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, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Recession, Strategy, Success, Results, Planning, Foresight, Alberta

What strategies recession-proof your business? As a decision-maker, what do you need for successful results?

Of course you’ve heard about “The Recession”. But have you seen it yet? I never thought I would.

For the first time I’ve heard the tinny ring of uncertainty and panic in the voices of working-men. I hear the glossy air of unfounded optimism in the stories my wife’s friends tell each other. It’s awful. It’s like watching old 30’s movies, in HD.

Recession on the horizon

Here in Alberta you see storms coming for hours. They roll up, huge and black on the horizon. As the storm creeps closer, the air stops holding sound. The breeze drops into silence. Things take on the surreality of a hyper-idyllic summer day and then the storm pours in.

We say, “It feels like rain.” Right now, if feels like recession.

We wait for silence.

Responding to the recession

Recession hurts. When silence drifts in, decision-makers will run. I wonder which few will stay, with us, out in the storm.

We have two strategic responses to recession. We can rest in our strong cash position and last a few years without revenue. Or, we can move deliberately into darkness.

Forward feels frightening. But, it feels like the right thing to do. As we get ready to step out, I’m answering three questions about our company. If you are a decision-maker, if you run a small business, if you play in innovation – you should answer them too:

– Where is your competition weak?
– How can you design to maximize the possibility of something good happening?
– Can you move upstream, further into results?

Competition and weakness are old-economy ideas

In a Web 2.0-Obama-Twitter world, words like “competition” and “weakness” feel out of place. But they are less about “conquering” and more about success in a recession.

Instead of competition, you want recession-proof blue oceans. You want to stack on and compound the success around you. You want to move the game to unexpected places.

Strategic success of pressing

In his New York Times article, “How David Beat Goliath”, Malcom Gladwell illustrates the advantage of moving forward, or pressing, in unexpected places. Pressing, Gladwell argues, creates movement in areas where others have little or no prepared response. It breaks conventions.

The Bible describes David as a young, inexperienced fighter. Goliath, on the other hand, was the champion of his people and, literally, a giant. The two set up for a one-on-one, winner-takes-all battle: Israelite versus Philistine.

Initially, David got ready for a conventional sort of fight – coat of mail, helmet, and sword. But the armor didn’t fit and it was a bad idea anyway – David was a shepherd. Instead, David dropped everything, grabbed a few rocks and his slingshot, and went out.

“And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.”

Of this, Gladwell writes, “the second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up … David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.”

Too often, we look at our “opposition” and see only barriers: Bigger businesses with bigger budgets, stronger technologies, and early market positions; Decision-makers with no budgets, obscure alternatives and unfounded ambitions; and Economies with trickling cashflow, mounting debt, and massive unemployment.

It’s natural to focus on the giant-part of obstacles. For success in recessions (and any other time too), the trick is pressing gaps:

– Instead of looking at well-armored giants, look at unprotected spaces. In giants, these are bigger than usual.
– Instead of looking for oceans of (highly contested) opportunity. Look for games too small or too specialized to attract crowds.

Engineered success

Coach Michael Leach is probably the most innovative offensive mind in American college football. Since starting as head coach of the Texas Red Raiders football team in 2000, he’s led to team to a winning session every year.

Famous for his wild offenses, eccentric interests, and obscure lectures; Mike Leach is an outlier. His agent, Gary O’Hagan, says “He’s so different from every other football coach, it’s hard to understand how he’s a coach.”

“Each off-season, Leach picks something he is curious about and learns as much as he can about it: Geronimo, Daniel Boone, whales, chimpanzees, grizzly bears, Jackson Pollock,” writes sport journalist Michael Lewis. “[In 2004], after a loss to Texas A&M, Leach delivered a three-hour lecture on the history of pirates.”

With plays like “Ninja” and “Ace Rip 6 Y Shallow”, Leach runs one of the most intricate offenses in college football. “The Texas Tech offense,” Lewis writes, “is designed to maximize the possibility of something good happening rather than to minimize the possibility of something bad happening … Leach and his offense are approaching the natural end of a path football strategy has been taking for 50 years. They are testing a limit.”

“Synergy, in Leach’s view, doesn’t come from mixing runs with passes but from throwing the ball everywhere on the field, to every possible person allowed to catch a ball … One of the side effects of Leach’s tinkering with the accepted rules of offensive conduct is to upset the ordinary rhythms of a football game.”

Note, very carefully, what is maximized. Leach doesn’t fanatically avoid failure. He is not rabidly focused on Hail-Mary, do-or-die offense. He optimizes for success. He does this by upsetting the expected rhythms of his game.

