21 07 2013

christopher robin and edward bearIt is probably not something that has occurred to many business owners and executives but nonetheless it is fair to say that when it comes to strategic planning, the vast majority are mimicking Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.

Let me explain…..

But first, a quick history of strategy. 2500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote about the concept and application of military strategy in ‘The Art of War.’ Then, for 2300 years or so strategy developed almost exclusively as a military tool. In the 19th Century sports people recognised the value of planned training and started exploring the concept of strategic planning, developing into the finely honed tool it has become for today’s world class performers.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century businesses dabbled with planning and the mid-20th Century business even employed an early form of ‘strategic management’ however it was not until the release of H. Igor Ansoff’s ‘Corporate Strategy’ in 1965 that business began to properly embrace strategy.

Since then, many business owners and executives have developed and delivered strategy but have failed to grasp one of, if not the, primary reason(s) for having strategy. Strategy should be about the art/science of seeking and gaining a competitive advantage.

The military recognise this. Leading sports performers and their coaches recognise this. The majority in business either do not recognise or choose to ignore this.*

Instead they prefer to employ the insane method of developing strategy. And gaining competitive advantage means avoiding the insane.

  • Insanity Planning is doing the same thing today and tomorrow that you did yesterday and expecting a different result.
  • Insanity Planning is doing the same thing as your competition and expecting to beat them.
  • Insanity Planning assumes the competitive environment does not change and expects the plans of yesterday will yield the same results tomorrow.

And modern business loves Insanity Planning. Businesses seek templates of strategies developed by others; copy the plans of others expecting different results. Such insanity should have no place in the seeking of competitive advantage; of excellence; of high performance.

Quality strategy was, is and always will be personalised. Having the same (or similar) strategy as everyone else will not deliver competitive advantage.

Of course, historically there have been times when the military have forgotten this important point in much the same way as business has. It usually takes a leader to come along and put in place strategy which avoids the insane to change thinking and remind people of the insanity of what they were doing. In hindsight, the new strategy might even look like common sense.

Such a leader was Horatio Nelson. In 1805, in the build up to the Battle of Trafalgar he recognised Insanity Planning for what it was (is). Had he not, I might be writing this article in French or Spanish.

Battle_of_Trafalgar_Poster_1805At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships came up against a superior combined French and Spanish fleet of 33. The conventional, accepted strategy of the day was to line the ships of the two opposing forces up parallel to each other and, effectively, start shooting until a winner emerged.

Outgunned, Nelson recognised this template for strategy employed by everyone else for the insanity it was. He knew that if he engaged the opposition in this way the odds of winning were extremely long. Insanely long.

So he chose to employ a personalised strategy which would give his fleet competitive advantage; which avoided the insane. As the enemy lined up according to the accepted, shared, strategy template of the day, Nelson chose to sail towards them in single file and at right angles to their straight line. He evened the odds, caused confusion amongst his foe and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nelson recognised the need to personalise the strategy to HIS goal; HIS resources; HIS (and his sailor’s) skills and abilities; HIS definition of success. In doing so, he gained competitive advantage.

What does any of this have to do with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh?

To explain that, I will quote Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

When it comes to strategic planning for business who do you mirror?

Are you an Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson or a Winnie the Pooh?

*Just a small selection of the research to support this statement:

  • 84% of a sample of 3543 companies confuse Mission and Vision. 64% thought Mission and Vision are the same thing. 91% lacked concise Vision. (Forbes 2009).
  • 61% of CEOs believe inflexible corporate structure hampers successful delivery of strategy. 82% of companies design structure ahead of strategy. (Forbes 2009).
  • 47% of CEOs say their strategies are better described as matching industry best practices and delivering operational imperatives; in other words, just playing along. (McKinsey 2011)
  • 87% of companies plan strategy using only intelligence that they share with their competitors. (McKinsey 2011).
  • 79% of Company Executives do not understand the language of strategy yet still use it. (Business Review 2007).

