By: Brad Ysseldyk, February 20, 2012

“It is what it is”.

This was the  unofficial strategic vision of a company that I visited frequently over the years.  I heard this mantra  repeatedly and watched uncomfortably as complacency set in and the company nearly failed. Competitive advantages were lost, future product development lagged, and customers began to question the company’s true focus.

Accepting ‘the way it is’ was toxic for this organization and many good people were put out of work as a result. Fortunately, the company discovered that to operate successfully in a highly competitive global market, growth strategy must be dynamic, flexible, and most importantly, born out of creativity from employees who are empowered to think freely and think often.

Since the beginning of the 2008 recession, managers everywhere have evaluated and then re-evaluated their vision for growth. While many organizations used the economic downturn as a means to reduce staff and cut costs while simultaneously trying to enhance execution, the unfortunate reality is that for many, this awakening to a new business paradigm seemed to be a one-time event. If we are to assume that the rules of business have truly changed, with marketplaces now more dynamic than at any time in history, a stagnant growth plan is simply unsustainable.

The reality is that at some point all businesses hit the proverbial wall in terms of growth. At the very least, growth will slow and be somewhat selective. Companies that fail to prepare for this eventuality (think S curve) are the same companies relying on outdated growth strategies. Maintaining the status-qua and managing old business will leave any organization in disarray when stagnation sets into their core markets.

The question then becomes, “What can I do as a senior executive to mitigate challenges when the inevitable slowing of growth occurs?”.

The answer: preparation.

Although this perhaps sounds  rudimentary, it amazes me how quickly a market leader becomes complacent and myopic, and ultimately unable or unwilling to acknowledge new market realities. In this sense, as RBC national director of small business Michael Michell suggests, “planning for business growth is as important as planning for a start-up”. Put differently, preparation equates to re-invention, or the ability to adapt to changing opportunities and market realities. How is this done? Although there are different paths to growth, regardless of the economy, these three things could mean the difference between being in the red or celebrating ongoing profitability:

  • Focus on edge – Be less traditional and look at bringing both the edge of the market, as well as the edge of the company to the center. There are untapped resources at both of these “edges”. Customer needs or problems, for example, that traditional strategic planning methods fail to address are sitting on the market periphery and can be a source of significant revenue. Furthermore, bringing fresh faces from the edge of the company, especially front line employees, into strategy sessions is an easy way to eliminate market myopia and keep strategy dynamic.
  • Shake it up at the top – In an earlier piece, I wrote about ‘Leadership lost in a sea of Leaders’. Specifically, some people are leaders, some are managers, whereas others have a more entrepreneurial outlook, and yet others excel at running a business. Regardless of skill set, it is imperative that prior to the financial S curve starting to turn, new talent must be injected in order to evolve the company’s capabilities and jump to a new S curve.
  • Maintain surplus talent – I have been told that the best indicator that a company has a surplus of good talent is when employees have the time (and opportunity) to develop ideas and simply time to do nothing but think. Although some may be sceptical of this concept, after spending time at Google’s Mountain View campus, I became a believer in this idea. By giving employees room to grow personally and professionally, as well as encouraging unhindered thought to problems the company may be facing, new products, processes, and even markets will evolve. Although counter intuitive, cutting staff as growth slows will do nothing but accelerate that downward slope of the S curve. Jump to a new S curve and hire (or at least maintain) quality people and let your competition do the cutting.

To the point, employees along the organizational hierarchy should be encouraged to think freely about the direction of the company or even their particular division— “it is what it is” is simply unacceptable.

Instead of asking workers to fill their calendars with what often amounts to uninspiring meetings, time should be set aside to encourage real, creative thought. Growth strategy sessions should not be confined merely to the realm of management retreats. Empowered employees should be encouraged to participate in the process by providing processes and time for creative thinking. In fact, I have often found that off-site management meetings that are scheduled with the intention to review and generate strategy will typically de-volve into a formalized planning session void of any creative thought, essentially recycling old and tired ideas. It was Mitzberg  who said “real strategic change requires inventing new categories, not rearranging old ones”.

This is a paradigm shift for some, and it is time that companies start getting creative with how they are going to achieve this.