Monday, February 2, 2009

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste

David Leonhardt, economics columnist for The New York Times, wrote an interesting though somewhat depressing article called “The Big Fix” in yesterday's Sunday Magazine section. In the article he outlined the challenges our country will face trying to revive the economy without the old stand-by growth engines of Wall Street and consumer spending.

One positive in the article, at least for me, was when Leonhardt quoted a statement that White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, made a couple of months ago about what is probably the only upside of the crisis:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,”

What Emanuel meant was the that the severity of our situation is so bad that it could actually be a catalyst to make some of the transformative changes we as a country have been putting off for years but are needed if we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.

That got me thinking. Whether you like it or not the federal government will play a lead role in shaping the future of our economy. However, the private sector, as always, must and should play a lead role as well. One of the ways that will happen is when companies start investing again in programs that put people to work whether that be new product launches, Web redesign projects, software upgrades, etc.

This is where people can make a difference. Whether you’re a middle manager in a large corporation, a software salesperson or, like me, an account guy at a marketing services firm, you, with a little bit of ingenuity and courage can do something to help get this economy going again.

Here’s what I mean.

Emanuel’s quote reminded me of something I read years ago about IBM’s Chairman and CEO, Sam Palmisano. Palmisano rose through the ranks of IBM’s vaunted sales organization. One of the tactics he used to use on sales calls that were not going well was to ask the executives he was meeting what their toughest business challenge was. Then, like any good sales executive, he would get their consent to come back with some ideas on how IBM would solve that problem. He would use that next meeting as an opportunity to ask for the assignment. Essentially, Palmisano was creating an opportunity where none existed (this is what sales professionals call solutions selling).

So, the next time you’re in a meeting with your senior managers or a client, or on a sales call try to create an opportunity where none exists by asking the tough questions. Get them thinking of the possibilities that can be realized by addressing the tough problems they have been avoiding for years and have been holding their business back. Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • What are our/your toughest business challenges?
  • Is our/your top-of-mind unaided brand awareness where it needs to be?
  • How much money are we/you leaving on the table because of poor customer experiences?
  • What are the costs to our/your organization of continuing to delay implementing that customer retention program despite high lapse rates?
  • What is the impact of not addressing these challenges on our/your ability to create shareholder value and a healthy return on equity?

Then, and this is the most important part, go back to your desk, cube or office, get your team or department together and brainstorm ideas on how to solve these challenges – now.

No one really knows what the next engines of economic growth will be (infrastructure projects, the digitization of our health care system, etc). What I do know is that nothing makes executives focus like a crisis and if they’re shown a way forward that generates results they will give it serious consideration. You really can’t ask for much more in this current climate.

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