Back to basics

January 2009 » Columns
As we negotiate the latest economic hurdles facing our industry and our individual businesses, we face many complex challenges. One of these is the double-edged sword of strategic planning. As usual, our time is constantly under assault from competing interests and conflicting priorities, and strategic planning is often one of the unfortunate casualties. Firms that neglected to fully plan and prepare for these conditions are now likely paying the price in lost business, lost employees, and lost morale. These are critical times, with many firms literally on the brink of collapse, and the ones most in need of a clear course have precious few resources available for plotting it. What is a leader to do?
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM

As we negotiate the latest economic hurdles facing our industry and our individual businesses, we face many complex challenges. One of these is the double-edged sword of strategic planning. As usual, our time is constantly under assault from competing interests and conflicting priorities, and strategic planning is often one of the unfortunate casualties. Firms that neglected to fully plan and prepare for these conditions are now likely paying the price in lost business, lost employees, and lost morale. These are critical times, with many firms literally on the brink of collapse, and the ones most in need of a clear course have precious few resources available for plotting it. What is a leader to do?

Many begin with (or live by) the aphorism, "You can’t manage what you can’t measure," and are attempting to play catch-up by quickly strategizing their way out of the mess. While fundamentally sound from a strictly business standpoint, this is insufficient to set a course in such rapidly changing conditions. Measurement and analysis take time and energy away from the "real" work, and that is the challenge. If you have not invested in these aspects of your business during the last two to three years, you are in for a rough ride. But there may be a shortcut if your firm has enough experienced managers and leaders.

Though innovation for innovation’s sake has been in vogue for the last decade or so, we shouldn’t discount experienced leaders’ assessments of the situation and their preference to stick to what they know. The only thing that appears significantly different this time around is the speed at which conditions have changed and the effect of computers and technology on the outcome. Ask anyone who has been in the business more than 25 years; you will find that none of the recent turmoil is anything new.

In the same way, the management concepts that have allowed success up to now are also substantially the same, though there may be new means of applying them to your business. It means that many of us need to get back to basics, adapting them as necessary to reflect new trends in labor and technology. When in doubt, it is acceptable, if not necessary, to defer to those who have seen it all before.

Managers may be quick to suggest analysis of the competition, the market, the firm’s capabilities, or some other such parameter. Unfortunately, that may be too little, too late under these special circumstances. While important, these should already be known quantities. Rather than postpone tough decisions through measurement and evaluation, think back to what has brought you this far. To paraphrase author Ayn Rand, before you lament your position at the bottom, you should contemplate whether there was any reason for you to have been at the top in the first place.

If you have a sound corporate strategy, clear goals, honest leaders who stick to their convictions, and a staff that is willing to follow through the storm, you will not fail. However, it requires a bit of faith on everyone’s part. The employees must know that their leaders will do their utmost to make the firm survive (for everyone’s benefit); the leaders must know that their gut feelings may be based on incomplete information, but are most likely on the right track.

The business landscape will look different in a year, to be sure. Some firms will have survived, and others not. Jobs will be lost and found, as will clients, both good and bad. One thing is clear: we all have broadly similar goals of happiness and success. We do not have any common enemy, as such, though there are many obstacles to progress. But there is no reason to think that we will not reach our goals if we continue to make good decisions based on sound leadership and not become hindered by uncertainty.


Jason Burke, P.E., works for Allied Engineering in Billings, Mont.

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@stagnitomedia.com.


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