Ideas that Matter Now

Posted by: Jena McGregor on December 23, 2008

The business world is gripped in the throes of extraordinary change. The government is doling out bailouts, companies are adopting four day work weeks to stay afloat, and layoffs are becoming frighteningly common. Are fresh management ideas dead? Does the pendulum swing back to cost-cutting and efficiency drives mean we’re headed for a time when innovative ideas are crushed?

We don’t think so. That’s one reason we’re devoting an upcoming special report to the management ideas that matter now—fresh insights, bold thinking and smart tactics that companies are using in extremely difficult times. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. To engage our readers in the process, we want to hear what new approaches you’re experimenting with at your business. What new ways are you looking to manage and compensate people? How are you setting strategy in such uncertain times? How does globalization fit into your business when the world is changing on a dime? How are you keeping innovation alive in your company?

Tell us here. Or, send me an email at jena_mcgregor@businessweek.com

Reader Comments

Jacob Webb

December 23, 2008 7:51 PM

Great point. This is a good time to be an entrepreneur, despite the fact that funding is limited.

Denise Lee Yohn

December 25, 2008 6:15 PM

Most companies choose to focus on core competencies or approaches that do not enable their companies to profitably achieve or sustain a market leadership position. They put in the driver’s seat of their organization technology, sales, distribution, marketing, or even customers – yet each of these drivers has the potential to steer organizations down the road to failure.

A company's brand belongs in the driver’s seat. Building a brand-driven organization starts with developing brand values and attributes and then using them to establish strategy, create a values delivery system, and shape the organization’s culture.

“Brand as business” is a management approach that leaders can use brand to guide and power their business – like it’s the GPS, fuel, and engine all combined into one.

It employs a brand perspective and brand-based tools throughout everything the company does:
•applying a brand lens to generate insights about the business that resonate throughout the organization
•improving business planning decisions with brand tools that guide choices about which activities to do and which not to do
•using the brand to facilitate ongoing execution broadly across all stakeholders and across time.

Most companies treat brand as a symbol of the business when it should be its driver. The “brand as business” management approach is a smart, but not yet commonly practiced way of charting a course toward success.

Paul Ken

December 26, 2008 6:12 AM

One of the biggest reasons for the collapse of the financial services was hubris – the tendency of the top ‘leaders’ to believe their own spin. Unfortunately, the organizations did not push back, and the resultant mess is for everyone to see. Fundamentally, organizations are ‘closed’ in that employees do not feel empowered enough to talk openly about wrong-doings that are taking place.

What’s required is a fundamental change in the way management operates. In this connection, I read a groundbreaking paper, “Why your boss is programmed to be a dictator” – that advocates a radical idea: subordinates actually voting for their bosses. The paper uses Systems Thinking theory to substantiate the idea. If you’re looking for a truly revolutionary idea, read the paper at http://changethis.com/19.bossdictator

Shiketa Morgan

December 27, 2008 12:30 AM

Fresh management ideas are definately needed in times like this.

As a business owner of 10 years, I know first hand how it feels to need a bailout. In 2006 my childcare business was failing. It was not failing because of the economony, it was because of my lack of marketing knowledge and my leadership abiblity.

Yes, everything rises and falls on leadership. I also believe the best way to turn a company around is to improve or change the Leadership. 2008 has been a awesome year for my business. In fact, I have a waiting list for children to enroll in the program and I am always striving to improve my leadership and my staff.

Innovative idea meetings should be a weekly or monthly event in companies. The employees are key to a companies success. They have plenty of ideas and are waiting to share them.

Nat Stoddard

December 29, 2008 3:14 PM

Einstein said, "It takes a higher order of thinking to solve a problem than that which created it." Right now, our company's emphasis is focused on modifying the process used to select leaders to ensure we've got the right people (those whose character fits the cultures through which they must bring about innovative changes)in key jobs. Experience shows that a lot of people can envision new and creative ways to do things but very few can actually implement them successfully in any given situation. As in other business diciplines, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" is just as true when dealing with heretofore "soft, people stuff" like selecting leaders. Without The right leaders to execute changes, no amount of new ideas will make a difference. Our innovation lies in refining and intilling meaningful metrics into the leader selection process.

Dermitt

December 30, 2008 2:16 PM

Rewards are proportional to efficiency. The trouble with bailouts and stimulus is that they don't make anything more efficient. People thought risks amounted to rewards, took chances and lost. Now they are the first in line for bailouts. The result is that the government gets to reward inefficiency in industry.

