Strategy is good but key to success is implementation


Sun Tzu: “War is a grave affair of state. It is a place of life and death, a road to survival and extinction, a matter to be pondered carefully”

The Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu proved that you don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to be a great strategist. His textbook The Art of War is required reading if you want to be a leader; and many executives have a copy in the drawer of their desk. It’s just a pity they don’t all have it in their heads.

It is a book dripping with good advice, pungently put. “ No nation has ever benefited from a protracted war,” he says. And we have evidence enough to support that contention.

In a world where we are all too ready to reach for the heavy weaponry and go in hard, he advises that success in warfare comes “not in winning every battle, but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”. That is a lesson the west has learned to its cost from its interventions in Iraq, and in other conflict zones around the world.

It is a lesson too for business. In the same passage he says the highest form of warfare is to attack your opponent’s strategy. That is, of course, assuming your opponent has one.

Some organisations bumble on without a strategy, but that is not to be recommended. Others have a strategy, but that in itself is not a guarantee of success.

I have lost count of the number of organisations who think that publishing their strategy is an end in itself.

Management time is focused on crafting the words and making sure everyone’s input is reflected in the final document. The specially commissioned photographs are inspected; the i’s are dotted, the t’s crossed; copies are sent to partners, clients and opinion-formers. Then, like The Art of War, it is more often than not marooned in the draw of a desk, filed away or parked to gather dust on a bookshelf.

Strategies don’t implement themselves. It’s a truism I know, but all too often it is a fact overlooked by hard-pressed executives focusing on the next battle (and there are many to be waged) rather than winning the war.

Churchill, who knew a thing or two about strategy and warfare, put it succinctly. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Yesterday I attended the launch of the University of Stirling’s Strategic Plan for the next five years. (Here I have to declare an interest, I played a small part in its development and I work there).

The plan sets out three ambitions for the institution. It wants to be in the Top 25 of UK institutions, to increase its income by £50 million a year, and to increase its research profile by 100 per cent. There’s a fourth prong to its strategy, represented in the mnemonic 25:50:100i by the letter i: internationalisation. You cannot be credible as a higher education institution if you do not embrace globalisation.

Time will tell whether the University will achieve its ambitions. There are, however some predictors of success.

The first is ensuring everyone has bought into the strategy. “Have officers and men who share a single will,” says Sun Tzu. A sense of ownership is crucial and Stirling’s strategic plan was built from the bottom up and involved staff and students at all levels.

The second is having a clear message that is comprehensible. Stirling is not the first organisation to use a mnemonic to express its strategic intent. Carlos Goshen used Plan 180 to drive the turnaround of Nissan in the Noughties: One million additional units worldwide, eight per cent operating margin, zero net debt. 25:50:100i is memorable, and staff will be able to relate what they do to the achievement of each of the measures.

The third essential component is that the objectives should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited). These are.

The fourth predictor of success is the capacity of managements to keep an eye on the ultimate prize rather than being distracted along the way (and in a five-year period there are many distractions). Strategy is as much about deciding what not to do.

And finally, you need to tell people – inside and outside the organisation – what you want to achieve.

This is the scary bit. What if you don’t achieve what you set out to do? The simple truth is that you are more likely to achieve something you publically commit to – fear of failure is a great spur to action. And paradoxically, those who risk failure are more likely to succeed.

Michelangelo put it well: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

It is a simple fact of business that most strategies die through neglect.

Hard though the work may seem, getting a strategy to the launch phase is the easy bit. Peter Drucker was a modern Sun Tzu. All organisations should heed his warning: “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

Stirling is Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence, as any coach will tell you – you won’t do much unless you know where the goal-posts are. Stirling now has a nice shiny new set of goal-posts it will be interesting seeing how things go when the team runs out onto the field.




Outraged Dragon says Boux to doing business in Belfast

Boux Avenue store interior with Theo and store team

Theo Paphitis: ‘Horrendous” experience doing business in Northern Ireland

I must admit that until this week I had never heard of Boux Avenue. I have now. Online it’s offering two-for-one PJs in a bag. How many shopping days are there to Christmas?

