Monthly Archives: April 2016

DOES THE TABLE IN YOUR BOARDROOM HAVE FOUR CORNERS?

In small to medium sized businesses there is often a missing corner or two on the boardroom table and, increasingly, the same is now true of larger companies.

What are these corners and what purpose do they serve?

Boardroom TableThe smaller the business the more likely that it is run by people who think in similar ways. For start-ups that friendship, that ‘likeness of mind’ is often a key component in getting from concept to reality but at that point it can become something that hinders the unsuspecting company.

The ‘Board’ (or those running the company) becomes a couple of people or a group of people who think and act the same. They lack the diversity that is required to drive the kind of growth which delivers on early potential. The business reaches a critical size and growth ceases or, if they are fortunate, slows.

In the larger company the situation is different but generates the same problem. There are a number of people around the boardroom table, often very diverse in specialism, experience and knowledge. And because of that diversity, a dangerous assumption is made – that the necessary range of skills, knowledge and experience are assembled.

In both cases, a reality check is needed. That check involves ensuring that four vital specialisms are assembled; the four key corners of any boardroom table. But what are these four key specialisms?

  1. The Strategist. This specialism is the most easily and most frequently overlooked. The board assume strategy to be a generalist skill which they can all handle between them and any ensuing strategy ends up being a hotch-potch of generalist ideas lacking proper direction and cohesion. And responsibility for strategy (in other words the company’s future) is shared, the buck does not stop anywhere and over time the strategy becomes a vague notion or is discussed in terms of aims and objectives with few (if any) clearly defined actions worth having.
  2. The Money Man. Of the four, this is the specialism least likely to be omitted in larger companies (there will usually be a Financial Director) but in the smaller companies is an assumed presence which doesn’t really exist. It is assumed because books are kept and the accountant checks them over every quarter (if lucky) or annually (more commonly).
  3. The Manager. Of bureaucratic mind-set, the Manager is the ‘husbander of resources’ essential to any organisation to ensure the economical use of those resources and to the eradication of waste. Unwatched the Manager can become caught up in his/her own bureaucratic processes and start overlooking the very waste he/she despises because the processes appear to be working. Focus is on the job of management not the future of the organisation.
  4. The Leader. Often, wrongly, assumed to be the same person as the manager, the Leader tends to the less bureaucratic and more to the adhocratic. The Leader’s role is to take people with them on the journey. Of course, without a dedicated Strategist the journey is often ill-defined and the Leader, being of adhocratic mind-set will lead wherever people will follow but not necessarily in the right, planned direction best for the company.

Put together the four might seem a strange group to be working together but it is their diversity which gives them their strength. The Money Man and the Manager tend to be data driven, needing historical information to inform any decision making. The Strategist and the Leader tend to the visionary, preferring to look to the future in preference to the past.

The mix is further diversified when considering where they sit on the continuum between bureaucratic and adhocratic. The Manager tends to be highly bureaucratic, the system and the process are everything and ease the job of management. The Money Man and the Strategist sit nearer the middle of the continuum, the data driven Money Man tending to (but not driven by) the bureaucratic and the future driven Strategist tending to (but not driven by) the adhocratic. The Leader tends to be more highly adhocratic wanting everyone pulling together regardless of direction.

None of these definitions are absolutes. There are certainly Strategists who favour historical data and putting a strategy in place requires a healthy dollop of bureaucracy if it is to be cohesive and executable.

The key to the four corners is that they balance each other. Bureaucracy and adhocracy are not natural bed fellows but are both important components of a healthy board. Data driven and future driven mind-sets are more likely to get along (but not always).

Most boards will feature a nominal leader in the CEO however the reality is that individual could be from any of the four corners but tend to be either the Manager or the Money Man. Companies are run sensibly, conservatively but are resistant to change. This is all very safe unless change is required (think of the recent spate of closures on the High Street).

There is nothing wrong with the CEO being Manager or Money Man so long as the board is balanced, that all four corners are occupied. However, most likely to be absent from the board room are the Strategist and the Leader which can undermine future planning and the spotting and seizing of opportunities to diversify and realise attractive directions in which to move and grow.

The healthy board will ensure the four corners are filled before adding other seats around the table. But how many actually do and how does yours shape up?

 

© Jim Cowan, 2013-2016

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CALLING IT ACCESSIBILITY DOESN’T MAKE IT ACCESSIBLE

 

Microsoft-Logo-HDRegular readers of my blog will know that as well as offering Accessibility Audits and general equality advice, I can also be outspoken when those who should know better get accessibility wrong or, worse, pretend they have it right.

The larger the business the less of an excuse lack of resource can be (as it often is for small businesses). One such business is Microsoft, however their errors serve well as lessons for others.

Multi-national corporations don’t come much larger than Microsoft and, if you believe their website, they take Accessibility very seriously indeed. So seriously they have a whole section on their website dedicated to it. If only everyone took Accessibility as seriously as Microsoft.

MS - Accessibility Can EmpowerTheir website tells us; “Accessibility can empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more, whether your personal limits last a day or a lifetime.”

 

Indeed, it does.

MS - Accessibility Makes It EasierWhen introducing Microsoft’s Mission for Accessibility the site states; “Accessibility makes it easier for everyone to see, hear, and use technology, and to personalise their computers to meet their own needs and preferences. For many people with impairments, accessibility is what makes computer use possible.”

 

Indeed it does.

MS - Bill Gates VisionBill Gates, Microsoft’s founder and Chairman is quoted; “Our vision is to create innovative technology that is accessible to everyone and that adapt to each person’s needs. Accessible technology eliminates barriers for people with disabilities and it enables individuals to take full advantage of their capabilities.”

Indeed, it does.

To the uninformed reader it would appear that Microsoft are on the ball and leading the way. Except they are not. They may think they are, but they are not. They have fallen into the same trap as many other businesses, large and small, of assuming expertise they do not have (or, if they have, not employing it).

And I can tell all of this by reading a couple of pages on their website.

How?

Simple. The entire ‘Accessibility’ section of their website is presented in a font which is inaccessible to an estimated 10% of the planet’s population – that’s a lot of people to exclude.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Accessibility section on Microsoft’s website is inaccessible to a large number of people.

There are other oversights which should not have been missed, especially given Microsoft’s claim that their “commitment to developing innovative accessibility solutions started more than two decades ago.” These oversights exclude a potential 15% of people and, it is worth emphasising, I can report this based on a quick scan of a couple of pages. What might I find, how many people may be excluded, were I to take my time and look deeper?

Two decades on and they are still overlooking the basics.

But why is this important to you and your business?

Depending on where you live, there is the law (the 2010 Equality Act for UK readers) but surely, more importantly, there is treating other people decently and with respect. And then, there is the business case.

Microsoft may be big enough not to worry about excluding potentially 15% of the world but the smaller your business by comparison, the more vital to your marketing, to your profitability that 15% will be. In the UK alone that 15% is a potential 9.5 million people. And that is just in this one area of Accessibility, there are many others you may, or may not, be aware of.

Accessibility is a serious issue and should be a serious consideration for every business (and the third sector too). Talk is easy. Positive action is something else altogether.

 

If you would like to find out more about this topic and/or would like to discuss arranging an Accessibility Audit for your business or organisation, please get in touch via the ‘drop me a line’ link below.

© Jim Cowan, 2016

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THATCHER; A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY MISSED?

Three years on from Margaret Thatcher’s passing 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.

Pic: The Guardian

Pic: The Guardian

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 social housing 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 and 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, 2013, 2016

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