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2013

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


27 01 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2013

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal


5 05 2011

Make sure you properly define short, medium and long-term before starting detailed planning

Often planning cycles are adopted by chance rather than by reason. More frequently still, timeframes are confused thereby undermining strategy’s ability to deliver. As with all things strategic, you need to personalise the short, medium and long-term of your planning.

Or more correctly, the long, medium and short-term.

Having properly defined your Vision (see The Vision Thing), and assuming you have been specific enough, you will know what your ‘long term’ is. The Vision needs to be set far enough into the future to allow the necessary planning and action but not so far as to seem removed from current reality. This is usually 8 to 12 years from the starting point.

Regular readers will know I like sporting analogies and in sport, a common sense approach would suggest a 12 year Vision. Why? Because that allows us to tie planning to common cycles whether they be the Olympic common to many sports or the World Cup cycle common to others.

This is not set in stone and you will establish your own ideal for your business or industry sector however, continuing the sporting analogy, it is  convenient to medium term planning to tie it to a single cycle of four years and attach strategy to a time frame everyone in sport is familiar with and will understand.

Following this principle the short-term would then be one year which accommodates tactical planning; the far more specific details required to  deliver success.

This is one model and, while a logical model for sport, you should remain aware that your strategy is personal to your organisation and if an  alternative timeframe fits better, that should be the one you adopt.

Having established your long-term Vision you will be able to break it into the steps which will be required in order to turn Vision into reality and to identify the order in which they will need to happen.

To have a 12 year strategy would be foolhardy, not least because planning to such a long-term would not be possible given the uncertainty such a time period would bring. Cast your mind back 12 years and consider all the things that would have impacted on such a plan that could not have been predicted and you will understand the folly.

Hence, the medium term will also become the length of your strategies (aka planning cycles). In the above example each strategy would cover a four-year period (or cycle), each building on the last while leading to the next as part of a planned process to achieve the success the vision has defined.

There will be tasks that will need to completed, objectives to hit which cannot happen until others have been successfully completed/achieved. For example, again continuing the sporting analogy, the Vision might describe growth to a set number of participants (Z) which will logically mean achieving X by year four and Y by year eight.  Each business and industry will have its own objectives to apply.

This process will be made easier by identifying and defining milestones between the outset of your strategy and its completion (the achieving or surpassing of the Vision). In the same way that good Vision should excite and inspire, it is wise to have at least some of your milestones do the same.

Milestones are a great way of making seemingly enormous tasks appear achievable; best explained by the old music hall joke; “how do you eat an elephant?”

The answer – “one bite at a time!”

Returning to the use of sporting analogies, this is how John Naybor, the 1976 Olympic 100m backstroke gold medallist, went about it:

“In 1972 Mark Spitz won seven Gold medals, breaking seven world records.  I was at home watching him and I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win a Gold medal, to be able to be a world champion in Olympic competition”.  So right then I had this dream of being an Olympic champion, it became a goal.

That dream to goal transition is the biggest thing I learned prior to Olympic competition – how important it is to set a goal. Certainly, motivation is important. A lot of kids have motivation, “I’d love to be great…”.

My personal best in the 100 backstroke was 59.5. Roland Matthes winning the same event for the second consecutive Olympics (1972) went 56.3. I extrapolated his, you know, three Olympic  performances and I figured in 1976, 55.5 would be the order of the day. That’s what I figured I’d have to do. So I’m four seconds off the shortest backstroke event on the Olympic programme. It’s the equivalent of dropping four seconds in the 400m dash.

It’s a substantial chunk. But because it’s a goal now I can decisively figure out how I can attack that.  I have four years to do it in. I’m watching TV in 1972. I’ve got four years to train. So it’s only one second a year. That’s still a substantial chunk. Swimmers train ten or eleven months a year so it’s about a tenth of a second a month, giving time off for missed workouts. And you figure we train six days a week so it’s only about 1/300th of a second a day. We train from six to eight in the morning and four to six at night, so it’s really only about 1/1200th of a second every hour.

