Category Archives: Politics

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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IGNORANCE DRIVEN INSANITY IN BUSINESS

“There is not a manufacturing company in the world that could afford to abandon close to 15 per cent of its production capacity, and the same applies to every country whether it is small, like Scotland, or enormous, like China or India.”

20__martin_luther_king_jr__by_sfegraphics-d4t18xzI come across examples of companies, third sector organisations, national and local government, in fact every sector, getting equality and accessibility wrong more times every day than I care to count. And when it comes to equality, ignorance is not an excuse. Shaking your head before stating ‘it is common sense’ won’t wash. We all need to take a look in the mirror and ask where we could do better. For organisations in all sectors equality needs to be a question of strategy, of planning to reach those people with one or more of what are termed ‘protected characteristics’ in the 2010 Equality Act.

But it is not only in order to comply with the law or even to act like a decent human being (although that would be nice), there is a serious business incentive to understand equality and improving accessibility.

The quote in italics above is from double Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart’s excellent autobiography ‘Winning Is Not Enough.’ It is more than the usual sporting biography, in that it covers his career after Formula One where he went on to become an extremely successful businessman.

GP29942865A common thread throughout the story is Stewart’s struggles with Dyslexia. How he went through his childhood believing he was “thick”. How despite being one of the most successful sportsmen ever to live he was continually aware of a sense of inadequacy. Until a chance meeting with a doctor who was running some tests on his son led to him also being tested and, in his 40s, finding out he wasn’t thick after all. He has a learning disability called dyslexia.

Ten per cent of the population is dyslexic. Think about that figure. In the UK that is over six million people. Four per cent are severely dyslexic; that is over 2.5 million people.

It is right and proper that every one of those people should reasonably be able to access the products and services that everyone else does. It is also right and proper that every one of those people should reasonably be able to expect the same treatment as everyone else does. Indeed the 2010 Equality Act does not insist that companies make all adjustments it asks only that they do what is reasonable.

But beyond that, can your company afford to reduce its potential market by 6 million people because of something as inexcusable as ignorance? Surely not, it is common sense isn’t it? And yet thousands of companies do exactly that every day simply by (through ignorance) using inappropriate fonts or colour schemes in marketing paraphernalia, in communications (sic) documents and on websites. In short, they deliberately reduce the potential size of their market.

I call that ignorance driven insanity.

That is ten per cent of the population. Where does Jackie Stewart’s 15% come from? Dyslexia is different from but shares characteristics with dyscalculia, dyspraxia and colour blindness. Individuals with one of those disabilities often have one or more of the others. In total they make up fifteen per cent of the population.

Over nine million people in the UK. More people than live in Greater London. 9,000,000 people. More people than live in Scotland and Wales combined. A lot of people.

I recently came across an example of this ignorance driven insanity when attending a business meeting at a hotel. During a break I nipped out of the meeting room to visit the toilet and found them easily enough. However it struck me that the signage did not consider one of the characteristics often seen in people with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and/or colour blindness – the tendency to take things literally.

During the lunch break I revisited the task of finding the toilets but this time took every sign I saw literally. In short, the signs took me via a couple of stair cases on a loop back to the place I had started, not to the toilets. I double checked with a colleague attending the same meeting who is dyscalculic. “Yes,” she said, “it took me a while. In the end I waited until someone else wanted to go and went with her.” Good thing she wasn’t desperate!

What has this got to do with business? Putting a couple of signs in the right place would cost very little. Being in ignorance of the discrimination caused by their absence could cost……? The hotel will never know because the dissatisfied customer might say nothing but simply never return. And among fifteen per cent of a population you can be sure there are more than a few decision makers who will be booking conference facilities based on their judgement of suitability.

One step removed, companies booking the facilities at this hotel are trusting their corporate reputation to the hotel’s ability to deliver. Think about the feedback; “great conference but poor venue.” That’s more lost business for the hotel as that conference goes elsewhere next year.

And if you are in competition with that hotel……do you really need me to explain both the gap in the market and the potential market in the gap?

There is a serious business imperative for getting equality right. Ignorance is no excuse. Equality is a very wide area and is not just about minority groups. Women, for example, are a majority group in the UK (over 31 million/51%).

I have focused on only one group of people who sit under the broader umbrella of disability. In all, people with one or more disabilities make up 25% of our population (over 16 million potential customers in the UK).

