Tag Archives: Strategy

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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CAUSING DISRUPTION – A VIABLE STRATEGY?

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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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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CORPORATE STRATEGY – NOT A NEW IDEA BUT NOT AS OLD AS YOU THOUGHT

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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VISIONLESS STRATEGY – DESTINATION UNKNOWN

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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STRATEGY ISN’T ALWAYS ABOUT VISION

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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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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DO YOU KNOW WHY THEY ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?

Regular readers will know the importance of asking the right questions in order to make the intelligence that informs strategy relevant. For example, even if you know who your customers are, if you don’t also understand why they are your customers it won’t only undermine your marketing strategy it will undermine the entire company strategy. How? Read on…..

question-markConsultation is often performed as little more than lip service, as a misunderstood ‘must do but don’t really understand how or why’ exercise before the ‘clever’ people get down to creating the strategy.

And yet, many strategies which look great at first read are doomed before they are even launched because corners were cut during consultation and they fail to understand or reflect reality.

One example is in establishing who your customer is, on the face of it quite a simple thing to research. That extends to who your potential customers are. Again, not exactly a stretch and once known we can plan how to go after them. Not forgetting, as too many do, the retention of your current customers!

Fine. Tick the box. Get on with the strategy.

Wait!

You forgot to find out why they are your customers.

Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher

A great example of the value of understanding why they are your customer is frequently relayed by Herb Kelleher, one of the founders of Southwest Airlines in the USA and their former CEO and Chairman. The way he tells the story it is one of knowing who you are in competition with but, as you will see, it is also one of knowing why your customer is your customer.

Southwest Airlines are famous for their really low fares which made Kelleher very popular with travellers but less so with his shareholders. In fact Southwest’s shareholders could not understand why they were only charging $79 for a ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas when their nearest rival was charging almost double that.

Those shareholders asked Kelleher to explain why they couldn’t charge $129? They would still be the cheapest available flight but profits would surely be higher?

But Kelleher had done his research; he had consulted properly and had asked the right questions. He knew that such a hike in price could hurt Southwest. How?

When Southwest set their ticket at $79 it was no accident. $79 was the cost of driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (factoring in maintenance and the like). Kelleher realised that as well as being in competition with other airlines, if Southwest set their ticket price right, they could also compete with the car. He knew that if they raised their prices they would still be cheaper than other airlines but would no longer be able to compete with the car.

Kelleher saw it as knowing his competition (the car) but it was also knowing why those ticket purchasers were Southwest customers. For many it was because they could fly as cheaply as they could drive. Without knowing that, Southwest might have followed their shareholders wishes and raised prices and then wondered why business had fallen.

Now, take a look at your own strategy. Is it based on the shareholders’ or  your own assumptions or Kelleher’s intelligence? Is it based on sound consultation and research or was one (or more) vital question omitted leaving it standing on foundations of sand?

You cut corners when consulting at your (and your business’s) peril.

 

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global, 2011, 2016

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