At £32 they are not exactly cheap, but this week, the brand’s owner Theo Paphitis was singing their praises. “Boux Avenue is designed to appear exclusive. It looks expensive – the changing rooms are so good people want to move in – but the price point is no different to what you’d pay in Marks and Spencer.”

So far so good. You’d expect Theo to be pushing his products. It’s what retailers do; and his jammies look nice, though they are clearly not aimed at me. I don’t suit vintage floral and his “amber oriental thong” only goes to size 16.

As you might have guessed, Boux Avenue is aimed at the female market – and a younger demographic: professional women who are in shape. This section of the market has considerable spending power, and taste. Though I am not sure ‘exclusive’ is a word you can use for what is essentially a mass-market product.

Until this week, Northern Ireland shoppers could only buy Boux products on line. But now, if you are in Belfast, you can nip into the store and see what Boux is all about. Theo’s latest shop is in Victoria Square.

Ahead of the launch Theo went on a publicity drive,  singing the praises of his brand to anyone who would listen. Drumming up business is what he does, and he does it well. But there was a sting in the tail of his PR message.

The former star of Dragons’ Den is not afraid to speak his mind, and he had some tough love for Northern Ireland. It was a “horrendous place” to do business in, he said. Ouch.

Over the years, business has had one hell of a buffeting as the economy has changed shape. The decline in manufacturing is part of a global shift in trade, but it hit Northern Ireland particularly hard. In addition, there were multiple self-inflicted injuries due to the breakdown in public order and the tide of terrorism.

Other regions of the UK and Ireland, similarly affected by the global trends, have focused on the development of new industries, the supply of goods and services – in particular retail – and the encouragement of the creative economy.

In Northern Ireland, entrepreneurs have had to cope with on-going political instability, the paralysing effect of a low-wage economy and over-dependence on the public sector. You can’t use retail as a driver in an economy where there’s no money to spend.

Over the years there have been countless trade missions in and out of Northern Ireland, and hundreds of millions have been ‘invested’ in development activities. Trade and Investment ministers have said all the right things about the attractions of Northern Ireland. But like Theo’s lingerie and pjs, their words just “appear” credible. On the ground it’s different.

At some point someone will realise that there is a direct link between political stability and economic growth. Investors are not stupid. They don’t look at words, they look at actions.

As the Executive tries to get itself back on the rails, the criticism from Paphitis is timely, and it must be heeded. To hear a man who wants to invest railing again the obstacles his company has faced in setting up shop is nothing short of a scandal. Government exist to improve people’s lives, not stand in the way of economic growth.

“I have been trying to come here for four and a half years,” he said. His challenges have been finding the right site “that is affordable”.

“Business rates and rental prices have been the main issues.” And then came the killer line about Northern Ireland: “It has been a horrendous place in terms of working with businesses.”

It’s remarkable the retail sector is as strong as it is.

Paphitis sees signs of change: a more benign business rate regime, better rental prices, and the potential offered by the devolution of corporation tax. “Politicians in Northern Ireland should look at this as a gift from the gods,” he said.

I don’t want to be unduly cynical, but their track record on taking advantage of gifts from the gods is not good.

For too long political parties in Northern Ireland have been focused on their own narrow self-interest. The most recent bout of institutional instability was driven by the desire to win short-term electoral advantage.

The fact that Paphitis has put his money in Northern Ireland should be an encouragement. He sees opportunity.

If the Stormont Executive is about anything, it should be about encouraging entrepreneurs like him, it should be about listening to business – not least those who have invested here during the toughest of times – and it should be about creating an environment that encourages economic growth and jobs.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on October 23 201

The Hubris Syndrome and how to avoid it


Hail Caesar: Men willingly believe what they wish to be true

I have just finished reading the final novel in Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Dictator takes us through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. It was destroyed by the personal ambition of three men Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and the inadequacy of those who saw themselves as defenders of the Republic: among them, it must be said, Harris’s hero Cicero himself.