Other ‘protected characteristics’ covered by the Equality Act are age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

In advising companies on equality strategies and in conducting accessibility audits for organisations, I have come across all kinds of oversights, some even driven by being well-meaning but, nonetheless ignorant thinking. These are just a small sample:

  • The sports centre accessible toilet whose door opened inwards.
  • The ‘buy 2’ special offer which was more expensive than buying two singles.
  • The government agency equality monitoring form.
  • The ‘required’ qualifications on a job specification.
  • The bus time table.
  • The university marketing campaign.
  • The white ‘design feature’ at a conference venue.

Fortunately, none of these organisations assumed knowledge they lacked. None allowed themselves to be led by ignorance. However, sadly for equality, unfairly for significant sections of society and unfortunately for the businesses concerned, I do encounter those who clearly didn’t ask on a more than daily basis.

Understanding equality is good for business. Don’t be guilty of ignorance driven insanity.

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, Cowan Global, 2012, 2016

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FLOODS HIGHLIGHT WESTMINSTER’S INCOMPETENCE ON STRATEGY

Photo: bbc.co.uk

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.

THE REFUGEE CRISIS: NO SIMPLE SOLUTION TO A COMPLEX PROBLEM

The refugee crisis currently unfolding across Europe has created much debate, anger, pity and more but little in the way of genuine, workable strategies to deliver a long-term solution as opposed to a quick fix.

syrian-migrant-boy-turkey

The tragedy of young Aylan Kurdi has only made matters worse as understandable emotion has started clouding sound strategic thinking, for as harsh as it may sound, a lasting solution will only be found by clear minds understanding a highly complex situation and, importantly, learning from the many errors of strategy of recent history which led us to this point. Strategy, both good and bad, leads cause to effect and many of the effects caused by what we have, and are, seeing were predictable.

Here in the UK we have almost become immune to politicians launching policy without thinking through what the medium to long term effects of that policy may be (cause and effect). In short, they launch policy but ignore strategy, which is, of itself, bad strategy. Some, me included, would suggest politicians simply do not understand strategy leaving the rest of us to suffer the after effects of populist policy badly delivered.

This is important to understand for much of the hostility to housing refugees in the UK can be found in frustration founded in years of policies which have failed to provide the population with an adequate stock of social housing, numerous benefits cock-ups, an underfunded NHS and a perception of job shortages made worse by an influx of workers from other EU states.

Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy, introduced at a time waiting lists were already growing, was extremely popular at the time. Incredible as it might sound, it has contributed to the social housing shortage. Every politician since has failed to grasp the issue as the gulf between what is needed and what exists has grown. The policy; Right to Buy, lacked a supporting strategy which ensured a continued, adequate housing supply for future generations. That shortage is now part of the fuel to the hostility as people question how we can take in refugees when, for example, 4500 former service men and women are homeless? And that is one small component of the complex strategic failures of successive UK governments, this is not a party political failure, it is a Westminster failure.

But in order to resolve the crisis, we need to look beyond simply a capability to take in (or not) refugees, we need to know that the flood can be reduced to a trickle and even stemmed. This is not a UK issue, nor even an EU issue, although its open border policy has definitely not helped; this is a global crisis born of poor strategy on a global scale. To comprehend how we fix the problem, we must understand some of its making, a highly complex making of which the following can only be a simplified summary for fear of turning an article into a book!

One strand of the problem’s history can be found in Beirut but the cause predates even that and can be traced back to western governments’ policy of hostility to the Palestinian cause. Note, not to support for Israel but to hostility for the Palestinian cause. The margins here are fine and within the refugee camps of southern Lebanon and Beirut displaced Palestinians could not understand how the west could consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation. After all, they had insisted on free and fair elections in Gaza, elections won by Hamas by a majority western leaders only dream of, elections declared free and fair by independent observers. And yet, the west refused to do business with the elected government of Gaza and the populations of displaced Palestinians in Beirut could only scratch their heads at the injustice. Play the west’s game and still they ignore you, still they leave you isolated. The west’s strategy of demanding free and fair elections had back-fired and their devil had been elected. But rather than support the democracy they had insisted on, they changed strategy and looked the other way. Cause and effect; what were many of those Palestinians to think of the west and how might a handful react?

While most still saw their main cause that of Palestine, from this resentment of the west, ISIS was born as a very small minority took extreme misinterpretations of the Koran to create a new approach. However without other circumstances conspiring, that small group would have remained just that, a small group. But nature abhors a vacuum and the west was about to create a vast vacuum that ISIL could fill.

