Tag Archives: Planning


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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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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Not so long ago, I looked at the steel crisis here in the UK and questioned whether China was executing a dedicated ‘Disruption Strategy’ rather than simply ‘dumping’ cheap steel onto the world market?

With steel and, especially, Chinese steel in the news again with the threat it has created to the UK steel industry, I thought I would take a closer look at what exactly a ‘Disruption Strategy’ is and how such strategies, when well executed,  provide a proven, viable way of launching new products into already crowded markets.

disruption1For some, seeking to launch a new or replica version of an existing product into a crowded market might seem like lunacy yet, over the years many companies have managed to do just that by the intelligent application of Disruption Strategy. And how such disruption strategies work should be a lesson to those already occupying space in the crowded market for if they aren’t paying attention it is they who might end up getting squeezed out!

How does the Disruption Strategy work?

Let’s take as our example the Japanese car industry. When firms such as Toyota, Datsun (the original name of today’s Nissan) and Honda wanted to enter US and European markets in the sixties they were faced with a number of challenges. Primary among these challenges were that they were perceived to be already overcrowded markets and that Japanese build quality was thought to be inferior.

In a nutshell, the Japanese manufacturers’ strategy was to attack the ‘discount’ end of the market with lower priced cars that had higher spec as standard than the western competition. This disrupted the accepted ‘norm’ and car buyers, liking the added, higher spec option, slowly started buying the new products. Some of those buyers were from the traditional discount end of the market but some were also people seeing a like for like product with the more expensive, higher specification models they had been purchasing. Gradually, this gained the Japanese a foothold, the big US and European manufacturers happy to concede a little ground at that end of the market to a ‘discount’ brand.

But having conceded that ground they opened the whole market to their new competitor. The market was disrupted and the western ‘big boys’ struggled to recognise what was happening. The Japanese companies slowly started competing higher up the quality/price chain, the western manufacturers conceded more ground although now it was not quite so voluntary but the initial damage had been done.

In the UK, it was British Leyland’s build quality that started to be questioned; “not as good as the Japanese” according the buying public. They couldn’t respond and a slow death began.

Meanwhile the Japanese continued to gradually disrupt the previously accepted way of doing things until they reached a point where market share and their own size allowed them to compete not just as equals but in many cases as superior products. The battle for a significant share of the market had been won.

Today, the Japanese are the world’s largest manufacturer of cars. The British automobile industry has been decimated; the US is still struggling to come to terms with the new reality and European companies like Saab have disappeared. The German auto industry reacted both the fastest and the best and now has a reputation for extremely high build quality which has allowed it to survive and thrive in a market redefined by the Japanese.

Elsewhere, the Korean manufacturers have studied, learned and then employed an almost carbon disruption strategy to that of their Asian neighbours 40+ years ago.

In the last decade or so we have witnessed the ultimate triumph of the disruption strategy which enters at the discount end of a market with its arrival as a luxury brand. Back in the sixties and seventies they would never have believed you had you told them how prestigious Toyota (as Lexus) and Datsun/Nissan (as Infiniti) would be in the 21st century.


© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2011, 2016

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“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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Twitter @cowanglobal



At a recent speaking engagement I was comparing how new Corporate Strategy is when compared to Military Strategy or the strategy of training for performance sport. I was later asked if I could write a short piece about the birth of Corporate Strategy. Happy to oblige, here it is.

corporate-strategyStrategy as a concept has been around for centuries, for millennia. The first published thoughts on strategy are commonly believed to be the works of Sun Tzu and Wu Tzu from 2500 years ago. Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is still essential reading in military academies around the world and should probably be required reading for business leaders too.

For 2300 years the principles of strategy, of formally identifying what success looks like and planning a route to achieve it was left to the military. That is until the early 1800s when ‘pedestrianists’ – early race walkers – took to planning their training, albeit in somewhat basic format. In the late 19th century athletes took up formal planning and gradually the idea of developing strategies for the training of sportspeople evolved and developed into the science (and art) of today.

