A crisis is a chance to break ingrained structures and behaviors that sap the productivity and effectiveness of many organizations. Such moves aren’t a short-term crisis response—they often take a year or more to pay dividends—but are valuable in any scenario and could help a company survive if hard times persist. Although employees may dislike this approach, most will understand why management aims to make the organization more effective.
This may, for example, be the time to destroy the vertical organizational structures, retrofitted with ad hoc and matrix overlays, that encumber companies large and small. Such structures can burden professionals with several competing bosses. Internecine battles and unclear decisions are common. Turf wars between product, sales, and geographic managers kill promising projects. Searches for information aren’t productive, and countless hours are wasted on pointless e-mails, telephone calls, and meetings.
Experience shows that streamlining an organization to define roles and the way those who hold them collaborate can greatly improve its effectiveness and decision making. When jobs must be eliminated, the cuts mostly reduce unproductive complexity rather than valuable work. As Matthew Guthridge, John R. McPherson, and William J. Wolf point out in “Smart cost-cutting in the downturn: Upgrading talent” (available on December 4), Cisco took that approach in shedding 8,500 jobs in 2001. When the company redesigned roles and responsibilities to improve cooperation among functions and reduce duplication of effort, talented employees were more satisfied in a more collaborative workplace.
In fact, many functional areas offer big opportunities: greater effectiveness, lower fixed costs, freed-up capital, and reduced risk. This could be the moment to redefine and reprioritize the use of IT to increase its impact and cut its cost. Other companies could seize the moment to control inventory; to reexamine their cash flow management, including payments and receivables; or to change the mix of marketing vehicles and sales models in response to the rising cost of traditional media and the growing effectiveness of new ones.
As customer preferences change, competitors falter, opportunities to gain distressed assets emerge, and governments shift from crisis control to economic stimulus, the next year or two will probably produce new laggards, leaders, and industry dynamics. The future will belong to companies whose senior executives remain calm, carefully assess their options, and nurture the flexibility, awareness, and resiliency needed to deal with whatever the world throws at them