The civil war in Syria has multiple root causes ranging from downtrodden people mimicking the Arab Spring to drought driving farmers to the cities and many more besides. Those many causes collided and a civil war began.

A war weary west with armies depleted by budget slashing politicians and cautious after going into Iraq without just cause didn’t want to intervene without confirmed backing and so sought international agreement for support for the Syrian rebels. For strategic reasons of their own, China and Russia blocked the move and the west, instead of supporting, sat back to watch what might unfold.  Lacking clear strategy the west had been out thought and out-played by Russian leader Vladimir Putin who protected his nation’s arms sales in the region but, more importantly had tested the west’s resolve  for doing the right thing when it mattered ahead of planned interventions in Crimea and Ukraine (and, still possible, the Baltic States).

The rebels in Syria saw vocal support from the west without genuine support in the form of hardware if not military action. In a world where ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ into the void stepped a small, largely unheard of group from the refugee camps across the border in Lebanon. ISIL had a small, but strategically important toe-hold and used it to grow and spread their message of terror and hate to devastating effect. Before a strategically inept west realised what was happening, ISIL had grown beyond all recognition and was establishing their self-styled caliphate.

Still the west did not react and what had become a three or four sided civil war in Syria became an invasion of Iraq as the caliphate grew. The Kurds resisted, the Iraqis ran before regrouping, the Syrians continued fighting each other as well as the now powerful ISIL. Finally, too late, the west woke up but instead of employing a decisive strategy to remove ISIL from the region, decided on air strikes only. It was, and still is, too little too late.

In Syria, some people were already fleeing an oppressive regime and a war which was destroying once habitable cities but now they were also fleeing the terror of ISIL, fleeing beheadings, child rape and forced marriage in a warped interpretation of religion. In northern Iraq, people were fleeing the same.

The Lebanon faced a humanitarian crisis as a new generation of refugees arrived, not the Palestinians of recent history but Syrians and Iraqis. Jordan and Turkey too were faced with crisis. Before long those camps were having to cope with 4 million refugees and inside Syria and Iraq a further 3.5 million were displaced. It was a ticking bomb waiting to go off.

And here we are. What did our governments expect? Their short-sightedness, failed strategies and self-denial has led us to where we are. And where are is in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the 1930s and 1940s with an ineffectively opposed foe at the root cause (cause and effect) and no sign of an end.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect any sort of competent strategic thinking from the  very ‘leaders’ who brought us to where we are and so, short of the short-termism of where to place the refugees, no one is thinking, no one is planning to address the root cause of the problem. And without doing so, the refugees will keep coming. The estimated 800,000 on mainland Europe could double and treble in size within a few months because no one is looking over the horizon and asking, “how do we solve this problem?” Not the symptom, refugees, the problem, what they are fleeing.

The text books are full of various types of strategy coming under a vast range of terms but there are in reality only two types; issue based strategy and vision based strategy. Issue based to address an immediate problem before you can proceed, vision based to design a vision of a future you desire and then plan towards it.

This global problem requires global co-operation to find a solution. If Vladimir Putin chooses to block that co-operation then now is the time to proceed without him. The globe, all nations, need to agree to aid Europe in addressing the current refugee crisis (an issue based strategy). The globe, all nations, need to then agree a vision based strategy for addressing the issue at its heart – the annihilation of ISIL. If nations choose not to participate the rest must proceed without, because hand-wringing and argument won’t solve the issue, sound strategy properly deployed by competent leaders will.

Back in the UK, our armed forces are the smallest they have ever been. Currently, we don’t even have an aircraft carrier. It has been said, and I agree, that to protect peace you must be ready for war. Part of our own vision based strategy must be to rebuild our armed forces, it must provide affordable housing for all, an NHS which works, and benefits which provide a genuine safety net not a scroungers charter; it must deliver the land fit for heroes that was promised long ago.

There will be those who say we should avoid war at all costs; we should house as many refugees as it takes. While I applaud their humanity, I cannot agree. We either solve the crisis short-term and address its root cause medium to long term, or we will end up at war anyway because without destroying ISIL, that war is coming if it’s not already here.

Let there be no more Aylan Kurdis. Cold, clear, quality strategy will get us there, let’s not let emotion lead us further down this wrong path of simple, emotion driven solutions which we have been on for too long. Let’s not address a highly complex issue like it is a simple puzzle.

© Jim Cowan, September 2015.