Recovery is coming. Business as usual? I don’t think so...

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No one is untouched by the current downturn in the economy. While some may have been saved from the layoffs or downsizings, all are affected. Whether it is the key supplier that has gone out of business, the business park owner that has left the new buildings in the park half finished or the bank that has changed the rules of the game, we are all affected to one degree or another. Amongst our client base and those of my peers, I have observed three general categories of conditions in the economy:Category 1 - Businesses in day to day survival mode Category 2 - Businesses who have been impacted with the downturn but have re-sized, are retrenching and have or are working on a recovery plan Category 3 - Businesses who have been fortunate enough to be relatively unscathed (yes, they are out there, they just don’t make the headlines. Good news really doesn't sell...) While categories 1 & 3 represent the outer ends of the bell curve and relatively small segments of the economy, the bulk of us are in category 2 and land in the middle. For the sake of keeping this straight forward, I’m not going to slice this any more than I have other than recognizing that this illustration may be an over simplification for many. Just hang with me on this and see if the bigger message does apply to your situation in some way. If you are in category 1, fighting to keep the doors open for even just the next day, then this post may be of little help and I can only offer my sincere hopes for you and your company to make it through. If however you find yourself in category 2, then listen up: I am hearing an abundance of street talk around, “when business comes back,” or “when things recover.” While I am no economist, I am confident in saying that when our economy begins to return to some state of normalcy and equilibrium, it will be dramatically different. A strategic error that many are making is to view the recovery through the lens of the prosperity over the last several years. The old saying, “what got us here isn’t going to get us there,” screams loudly in this vein. Simply put, success in the future will depend on the ability to envision ways to do business that challenge the status quo. Category 3 businesses take heed. If you have escaped the current crisis and are not using this opportunity to leverage more out of the organization then you are in for a rude awakening. Having the luxury to choose between difficult change and the status quo is not necessarily a position of strength and can lull even the most capable organizations into a sense of complacency. The category 2 (and the few 1’s that survive) businesses that emerge will be leaner and meaner than ever. No doubt the leveraged financials will be a barrier to recovery however any business with a raison d’être tempered in the crucible of a recession is an awesome force to contend with. So let’s get to it, where and how do we dive into this discussion? While I cannot capture the entirety of this subject I’ll outline what I consider the foundation of it and interestingly enough, where many leaders just will not go: 1. What wasn’t working anyway? The truth of it for most organizations is even in the height of success, there are a multitude of sins that are glossed over. “Everything is good because we’re making money, right?” Let’s get real then. What did we already know was not working, even when we’re making money? Get the team together over a brown bag lunch and have an open-ended discussion. Keep it at the identification stage and avoid at all costs the temptation to dive into problem solving. In fact, designate a facilitator to keep the group out of the problem solving stage. There will be plenty of time for that later. While your job is to invite the discussion, it is primarily to listen and observe with one eye keenly looking for the identification of what is traditionally called the “soft stuff,” such as expectations, behaviors, violations of values, etc. If these are not being identified at some point then it is your job to add them to the mix. Better yet, in the request for the meeting and giving the team a heads up of what it is about, if there is one member in particular who is tuned in to this aspect of the team’s performance, pull them aside ahead of time and encourage them to contribute. 2. Deal with behaviors first This next part is where your leadership really needs to kick in. The temptation will be to focus on the “technical” issues such as systems, procedures, policy, etc. While it is most beneficial for the team to collaboratively prioritize what issues get unpacked first, if the behavioral issues do not get priority then you need to exercise your authority and get the team to address these elements first before they dive into the systems. It doesn’t mean that the issues need to be completely resolved however there does need to be a grounding in the expectations, alignment of behaviors and an understanding of what proof of performance looks like before the systems issues are tackled, otherwise you will be condemned to Groundhog’s day (if you haven’t seen Bill Murray in this classic, then I highly suggest you view the movie!) which is also the definition of insanity - continuing to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. 3. Focus, focus, focus (and it starts at the top!) I am a huge believer in Occam’s Razor or otherwise attributed as the “law of economy.” In other words, keep it simple! Most change efforts, especially those dealing with behaviors and beliefs (otherwise known as culture) stall for a few reasons, a) there is no integrity in the process because you are not setting the example, b) it’s been made it too complex to execute, and lastly c) there is no accountability in the process. Keep it simple, focus on execution and remember always, you are setting the tone, guiding the pace, and for the newer teams you will need to set the expectations until they are mature enough to operate at that level amongst themselves. While the challenges of the economy are difficult, there is nothing more clarifying than downright survival mode at times for determining where we need to be sharpening our saw so to speak. Take this as an opportunity to start sharpening. The work you do now will pay multiples of dividends not only in the near term, but exponentially so when we do see the “recovery.” In doing so we all will be prepared to compete in the future. Rest assured, more than a few complacent category 3’s or deer-in-the-headlight’s category 2’s will be caught unaware by your work.