get there. Your desire for the success you have defined is strong and you are determined to push until you arrive.

Only one thing can stop you; your lack of strategy.

Mistaking Goals for Strategy is not an unusual mistake in every sector within which I have worked, from business to sport and from charities to local government. And because so many confuse the two it is a weakness that many businesses overlook until it is too late.

I recently met the owner of a business who has struggled somewhat in the economic downturn of the last couple of years. He was confused by the struggles of his organisation because, he said, his strategy always made sense on paper. He asked, would I mind joining his Senior Management Team and him to take a look to check they had it right?

A couple of weeks later I was sat in the company Board Room listening to him and his SMT explain the Company Strategy to me. As is the current vogue, the strategy had a name; the ‘20/five/25 Plan’ and, I was assured, I would love it because of its “beautiful simplicity.”

The plan was to increase revenues by 20% per annum over the next five years while increasing profit margins by 25% over the same period. Having told me the plan, they looked at me expectantly, I assume waiting for praise.

I paused before I spoke considering my words very carefully. “Well, it is certainly aggressive,” I started, “now, what will you need to do to ensure this happens?”

Bob, the company owner smiled at me before saying; “you are going to love this Jim, especially given your sporting background and your belief in always striving for excellence. Because what we have here in abundance is the will to win and the desire to keep pushing even when it hurts. Yes, 20/5/25 is a challenge, but we are all winners here and we are committed to keep pushing until we get there.”

I again paused before I spoke, aware that communication isn’t always what you say but also about what you are understood to have said. Maybe he misunderstood my question? Okay, I’ll phrase it differently; “Bob, I congratulate you and your team on your ambition however, making this kind of leap in performance usually relies on identifying a key strength on which you can build, create change or generate new opportunities. What is it you have identified?”

Still expecting something more, Bob’s response surprised me. He quoted Jack Welch; “we have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually achieve the impossible.”

Of course, one of the problems with using quotes in such circumstances is that they are often used selectively and/or out of context. It was Jack Welch who also said, “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”

I needed to change tack and so asked Bob if he saw the generals in command at the Battle of the Somme as suitable role models? He asked me to explain what I meant.

I took a deep breath and explained; “At the Somme, and at Passchendaele and at many other First World War battles, ‘pushing until you get there’ sent tens of thousands of men over the top to almost certain death. They didn’t lack the will to win; neither did they lack motivation even if, for some, motivation came from the threat of being shot if they didn’t go over the top. What thy lacked was competent strategic leadership; leadership which could see the difference between blindly pursuing a goal (‘over the top, one more push’) and having a clear strategy, a series of coherent steps to get them there. What strategy does is to establish the conditions which will make the push, the motivation and the will to win successful.”

I saw the penny drop. Bob and his SMT realised that what they had in their ‘20/five/25 plan’ was, in fact, an aspiration, a goal. In order to reach the destination defined by that goal they needed to plan the route. They needed a strategy.

Bob and his SMT are now developing that strategy and in the course of doing so have pared back their ambitious goal because they realised they lacked the resources to achieve it. They won’t make the same mistake again and they are now well on the way to planning their way through the downturn and to emerging healthy and ready to grow.

But what of you and your business? Does your strategy confuse the ‘what’ with the ‘how’? Are you going over the top for one more push or have you got a clearly marked road map to success; aka, a strategy?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, September 2012

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THIRD RUNWAY DEBATE HIGHLIGHTS THIRD-RATE STRATEGY

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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