Success’s result

In cases like ours, determining the result of success is more difficult than maximizing its probability.

In my work, success means a client makes the right investment. A CEO makes the right decision, a government chooses the right analytical framework, a cluster of companies choose the right business model to aggregate their technologies – whatever the context – we help decision-makers make choices.

If the “right choice” is success, what is the result? That’s hard to define because it rolls out in time, its result depends on how it’s implemented, and it’s subject to commitment by decision-makers.

Asked another way, if the “right choice” is success, what does the prototype look like?

What if we delivered the Championship Bowl not just the playbook?

Moving into results

A few days ago I wrote about Gad Shaanan. He used to run Gad Shaanan Design, an industrial design shop with clients like HP, GE, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and Siemens. He recently sold it and today leads Gad Light, a company that undertakes market analysis, product innovation, and early-stage prototype design for a handful of Fortune 500 companies.

We spoke a few days ago. I am interested in his use of business intelligence and analytics. In answering my questions, Shanaan kept connecting success to a drive for results.

An industrial designer with a world-class reputation, Shanaan insists on both advising and implementing on behalf of clients. He doesn’t want to give up the reins too early. He knows success depends on delivery.

Like most service providers, his firm: spots opportunities, performs analysis, and provides engineering support. As industrial designers they also make models. And, unlike most service providers and most industrial designers, Shanaan insists on being part of final implementation.

He moves up, into results.

Honoring the game

I give away the final result to decision-makers. That’s a mistake. We deliver playbooks but leave the game and Championship to others.

Leaving the playing to others is be fine if we deal with complete teams and experienced coaching staff. But (and this is a huge revelation for me) we don’t work with broadly capable companies. And, even better, we never should.

My surprise came after thinking more about Shanaan’s work. I wondered why corporations like HP, GE, and Johnson & Johnson would use his shop to deliver final results. These businesses are huge. What possible role could a tiny design house have with companies like these?

The gap Shanaan exploits comes as a result of the game these companies play. Like the 330-pound defensive linemen on Coach Leach’s team – these large companies are specialists. They are product-deployment juggernauts. They do one thing very, very well.

And, just like as defensive linemen don’t pick up the ball and run plays, HP and GE get help when they call new offensive patterns. They supplement their focused capacity in product-deployment with Shanaan’s product development prowess.

Our best; or why we’re not all quarterbacks

Now, would HP or GE pick up the ball if Shanaan gave it away? Absolutely. Do the decision-makers we work with accept that role? They do. In a heartbeat.

Leaders take the ball because they want to be brilliant at throwing for touch-downs. Everybody does.

I’m sure every successful lineman once struggled with an ambition to be quarterback. But linemen aren’t quarterbacks. They aren’t built for it. It isn’t their best.

Every good coach of linemen determines which of his players knows their best. Who commits to their role? If linemen want to run plays instead of punishing the opposition – they’re not worth coaching.

Linemen willing to honor their role enjoy a lifetime of nuance inside their position. Across their careers they use a range of different coaches. Their specific job, within the general role, evolves. But one thing stays constant – they will never be quarterbacks.

Similarly, no company that plays all positions well. Most have a best. For the rest they use external capacity and bring in coaches.

When we get hired to create playbooks, we fill a gap. To use the metaphor, we help lineman understand the broader game. But, when we walk away after sketching the playbook – we ignore the fundamental purpose our role – to hold the line. We take great risk not being there for the big game. A brilliant playbook is a waste if the line is constantly breached.

Giving away results is our biggest mistake. We create playbooks all the time but rarely stick around to deliver the Super Bowl.

What are you giving away?

Facing an impending storm

As recession’s silence descends and every one runs for cover, you and I can rest and wait. Or we can turn and face a dark horizon.

In this recession, we can press, we can design for maximum probability of success, and we can seek to own results. If we run we are guaranteed to be poorer. If we turn … well, let’s find out.

What did I miss?

What gaps are you looking at?

What’s keeping you inside the conventional rhythms of your game?

I’d love to hear from you. This conversation got started two weeks ago – we post an early draft for email subscribers. If you want in, subscribe to email notification from the blog.

Keywords: Recession, Business, Decision-makers, Strategy, Success, Results
Tags: Planning, Strategy, Foresight, Alberta


the Economic Recession has been pretty hard on us. some of my friends lost their job because of the massive job cuts. i just hope that our economy becomes better in the following years.

the economic recession has been pretty hard on us. there is some good progress on the economy this year. i just hope that the economy will continue to recover in the following months and years.