Do you know how short a 1200th of a second is? Look at my hand and blink when I click my fingers. OK, from the time your eyelids started to close to the time they touched 5/1200ths of a second elapsed. For me to stand on a pool deck and say “during the next 60 minutes I’m going to improve that much”, that’s a believable dream. I can believe in myself. I can’t believe that I’m going to drop four seconds by the next Olympics, but I can believe I can get that much faster. Couldn’t you? Sure.

So all of a sudden I’m moving”.

Be aware that the relevant time spans of short, medium and long-term are not fixed, the right one for you and your business or industry sector might not fit the business next door. As I frequently remind clients, strategy is personal, there should be no place for templates and one size fits all mind sets.

A few years ago I was working with a business on developing strategy. All previous strategy had been limited to 12 month ‘long’ term views. I asked why?

The answer was that the manager who had led on strategy was a former teacher and he had been taught that long-term is a school year, medium term is a school term and short-term is a school week.

Working as a teacher that may well be true but it had been a recipe for serious underperformance in that business!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal


10 02 2011

“Big Society has no strategy” – Although I agree, those aren’t my words; they are those of Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, Executive Director of Community Service Volunteers (CSV). In this Blog I have highlighted lack of Government strategy before and although they deny it, they continue to offer no evidence that said strategies exist.

Rather than continuing to lambast the Government for lack of strategy, I felt it was time to take a look why I say there is no strategy using the ‘Big Society’ as my example. Hopefully, some of what I say will be of far wider use than solely in Westminster.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless: "Big Society has no strategy"

Let’s start at the beginning. In order to create a strategy which will define the actions which will enable something to happen, we have to first know what that ‘something’ is.

It’s just like making a journey, before setting out it is useful to know where we are intending to end up!

Now, what of Big Society? It’s all a little vague isn’t it? The Prime Minister seems to know what it is but hasn’t explained it in terms understood by many and there are plenty, even in his own party, when asked don’t seem to be able to define it. And then of course, it keeps changing too. Every negative news story seems to bring a fresh, but still vague, explanation from Government representatives.

It’s a little like picking up Mercury. It’s there, you know it’s there, but it continues to elude your grasp. And until they have a clear, understandable definition of what it is, what Big Society should look like, they can’t possibly put a strategy in place to make it happen. They can claim they have and they can even have documents which say; ‘Big Society Strategy’ on the cover but that won’t mean they have a strategy; it won’t magically turn those documents into functional tools.

Having said all of that, let’s ignore it! Let’s assume that somewhere in Westminster there is a firm, clear definition of what Big Society looks like which just hasn’t been shared very well.

Do we then have a strategy?

Erm, no.

And it is actually on this point that not only Government but also many other organisations fall down. I have lost count of the number of times I have been proudly presented with a ‘strategy’ which was, in reality, little more than a list of aspirations.

No matter how many times the word ‘strategy’ is used to describe something, unless it clearly describes the ‘how’ and that ‘how’ is supported by sound method, it is not a strategy. It is a dream, a fantasy. To use the travel analogy applied above, it is knowing the destination we aspire to but to lack the means of travel, or even knowledge of what travel is.

This is not a peculiarly Coalition Government issue, their predecessors were probably worse. Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson famously described their policies as ‘Initiative-itis’ by which he meant for every issue a new initiative was thrown at the problem but no strategy was put in place, no cohesive thinking. Unfortunately, Robertson is one of the current Government’s Ministers who keeps reassuring us he has a strategy (for the development of sport) in place but when challenged has yet to produce it and who appears to be employing a policy of (by his own definition) ‘Initiative-itis’.

I have focused on the ‘what?’ and the ‘how?’ both key elements for any strategy. When you consider your own strategy don’t also forget to consider ‘what’ and ‘how’s’ close relations; ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ – for the same applies to them in that their absence from strategy stops it being strategy, prevents it being a functional tool.

It is said that Society (big or small) gets the politicians it deserves. Bearing that in mind, next time you are looking at your corporate or sporting or charity or whatever organisation you work for’s strategy; ask yourself, is ours any better?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal