Q: Business is bad and we may have to shut things down. I don’t want to – this store is my baby. But we have lost a lot of business recently for various reasons and I don’t know what to do. As the song goes – “Should I stay or should I go? If I stay there might be trouble, if I go there might be double.”
A: Well, first off, I have to say that anyone who quotes the Clash in their question has to be doing something right!
But the fact is, business, like life, is indeed cyclical. The challenge is knowing whether the down cycle is just that – a down cycle – or instead represents something more permanent. The answer requires both a business analysis, as well as a more “visionary” analysis. I have written plenty previously on the business side, so let’s consider the other, maybe more important, part of the equation:
In Buddhism, bodhi means “awakened wisdom,” and it is under the bodhi tree that the Buddha is said to have become enlightened. I contend that there is meaning and purpose and power in a business crisis. True business enlightenment comes when one realizes that the problem might be a manifestation of something that was requiring attention for some time. Giving it the attention it needs may allow you to turn things around.
Here’s an example: In the best-selling business book Fish, authors Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen tell the tale of Mary Jane Ramierez, recently widowed and the mother of two, who is asked to turnaround her company’s problematic operations department; the so-called “toxic energy dump.”
Ms. Ramierez was at first puzzled, but then (coming from her perspective of living in the Pacific Northwest) she took her cue from the fun-loving, fish-throwing employees at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. For those of you who haven’t been there, part of the experience of the place is watching the fish market employees happily and loudly toss huge fish back and forth in front of the place.
Seeing the fish-tossers work, Ms. Ramierez decided that was missing in the operations department at her place of work was a sense of fun; of enjoying work. So she decided to get her co-workers to take a cue from the happy fish throwers, they did, and in the process, their workplace became a lighter, more playful, more fun-loving, better place to work.
Ms. Ramierez’s Fish crew learned their lessons and changed their ways. That’s what happens when you correctly identify a problem and sit under the bodhi tree.
So here is the process:
- Crisis: We have a problem! When a problem arises, the natural tendency for most people or institutions is to avoid it, pass the buck, hope it will go away, or deal with it quickly and move on. The secret however is to look at the problem as the potential seed for greater renewal.
- Analysis: After confronting the painful reality of the situation, the next task is to correctly analyze what went wrong. The key is to see this as an opportunity to fix what is really broken. So what is the real problem?
- Gestation: A plan of action that deals with root problems is formulated, explained to the team, and implemented.
- Renewal: The plan is carried out, and thing change, hopefully for the better.
There is a fundamental difference between seeing a problem as a problem and seeing a problem as a hint. The business master will know that finding the opportunity in the problem is not just rhetoric, it is in fact what works.
In 1927, Pan American Airlines was founded by Juan Terry Trippe. After WWII, Pan Am became the most famous, most glamorous airline of them all. When the Pan Am building in New York was completed in 1963, it was the largest commercial office building in the world. 007, James Bond himself, would only fly on Pan Am, and in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, passengers journey to the moon aboard Pan Am SSTs.
In 1971, Herb Kelleher started then-tiny Southwest Airlines. Today Southwest has become the fourth largest major airline in America. It flies more than 64 million passengers a year with more than 2,700 flights a day. Pan Am? It’s out of business.
So why did Southwest succeed when venerable Pan Am failed? Essentially, it was because Southwest saw airline deregulation as an opportunity and Pan Am considered it a travesty, and therein lays the moral of today’s story.