Part 3 – ABAC ASK THE QUESTIONS AND JIM COWAN ANSWERS
ABAC: Although we haven’t seen an overall strategy for the development of sport of athletics, other strategies are emerging such as EA’s recently announced coaching strategy and the emerging road running strategy. If all of the individual ‘strategy boxes’ are gradually being ticked off, do we still need a larger strategy for the development of athletics?
JC: If a strategy for road running or endurance is being written, while evidence of attempts to get things right, it is also evidence of the lack of understanding of strategy to which I previously referred.
There are two ways of approaching strategy development, reactively or proactively. The latter allows scope for the former while the former is often little more than a knee jerk reaction to a single problem. If UKA now produce an Endurance Strategy it will be based in ‘reactivism’ and only horizontally integrated (if at all) with the rest of the ‘business’ of athletics.
What do I mean by horizontally integrated? Well, as an example, no one could ever accuse the NHS of lacking strategies (plural) but few would propose it had been well managed over the last decade and more. One of the main reasons for this apparent dichotomy comes from a lack of understanding of making strategy work; having a strategy (or strategies) is not the same thing as making it (them) work.
In the NHS example, it was recently reported that the NHS had over 353 strategies currently running, not including local level PCT strategies. In short, for every issue/problem the NHS has faced, another strategy has been produced. Each strategy has sought to service its own area/issue and largely ignored the rest of the NHS ‘business’. This is horizontal integration of strategies; everything necessary is covered but without cross reference resulting in millions in wasted resources which might otherwise have been shared or better targeted.
The concept of how vertical integration improves delivery over horizontal integration is perhaps best explained by a simple coaching model.
Regardless of event, every coach knows that the athlete needs to do a percentage of strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and coordination work. Horizontally integrating these components in the training plan would ensure they were all covered but ratios and combining of these components would have been ignored. In short the athlete would get fitter but in a non specific, non performance orientated way. The clever coach vertically integrates components to the specific needs of the athlete and the event, thus creating the required mix, the necessary combination of components. Even with this simple model the benefits of vertical integration over horizontal integration can be seen and when other elements such as psychology, technique, tactics and the many lifestyle factors are added to the mix it becomes apparent the only route for the coach to train the successful athlete is via a vertically integrated model of planning not a horizontally integrated one.
Extend this thinking to the NHS and its 353+ strategies and you can see how ‘production output’ is seriously affected, even undermined by the lack of an overall strategy which attacks the big picture and allocates resources appropriately, specifically and economically (i.e. vertically) – even with 353+ strategies in place to (attempt to) service every need.
Hence, an Endurance Strategy is a positive step but not necessarily a step in the right direction. A former work colleague whose common sense I greatly respect made the point this way; at a conference a speaker stated (on achieving complicated tasks), “as Confucius says, even the march of a thousand miles can only begin with the first step.” My former colleague put his hand up and said, “But it will become a march of far more than a thousand miles if you don’t first make sure that step is in the right direction!”
Which brings me back to the need for a properly consulted, transparent and fully (vertically) integrated strategy for the development of athletics in the UK.
ABAC: Okay, we’re with you so far. However, aren’t there ‘real world’ constraints, such as the need to appease Sport England over structure in order to secure funding, which mean that in athletics’ case structure needs to precede strategy?
JC: I made the point earlier that there are two types of person in strategy planning, those who make excuses (generally reactive, horizontal planners) and those who seek to find reasons (generally proactive, vertical planners).
This kind of thinking is based on the ‘excuse attitude’ – “we can’t do it because……”
The clever planner will look deeper, “why haven’t we been able to do it?” “what barriers slow us down or stop us?” “what are our other options?” etc.
As a sport, we can’t change the Government, DCMS, quasi-quango structure imposed from above – well, not immediately anyway. So, what we should be doing is looking at how we accommodate it within servicing the needs of the sport. In fact, any NGB has a duty of care to its sport and your example ‘excuse’ removes the duty of care under the ‘excuse’ that appeasement of Sport England (et al) trumps the sport’s own aspirations, wants and needs.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Consult with the sport first. Also consult with Sport England (et al). Also consult with other ‘interested partners’, potential investors and ‘sound advisors’. Now think vertical integration. We plan for the whole in an integrated way, not for selected strands in the blind hope the rest will fall into place.
I am not pretending this is an easy process, it isn’t. This is why it should not be left to well meaning, non-specialists. It is the vital first stage of any successful strategy; all too often rushed and/or misunderstood (or, as in UKA/EA’s case, ignored). It is consultation done well, done properly. From this work the appropriate structure to service strategic needs will emerge, in athletics’ case, one that serves the quasi-quangos AND the sport, not one over the other.
Let me put it this way; do we want a sport that (a) doesn’t plan but crosses its fingers (b) plans reactively or (c) plans proactively?
Do we want a sport that (a) doesn’t plan but crosses its fingers (b) integrates plans horizontally or (c) integrates plans vertically?
Do we want a sport that (a) doesn’t plan but crosses its fingers (b) bases planning on excuses or (c) bases planning on reasons and solutions?
The clarion call of the ‘Foster clan’ was one of change being needed, as it was of Barrack Obama. I agree, change is most definitely needed and I have clearly outlined why and how.
ABAC: So how does the sport go about doing all of this?
JC: We consult, in depth and openly across the whole sport. We talk with those we agree with and those we disagree with and we treat all opinions as equally valid.
We must be intelligent enough to know that perceptions (which have informed the opinions) are not always based on fact. So, we also research what has happened in the past and where things worked and didn’t work. Where possible we identify reasons.
From this we can identify what it is the sport wants and needs (not always the same thing) for itself.
From this we can start to plan properly, strategically, in a vertically integrated way with (evidenced) majority ‘buy in’.
To this we can add Government agenda (again, if things are done properly, developing the sport for the sport and servicing other agenda are not mutually exclusive).
To this we can assign responsibility, timeframes, directed funding, unified appropriate commercial partnerships and so on. We can offer support where it has been properly identified as being needed. We can redesign programmes which, while good on paper, don’t work in the real world. We can identify shortfalls in resources and take measures to cover them. We can alter necessary admin tasks to fit the available resource (usually volunteers) rather than forcing the fit the other way round.
While everyone in the sport argues the toss about blame and reasons and right and wrong Rome is burning.
There is one (and only one) way forward. UKA in partnership with all interested parties (eg ABAC, EA, coaches, workers both volunteer and paid, and – unlike Foster – the athletes) must sort out a development strategy for the sport in their care.
The alternative is to revisit this conversation in five or ten years time, wondering why we didn’t act sooner to safe guard the future of a sport whose best days have passed.
It doesn’t have to be that way if we start to plan properly now.