Meanwhile, the post-industrial revolution world awaited ‘strategy’ in any formal sense. Managers and leaders thought and planned after a fashion but with little genuine cohesion and it was not until the 1950s that the term ‘strategy’ was regularly applied in a business context.

Then, in 1965, along came H Igor Ansoff and the business world would never be the same again. Ansoff’s publication ‘Corporate Strategy’ introduced the term, new thinking and the formulation and implementation of ‘strategic management’ and suddenly corporate strategy became a requirement for all businesses, large and small.

Ansoff stated that strategy was, ‘a rule for making decisions.’ He distinguished between objectives, which set the goals, and strategy, which set the path to the goals; something many modern businesses have forgotten. ‘Corporate Strategy’ also stated firmly that ‘structure follows strategy’ – something else a significant minority (majority?) of modern managers and leaders overlook.

Ansoff flagged up the important issue that has troubled formulation of strategy ever since; most decisions are made inside a framework of limited resources. Whatever size the company is, strategic decisions mean making choices between alternative resource commitments.

The process defined by Ansoff typically unfolds thus:

  • Mission Statement and Objectives – describe the company’s mission, vision and values and define measurable strategic (and financial) objectives.
  • Environmental scanning – the gathering of internal and external information analysing the company, its industry and the wider environment (e.g. the 5 Forces of Competition, SWOT and PEST analyses, etc.).
  • Strategy formulation – competitive advantage, core competence, corporate thinking, ‘inside out and outside in’.
  • Strategy implementation – communicating the strategy, organising resources and motivating teams to deliver.
  • Evaluation and control – measure, compare, adjust.

Since Ansoff, writing about Corporate Strategy has grown to become an industry all of its own and, like all industries, it is populated by the good, the bad and the indifferent. The growth of the internet has seen a boom in ‘off the shelf’ strategy templates for business. For the individual seeking text books on the topic it is now a case of caveat emptor. For the businessman seeking a quick fix download it is a world populated with poor options and little else.

Strategy should be personal; borrowed templates will never deliver quality. There are no short cuts; getting strategy right and, beyond that, of quality, is hard work.

But then, it was ever so. As Sun Tzu wrote 2500 years ago; “Strategy is the great work of the organisation.”


© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2016

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Not too long ago the importance of establishing your Vision prior to developing your strategy was accepted practice. Increasingly however a school of thought is emerging which suggests that strategy does not require vision.

Far from being good advice, visionless strategy is a shortcut to…..destination unknown.

VisionlessThe purpose of Vision is to provide your strategy with direction. In the same way that you can better plan a car journey if you know the destination, so you can better plan your business strategy (or any other strategy) if you know where it is you intend to get to.

Good Vision is a bit more than that; good vision answers the question; ‘what does success look like?’ To continue the car journey analogy, vision might give you a destination of ‘London’ – okay for planning in general terms but a bit vague. Good vision would be more specific; ‘the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith W6 in time for a theatre show at 8.00pm.’

The problem with most businesses is that they simply do not understand strategy (McKinsey, 2011). This extends to the Vision which drives strategy too.

A couple of years ago I spoke at an event at which I was sharing the platform with Microsoft. The theme of my talk was creating good Vision. In preparing my talk I researched those I was sharing the platform with in the hope I could use them as good examples. Unfortunately, while researching Microsoft’s Vision I came across a great example of how not to do it!

I can hear you now; “hang on Jim, Microsoft. Are you sure? They are a pretty successful company!” Let me explain.

The Vision was; ‘A PC on every desk.’

Having found this poor example of Vision, rather than avoid it I phoned up my contact at Microsoft and explained what I had found and asked if they minded if I used it as an example of how not to do it. His reaction surprised me; he laughed. After he stopped laughing he invited me to go ahead before letting me know how relieved Microsoft were to have caught how bad that Vision was in time.

