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Planning to meet and then meeting to plan

February 24, 2009

Flying gliders is exhilarating. Here I was, range soaring the Catskill Mountains of NY, which means I was flying over them, using their updrafts to gain altitude and stay aloft while traveling a decent distance.  Peacefully and magnificently gliding silently with the birds. Quiet, warm, sunny, 200 degree view from the cockpit canopy. Just watching the piece of yarn taped to the canopy stay perfectly aligned to the fuselage, so I was flying straight. Doesn’t get better, nice and graceful and smooth as silk. I was making progress; I was flying, busily working the rudder pedals, moving the stick and watching the altimeter and bubble while monitoring my rate of ascent/decline, just me and those birds. Actually, I wasn’t accomplishing anything other than busy work.

Worse yet, I wasn’t engaged in busy work, I was actually well into the process of flying my airplane into the ground. What my instruments didn’t tell me was my headwind equaled my airspeed. It dawned on me at 1,350 feet when I noticed this large boulder under me was not moving. It was under my seat at 1500 feet and was pretty much in the exact same place at 1000. I was perfectly, busily, flying my airplane into a crash. The birds were squawking, so maybe they have a sense of humor.

Over the years I’ve seen this same behavior with failing sales reps and floundering companies. A company under bailout and in the news is as busy as ever, planning to meet and then meeting to plan. Nothing much accomplished since they got their initial funds. No cost reductions, no major restructuring, having all the time in the world to meet and plan and then plan and meet.  And every Big4 consultancy is in there, with huge staffs planning and meeting and presenting brilliant 3, 5 and 7 year visions. Must have been like the Titanic’s chefs planning the following Tuesday’s midnight buffet while standing in knee deep water. It just feels good to be busy, to be doing what you’ve always done so well.

But that was then. Now is the time to reexamine what you’ve always done and see if it needs to continue. Beak political boundaries and cliques, reprioritize projects and initiatives, get the sales reps selling and not growing their relationships in their best accounts (who will buy from you anyway and more likely than not, the sales reps are trying to maintain their personal relationships over yours so they can take your best accounts to their new gigs). Now is the time to think quickly and rationally about what must be cut in the near term to ensure you have a long term. Do you need those 2 groups each trying to solve the same problem with different approaches? Are people still trying to use passive aggressive resistance to do their own things and then have to be ‘exposed’? This is not the time for foolishness; most likely 2012 will be, at the earliest, but we’re in 2009. You have 1000 feet, or basically 45 seconds to pull out or hope they find you alive in the wreckage on top of an uninhabited tree covered mountain. In a business environment, this means cutting non-customer perceptible expenses radically and requiring strictly enforced low-threshold approvals for all new expenditures beyond a few thousand dollars. Might be a good idea, which I’ve used, to cancel all budgets and require month to month or Quarter to Quarter line item accountability and refunding.

One more piece of advice. I forgot to mention in my heroic glider tale that the instructor, in the seat behind me, curtly ordered me to do the counter productive – dip my nose to increase airspeed and fly out of my situation. Listen to the person who tells you what you don’t want to hear, especially if they’re under the same canopy.

Rich Eichen is a senior turnaround, program leader and Interim Manager/CRO, with over 25 years experience reshaping companies and key initiatives as well as operating units of Global organizations. He’s the founding Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is www.growroe.com

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