Strategy 101 – Three questions you have to answer

Strategy 101 – Three questions you have to answer

Where are we now?

Where do we want to be?

How do we get there?

Developing a plan to move forward is a necessary first step.

There are three fundamental questions that strategists ask: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? and How do we get there? Asking the right questions, gathering evidence, analysing present and possible future positions, drawing conclusions and making choices are part of the strategic process. Strategies need to be flexible as conditions shift or as new evidence emerges that change the original position. In essence strategy is a process. It is not a fixed position. It is ever changing. It is necessary to be flexible it is what strategists refer to as ‘agility‘. It is necessary to be agile to stay ahead. Why is it that so many organizations including government find strategy so difficult?

One reason is that strategies are developed by people who may hold different positions and have competing interests or purposes that are not openly declared or if declared simply serve to reinforce positions paralysing the organization such that opinions become frozen in time without any clear resolution. For example, take the UK Government position on BREXIT. If you examine what has happened in the process of developing a strategy to achieve BREXIT little thought was given to what BREXIT meant. It was reduced to slogans of different opinionated groups united by a PM who simply said ‘Brexit means Brexit’ whatever indeed that meant. As Paul Daniels the now deceased magician may have said, not a lot.  Philosophical nominalism appeared to prevail over any sense of realism in discussions of what Brexit meant. Examining the strategy process government was able to answer the first question as fact we are now a member of the European Union (EU). As a member of the EU strengths and weaknesses are known with some degree of certainty and the opportunities and threats posed are more predictable than uncertain. The second question where do we want to be has proven a far more difficult question to address. As many political commentators have indicated this is where it all went wrong. No one appeared to have a clear understanding of where they wanted to be. Positions became so fixed and not open to debate in any meaningful sense such that as time progressed positions became entrenched. Political manoeuvring and infighting in the governing party bolstered by false promises, a lack of factual evidence and a prevalence of flawed claims without evidence ensured obfuscation prevailed.  This is nothing new of course the Ancient Greeks had words for this very situation – doxa (opinion without evidence) and dogma (belief). As an illustration of how not to do strategy it was exemplary in almost every aspect. Getting stuck for two years on the second question prevented sufficient time and energy to complete the process in the timescale set by the government. Owing to the failure to answer the second question meant the government was unable to move on to the third question. In normal circumstances one would expect this level of incompetence to remove those managing, or rather mismanaging the process. In business, market forces would ensure that a failing management team would be removed and the Executive Board would be voted out by shareholders, if indeed, the organization survived. Nothing is quite as certain in politics and so mismanagement can continue as witnessed for a longer period of time. The problem is such that opportunities are lost that might have been taken to improve the national welfare.

There are many costs of failed strategies. Sometimes these costs can be minimized by adopting positions to repair the damage but these are always sub-optimal solutions. For example, if you really do not know what you want then you are better doing nothing until you do.

black cat holding persons arm
Photo by Ruca Souza on

Extract Alice to the Cheshire Cat…

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
Lewis Carrol



Tony Hines is author of Supply Chain Strategies published by Routledge


If you have a question about strategy or would like help with your strategy drop me a line.



Amazon is becoming more important to the UK Economy.

Amazon is becoming more important to the UK Economy.

Amazon announced 1,000 jobs in the UK with around 600 in a Manchester HQ in the former Cooperative Hanover Building in the Northern Quarter, with 90,000 sq ft of space. Amazon already has large warehouse facilities in the North West of England with a large site close to Manchester Airport and a new distribution centre in Warrington among them. A further  280 jobs in Edinburgh and 180 in Cambridge. Doug Gurr, Amazon’s UK country manager, described the new roles as “Silicon Valley jobs in Britain”. These are highly skilled roles working on software, machine learning and AWS, its cloud computing business. Great opportunities for graduate talent in Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge.

According to Doug Gurr, Amazon’s UK country manager “Manchester was at the heart of the industrial revolution and has a fantastic history of innovation. The city offers an incredibly talented workforce and a budding tech scene with some of the most exciting, fast-growing tech companies in the UK situated here.”

Amazon is expected to have 27,500 employees in the UK by the end of 2018, with 6,500 people in its corporate, AWS and R&D divisions. This represents about 5 per cent of the company’s total head count. Already 20,000 people work in its 17 “fulfilment centres”, or warehouses, and 40 delivery stations in the UK. Amazon is becoming more important to the UK Economy. Globally Amazon employs around 575,000 people.

