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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Brand-New World . . . Same Old Challenges

Few of us alive today have seen this. Huge old corporations crashing down over a single weekend. Seemingly endless reports of unprecedented layoffs and business failures. Our world is changing drastically. What can we, individuals and managers, do?

It's a time of threat and uncertainty, and the perfectly natural reaction is to hunker down. The world has changed and what you've been doing isn't working. What you know doesn't give you the new answers you need. So now what?

For starters, you can keep your eye on the ball -- which is success, not simple survival. Studies of recessionary times show that leaders who use the occasion for rethinking and innovation are the ones who make it through the hard times, and thrive more quickly and thoroughly when it is over. They focus on the successful operation they plan to have in five years, not the array of bad news currently on their desks.

In golf, the point of the effort is a good drive in a good game, not just hitting the ball. Obviously, if you don't hit the ball there will be no drive and no good game. But focusing just on hitting the ball can put you in the rough. You can't sequence it all from Step One, planning each next step as you conclude the current one. You can't plan placement of the shot after you've hit the ball. You need to be skilled at a process that competently gets the entire job done.

Why Caution Won't Work . . . and Panic Won't Either
That's why lying low in a difficult economy, however natural, doesn't ensure that you'll ride the upswing when it comes. Playing it safe is based on certain assumptions. One such assumption is that this will blow over before your resources are exhausted. Another assumption is that the underlying realities are the same as before, and when they resurface your hard-learned processes will once again be profitable.

If either of those assumptions is wrong, you'll find that out too late.

The opposite "strategy" can have worse outcomes. The wise manager doesn't lurch into frenzied struggle against the unaccustomed burdens. That's a sure way of hastening a bad end. Its basic assumption is that the old realities are gone forever, and it's a jungle out there.

While very bad things may be happening, panic is a sure way to do oneself in before the economy has a chance to do it to you.

So wisdom counsels neither unadorned patience nor unbridled struggle. It says you need to sort through the strengths and weaknesses in your standard process, and be prepared to make some major changes. At the same time, you look for opportunities and threats in what is going on in the outside world.

Fresh eyes and an open mind are absolutely essential now, presuming good judgment also is present.

One important factor is innovation. Often, pre-existing weaknesses and potentials have been growing for some time, but we have been too busy or too set in our ways to act on those perceptions. Now may be the time for some significant initiatives. If new ideas make sense based on an honest evaluation of one's organization and its people, courage teams with wisdom to produce innovation. You DO IT.

Reality is Internal
Times of severe stress really aren't radically different, and the challenges faced by individuals and organizations aren't either. It's just a matter of degree.

It's important to remember that our expectations are our own, and we should manage them consciously. If we are swayed unduly by the really bad news around us, we'll replicate it within our own spheres of action. If instead we take confident command of our thoughts, examine our assumptions and truly assess our strengths and opportunities, and ACT on our constructive judgments, our prospects improve dramatically.

When it's over, there will be a future. Those who will prosper in it are those who find ways to make hay when the sun isn't shining quite so brightly.

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