26 06 2013

Committed_to_Equality_1I haven’t written on the value to business of understanding equality for a while however an email exchange from this morning leaves me compelled to wonder whether many still view it as something not worth the bother.

There are many very good reasons to ensure that your business takes Equality seriously. Of course, the biggest driver for many is the desire not to fall foul of the law even if, at the back of their minds, many view meeting the requirements of the Equality Act (2010) as little more than red tape.

It would be nice to believe that in the 21st century laws to ensure access to equal treatment for all are not necessary and that we all seek to accommodate our fellow human beings as best we possibly can. Sadly that is not the case and I am not naïve enough to believe it is.

That does not mean most people deliberately put barriers in the way of others. What does happen is that ignorance drives practice and the right questions are not asked, reasonable solutions not found. For that is all that the 2010 Act requires; that reasonable adjustments be made.

But other than the legal and the ‘human’ reasons for trying to provide equal access to all for your company or organisation there is another; good business practice. It might sound obvious but I will say it anyway, the easier it is for more people to access your company or organisation, the more likely it is they will use your products or services.

Which brings me back to that email exchange from this morning…..

I will shortly be acting as an expert witness in a court case. While most know me as an expert in Strategy, in this case I will be appearing specifically as an expert in Equality Strategy. Earlier today I received an email from a solicitor asking that I pass comment on a document he had prepared for the Court. He was keen that if we were to be arguing a case based on equality, any documents submitted must reflect both expertise and belief in that area.

The content of both the solicitor’s email and the attachment read well and were factually correct, however both fell short of his aim due to his poor choice of font. I commented as such, suggested a different font and advised him why it made a difference.

His reply interested me. The attached document was now presented in a good, accessible font. However his email remained in the original font. I remarked on this over the phone and, to paraphrase his reply, was told, “Oh, that’s okay, the Court won’t see that.”

This attitude is not uncommon in businesses and organisations in all sectors. Government departments, local government, charities, sports clubs and others all discriminate against significant sections of society because they can’t be bothered to change once their ‘ignorances’ are pointed out to them.

The law requires reasonable adjustments be made. I believe changing the default font setting on emails is reasonable. I do not believe that not being bothered is but, to date, no test case has been brought to support my view.

But beyond the law, what about running a successful business, department, charity, club or whatever? Does it make sense to deliberately make it more difficult for large parts of society to work with you? Does it make sense not to make access as easy as competitors who do make reasonable adjustments? Does it make sense not to steal a march on competitors who do not make those reasonable adjustments?

You tell me. The example of the poor choice of font used above could negatively impact on dyslexics accessing and making use of that solicitor’s services. Ten percent of the population are dyslexic, 4% severely so. Even at four percent, that is potentially 2.4 million customers (UK) you are gifting to your competitors. Why? Because you can’t be bothered.

The Equality Act of 2010 is the legal driver behind businesses and organisations in all sectors making reasonable adjustments which will provide improved access for all. Some call it red tape, I prefer to think of it as acting like a decent human being.

But even if the legal and the human reasons don’t drive you to reasonable adjustment, maybe the business case should?

If you can be bothered.


If you would like to find out more about this topic and/or would like to discuss arranging an Equality Audit for your business or organisation, please drop me a line to the email address below.

Also on Equality:

Equality – No Room For Excuses (2012)

Equality and Ignorance Driven Insanity in Business (2012)

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2013

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16 06 2013

what is your mission?A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog entitled ‘Corporate Strategy; Not A New Idea But Not As Old As You Thought.’ In that article, I noted that the “Mission Statement and Objectives – describe the company’s mission, vision and values…..”

I have since received a request asking me to clarify how the Mission Statement also contains the Mission and asking; “aren’t they the same thing?”

The words Mission and Vision frequently generate confusion from senior executives in large corporations to one person operations. Some omit one or the other, some confuse the two and some believe they are both the same thing. I discussed this in ‘The Vision Thing’ in 2010 but, in short, your Mission is why you exist while your Vision is where you are seeking to get to.

But what of the Mission Statement, that much-loved (and abused) adornment of annual reports? If it isn’t the same thing as the Mission then what is it and how do the two differ?