He explained; had Microsoft continued to blindly follow this Vision for much longer the smart phone, tablet, and mobile working tools revolution might have passed them by completely. Now, although they are playing catch up, at least they are in the game.

‘A PC on every desk’ was a Vision in the ‘destination London’ bracket. It gave a vague direction but failed to describe what success looked like and, worse, offered no deadline. To those peddling the idea of visionless strategy Microsoft’s poor ‘PC on every desk’ would be cited as evidence that Vision doesn’t work whereas the truth is that the Vision itself was poor.

Another reason for poor Vision, one I come across on an almost daily basis, is that of confusing Vision with Mission. Put very simply and in short, your Vision is where you are going, your Mission is why you exist. The two are often linked but not the same. The Girl Scouts used to cite their Vision as ‘help a girl reach her highest potential.’ This is a great example of an organisation mistaking what they do with where they are going; their Mission and their Vision. If applied properly as Vision, to drive strategy it is unlikely to prove successful. The visionless strategy peddlers will use this as an example of why vision doesn’t work, why it is unnecessary. The truth is that it is just poor vision.

The third group of visionless strategists have existed for far longer; they are that group who rather than figure direction prefer the idea of “just getting on with it.” They are easy to spot, they are often the people who seem permanently busy but generate little forward momentum other than by chance.

Their hero might even be Lao Tzu*; he who is mistakenly and frequently quoted as stating “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” (The more literal translation is, “a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet”).

The ‘just get on with it’ brigade would start walking, literally taking the first step. However, more sensible first step might lie in first determining your destination. To return to the car journey analogy the person (business) who paused to first define what success looks like will arrive at the Lyric Theatre (and on time), those who just got on with it could well be……..….well……..…anywhere!

To put it in real terms, let’s say our Mission was to conquer space. What are our options when we come to our Vision?

  1. We don’t need a vision to give us direction, let’s just get on with it.
  2. “We are going to outer space.”
  3. “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” (John F Kennedy, 25th May 1961).

Whose Vision (or lack of) will give their strategy the sharper focus, the higher chance of success?

Who is your money on?


*To put Lao Tzu’s oft quoted words in perspective it should be noted he also said, “a good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Indeed Lao Tzu, although frequently quoted in business, was not a strategist but a philosopher and writer who marvelled in the journey of life. He should not be confused with Sun Tzu, the Godfather of everything we define as strategy today.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2012, 2016.

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Much of the information that is available, whether printed word or online, to those seeking to learn how to better develop strategies tends to refer to what strategists term, ‘Vision-Based Strategy’ falsely giving the impression that all strategy should be vision based.

If all in the garden is rosy, this might be the case however reality does have a habit of throwing up problems which side-track us from our vision. When this happens, what do we do with strategy?

strategyEver since H. Igor Ansoff’s ‘Corporate Strategy’ (1965) popularised the concept of business strategy to a wider audience, strategy has evolved at an incredible pace with numerous models, theories, versions and methods arriving (and frequently departing).

How many different models of strategy are there? Probably over 1000 and, as in many other areas of life, some are good, many are mediocre, most lag behind or have fallen by the wayside.

It sounds confusing but it doesn’t need to be. Fundamentally nearly all of the successful models fall into one of two camps.

Model One; Vision-Based Strategy (aka Goals-Based Planning)

This will be the more familiar model to most working in and with strategy. It is ‘vision-based’ in that it defines the future before working (planning) back to the present by defining specific objectives that will need to be achieved against a set timescale if the Vision is to become reality.

These objectives will typically be specific (e.g. to increase profit margins on ‘product X’ by 10% by the end of the next four years). Actions will be attached to each goal clarifying the what, when, why, where, who and how to each objective.

A good Vision-Based Strategy will consider both external and internal factors, clearly identify organisational priorities and utilise both historical intelligence and analysis of current factors. In looking to the future, consideration will be given to informed forecasts, intuition and common sense.