Here's an idea. Increase dividends, it is a stimulus for growth.

'A study on stocks response to dividend cuts or increases over three years found that after an announcement of a dividend cut, stocks underperformed the market by 15.3% for the three-year period, while stocks outperformed 24.8% for the three years afterward after a dividend increase announcement."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficient_market_hypothesis

David Harkleroad

January 3, 2009 8:31 PM

Focus on the fundamentals, while leveraging new technology. Good business principles haven't changed in centuries: find a customer need and then harness resources - technical, financial and human - to provide differentiated value.

What changes constantly is the infrastructure available to align those resources. Our research indicates the most effective companies align operating models, performance measures and incentives at all levels to support strategic objectives.

Now that web 1.0 is pervasive, smart companies are finding that the infrastructure enables the use of collaborative 2.0 tools that enhance their ability to more effectively engage employees who, ideally, provide better customer value.

At least this will be true of the survivors.

Scott R. Gingold

January 3, 2009 8:35 PM

I cannot disagree with nearly all of the points being made here. That said, I do have to add something to this discussion.

In my 15+ years of owning businesses, as well as two decades in corporate America, I have seen downturns before. I well understand and appreciate that this is a different kind of slump, but nonetheless, the economy is cyclical.

Personally I grow very weary of seeing statements like; “fresh insights, bold thinking and smart tactics.”

While there is great value and merit in new and different approaches, the simple truth is that many companies do this while yielding on business basics. Some things just never go out of style, and include-

• Having a phone system that works and is actually customer friendly

• Doing what you say that your are going to do

• Responding promptly to sales, customer service and other inquiries

• Providing measurable value to your customers

• Focusing the necessary resources to study customer insights

• Responding to email messages in a timely manner

• In a meaningful and scientific manner, secure employee input and suggestions

• Treat people like you wish to be treated. I personally respond to every vendor phone call and email message that is directed to me. 99% of the time we cannot use their services, but doing the right thing often affects your karma, and besides, you never know where people will be working next!

I am all for innovation and inventive ideas, but I will never do so in the name of business 101.

Scott R. Gingold, CEO
Powerfeedback

Jena McGregor

January 4, 2009 11:20 AM

Thanks for all the comments! The following was sent to me via email by Patti Dragland, founder and president of Strategic Sense:

First: People Needs – replacing loss with something worthwhile

1. Expenses must be kept down, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop having fun with the staff! Celebrating wins right now is very important to your company morale.

a. Team Pot-lucks still provide camaraderie

b. In-house fun: hallway bowling with water bottle pins; hallway golf with ping-pong-balls; Nerf dart competitions, etc.

c. Still offer awards, but make them smaller or on certificates. Explain you need to keep costs down, but it’s incredibly important to recognize staff and you wish to continue. Better yet, make the awards a fun afternoon of dressing up for the company “Oscar” equivalent.

2. Training is one of the things often hit in a downturn, remember not to nix it completely, but find something you can afford that offers a large impact for less dollars.

a. Bring in a laughing guru, someone to coach on the importance of laughter in your organization

b. Bring in a speaker as event rather than send to conferences, choose to motivate rather than frighten your employees, you need them now more than ever.

c. Invite employees to build an internal university, a web-based U with sessions for seniors to share the love – then SUPPORT it.

3. Personal Attention is vital for the people working in your company, especially those who are working after a layoff.

a. Bringing your management staff together to define a clear and simple company communication strategy is so important. You ALL want to tell the same story, compassionately and thoughtfully. People will be scared and nervous, thinking they are next. Find a company strategy to rally together in this difficult time, then stand by it.

b. Try to nip rumours in the bud as soon as possible, they will be rampant and will be extremely destructive to productivity. Address them quickly and honestly with integrity.

c. Start an internal blog with daily messages about how you are working to ensure the company will do well for those employees. Be sincere, professional, and do not talk down to the employees. They want assurance, not arrogance. To do this, you need to walk-around the building and chat with folks from the least paid role to the highest so you know where their heads are.

d. People are worried about their careers, feeding their families, paying their mortgages. They may be scared stiff, so ensure your managers know how to discuss career movement in their new-world-order and what it will look like for that employee.

e. Ensure the employees understand focusing on the customer is what will get you all out of this difficult market time.

f. Ask your employees for solutions, they may surprise you with great out-of-the-box ways of holding the company up.

g.