A good Mission Statement should provide a valuable touchstone for management and employees, helping to maintain focus, protecting culture and values while serving as a reminder of the organisation’s purpose(s).

The Mission Statement does not need to be the long rambling, mind-numbing tract seen in some annual reports. In essence its purpose is to cover three bases:

  • “Our Mission” – why we are in business; what is our purpose.
  • “Our Vision” – where is it we are planning to get to in X number of years.
  • “Our Values” – what we stand for, what we believe in, our style and what is important about the way(s) in which we work.

The Mission Statement does not create these elements, it reports them; they should already exist. It is not aspirational although, containing the Vision, should include that aspirational component.

The Mission Statement is never (repeat, never) a strategy. Its components might guide and, in part, inform strategy but it is never the strategy itself.

The confusion around the Mission Statement and its components has led to companies getting it wrong and, in some cases, avoiding having such a statement at all. In some sectors management have shied away from using terms like Vision and Mission, believing (wrongly) they serve little purpose, probably because they are frequently applied so badly.

As a way of addressing this fear of the Mission Statement and/or belief it has little value, I have recently applied a different, plain English, use of terms with some clients which you may find useful (they certainly have):

We replaced the trio of Mission, Vision and Values with a quartet of defining statements:

  • Why Are We Here?
  • Where Are We Going?
  • What Do We Stand For?
  • Who Are We?

In answering “why are we here?” the organisation is defining its Mission, regardless of whether that is what they call it. By declaring clearly “where are we going?” the business is putting in place Vision. And by considering “what do we stand for?” and “who are we?” the company Values are declared.

Taking it a step further, my challenge to those organisations with which I have employed this method, is to present the answers to the four questions as a ‘Statement of Intent’ in a way that can be clearly presented and understood on one side of A4 paper.

In achieving this they have created their Mission Statement and included their Mission, Vision and Values. Whether that is what they call them is unimportant. What is important is that they exist, are recorded and can be clearly understood for what they are/say.

If you are getting bogged down in and/or confused by the Mission Statement and its component parts or have avoided addressing them properly at all, give this way of addressing it a go, you will likely find it quite liberating.

In doing so you will also remove all confusion between what is the Mission Statement and what is the Mission.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2013

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7 11 2012

Photo: The Guardian

In recent weeks the media has reported numerous stories surrounding Lance Armstrong’s cheating through the taking of performance enhancing drugs. At the same time, even more space has been given to reporting the scandalous tale of Jimmy Savile’s alleged long running abuses of young people.

What no one in the media has done is link the two. No one has looked at the startling similarities in the broken and/or dysfunctional organisational cultures will allowed the cheating and the abuse to go unpunished for so long. And those similarities present a warning to us all.

Most of us would like to think that if we were confronted with a Savile or an Armstrong in our organisation, we would speak up. Most of us are also kidding ourselves. The sorry fact is that most people will not risk a career by being the only person speaking out; will not risk the scorn of others if questioning the actions of a popular colleague. In reality it is only a tiny minority who will speak up regardless.

That presents a serious problem for organisations which like to consider themselves as fair and honest; who do the right thing. If the reality is that most will not risk speaking up and the culture does not encourage the reporting of misdeeds in a non-judgemental way, then in the vast majority of cases they will go unreported.

Photo: The Guardian

Since the news of Jimmy Savile’s alleged years of abusing young people broke numerous people have spoken up; “we all suspected something,” “it was accepted that was how Jimmy was” and “I didn’t want to risk being the only one who said anything” have been regularly repeated by numerous people in various guises. In the Lance Armstrong case, retired cyclists and coaches, team masseurs and managers have spoken out not just about Armstrong but about the culture of cheating that existed in cycling at the time.

Of course, there is another side to most (but not these two) stories. Misunderstanding, misinterpretation and deliberate false accusation must be guarded against. Therefore it is encumbent on the organisation to ensure not only a culture where speaking up is accepted but also where privacy and confidentiality are respected until any case has been properly examined or reported on to the correct authorities.

This involves very deliberate plans which foster a culture where no one is worried that highlighting wrong-doing might adversely affect their career or undermine popularity. It means very deliberate plans which design in a system and structure for reporting wrong-doing which does not expose truth or falsehood before being properly investigated. And, like all good planning, it is regularly ‘stress-tested’ to ensure it works.

