Don't Solve That Problem Tomorrow. Do It Right Now.
The following article is excerpted from the book The NEW Employee Manual, out now from Entrepreneur Press.
Practice saying sed non hodie. It means “but not today” in Latin. (Pronunciation: sed known hoe-dee-ay.) Why say it in Latin? Because it sounds better. It sounds scientific. And if you’re saying it in Latin, nobody else can understand the terrible, horrible, dangerous sentiment you’re expressing.
Sed non hodie is what too many big companies say in response to a possible slowing or reversal of growth. Every entrepreneur should learn from their repetitive mistake. Consider where the impulse comes from: Every company wants to maintain or enhance its performance. That’s good -- it’s how capitalism is supposed to work! But their managers often react not by changing for the future but rather by extending whatever the company already has. In the process, they have no idea how to evaluate the outcome. Are they building up their company? Propping it up? Or just plain puffing it up?
When did airlines’ cost-cutting go from sensible to requiring that passengers inhale before they can fit in their seats? They know someday a backlash will disrupt the model of sardines-in-a-can. But…not today.
When did pharma’s infatuation with blockbuster drugs go from delightful jackpot to essential lifeline? Every pharma executive we’ve worked with -- and in our consulting practice, we’ve worked with hundreds -- laments the overreliance on a few blockbusters and the culture that pushes lesser drugs off the development track. They know it will have to change because pipelines of the Next Big Thing are running dry, but…not today.
The problem is not that feverish growth won’t last. The problem is not that stock prices rise and fall. The problem is that, judging by results, these companies have no idea what to do when growth stalls.
Sed non hodie! But not today, they say! Then when today happens, the inevitable is greeted as if the sky is falling. It’s a complete and utter shock. Who would ever have predicted?
Today happens. And it happens in what looks like a sudden and unexpected decline even as signs might have been accumulating under a CEO’s nose for years.
Today is always sudden. Frightened executives never recognize today until it is yesterday. Then the panic begins.
When companies push too hard to keep the growth going, it creates a bubble that ends up like the financial crisis of 2008: It blows up in their faces. You’ve seen the signs. A company squeezes too hard to keep costs down and starves the investment it needs to run the business in the future. When companies polish their numbers to make them shine, they create new expectations that are even harder to satisfy. It’s happening now at GE, where shareholders of the once-venerable industrial giant are suing a former CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, for polishing GE’s numbers as the company was deteriorating fast. His successor, John Flannery, was given just 14 months to deal with this reality before he was fired.
Underlying the decline of executives’ and managers’ skill at competing is the inability to accept bad news. But the fault isn’t all theirs. It comes, too, from the investors and the boards of directors who say, “If you can’t get the job done, I’ll get someone who can today.”
How do you get past the performance addiction -- whether you’re inside one of these big corporations or running a startup? As part of learning and practicing your skill at competing, you need to develop resilience.
The best way we know to develop some resilience for bad news is to live through a bad situation.
One of us (Mark) was fortunate (his word) to be on a flight when an engine exploded in midair. He was fortunate both in that he lived to tell the tale (no one was injured) and in that he was lucky to have had the experience. He’s now less afraid of flying as a result: He saw what goes wrong and what goes right. While he does not recommend that we blow up lots of engines at 5,000 feet so all of us can enjoy this personal growth, he sees it as an utterly cheap way to learn an important lesson. (Cheap for him, not the airline.) No pain, no side effects, over in 20 minutes; that’s about as cheap as it gets.
Here’s the key: A quick and cheap way to learn an important lesson. The military does it with war games. Lawyers do it by arguing in front of mock juries. One of these days, virtual reality devices will make this a common tool for other professions and occasions. Not today, but soon.
Critically, the exploding-engine incident was a learning experience for Mark but not for the pilots of his aircraft. They’d already had their learning experiences in flight simulators! Which is exactly the point.
When you face a challenge, the solution is rarely solved by calculating more decimal points. Instead, it’s solved by thinking differently -- and perhaps the most insightful, useful, and important part of thinking differently is asking what can go wrong, and developing robust strategies to enable resilience. Don’t wait for something to actually go wrong. Instead, when it’s all going right, run simulations on the nightmare scenarios. Consider it the business equivalent of a flight simulator.
We’ve spent a lifetime -- invested a lifetime -- in this kind of approach. And we’ve seen it over and over again: Thinking differently doesn’t happen automatically or overnight, but it does happen. And those who learn can pass the lesson on to others.
One way of looking at resilience is to test strategies against various scenarios. “What happens if…” questions are not negative but positive, because they help companies modify their strategies to survive various states of the world. If you happen to work in the automobile industry, for example, you might ask, “What happens to my brand if the acceptance of electric vehicles reaches a critical number?” That question is more than legitimate; it’s necessary as part of your company’s strategic due diligence. The answer might be to develop hybrid models because they are more acceptable to many consumers than pure electric cars. In other words, the strategy of hybrid is robust in several scenarios.
You can also apply this thinking to your own proposals and recommendations. Resilience and robustness mean making choices that don’t depend on everything going just right. They can intrigue even a “not-today” executive overconfidently committed to heroic performance objectives.
Big bets require a sense of looming change. It is legitimate to make big bets as long as the decision-maker accepts the possibility of failure. Given their sed non hodie mentality, though, many corporations don’t believe in big bets. That’s bad for them and good for their competition. If you can challenge yourself and your team to improve your thinking, then you’ve found the fastest, cheapest, surest, and highest-leverage way to improve the quality of the decisions you make. Start today.