As an exercise in the study of failed leadership, Harris’s books are masterful. Enoch Powell, himself a noted classicist (he was a professor of Greek), once noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Powell’s injudicious vision of foaming rivers of blood on the streets of Britain, in a speech on immigration, was itself a reference to ancient Rome. The speech was enough to cut off his ministerial ambitions, midstream, but at an unhappy juncture; and it shaped history’s view of him as a racist. Powell’s political career petered out on the fringes of British politics, as an unhappy adjunct Ulster Unionist MP.

John F Kennedy is the perfect illustration of Powell’s quote. Assassination ensured he will forever be the knight in shining armour at the Court of Camelot – even though we now know more about his many flaws.

Dr David Owen, the self-destructive British politician, knows a thing or two about the pursuit and execution of power. In reflective mood he penned a book on political leadership called The Hubris Syndrome. It was a subject he returned to in March 2015 in a speech at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Speaking of his research with Professor Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, he said: “We saw Hubris Syndrome as including a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory; exaggerated self-belief bordering on a sense of omnipotence, and accountability only to a ‘higher court’ such as history or God.”

Hubris does not only affect statesmen and women. I used to joke that all leaders go mad in the end. This indeed is one of the themes in Harris’s Dictator which charts the growing ‘madness’ of Julius Caesar – a general who declared himself a god.


David Owen: The Hubris Syndrome

In their studies, Owen and Davidson have proved that my quip – based it must be said on experience – has a basis in fact. (For those of you who suspect yourselves or others of suffering from the syndrome, Owen helpfully provides a table of 14 symptoms. There’s a link below. I suspect I suffer from a couple myself, but that is another story.

Owen told the meeting: “Hubris is an occupational hazard for political, military and business leaders. Having focused over the last decade on hubris in politicians today I am more concerned about hubris in business.”

He is right to be worried about business. Businesses are the new nation states – many indeed have wealth greater than sovereign nations. It would be easy enough to list examples of hubristic behaviour by business leaders – Enron, BP, RBS (recently rebranded as a humbled lower case rbs) and more recently Volkswagen, provide rich sources for case studies.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is easy to identify those moments where a different decision or approach might have saved an individual (as in the case of Margaret Thatcher), a corporation in the shape of Fred Goodwin’s RBS, or a great republic such as the Roman one so beloved of Cicero.

I have some sympathy for those who ‘go mad in the end’. Leadership is a lonely place, and such is the environment there that paranoia can flourish. One of Owen’s 14 symptoms is “loss of contact with reality, often associated with progressive isolation”.

I was once involved in the recruitment process for the leader of a large multi-million pound organisation. One of the candidates was rejected during the process on the basis that he was already displaying some of the signs of ‘madness’ of high office. The successful candidate was affable, rooted and a listener. When I heard that, less than a year after assuming office, a lock had been added to the executive suite, I knew the decline had set in.

For the leader, the lock provided the comfort of security. But for the organisation it sent out a completely different message. Even the leader’s closest lieutenants could not get in without assistance. At a stroke credibility was undermined; a potentially glittering career there collapsed in an atmosphere of benign disrespect; and the organisation’s progress was stemmed.

There are ways of minimising the impact of a leader who has become a loose cannon. But corporate governance systems need to be sound, and that is not always the case. There’s much to be said for fixed terms – in business and in government. The limitation on the length of a presidency in the United States is one of the real strengths of its democratic system; though, as Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in Russia, the resourceful ‘despot’ can find ways around fixed terms.

You never quite know how anyone is going to behave until they get into power. Every leader is presented with a unique set of circumstances, and reacts differently. Each is human, and will respond to events in the way humans do – not always properly. But it is not the mistakes that are important, it is how they are dealt with.

Here is my checklist to avoid being affected by the Hubris Syndrome (or at least being able to mitigate its effects).