Second: Company Focus – avoid the narrow vantage point and look at the big picture

1. Yes, tighten your belts, it may be a long ride. Just make sure you are doing what is best for your business, layoffs is not always that answer. A business is not just a spreadsheet exercise, success has a broader scope.

2. Remember your customers are suffering the same market and many similar challenges – placing strong focus on how to solve customer problems may be what keeps you from falling.

3. Try to avoid cutting initiatives that will hurt production based on anticipated demand.

4. R&D may very well save you right now with a quick solution to customer pain.

5. Strategize and be flexible. Long lengthy approval processes for solutions could come and bite you in the rear. As a collective executive, see what needs to be streamlined in order to bring to market the one thing that will hold you up.

6. Focus! Take a look at the top 3 things that need to be done in the next 6 months. Then communicate a powerful message to the entire organization as to what those are. Don’t stop there, make sure you’re keeping those 3 things top-of-mind from executive offices to reception, and track your progress transparently.

7. Honesty, honesty, honesty – if you are spending a lot of time covering your rear-end, you may very well miss what needs to be done to save your company. (Not to mention, you need to re-evaluate your ethics.)

8. Love the company, the customer and the people, put those three things in the forefront of the choices you make as an executive team and you will weather a difficult storm.

Patti Dragland

January 4, 2009 12:24 PM

Thanks for posting the Strategic Sense response, Jena.

Steven Cerri

January 5, 2009 1:13 PM

Ideas of what caused the current economic situation as well as what would help it abound. At some fundamental level, however, I think there is a big issue that is not discussed, and it's this.

Much of what is produced in the world today, doesn't matter. It's only based on a willingness of people in a long string to exchange it for money.

I often hear people making the statement: "I really want to work for that company... I want to change the world!" And what they are talking about is developing the next set of phone ring tones, or the next video game.

We seem to have gotten away with valuing and producing what is really useful and worthwhile in life.

Teachers barely make a living. Bankers make millions. Infrastructure crumbles while hedge funds prosper.

Many companies produce useful products that do, indeed, change the world. And yet there is an underlying mentality that trivia is a valuable commodity as well, in it's own right. It's the idea that accountability and value are relative.

Imagine a world in which we attempted to produce products and services that did indeed produce a better life. What a trip that would be.

Be well,
Steven Cerri
www.stevencerri.com

Jackie Hutter, IP Strategist

January 6, 2009 10:20 PM

It is well accepted that 70% or more of corporate market value today is in the form of intangibles, most of which is in the form of intellectual property ("IP"). Nonetheless, most organizations still allow lawyers to "manage" these assets. If it is not good management process to allow lawyers to manage corporate assets such as A/R or the product development pipeline, how can it make good business sense to allow lawyers to dictate the processes involved in identifying, capturing and protecting a company's IP assets? Clearly, it does not, but even otherwise sophisticated companies refrain from making IP a sustainable and actively managed business process. It is also somewhat surprising that more companies have not removed IP management from the dusty confines of corporate law departments when companies such as P&G, AT&T and IBM have demonstrated that when IP is treated as a business asset, as opposed to a legal issue, corporate value can increase multi-fold.

Today's focus on corporate innovation management processes only shows part of the picture of whether a company will be able to maximize payback from its innovation investment. That is, it matters little how many blockbuster innovations a company introduces if a competitor can produce those same innovations without incurring liability for infringement. Too often, however, corporate management fails to understand the critical relationship between innovation payback and IP strategy. Moreover, lawyers responsible for protecting a company's innovations are often not properly integrated into the business team which can result in incomplete or inappropriate IP protection. Such ineffective protection of innovative products should be considered to be a management failure because an innovation that is not protected from competition using IP strategy is one that can be copied by competitors.

I also believe that small to mid-sized innovative companies e.g., specialty products companies, would be better able to counteract low cost foreign imports if they did a better job protecting their innovations using the US IP system. Management at such companies must recognize that agressive protection of their innovations using US IP law can reduce or eliminate commodification of their differentiated specialty products by preventing legal knock-off products from being sold in the US at unsustainable prices.

There are many other benefits to companies that make IP part of their critical management processes. Put simply, however, there is no reason for IP management to remain in the hands of lawyers when so much corporate value creation centers on the competent management and deployment of this largest of corporate assets.

jane

January 7, 2009 7:30 AM

I think that an important idea is the effort. You can see: http://blogs.expansionyempleo.com/blogs/web/agora.html?opcion=1&codPost=49826 Good post!

Derek Irvine, Globoforce

January 7, 2009 3:52 PM

Very important question. Regarding managing and compensating employees, it's more important now than ever to recognize and appreciate employee's efforts.