Such deliberate planning will not only protect against paedophiles and drug cheats; it opens the door for the addressing of work place/organisational issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, disability discrimination and more. It opens the door to protect against petty theft and fraud. It opens the door to a place where your staff are happy that they can take up issues in a fair, honest and reasonable way in the safe knowledge that they do not risk themselves (unless deliberately false) in any way.

In pointing fingers at the BBC, Stoke Mandeville, the UCI and others, many have taken the risky view that ‘it can’t happen here.’

Can’t it? Is your organisation’s culture assumed or is it known?


© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, November 2012

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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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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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7 06 2012

BPR or Business Process Reengineering was one of the big management ideas of the 1990s. Although less fashionable today, its underlying principles still make sense especially for older, larger companies which have become somewhat stuck in their ways.

The foundations for Business Process Reengineering, or BPR for short, were laid in 1990 when Michael Hammer published a paper calledReengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliteratein which he proposed that in place of automating work which did not add value, companies should get rid of it. In 1993, with James Champy, he expanded on the proposal in the bookReengineering The Corporation.’

Where previously management had started and finished at each departmental door, BPR took a bird’s eye view of a business as a whole, prizing open the ‘silos’ which had, over time, developed. The basic premise was that customer needs involved processes which cut across these old, established silos and that activities should be reassessed to reflect the full process.

Hammer and Champy defined BPR asthe fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical, contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service and speed.’ BPR’s recurring question is; “how do we add value for the customer?”

The four highlighted words used in the definition were chosen carefully. BPR is fundamental in that it asks often overlooked but basic questions such as “why do we do this?” or “why are we doing it this way?” It is radical because it starts with a clean sheet, making no assumptions and ignoring existing structures and procedures.

In seeking to make substantial improvements rather than marginal tweaks BPR is dramatic; processes because they are pivotal to BPR’s success. Where historically (and in many cases still) companies were split into departments with processes split into tasks further split between those departments, BPR reviews the tasks against their ultimate purpose focusing sharply on customer needs.

Hammer and Champy provide an example in IBM’s credit approval process which, at the time, took an average of six days and could take up to two weeks. This slow pace often meant that a customer was lost to the competition before approval was granted. The process involved five steps:

1.    The salesperson called in with a finance request which was written down on paper by an operator in the central office.

2.    The paper was sent to the credit department where the customer’s credit was checked. The result was noted on the paper which was then forwarded to the business practices department.

3.    The business practices department would modify IBM’s standard loan contract to reflect the customer’s special requests, attach special terms to the paper and forward it to the price department.

4.    The price department would determine the interest rate the customer should be charged and add it to the paper before forwarding it to administration.

5.    Administration produced a quotation which went to the salesperson who would deliver it to the customer.

IBM realised this was not efficient and tried a range of unsuccessful tweaks before an executive decided to apply BPR. He took a request for finance and then personally walked it through the entire process. Beginning to end it took him only one and a half hours! The problem had not lain in how long people took to do the job but in the structure of the process and in all the handovers.

Having established this, IBM analysed the process and uncovered a hidden assumption that every request was unique and required specialist assessment from four separate specialists. In reality most requests were fairly standard and could be dealt with by a generalist provided they were supported by an easy to use IT system.

The use of IT as an enabler is integral to BPR; not in using it to automate old tasks but in facilitating improved methods.

Hammer and Champy suggested the following BPR principles:

  • ·         Organise around outcomes not tasks
  • ·         Integrate information processing work into the real work that produces the information
  • ·         Treat geographically dispersed resources as though they were centralised
  • ·         Link parallel workflow activities instead of just integrating their results
  • ·         Put the decision making point where the work is performed and build control into the process
  • ·         Capture information once – at the source

It has been reported that up to 70% of BPR projects fail which has contributed to it being used less than in the 90s. However there are numerous reasons for BPR failure which should be blamed on the implementing organisation not on BPR itself. These include:

  • ·         Trying to fix a process instead of changing it
  • ·         Settling for minor results
  • ·         Giving up too early
  • ·         Skimping on resources
  • ·         Concentrating exclusively on design
  • ·         Placing prior constraints on problem definition or scope of the effort
  • ·         Trying not to make anyone unhappy

Another frequent criticism of BPR is that it lacks attention to the human dimension. This was not Hammer and Champy’s intention and Michael Hammer later advised that people’s values and beliefs should not be ignored.