Cambridge has a development centre where the company work on next generation developments of products such as Kindle, Echo and Alexa alongside drone delivery development. At the Waverley Gate site in Edinburgh which is the first R&D site outside the USA, employees work on advertising technology and personalised shopping recommendations that arrive in daily inboxes from their 250 million products available on the Amazon Website.

Amazon joined the trillion dollar club (market value) alongside Apple just last month.


Is Brexit Irrational?

Is Brexit Irrational?

Shakespeare put words in Hamlet’s mouth ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!’ but is reason unreasonable? As I understand it BREXIT appears to be a declaration to leave a club thereby avoiding membership fees but asking the club to give former members all the benefits of membership whilst evading the rules of the club, in particular immigration. Whatever benefits are offered to former members will not be equivalent with membership. This sounds to me like a worsening of current position. Or have I got this wrong? If this situation was applied to any other aspect of our lives we might simply think it ludicrous. It is completely irrational.

Is it reasonable to change your mind?

In most other walks of life it is reasonable to change your mind if you find that circumstances change. For example, if you make a decision on the basis of information that you subsequently discover is false or misleading would you simply stick with it? I am sure that most of you reading this would say, definitely not. For that is the reasoned stance. It is the scientific approach to developing knowledge. If not we would still believe in flat earth, the sun revolving round the earth at the centre of the universe, and that all swans are white. The reason we don’t is because we discovered new information that provided compelling evidence that such beliefs were false. And guess what – we changed our minds.

In the business world all firms develop strategies that offer direction to a better future position. They set about the task gathering evidence to establish their current position and determine possible paths to a future that is better. Knowing where they want to be and how to get there are two critical questions they have to answer. It would appear that politicians have not done this regarding BREXIT. The Cameron government offered the British nation a vote to leave the European Union (EU), that to take a kind view might be said to be unclear in its aim. Yes you can argue that the vote was to leave and that is that. However, I want to know where the evidence is that leaving improves the current position of being a member of the European Union (EU).

What exactly is the strategy? Is there someone in power, perhaps a leader, if we still have any, who could explain the reasons for leaving. When I say reasons I do not mean beliefs, false claims or empty rhetoric but evidence based reasons why we should leave the EU. Explaining how we improve on our current position as members when we leave. If we really do still live in a democracy then surely conformity and obedience to flawed reason need to be challenged and fresh arguments brought forward based on evidence we can trust.

Compelling Evidence

Most data indicators point to a worsening of position post BREXIT. No customs union means that supply chains will get clogged up with bureaucracy that will increase and cost more to administer. Delay and disruption at border crossing is inevitable. Therefore, there is little doubt that not only the administration costs paid for by taxes will be higher but all those goods and services that cross borders will cost more in Britain too.

Newspapers are full of headlines indicating likely problems in food supply chains, automotive supply chains, aerospace supply chains and pharmaceuticals. There are suggestions that hold ups at border crossings could lead to food shortages, disrupt just-in-time manufacturing systems in automotive and aerospace industries and cause shortages of medicines. Industrialists are concerned about their supplies reaching factories in the UK Just-in-Time and of course parts and finished products travelling to the EU are also at risk. The Bank of England has estimated BREXIT will cost every household in the UK £800 per annum. Is this a better position than at present? Is this temporary? Is this likely to last for years? The austerity years may just about to get more austere.


‘To be (in) or not to be (in) that is (still) the question’ !

Six of the best


When I was at school in the last century ‘six of the best’ had a very particular meaning. Here it refers to six of the best books I have had the pleasure to read. These books were adjacent on my bookshelf and I began to wonder why I read them and what connected them to me and my interest and motivation to read them. In this piece I will share my reasons and make sense of why I chose them justifying their place on my bookshelf.

The Soulful Science a book about what economists do and why it really matters was a book I came across in a bookstore on my travels. Those people I know who have accompanied me on trips will know that I often spend several hours browsing bookstores. A habit I developed in my school days that has not gone away despite the digital age providing many opportunities to acquire information and knowledge instantly. There is always something aesthetically pleasing about holding a book. From the cover to the pages that unfold one at a time as one reads the author’s thoughts placed into the manuscript. Diane Coyle’s writing is crystal clear, concise and convincing. Her arguments are developed through her vast knowledge of her subject. The author’s own curiosity about the subjects she writes about is evident for all to read. My combined interests in economics and philosophy attracted me to the title of this book and when I opened the pages I was not disappointed. This is a thoughtful book tracing developments in economics and its application to what appear to be intractable problems of our everyday lives. The author tackles what she has called ‘The Mysteries of Wealth and Poverty”, notions of free choice and how economists are now more than ever able to consider evidence to establish policies that might just work better than they did in the past. This is not simply a book about economics for economists but is worthy of a wider audience that want to know why organizations, institutions and individuals behave the way they do to influence our quality of life. The author’s enthusiasm and insights into how we are all affected by what economists do is enthralling. Within these 279 pages of text the reader is able to grasp the fundamentals of how and why policies are established for better and worse. Carlyle’s quote alluding to economics being a dismal science because of the bad outcomes is replaced by an understanding of modern economics having a place to become the ‘soulful science’ a discipline that has compassion and hope achieved through better understanding the data and behaviours.