Vision-Based Strategy tends to be longer term planning, certainly longer than 3 years with sounder models looking 10-12 years ahead although it should be noted that this will be subdivided into strategic planning cycles (frequently 3-5 years in duration).

Model Two; Issues-Based Strategy

This model will be less familiar to many although that is not to say it doesn’t have its place.

With Issue-Based Strategy we begin with the present and Work (plan) forward to the future. As the name suggests, it is typically used to identify issues faced by the organisation and work them forward toward solutions.

Common practice is to identify issues as questions (e.g. “how will we recruit our Board of Trustees?” or “how will we address the shortfall in expected funding?”) Action plans are then compiled describing the what, when, why, where, who and how required to address each issue.

Although this model can be used to address external factors it is more commonly utilised to focus on internal matters and the establishing of strong internal structures and systems.

Issue-Based Strategy tends to the shorter term, typically one year and never more than three. It is generally beneficial for young organisations, those facing critical current issues and/or those with far less resource (e.g. personnel or funding) than is required for its desired development. Generally, through sound Issue-Based Strategy, once issues have been addressed organisations will emerge stronger and then benefit from more Vision-Based planning.

The Hybrid Model

It is possible for a Vision-Based Strategy to incorporate Issue-Based planning. For example, if short term, unpredicted problems arise while working towards a longer term vision it will make little sense to ‘bin’ a Vision-Based Strategy which is otherwise delivering. Far wiser to incorporate into it Issue-Based planning designed to address and solve the problem so delivery of the longer term vision stays on course.

Don’t overcomplicate it

As stated earlier, since 1965 there have probably been over 1000 different models of strategy of which all of those which have stood any test of time are based on either Vision or Issue.

Regardless of which model you are applying, it is worth remembering that at its most basic, strategy is about identifying and working through the challenges which hinder you from reaching your chosen destination. Challenges that can be predicted should be planned for via ‘Vision-Based’ thinking, those that can’t will likely require ‘Issue-Based’ thinking as and when they arise.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2011, 2016

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Blue Ocean Strategy is not for everyone, it requires a special set of skills and abilities. But for those who have them, identifying the Blue Ocean and swimming towards it can be great news for business…..

ocean-turtleMuch within corporate strategy hinges on either the development of or the protection of competitive advantage. You have a strategy and the strategy seeks to exploit ways in which you have an advantage over those in the sector with whom you compete

In some sectors this is becoming harder and harder, it is becoming difficult to differentiate in over crowded market places and bland conformity appears to be winning out (or at least that is the impression given).

In 2004 W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne defined this crowded market place as the ‘Red Ocean’ – the known market place, limited and bitterly fought over. Kim and Mauborgne proposed that there is another place in which to do business, the ‘Blue Ocean’ – the unknown and uncontested market space. Blue Ocean Strategy was born.

But the Blue Ocean isn’t for everyone. First and foremost it requires you to be innovative, without innovation you are not going to be able to swim away from the Red Ocean to the clear waters where competition no longer lurks.

What does a successful Blue Ocean Strategy look like? Think of Cirque du Soleil.

Cirque-du-soleil-brandCirque du Soleil was created in 1984, before anyone had even coined the term Blue Ocean Strategy. The circus trade was dying. It couldn’t compete with the growing number of alternative leisure activities available to children and animal rights protesters were beginning to win the battle to ban performing animals.

Competitive advantage was sought by having bigger big tops, more famous clowns, more grandiose shows but the public wasn’t being fooled; it was still the same show in (slightly) different clothes.

It would appear to be an act of lunacy, of corporate suicide, to decide to enter this marketplace but that is what Cirque du Soleil did. However, instead of competing in the overcrowded Red Ocean, they innovated, they created a whole new market for circus performers.

