Looking Around the Corner and Seeing a Future

December 9, 2008 · by James P. Cramer

The tumultuous economy has us all on pins and needles. ~What’s next? Seven questions every firm needs to answer.

The tumultuous economy has us all on pins and needles. What’s next? Seven questions every firm needs to answer.

What is the economy telling us? Are we heading further into a prolonged bad economic state? What are the short- and longer-term impacts on both an individual’s professional life and a firm’s prospects?

Let’s not ignore the fact that the design professions and our entire industry have been mugged by a punishing recession, and this economic state shows no signs of letting up soon. And as bad as it is, it could get worse.

As I write this article, there are new reports of organizations of all sizes preparing contingency models around scenarios that range from staff cuts of 10 percent to 50 percent or more. Furthermore, leaders are expecting a protracted recovery. Indeed, there is a lot of hyperventilating about the prospect of sheer survival, and beyond that, the question of “Then what?” This brings a new poignancy to the concept of “change or die.” It is striking how relevant this principle is today. It turns out that our recent years have been conducted in a bubble of sorts. This scenario has been discussed at Design Futures Council Executive Board meetings for the past several years as these design firm leaders prepared back-up business strategies.

Now we come face-to-face with change as a survival imperative, not just a good idea. In calm waters, every ship has a good-enough captain. In rough seas, strong and courageous leaders are essential.

7 Questions

Leaders in professional practices should be asking the following seven questions today. These will set the stage for a future beyond the economic dilemmas of today.

1. How does what my organization provides improve clients’ lives? Think deeply about the overt value of your services. Better, easier, smoother, happier, more peaceful, more economical — these are things people want. Can they get them from you?

2. Do my clients want less today — really? Or do they actually want more than you think they do? It is during economic down cycles that you should offer wide as well as deep services. Change to match your clients as they change. Recessions always give birth to new firms and organizations that are relevant to what’s new and what’s next.

3. Where do I want to be in three years? What’s next for your firm and in your own professional life? Most architects don’t aim too high and miss; they aim too low and hit. Stretch your thinking about potential personal and organizational futures.

4. Can I stretch a bit further? This question is the basis for many of today’s most successful professional practices. Are you just running in place? What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? Never stop creating your future.

5. Do I value imagination over rationalization? For each situation, problem, or dilemma you face, ask a what-if rather than a who-did question.

6. Why are some firms nearly dead? Why is it that they have only an org chart and a set of financials? Where is the creativity? Don’t let the gravitational pull of life cycle take you down.

7. What am I doing about leadership development for myself? For the organization? You will likely find that in leadership development you will discover the most relevant energy and exciting strategies for your new future.

Focus on the Future

Based on empirical statistics and on observation of past economic cycles, we know that there is a consistent chain of cause and effect that extends from consumer spending through industrial production, and then into capital spending. Capital spending is where professional services typically perform. The ongoing problems in financial markets will have a deep impact that will be tough to avoid.

Even given the uncertainty ahead, we know that the longer-term outlook for professional services is strong. However, the short-term will extend to mid-term weakness before the storms abate. Prepare for the near-term realities but keep in focus the opportunities of the long-term.

Yes, life’s a mess. Adapt. Make it up as you go along. Then move it forward to the next new reality. History shows us that this is attainable, but you must open yourself to seeing around the corner to the next future.

Your own life trajectory will be anything but easy or carefree. Nevertheless, you can survive, ultimately stronger for this economic period. There will be learnings. You can be smarter, more effective, and wiser. Taking the long view makes living through this economic crisis somewhat more bearable.

James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.

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