The second book in this sextuplet selection is also by Diane Coyle entitled simply GDP. GDP or to give it the full name “Gross Domestic Product” is something we hear in TV News or read about in the press. It goes up and it goes down. We assume up is good and we can all sleep safely tonight in our beds. If it goes down we exercise ‘fear and trembling’ because the assumption is that our life might just be worse tomorrow. Unless of course we can correct it’s trajectory. Coyle traces the history of this socially constructed measure of economic performance. In this book we learn what GDP is, how it has been defined and how the measure has decided the fate of political leaders. Coyle’s thesis is that GDP was fit for purpose in the twentieth century but may be less so in the twenty-first century when the balance of the economy has moved significantly away from trade in goods towards a dominant service based economy. Recent Brexit plans by the UK Government have made much of how they have squared the circle and yet in doing so it is puzzling to observe the exclusion of the service economy in the Brexit plan. Perhaps politicians and their advisors would do well to read this book if they want to understand how irrelevance can be avoided in design of the plan.

The third book claims its place because it is relevant to contemporary economic discussions as well as to organizations attempting to develop sustainability as a strategic supply chain option. McCarty, Jordan and Probst combine their practical knowledge of six sigma [1] which provides a set of techniques to reduce variation around a quality standard (e.g. variation around a mean of plus or minus 3 standard deviation measures). This means that the standard moves towards zero defects by ensuring that variation is limited around the arithmetic mean in a normal distribution. This together with the DMAIC frameworks (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle that they claim can be developed to tackle environmental concerns and simultaneously create business value. The authors outline how these methods of continuous quality improvement moving towards six sigma or zero defects can be applied to achieve lower carbon emissions, energy conservation, recycling of materials and efficient water usage. In this book they make the business case for investing in sustainability using these operationally tested techniques of six sigma and DMAIC.

The fourth book is something of a hobby horse for me. It is Measurement Madness by Dina Gray, Pietro Micheli and Andrey Pavlov. Increasingly I witness obsession with measurement. Often those doing the measuring appear to be doing so because they can and not because it is something that can do to really improve a situation. Of course measurement is important. I am not arguing against measurement just against the madness of bad measurement. In this book the authors make the argument that well-meaning managers often introduce measures that do not achieve what they set out to do. Worse measures may instil false hope and belief in the objectivity of the measures implemented when they may actually be subjective. Anyone who has worked in finance, production, marketing, management or indeed any business or public service will know how bad the impact of poorly designed measurement systems can be. This book is not a how to guide on what to do but it rather identifies, analyses and discusses how to avoid the pitfalls and seduction of measurement madness. There are many examples and the book is an interesting read for any professional with an interest in measurement systems.

Think is a book everyone should read. For many years in the classroom with aspiring MBAs, PhDs and Executives I encouraged them to step back and think. This is easier said than done as they told me. They asked me what they could do to improve thinking. Simon Blackburn’s concise book simply called Think was my advice. Some would ask why I had recommended a book on philosophy. “It is not practical” came the claim. “That is the very point it is not meant to be” I told them, although in fact it is perhaps more useful than that. In this very readable small book everything you might want to know about human existence is touched upon; knowledge, reason, truth, mind, freedom, destiny, goodness and justice. It is a very clear and interesting read. Most agreed after they gave the book a chance by bracketing their preconceptions. It is a book that I return to because it is so accessible and if you want to make a clear, critical argument within these pages there are many nuggets to help you think.

Last but certainly not least is An Invitation to Social Construction by Kenneth R. Gergen. This was a very interesting and influential book that helped me to clarify my own ideas about the nature of reality and how knowledge is claimed. Gergen, is able to distil his own lifetime experience into a succinct, coherent and clearly focused discussion that challenges the preconceived ideas of knowledge, rationality, truth and beliefs. In explaining traditions in trouble we are given a thesis of intellectual and scientific traditions that have brought us to where we are. Moving from what he refers to as the shaky scaffold of the self; our sense of self, conscious thought, reasoning as decision-making individuals played out through behaviours and dialogues makes us what we are. Overlay this with our cultural heritage and belief systems established over time and our existence from Plato’s pure ideas through metaphysical concerns of soul and religious beliefs, doubt, existence and the complexity of human being is exposed. In the critique that follows alternative visions of knowledge, truth and the self are identified and we are shown new ways to think about how processes may be redefined by paying attention to common discourses. Theory and practice converges as constructionist scholarship and societal practice become one allowing for alternative futures to emerge. This is your invitation to social construction. A means of being able to think differently about the world and our place in it.

