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Business-Driven Architect

Brenda Michelson

Tammy Erickson: Taking the offensive in recessionary times

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We've all been in organizations where the first reaction to a downturn is cost-cutting and a myopic focus on keeping the lights on. Sometimes, that is your only option, but for many organizations, a current-term batten down the hatches approach stifles innovation and talent, and inevitably drives the best and brightest out the door -- with their creative ideas!

In a recent post on her Harvard Business Discussion Leader blog, Tammy Erickson calls for a different approach, one that recognizes the unpredictability of the current business climate and emphasizes investing in collaboration, improvisation, and yes -- people:

"A lot of senior managers are now readying their team for Recession 2008. Most are thinking in ways that are completely understandable -- and in my view -- very likely to be dangerously wrong. Most standard wisdom advises caution and control -- review your costs, tighten your approval criteria, pull key decisions and sign offs up to higher levels, make sure everyone in the organization is as fully busy as possible, narrow the business scope.

That approach might work, if the nature of the recessionary environment were known or easy to predict. But it's not. Rather than trying to tighten control and hunker down, I'd suggest that you think about ways to make your team better able to improvise given whatever comes along. Four things will help your organization become more spontaneous, innovative and reflexive:

(1) Increase your firm's "collaborative capacity" through relationships, trust, and knowledge exchange. Don't cut out meetings, intensify the competition among internal teams, or reduce investments in learning. (For more, see our November 2007 HBR article "Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams").

(2) Articulate a compelling "innovation intent" -- something that, in the language of complexity theory, will serve as a "strange attractor" to rally your team around goals that are intriguing, complex and important. Don't narrow the focus to the mundane or over-specify the way teams should approach their challenges. Keep them engaged.

(3) Ensure that your team has regular on-going exposure to disruptive insights through diversity and external forays. Don't cut travel or fall back on the old "tried and true" team. Bring in new people and new ideas and take them seriously. Get outside your business sphere.

(4) Provide everyone in your organization with some specific tools to help with innovative thought processes -- teach people how to brainstorm, use scenario analysis, or create ideas through attribute reduction. Don't cut training -- invest in your people. Teach your employees how to be a business innovator so they can improvise in motion."

Makes sense to me. Seems like you'd want to give your organization a fighting chance, and innovation takes innovators...


Very well put. So many are writing about basic "what to do in a recession" topics and you have given an intelligent and comprehensive detailed listing of actions that can be taken to help people with the situation.

Michelle - Thanks for the comment. As much as I wish the above ideas were mine, I'm just amplifying the great work of Tammy Erickson. -brenda

Brenda Michelson, Principal of Elemental Links, shares her view on architectural strategies, technology trends, business, and relevance.

Brenda Michelson

Brenda Michelson is the principal of Elemental Links an advisory & consulting practice focused on business-technology capabilities that increase business visibility and responsiveness. Follow Brenda on Twitter.


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