Tag Archives: Learning from mistakes

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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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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EQUALITY – WORTH THE BOTHER?

The value to business of understanding equality cannot be overstated but a recent email exchange leaves me compelled to wonder whether many businesses (and other organisations) view it as something not worth the bother?

Committed_to_Equality_1There 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 an exercise in 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. And 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 recent email exchange…..

I will shortly be acting as an expert witness in a court case, an expert in Equality and in Accessibility. As part of the preparation for this 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. In short, they should be as fully ‘accessible’ as humanly possible, as reasonable.

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 2.5 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 ‘drop me a line’ link below.

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2013, 2016

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WHY I DISLIKE MY OWN LINKED IN POST AND WHY YOU SHOULD TOO

I recently wrote a blog titled; ‘Accessibility – What Is It & Is It Worth The Bother?’ Having then also posted it on Linked In, I found myself disliking the finished article. But why?

Linked In QMThe blog (read it here), looked at accessibility and the ‘carrot and stick’ of why businesses and other organisations should be more aware of tackling the issue. The ‘stick’ discussed remaining legally compliant under the Equality Act of 2010 while the ‘carrot’ pointed to the potential for increasing markets by better understanding various groups falling under what are  termed, ‘protected characteristics.’

One of the examples I used was of the difference giving more thought to something as simple as font selection can have; in the UK offering an increased potential market of up to 6 million people. And yes, you read that correctly, 6 million people.

I was happy that I had got my message across and proceeded to publish my blog before then also posting it on Linked In (read the Linked In post here). And this is where things went astray.

I had written an article on accessibility but the font offered by Linked In for posting articles on their site is, you guessed it, for many people, of the inaccessible variety. Hence, although I still posted, I dislike my post as it is hardly an example of good practice, of practising what you preach. It does however, demonstrate how widespread and often invisible the issue of (in)accessibility can be.

It is a far wider issue than many realise. From magazines to book publishers to company websites and more, poor font selection excludes many from reading otherwise great publications, books, websites, marketing materials, even court documents (yes, the very people responsible for upholding the law regularly breach it).

But flip that on its head and spot it for the opportunity it is. Understanding font selection and the many other misunderstood aspects of accessibility could put you ahead of your competition when trying to reach these often ignored sections of our community. On font selection alone, better reaching up to 6 million more people in the UK alone.

The choice is yours. Legally compliant or flouting the law; talking to some or talking to all of your potential market; mediocre and pretending or excelling and doing.

 

(For the record, I have fed back to Linked In on this issue).

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 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.