[1] Six sigma is a statistical measure + and – 3 standard deviations from the arithmetic mean of a normal distribution i.e. six sigma or 6σ 

Six of the Best in Order of Appearance

Coyle, D. (2007). The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why it Matters. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Coyle, D. (2014). GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History. New Jersey: Princeton Univesrity Press.

McCarty, T., Jordan, M., & Probst, D. (2011). Six Sigma for Sustainability. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gray, D., Micheli, P., & Pavlov, A. (2015). Measurement madness: Recognizing and avoiding pitfalls of performance measurement. Chichester: Wiley

Blackburn, S. (1999). Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social construction. London: Sage.


What will your Supply Chain look like after BREXIT?

What will your Supply Chain look like after BREXIT?


The first quarter GDP figure for the UK stood at 0.3% growth. This compares to 0.7% growth in the last quarter of 2016. The Bank of England had expected the figure to be 0.6% so the fall is significant. In France growth also stood at 0.3% while Spain stood at 0.8% both above forecast, whereas the US came in below forecast at 0.7%. It is likely that there are stormy waters ahead according to most economic forecasts. Disruption is a reality for modern business in the normal course of operating. However, the UK has added to its own uncertainties and increased risk following the BREXIT vote in June 2016. Here I outline some of the factors that will add to uncertainty in the months ahead and identify some likely supply chain winners and losers.

Higher inflation is expected at 3% or above by the end of 2017 (Bank of England forecast 2% for 2017), the volatility of UK currency and the decline in consumer purchasing will all have an impact on the British Economy in the months ahead. The period of instability is likely to last for the medium term as the trade terms of BREXIT are negotiated between the current EU members, the rest of the world and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, some sectors are doing better than others so the picture is not necessarily negative. In manufacturing, textiles, machinery, transport, wood and pulp as well as electronics and other manufacturing the UK is doing relatively well. Food and drink shows a very small decline while other categories including rubber and plastics, electrical equipment and metals show larger falls. The biggest fall is in pharmaceuticals approaching -8%. The key for longer term prosperity will be how the mix and balance of exports and imports change the make-up of UK GDP. Sectors selling more than 30% of their output in export markets have seen a 2.6% increase in growth in the first quarter of 2017. These sectors include transport and machinery. This is not all due to a weakening pound since BREXIT. It is also due to an increase in world-wide market activity in the first quarter of 2017.

Between January 2017 and February 2017, export prices decreased by 0.5% and import prices decreased by 0.9%, with the value of sterling increasing by 0.8% in February 2017 compared with the January 2017 average. However, it remains 10.4% lower when compared with February 2016. (Source: ONS data).

In 2015, the UK recorded the largest current account deficit among the G7 economies at 5.4% of GDP. UK exports grew faster than world exports in 2015, for the first time since 2006. Within this the UK has seen increased trade activity in goods with non-EU countries, with their share exceeding that of EU countries in the last four years. Trade with non-EU countries continues to grow as a proportion of the total. The recent fall in the pound has seen some export categories increase trade while import costs have risen. There has been a slight rally in the pound against the dollar and the Euro since the announcement of a General Election on 8th June 2017. Most commentators opine this is due to the removal of some uncertainty regarding BREXIT. Although, the initial meeting between Prime Minister May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at Downing Street did not go smoothly according to reports. It is unlikely to be plain sailing. It will be interesting to see what happens if there is a hung Parliament with no overall majority for any single party. Most people think this unlikely but who knows, opinion polls do not have a good track record when it comes to predicting the British electorate and choices they make. Opinion polls for BREXIT were not a good indicator for what actually happened. More indecision by any Government would increase uncertainty and risk for the British economy.

Table 1 shows the monthly change in volumes by category for imports and exports for both EU and Non EU countries. It shows that most export categories moved upwards apart from semi-manufactures and food to the EU. Consumer goods other than cars as well as chemicals were major exports to the rest of the worlds. Basic material imports with the EU fell while they increased by  23.4% with the rest of the world. It is possible that firms are already increasing forward purchasing to offset currency volatility but the data set is too limited to be sure. Other consumer goods from the rest of the world fell by 11.1%. Car imports rose by 14.4% from the rest of the world and by 2.2% with the EU.

