Seven Steps for Showing Your True Colours
DAVID HURST - Read his Bio Here
Globe and Mail Update
February 9, 2009 at 6:00 AM EST
Simple choices between good and evil, it is said, are a poor guide to a person's values. The only
valid tests of our beliefs and those of our organizations are in actions taken under pressure.
The sudden change in economic fortunes has given organizations an unexpected opportunity to
show their true colours. And their people are watching. It is a challenge that will test the
boilerplate on corporate values in countless annual reports and set every organization's tone for
years to come. Will the stories to be told of the Crash of '08 and the ensuing recession reaffirm
your organization's values or will they tell of cold actions that contradicted the warm words
crafted in happier times?
Undoubtedly, many companies are going to have to take drastic action just to survive. “Cash is
King” will be their mantra and in the process they will be forced to make unpalatable choices
among myriad evils. There is plenty of practical advice out there on how to do this – talk to your
clients, monitor your receivables, squeeze the supply chain, and so on.
When it comes to people, the counsel runs through the sensible to the Draconian – freeze travel,
hiring and compensation, layoff temporary workers, ban overtime and reduce the permanent work
force as required. Short term, this may be essential for survival but how these moves are made is
critical, not only for survival, but for the ability for the organization to thrive in the recovery that
eventually will come.
Fortunately, there are precedents for our current condition and we can learn from them. Here,
based on my experience inside a failing company in the depths of the 1982 recession (the sharpest
in North America since the Great Depression of 1929), are some thoughts for managers and
leaders on how to survive and thrive in times of crisis:
Opportunity in adversity
The key to getting anything done in an organization is a sense of urgency focused on the key
priorities. Crisis gives us that sense of urgency. The role of managers and leaders is to focus the
resulting fear, and drive out the dread that is sure to develop among staff – that debilitating
feeling that something is going to happen and that you can't do anything about it.
Make people moves early
Do what you have to do to get the cash flow positive by focusing on financials. Make any people
moves as early as possible and give a real rationale for your actions, instead of vague, generic
reasons. This crisis may be an opportunity to open up your organization's numbers to your people.
You can hardly expect their co-operation if you do anything less.
Organization needs to flow
Address the key issues with cross-functional, cross-organizational teams comprising people from
all over the organization and who are capable of handling a variety of challenges. De-emphasize
the formal organization. Line managers are often best left off the teams to run their operations.
Include “young Turks” and perennial malcontents from the fringes of the organization to send a
powerful message of change.
Create opportunity spaces
Any change like this threatens the organization's power structure. Create open “patches” – space,
time and organizational cover through top-management sponsorship – in which the issue-driven
teams are protected from the organization's “antibodies” – people who benefit from the status quo
– that will attack and reject the task forces as foreign intruders.
An oral tradition
Tell the story – get control of your organization's narrative: We make sense of change with
stories. Use the story of the organization to create a narrative centre of gravity that acts as an
identity, a catalyst for co-ordinating the actions of others as they play their roles in the outcomes.
At times like these, a strong sense of past gives the best guidance to the future.
Talk to me
Don't underestimate the power of face-to-face communication: Trust is at a premium and nothing
reaffirms and creates it like sitting down with people, especially over a meal. Get in front of your
clients, suppliers and resource providers. Talk to your people in town halls and other venues. Talk
to yourself: Write a daily blog and publish it for all to read.
There are an enormous number of methodologies and tools available to address particular issues,
such as brainstorming through “wikis” and other open-source platforms. Look in your own
backyard for best practices – working models trump third-party descriptions every time. Use new
technology for brainstorming with clients, and other stakeholders, as appropriate.
All seven of these factors interact with each other to form an integrated approach. The dilemma
for managers is how to respond to the crisis through the centralized control of cash flow and
capital expenditure (including the hiring of people) while, at the same time, taking the lead to
decentralize the responsibility for focused innovation and learning. During the 1982 recession we
did both, surviving the downturn and thriving in the recovery that followed. But we learned that
it's both discipline and freedom – not either-or.
Otherwise, all that values stuff is just shining hypocrisy.
Your audience is waiting.
David Hurst is a speaker, consultant and writer on management and the author of Crisis &
Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change.