This time of year in Georgia, we get these fierce but momentary popup thunderstorms. Seemingly out of nowhere, black clouds, thunder, pouring rain, and high winds come rushing in. It is not uncommon for trees to come down in these storms.
I recently walked our dog through the woods behind our house after one of these storms, taking in the aftermath. This time though, several trees had gone down. Most were understandable. They were either very old, had bare branches even in the spring, or were too close to the river.
There was one casualty that amazed me, this giant, beautiful, seemingly healthy oak. When I first saw it lying on its side, it didn’t make any sense. It looked amazing. It looked strong. It looked healthy. But as I got closer and could see the inside of the tree, its demise was no longer unfathomable; it was all but guaranteed. Years of rot and decay had destroyed the tree from the inside out.
As I mentioned before, these storms are common this time of year. This particular tree had recently survived several strong storms, seemingly unscathed. The inside had died long ago, and it was just a matter of time before the right storm hit and revealed its hidden frailty.
This is what it’s like to be in the Big Rut. The business looks great on the outside. It looks even better from the leafy branches where management sits in their beautiful corporate offices. However, the employees will tell you the truth in their words, their actions, or both that the organization died on the inside long ago.
Sure there are pockets of innovation, years of substantial growth, and plenty of PowerPoint slides with charts and data showing a steady climb up and right. But all this life is leftovers from the past. They are living off the value they fought so hard to create back in Predictable Success. While there may be plenty for a while, what happens when that value fades, and you find yourself without the ability or strength to adapt to today’s pressures?
What you probably will do but shouldn’t
Much like they are in normal times, most Big Ruts are quietly riding out this crisis, and they are proud of it. They’ve cut back on some staff, some marketing, some training programs. Sure, revenues may be down, but the stock price is doing alright. To them, the fact that things are surprisingly reasonable despite the chaos in the world around them is proof that they’ve got this thing figured out.
It’s like they said of the Titanic, “God himself couldn’t bring this ship down.” And like the Titanic, it will only take one iceberg in the wrong place at the wrong time to reveal the inner weakness of an organization that has been coasting for some time.
Trying to outmaneuver the external problem because you believe that’s where the biggest threat lies. But the truth is, the real threat comes from within. You have to address the rot and decay inside the company.
What you should do, but probably won’t
Hit the iceberg head-on. If the Titanic had smashed headfirst into the iceberg instead of trying to turn, there is a chance it could have survived its maiden voyage. The damage could have been sealed off at the third or fourth bulkhead, and the ship would have retained enough buoyancy to float. It would have been a long, embarrassing limp back to port, but the ship would have survived. Imagine if it had survived and how many more passengers it could have impressed as it sailed time and time again across the Atlantic.
The “gift” of this economic crisis, if you can call any of this a gift, is that you can take the direct hit, head back to port, and rebuild more robust than ever. In the language of Predictable Success, you have a brief opportunity to re-awaken Treadmill’s tension, which could give you a chance to one day pull the business back into Predictable Success.
Why you can reinvent your Big Rut business right now
Here are three quick reasons you should reinvent your business now, not despite the crisis, but because of it.
There’s no guarantee you’ll survive the next one. If your business is in the Big Rut, it’s not a matter of “if” the business will fall into Death Rattle, it’s a matter of when. The clock is counting down. It may not be this crisis, it may not even be the next crisis, but each crisis you survive is not proof of your strength. It’s just another blow that’s weakening you more. Most businesses don’t try to make the change until it is forced on them, but it is too late by then. Once the tree starts falling, it’s never going to stand again.
It allows you to align the external problem and the internal problem and solve both. Most Big Rut businesses simply can’t see the core problems inside the business. When pressure comes in from the outside, it pushes them deeper into their beliefs that they’ve got this figured out. If you can align the two, you may get the golden opportunity you need to make that one last effort to save the business before it’s too late. Using the external problem as a villain to vanquish, as a rallying cry to inspire your staff, and as cover to keep your shareholders content, you can make those difficult changes that you know need to happen.
There’s a greater upside for those who take risks right now. This is true for virtually every business across the board. Those who will come out on top are those prepared to and will now proceed to take risks faster and more effectively than the competition. This greater return could give you the spark you need to make the necessary changes to re-awaken the business’s Visionary roots.
How you can reinvent your Big Rut business
Overhaul the leadership
There’s no easy way around this. I can almost guarantee you will have to make sweeping leadership changes throughout the company. Your leaders who excel in the Big Rut are the opposite of what you need to get out. You need to bring back effectiveness, and that is enormously painful for those who excel at efficiency. Instead of Processors and Synergists, you need Visionaries and Operators.
There’s no easy way to do this. Having made it this far, you are running a massively complex business. You need to move fast and move decisively. You have to do it at scale. And if you aren’t way over your skis, you’re not doing it right. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. And it’s your responsibility as the leader if you want to save your business.
Make the painful decisions
One of the tools I frequently teach is the Stop-Doing List. While it may sound trivial in this context, your business needs to survive. What business units are you going to cut off (whatever the mechanics are), to create room and attention for something new? Possibly, a more accurate question is: what legacy product or service will you abandon or cannibalize for a new or even lesser value product or service that will be the future. Clayton Christensen provides a clear case and compelling strategy for this in his books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution.
You can see a few more examples of this in my article on Treadmill, where I show how three Visionary leaders maid incredibly painful decisions that turned their businesses around to ensure success for years to come.
Now that you’ve brought in fresh leadership, and cut off (or made plans to cut off) those decaying parts of the business that were pulling you down, you have to fill the void. You have to lead the organization to systematically (and even not-so-systematically take risks).
Cast a compelling vision. Nothing begets visionary action like visionary leadership. Don’t publicly speak unless you are casting vision. Let other people deal with the details for you. Start every single meeting with casting vision, and require your leaders to do the same. When you don’t focus ruthlessly on vision, the organization’s momentum will fill the void and pull the entire business back into the perceived safety of the old ways.
Normalize failure, because it is going to happen. I have found it is useful to separate failure in standard operations from failure in the new innovations. Your people should not be failing at what they already know how to do. However, they should be failing as they are learning. You need a system that allows for both to exist side by side.Show your commitment by publicly celebrating risk-taking both when it works out and when it doesn't. Click To Tweet
Celebrate risk-taking. Show your commitment by publicly celebrating risk-taking both when it works out and when it doesn’t. This is often best achieved when you make learning the goal because neither success nor failure diminishes learning. The key here is to make sure that what you’re learning is applied. It’s not enough to learn from a book or to simply know. It needs to be experiential, and new information needs to be quickly integrated into current practices.
It is no easy task to turn around a business stuck in the Big Rut. In normal times, it is virtually impossible. Times of crisis like these, offer the rare opportunity to reverse course, but it requires tremendous determination on the part of the leader. It can be done, and you can do it. If you’d like help crafting a specific strategy to get your business back into winning form then give our office a call, we’d be glad to help.