Table 1: Shows Monthly change1 in goods commodity volume, February 2017
EU countries Exports % change Imports % change Non-EU countries Exports % change Imports % change
Food, beverages and tobacco 0.9 0.0 Food, beverages and tobacco 0.9 0.9
Basic materials 1.2 -3.2 Basic materials -7.3 23.4
Semi-manufactured goods; of which -0.9 0.0 Semi-manufactured goods; of which 0.0 -2.0
   Chemicals -4.3 -3.3    Chemicals 5.0 -9.8
Finished manufactured goods; of which 1.6 4.7 Finished manufactured goods; of which 1.0 -2.8
   Cars 2.9 2.4    Cars -7.4 14.4
   Consumer goods other than cars -1.6 4.0    Consumer goods other than cars 12.0 -11.1
   Intermediate goods -0.9 5.5    Intermediate goods 5.8 0.0
   Capital goods 1.7 0.0    Capital goods 1.0 -0.9
Source: Office for National Statistics
1. Monthly change is February 2017 compared with January 2017.

There will likely be a turbulent few years as trade terms across categories and countries change as result of the complexity of negotiations. Supply chains will need to readjust to new trade patterns, sourcing trends and shifting economics. This is no time for complacency. If you want to stay ahead of the curve your supply chain will need to be agile.

April is the cruellest month – what about May and June?


“April is the cruellest month” said T.S.Eliot. For me it is. As we have a cold snap I engage in that very British concern of talking about the weather with anyone who will listen. In a broader sense all of us are concerned with climate and particularly the impact that human activity has upon our environment. This week as British politicians prepare for a general election ripped untimely from the womb of Westminster, ignoring the procedure established to prevent such a caesarean breach, we witness the devious political trickery of delaying bad news that might contaminate or infect the chances of winning. It is sanitation, redaction, or plain old whitewash removing any damaging ideas to accommodate the vanity of political self-interest. The diesel car scrappage scheme raised its ugly head like Leviathan rising from the sea to create impending disaster for the party of power. It is best now to deviate, to consider the distant problems of rogue states and take the public gaze there. Meanwhile Alchemists gather in party HQs to forge base ideas on the philosopher’s stone in preparation for publication. Key phrases will be needed to text and tweet! “Brexit means …”, what does it mean? New terms imported from former colonies create colour attacking opposition leaders such as ‘Mugwump’ although I would prefer to see ‘Boris and the Wagmump’ as an addition to children’s literature.

We have now reached that time when general elections induce a news freeze for fear of damage to prospective candidates including seasoned veterans like May (note also the month after April and the one before June). Rather like an episode of BBC Radio 4’s “Just a Minute” there must be no hesitation, deviation or repetition. But this is not “Just a Minute”, it is – Wait a minute, repetition is allowed because that provides opportunity for the Prime Minister and Government Ministers to repeat endlessly what we might not have already grasped – “Brexit means Brexit”. Although no one appears to know what this means, least of all those seated around the cauldron of power, or do they know more than they wish to disclose? Is the economy about to implode? Is this why the incumbent ruling party have pulled the election card early? Well, we may not know the answer to that last question for a year or two. However, what you can be sure to observe in the next few weeks, if you can stay awake long enough to listen carefully, to the endless political debates, is devious manoeuvring. There will certainly be silence at times, mostly after difficult questions get asked. The genesis of new but soon to be broken promises will arrive on a daily basis. Political polls will inevitably be wrong as no one really understands just how accurate they are. Statistical forecasting error appears to be a concept too far for most of the political commentators. Indeed fine margins make forecasts look silly mainly because forecasts are simply that, a forecast. It is not an actual result. So even if accurate, they will be wrong. Political candidates and parties would do well to remember this notion of standard error when weighing up their odds. So too, would political commentators after all they are supposed to be providing the public with informed opinion.

Personally, I look forward to summer. Warmer weather, election ended, long-term happiness beckons, in the knowledge that politicians will look after all my future needs, only a forecast, now that they themselves feel secure in their own jobs for another five, or should that be four, or three, or even two years?

After the 2010 general election, the Cameron coalition government enacted the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which set fixed term parliaments every five years. The last general election was held on 7 May 2015, and the next due on the first Thursday in May 2020.” Of course we now have one on 8th June 2017 as 2/3rds of Members of Parliament voted to support the call by Prime Minister May on 18th April 2017 (no April fool!).