Classic BPR is somewhat less popular nowadays with refined evolutions such as business process redesign, business process improvement and business process management being preferred. However, there remain many organisations which could benefit from applying BPR’s principles.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

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29 01 2012

A recent report has criticised the way HIV services in London are commissioned highlighting ‘significant management failings’ and a ‘lack of strategy’ as the root causes.

But as the debate surrounding the government’s health service reforms rumbles on, aren’t these among the same issues which neither side seems willing to grasp?

The recent Pan London HIV Prevention Programme (PLHPP) Needs Assessment report highlighted failings in both management and strategy for the London HIV commissioning group. The organisation spends £2.3m a year with HIV treatment in London costing £500m pa on the 30,000 people accessing care (rising by 5% annually).

The report identified ‘significant failings with the management of the programme’ and stated ‘providers have fallen far short of their activity targets.’ Of those failings the report cites ‘a lack of clarity over leadership’ and ‘inconsistent direction from commissioners’ before going on to say that the programme ‘appears to have evolved over time without any explicit strategic direction.’

It makes shocking reading and yet those responsible appear to be assuming a position similar to that of a threatened ostrich. As an example, Mark Creelman, Director of Strategy (sic) for Inner North West London Primary Care Trusts (INWL PCTs), which lead the PLHPP has stated; “we are working to ensure the programme has the right leadership and the right governance in place to be as effective as possible.”

Mr Creelman goes on to state; “across commissioning and providers, we have a joint responsibility to ensure we’re spending taxpayers money effectively.”

Few of us would argue with that sentiment yet another report into the PLHPP, published last February, showed that of 17 projects commissioned only two merited further commissioning. Nearly a year later the “taxpayers money” continues to fund all 17 projects bringing into question exactly what Mr Creelman means by “effectively?”

At the root of the problem are a number of issues which are also affecting the NHS nationally, issues which do not appear fully understood by the various entrenched positions as the ‘debate’ continues.

  1. Structure is not strategy. Time and time again at macro, meso and micro levels, the NHS (as with many other organisations) addresses weaknesses and issues via restructuring. The purpose of structure is to best facilitate the effective, efficient and economical delivery of strategy. Therefore constant restructure without strategy review and without clearly defined strategic purpose is akin to shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic.
  2. Goals are mistaken for strategy. This results in a dog’s dinner of mini-strategies at national, regional and local level, all quasi-independent of each other. Few of these strategies are even horizontally integrated let alone vertically integrated thus a structure and psychology of a large organisation split into smaller silos has been allowed to develop and prosper.
  3. Management and leadership have been confused. In short-hand, the role of management is to ensure best use of resource while that of leadership is to take people forward in a shared direction (which includes making tough decisions). The NHS is ‘management-heavy’ and ‘leadership-light’ creating a classic example of an over-bureaucratic entity.

That change is needed in the NHS is not disputed by either side of the debate however both sides are seeking structural change ahead of strategy defining the purpose of that structure. Both sides want to continue committing taxpayers money to structure where goals are funded in silos, genuine strategy is absent and the word “effective” is used in place of ‘effective, efficient and economic.’ Both parties seek to continue a structure over-reliant on management where quality leadership is being cried out for.

That both parties share the view that the NHS requires reform should be a great, shared starting place for the development of quality strategy leading to genuine reform. However the government has chosen to continue the use of the policy of ‘Modernisation’ first introduced by Tony Blair*, consultation has been a sham and the only leadership in evidence has been of the flawed variety taking us to the entrenched positions of today.

A strong, well run, accessible NHS is important to us all. Whether fighting HIV in London or providing health services for a nation let’s bring strategy and leadership back to a table dominated by management and structure before we end up with nothing more than a different version of the dog’s dinner we all currently tolerate rather than enjoy.

*For more on ‘Modernisation’ see ‘Cameron’s NHS? Beware The Moderniser!’ from February 2011.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2012

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