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.


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

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal



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

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal



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

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal



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

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal



13 06 2012

Photo: The Telegraph

Since I started writing this blog a little over two years ago, the theme I have returned to more often than any other is that of the paucity of quality strategy to service the participation legacy promised by the UK when awarded the London Olympics seven years ago.

It is a tale of poor strategy, of excuses and of blame. Most of all it is a tale of making big promises and then failing to plan for their delivery. 

For all the political spin and media hype over the Olympic Legacy, there was one key legacy promise made on the nation’s behalf which has not been delivered and all for the simple lack of quality planning, the absence of good strategy; that of a measurable increase in levels of participation in sport in this country.

I was therefore interested to hear of Hugh Robertson’s lunch with the Sports Journalists Association which took place last Thursday (7th June) and to read comments the Minister for Sport made.

Mr Robertson is the Minister who coined the term ‘Inititiveitis’ shortly after the last election, a term he used, correctly, to describe the poor strategy displayed by the previous government when pursuing the participation legacy. In short, in place of quality strategy addressing the sports development continuum, the policy had been one of producing a seemingly endless number of initiatives in the hope they would somehow deliver on the promises made in Singapore on behalf of us all in 2005.

Unfortunately, since coining the term, the Minister has continued with more of the same, a stream of initiatives but still no clear, integrated strategy for the development of sport in the UK which services the full sports development continuum. In July 2010, after claiming to have such a strategy, he was challenged to produce it. We still wait.

You will understand my interest, nearly two years on, to hear what sort of update Mr Robertson would provide for the assembled journalists.

He is still scornful of the previous government’s efforts to service the legacy promise. He rightly points out that the target of one million more people being active by 2012 was “just idiotic.” Having an unattainable target gets in the way of quality planning as surely as having no target.

Over two years into his role as Minister for Sport and just under two years after promising he had a (still unseen) strategy for the development of sport in the UK, it was good to hear that he does at least have a clear aim.

One of the things being in the Army taught me,” Mr Robertson said, “was always have a clear aim. It is our absolutely clear aim to deliver a successful Olympics, and part of that is having a successful team.

This is good to hear. It is reassuring to know that he understands the need for a clear aim. However, knowing he understands makes the absence of any new target for the physical activity legacy baffling. He was right to get rid of the unachievable ‘one million’ target but what of its replacement? What is the new, realistic aim which will drive planning for this part of our nation’s legacy promise?

Sadly, we don’t know. Two years after getting rid of a bad target we still await news of its replacement. And, without that clear aim, quality strategy to achieve it cannot be put in place. Perhaps this is why we are still yet to see the strategy promised two years ago?

Two years (at least 40%) into this government, I do not believe it is unrealistic to have hoped for more from the Minister who recognised Initiativeitis for what it was and who professes to so clearly understand the value of a clear aim.

Two years into office, the lack of planning and any shortcomings within his own department and within its delivery agency (Sport England) cannot be blamed on the previous government. The buck must now stop at his own Ministerial door.

If the advice he receives is flawed, it is time to change the advisers. If the lack of clear, quality strategy is the responsibility of someone (or some agency) under his direction, it is time for a clear-out and for new, more capable strategists to come in. And if the lack of clear progress towards an undefined participation legacy target is frustrating him, he should try being in our shoes!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal



4 06 2012

Following my last blog (Charity U-Turn A Lesson In Poor Consultation), I have received comment from a couple of politicians, one a current MP the other a former MP, questioning whether the Charity Tax is about politics or about strategy. Setting aside that the purpose of the blog was to highlight the importance of quality consultation to decision making, the comments raise an interesting question:

When discussing government policy and the implementation thereof, are we talking about strategy or is politics something altogether different?

For the sake of clarity, it might be wise to begin by establishing some definitions:

  • ·         Strategy – a plan or design for achieving one’s aims.
  • ·         Strategic – of or pertaining to strategy

These are not the only definitions that exist but these are the two that I use. Simplicity is often overlooked in planning (not to be confused with over-simplifying) and to me these two descriptions define the two words nice and simply leaving no room for confusion.

What about Politics? Is there a simple definition for the word?

I like the following:

  • ·         The art or science of power and government
  • ·         The policies, goals or affairs of a government or state or the groups of parties within it
  • ·         The methods or tactics involved in managing a state or government

The word ‘politics’ has a number of applications so there are other definitions but these three, in particular the last two, encapsulate the place of the ‘Charity Tax’ in this debate.

If a strategy is a plan or a design for achieving one’s aims then the Charity Tax was part of a plan intended to deliver the aim of closing tax loopholes for millionaires (whether good or bad is not relevant). It is therefore a component of strategy, it is strategic, it pertains to strategy.

For any government to deliver its political policies, its political goals, it will need to consider the strategy. Put another way, as with any business or any individual intending to achieve some aim, sensibly they will consider the ‘how;’ the how being the strategy, for strategy without the how is not strategy at all.

That does not mean that a lack of how cannot be strategic. For example a good strategy will be a plan put in place to reach a predefined state or destination, the vision, aim or objective. That predefined state or destination could therefore be strategic because it pertains to the strategy which will (should) follow its being established. Indeed, the strategy would have no purpose without it.

The third of the above definitions of ‘politics’ also contains an important word that often causes confusion; ‘tactics.’

Tactics are often and mistakenly assumed to be separate from strategy. Tactics are in actual fact the minutiae of strategy; the fine details that make the difference between successful delivery and failure.

Regardless of political beliefs, there is good and bad politics. However, whether good or bad, without strategy there is no delivery of policy and no achieving of goals. Without strategy politics is little more than a theoretical discussion. With strategy policies, such as the closing of tax loopholes, are put in place.

Which brings us to the difference between good strategy and bad strategy; a component of which is the intelligence, the consultation process which informs it. All of which brings us nicely back to my previous blog on the Charity Tax U-turn, a U-turn entirely avoidable had consultation been applied at the right time, in the right way and with the right people.

Is it politics or is it strategy?

It is both.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal