Seven Manageable Business Paradoxes: Using the Power of Passion to Exploit Tough Times and Win New Customers



James Lucas
06/08/2009

There is one large business truth in traumatic times: either you’re exploiting change, or change is exploiting you. The understandable norm is to hunker down. This can work only as long as customers are willing to cooperate and competitors follow suit. But it misses the opportunity presented by the crisis. This article outlines seven manageable business paradoxes organizations can practice to win. Organizations that do, can recapture the power of passion with their teams, use that passion to capitalize on the tough times and win new customers and dramatically differentiate themselves from their competitors.

As proactive leaders, we can go beyond trying to survive these meltdown times. We can even go beyond trying to thrive during the down economy. We can plan to win big, to go from victim to victor, to climb higher while our competitors slide.

The challenges of leadership include managing ever-present business paradoxes. Of the 20 paradoxes we’ve studied, there are seven manageable paradoxes that organizations can practice to win in tough times. The untrained mind, especially under duress, works to reject these competing ideas and pick easy extremes. Meltdown leaders instead embrace these apparent contradictions to unleash passion.

Seven Manageable Business Paradoxes

1. Spread Optimism and Spread the Ugly Truth

Meltdown needs a positive framework. Your people will conquer mountains—if they believe they can and that there’s a point to the battle. But with the hope, they need the unadulterated truth. Cheerleading won’t get the job done if it’s based on wishful thinking rather than hard-core reality.

Be a pragmatic idealist in the face of stiff winds. Lead with faith, but mix—in equal amounts—optimism about capturing and keeping customers with ugly truth about the challenges.

2. Broaden the Vision and Narrow the Focus

An economic crisis is no time to have too much of your future tied to too much of your past vision. Broaden it. What else are we passionate about? How about our customers? Where can we make a unique contribution, given the new rules of the game? What are our non-customers up to right now? At the same time, resources are perhaps scarcer than ever, so we had better spend them on the best opportunities that we have. If we’ve wandered in good times into areas where we’re strangers in a strange land, let’s exit. Fast.

3. Nurture Customers and Fire Customers

Of course, it’s always the time to love your customers, but now’s the time to really love the ones with cash and orders, those who currently have more options. Assign interim customer champions to make sure that nothing is taken for granted. Find ways to help your customers through their own meltdowns—they’ll be sure to remember you. Become even more indispensable. But purge the bad customers—the ones who bring you high levels of demand and complaint and low levels of profit and partnership. You have no time for these marginal or negative contributors. Clean out the address book. Use that extra time to win new good customers who are abandoning your hunkered-down competitors.

4. Increase Freedom and Clarify Boundaries

The shackles need to go. You’ll be tempted to "batten down the hatches," but you won’t exploit the economic crisis with policies, procedures, rules or regulations. You desperately need good judgment. Give great latitude to anyone who displays it for even a minute. But times are challenging and there’s no time or resources for people to duplicate or overlap efforts. Give more freedom to do what no one else is doing to serve customers, but tell people where the fences are.

5. Expand Creativity and Eliminate Ideas

Leaders always claim to value innovation, but few really encourage innovation or measure innovation. Right now you need 100 percent of your staff thinking like CEOs. Create forums for ideas and the liberty to implement them quickly. But you’ll need to eliminate a high percentage of these ideas very quickly. Find your most passionate people at all levels and create Incubator Teams™—gatekeepers who can kill thoughts without killing thinking.

6. Take More Risks and Eliminate Risk

You’ve got everyone out on the edge. Push people to do things that are a bit scary. Ask your people every day what risky new action to serve customers or improve operations they have on their agendas. But also clearly delineate what no one can do without clearance until meltdown is over.

We may have less cash for fewer tries, so we’d better try fewer—but more radical—things. Poor managers do across-the-board cuts. Meltdown managers reduce costs a lot in some areas, so they can increase spending in places where new customers are waiting.

7. Execute Better and Make More Mistakes

When customers are already skittish and focusing on price, there’s no room for sloppy execution, mindless bureaucracy or dumb mistakes.

Weed out all waste, no matter how small. Weed out waste to free up resources to make smart mistakes, what we call Intelligent Mistakes™. Try original ideas that could never survive scrutiny in boom times. An economic crisis is the time for fresh initiatives out on the cutting edge, where some of them just won’t work. Encourage lots of well-executed mistakes and celebrate every one—while squeezing them for learnings.

We need our team to go far beyond being "happy," "satisfied" or "engaged."

We need passion and commitment and Positive Discontent™. Great leaders know that passion to serve and win is built by fresh, positive action, not by fearful retrenching. Organizations that act on these seven paradoxes can recapture the power of passion with their teams, use that passion to capitalize on the tough times and win new customers, and dramatically differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Above all, keep a nice rhythm between pressure and stress. Great leaders in down economies learn how to convert stress into positive energy, confusion into an opportunity to learn, and insecurity into a challenge to grow. People can perform well in an economic crisis, as long as they know they can still be successful. Remember that an economic crisis is a time for both war rooms and party rooms.

Here’s your opportunity to use some innovative approaches to capture the power of passion with your team. You can turn potential disaster into real growth and wealth. An economic crisis is frightening—but if handled well, it may be the opportunity of a lifetime.

First published on Customer Futures Series.