  1. Surround yourself by people who are better than you, but remember you are the one responsible for making decisions
  2. Never believe your own propaganda – this is the surest road to ruin. Never feel threatened by the truth
  3. Find people you can trust, use them to ‘think aloud’ to, listen to their advice
  4. Don’t be put off making the right decision because of what others might think
  5. Be human: talk to your people, eat in the staff canteen, take public transport
  6. You need your friends more than ever; cling to them like a drowning man clutching a floating plank
  7. Don’t do anything you would not want to see revealed on the front page of a newspaper
  8. Respect those you are accountable to, and those you are responsible for
  9. Recognise that the ends do not always justify the means
  10. Remember – it’s not all about you.
  • Dr David Owen’s speech to the Royal Society of Physicians, and his symptoms’ checklist can be accessed here.





A stagnant economy in need of visionaries



Belfast Harbour – once feeding one of the great industrial hubs of the world now serving a city which is not living up to its potential

The Financial Times has just been sold to the Japanese for £844 million. Who says newspapers are dead? The new owner is the Nikkei Corporation, little known on this side of the world, but a major media player in what we once quaintly called the Far East. The term is frowned on these days for its colonial overtones.

The Japanese economy is in the doldrums, and not without its corporate woes as the Toshiba scandal has shown. Executives there have fallen on the swords after revealing they overstated profits (as happened recently at Tesco). But nonetheless, Japan remains a powerful force in the world economy – as the Nikkei acquisition shows.

Other nations where Irish missionaries once won soldiers for the pope’s many battalions are also showing the west a thing or two financially: Taiwan, still contested territory, Singapore where this week David Cameron has been touting for business for Britain, and of course the mighty China.

Still nominally communist, Mao’s successors have embraced the free market, as once the pigs did the farmers in Orwell’s Animal Farm. China too has been on a bumpy ride this past week. Stock markets can plunge, even in an economy as meticulously planned as the Chinese.

Such is the interconnectedness of the global economy, that the fall in the Chinese market is said to have cost US investors almost $60 billion (the equivalent of a company the size of global technology giant HP). Those of you piling money into company pensions will have been impacted indirectly. China has been seen as a pretty safe bet to now.

Regardless of these specific difficulties, the Asian economies will continue to grow in strength at the expense of the west. China is likely to become the world’s economic powerhouse, supplanting America. Without wishing to indulge in racial stereotyping, our Asian brothers tend to work harder and pay themselves less.

The American Empire (with its protectorates in Europe) is on the wane. It is still enormously strong economically, politically and militarily as President Obama’s emotional ‘return’ to Africa has demonstrated. But all the signs of decline and fall are there.

By stealth China is buying up real estate and influence in western nations, but in Africa it is investing billions in major infrastructure initiatives – ports, roads, rail and power. Africa remains rich in natural resources critical for China’s economic development; the Chinese now pump in more than the US, and ship out oil and minerals essential for industry.

As the tectonic plates of the global economy shift, where does that leave Northern Ireland? It is a tiny economy whose deficiencies have been well explored on these pages. It is also hobbled by being wedded to a much bigger economy centred on London. Being part of a large economy can be a strength, but it is also a weakness, as cities like Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow know well.

Regardless of the constitutional niceties, the UK link has created a dependency culture here. Devolution provided the opportunity for the region to take greater control of its own destiny.

But the Executive has not proved to be up to the task; and it is not just because of the tension between nationalism and unionism. There is no consensus about how the economic needs of society are best met – within the parties, never mind between them. And there is no consensus about the priorities for Northern Ireland.

This economy is in an accident and emergency department where triage isn’t practiced. Doctors are focusing their attention on minor injuries rather than potentially mortal wounds.

Worse still, those with the capacity to help Northern Ireland out of its difficulties feel they are being ignored. We have all been in a position where the person we are talking too nods encouragingly, but doesn’t listen.

That’s how business feels about the Executive.

There is no doubt about the problems facing those who govern us. Needs grow and resources dwindle. But there is a limit to how much more you can do for less. We need to find a way of growing the pot.

There was once a time when the relationship between Britain and Ireland mattered, where sovereignty mattered, where protectionism could help countries withstand global competition.

But that world has gone. In Northern Ireland we are still fighting the wrong war.

The big issue is how do we invest limited resources where they are best able to stimulate growth, generate income and create wealth to be reinvested in those areas that best improve quality of life.

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on July 31 2015