Instead of children they targeted adults, instead of big tops they used theatres and vast indoor venues, instead of being the same as everyone else they found ways not only to differentiate but to operate in new markets. Suddenly adults were queuing up to go to the circus and were happy to pay a lot more money for the privilege!

The key is to mix innovation with the identification of ignored or unchartered waters in the way Cirque du Soleil did. When identifying the Blue Ocean so clearly twenty years after the advent of Cirque du Soleil, Kim and Mauborgne were also kind enough to provide a kind of handbook with four guiding principles:

  1. Reconstruct market boundaries.

It sounds obvious but instead of continuing to hunt in the same crowded waters, look for where the competition isn’t operating. This might be among users in place of purchasers, it might be an ignored demographic, it could even be in service as oppose to product sales. Try anticipating rather than following trends, identify the emotional appeal over the practicality.

  1. Think ‘big picture’.

Yes, (good) strategy should always do this anyway but in reality many corporate strategies have become bogged down in budgets and spreadsheets. They over-rely on historical data and give too little consideration to common sense and intuition. When looking to the future think blank canvas; think what could we do?

  1. Look beyond existing demand.

Don’t only look at existing customers, look at non-customers. How can they become new and repeat customers? Cirque du Soleil did it by taking the circus to adults in adult venues. Calloway Golf found out that many of their ‘non-customers’ didn’t like playing golf because hitting the ball was too difficult and so designed a club with a bigger head.

  1. Get the strategic sequence right.

If the answer to any of the following questions is ‘no’ you need to rethink your strategy:

  • Buyer utility – does your idea offer exceptional buyer utility (not the same as exceptional technology)?
  • Price – does your pricing make you accessible to the mass of buyers?
  • Cost – can you hit your cost target and make a profit at your strategic price?
  • Adoption – Have you identified and are you addressing the hurdles to adoption up front?

The Blue Ocean is not for everyone but for those who are innovative and who can see a big picture it does offer opportunity. A word of warning though, just because your new ocean was blue does not mean it will always stay blue. When Karl Benz invented a replacement for the horse drawn carriage he was swimming from the red ocean to the blue. When Henry Ford saw the opportunity to mass produce and popularise the automobile he was doing the same. But no one today would suggest that either Mercedes Benz or Ford operate in Blue Oceans!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2011, 2016

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Twitter @cowanglobal



Online, in person and in print; there are any number of places you can seek advice on developing sound strategy but in the rush to get on with the planning, don’t overlook the importance of properly defining what it is you are planning for…..

alice-in-wonderland-caterpillar-and-hookahLewis Carroll’s novel ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (commonly called Alice in Wonderland) was first published in 1865. It is generally considered to be one of the best examples of a genre known as ‘literary nonsense.’ And it is probably reasonable to think of it as nonsense as it tells the tale of a girl called Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and who then meets a number of strange anthropomorphic creatures. However, behind its enduring popularity lies Carroll’s ability to use logic to relay significant parts of his tale.

Consider the moment when Alice, lost, comes across a caterpillar:

“Excuse me sir,” Alice enquires, “could you tell me which road to take?”

Wisely the caterpillar asks, “Where are you going?”

Somewhat dismayed, Alice responds, “Oh, I don’t know where I’m going sir.”

“Well,” replies the caterpillar, “if you don’t know where you are going, it really doesn’t matter which road you take.”

The caterpillar imparts sound advice not only for Alice but for anyone involved in strategic planning. The temptation is to rush to the planning, to start describing the journey, the ‘how’ part of reaching the destination.

But pause a moment and consider the sage advice of the caterpillar; if you haven’t taken the time to get a clear picture of what success looks like, to properly define and describe your desired destination, then how can you accurately plan to ensure you arrive at your desired destination?

Having a strategy is not the key to success many think it is; the key lies in having a good strategy. And without a clearly defined destination, no strategy can be considered good.

But don’t take my word for it; ask a caterpillar!

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2012-2016

Contact Cowan Global

Twitter @cowanglobal



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.