Yes, employees are afraid, angry, resentful and distracted by rumors due to the recession. Strategic recognition -- timely, meaningful and appropriate appreciation for effort -- reaffirms employees in the value of their contributions, acknowledges the additional work and effort they are being asked to perform, and allays rumors.

All employees need recognition for their efforts and validation that their work is appreciated — now more than ever. If those recognitions are tied to a company value demonstrated or strategic objective achieved (or contributed to), then employees begin to see how their individual efforts contribute to company success. This is by far the most positive and effective way of encouraging repetition of precisely those actions company leaders need from every employee to succeed in this recession.

By using strategic recognition principles to frequently recognize and encourage team members in a stressful time, company leaders also communicate clearly their commitment to the well-being and future of the employees.

More on recognition in a recession is available here:
http://globoforce.blogspot.com/search/label/recognition%20in%20an%20ailing%20economy

Steve Strickland

January 8, 2009 10:20 PM

Hi Jena,

One of your writers submits "find a customer need and then harness resources - technical, financial and human - to provide differentiated value".

Good advice. Our implementation follows Toffler's advice in his book "Future Shock".

We use employees who are hired for a single project. In this way we custom tailor our work force to the immediate job at hand. This gives us almost 100% efficient use of our payroll budget. We assemble a unique team to get each project done which brings us ideas and techniques we don't have in-house. There is no way we could ever afford to keep such a team on a full time payroll.

We don't manage our employees. We just give them an assignment and expect them to complete it by the deadline. If they can't work without supervision then we don't use them.

We can instantly resize the company with this approach. Our company is always the perfect size even though our workload constantly varies wildly.

We are driven by our customer's needs. The plug-and-play model for employees gives us the ability to instantly reconfigure ourselves to exactly fit a client's requirements. We do this on every job for every client.

We have developed and evolved a nice set of collaboration technologies.
While this type of Web 2.0 approach is enabling, it actually exposes the core problem this business model has - Information Overload.

Managing the flow of information is crucial, a matter of survival. It's easy to get overwhelmed managing a single project, much less managing 5 or 10 projects simultaneously. But that's the level of productivity we've been able to achieve so far with the information overload approach. We're now thinking of ways we might manage 20 or 25 projects at a time.

We've been quite successful with the plug-and-play employee model but only after we solved the information overload problem. I have the idea that many business leaders are not cognizant of the role information overload plays in their lives and the profound impact it has on their ways of doing business and the influence it exerts on decision making.

Our success is based on managing the information, not the people.

Thanks for bringing up such an interesting subject!

Steve Strickland

munidas pereira M.B.A (McGill)

January 11, 2009 4:40 PM

Reduce the Lawyer effect. It is said that everytime the US Govt. passed regulations for the auto industry , the US manufacturers hired Lawyers to fight/find loopholes in the laws while the Japanese hired Engineers to find innovative ways of meeting the rules. In the long run innovation wins over Lawyeration (my coined word)
munidaspereira@yahoo.ca

Jane Linder

January 13, 2009 11:43 AM

In a crisis, many experienced executives hunker down and tighten up controls. What they should do is give employees more space to take initiative, not less. Every amazing performance has many heroes--some of whom don't even know about each other. Organizations that can call on this level of trust when bad times hit will emerge from the crisis with a substantial, sustainable lead.

Jane Linder
Author of Spiral Up: …and Other Management Secrets Behind Wildly Successful Initiatives
http://www.amacombooks.org/book.cfm?isbn=9780814409176

Rajeev Vashisht

January 23, 2009 3:43 AM

Lean time could be used to develop COE's in orgs and set up Flash Businesses in countries which are healthy and sectors which never dry.

Education is cheap and this time could be used to multi skill employees in various topics which will help both or and emp development.

http://tekno-world.blogspot.com

lg jaramillo

March 7, 2009 12:19 PM

If you ask the company’s employees for their thoughts on the crisis, probably they will set many causes wich can array in five subjects :
1. Problems with technology and understanding the market
2. Lack of a genuine business plan
3. Poor motivation and disarray in human-resource leadership
4. Obvious lack of control over management and results
5. Shortcomings in company communications and public relations.

For solving each of these problems I am proposing a new language for CEOs : MBS.

See MBS in www.fivestarmanager.com

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How can you manage smarter? Bloomberg Businessweek contributors synthesize insights from the brightest business thinkers, critique the latest management trends, and comment on leaders in the news.

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