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Team and Organizational Survival Strategies for Turbulent Economic Times

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Survival: The Name of the New Economic Game

People rarely have a neutral reaction to Survivor, the reality based TV show. Love it or hate it, with 51.7 million viewers for the final episode of its first season, it's impossible to ignore it. Given our turbulent economic climate, Survivor is a powerful metaphor for what's going on in the marketplace. We'll look at some of the parallels between Survivor and the real world. Then, we'll focus on survival strategies to help your company get through the rapid fluctuations of our turbulent economic times.

If your company has had a successful year of growth and profitability, you may be tempted to point your browser elsewhere. If you read on, you'll find that the survival strategies we're about to discuss are even more effective if you use them as preventative measures before your company runs into difficulty.

The Stakes

It's tempting to laugh and shake your head when you watch Survivor but the parallels to the real world are way too close for comfort. Just like the current economic landscape, the terrain is rugged and the competition is fierce. Some people will do anything to make it. We've all met Deb, the highly productive and competent employee who rubs people the wrong way and gets fired for her efforts. We've also worked with Gerri, the attractive young woman, who will use any ploy, sexual or otherwise, to get ahead. Alicia, the competent and assertive African-American employee who gets canned because people find her intimidating. What would the corporate world be without the inevitable employees who smile in the face of co-workers and then cut them up behind their backs? Worst of all, on Survivor, the posturing, rumours, gossip, and backbiting intensify as times get tougher and the competition stiffer.

What's sad is that all of these ploys, plots and schemes sap creative energy, kill morale, and undermine the effectiveness of the team at the very time when everyone should be pulling together. When the stakes are high and you can't afford to lose, working as a team becomes a critical survival strategy.

On Survivor, make too many wrong moves and you face starvation, the cold or injury. In the real world, it's downsizing, layoffs and bankruptcy. As Vancouver-based 360networks Inc. discovered, it doesn't take much. Just one too many clients deciding not to go ahead with a project or postponing a decision to use your services until next quarter and it can be game over.

Changing Times ... Changing Rules

In the real world, just like on Survivor, no one is immune. Anyone can get "voted off" the island. For example, up until recently, the wireless communications industry, has been regarded as virtually recession proof. However, it has not been without its casualties. 360networks Inc. was worth $25 billion when its stock was at its peak. Its stock tumbled to the status of penny stock on the Nasdaq when it was not successful in obtaining a lucrative US$350 billion contract with Teleglobe Inc.

Telesystems International, headed by Charles Sirois, considered to be genius with a string of success to his credit, has lost 90% of its value. The telco sector has been particularly hard hit. In the Toronto area, two companies that were headed by executives with stellar track records and for whom I have a great deal of respect, have gone out of business.

The list goes on: PSINet Inc., an internet pioneer, has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US; Sony, Lucent, HP and 7.24 Solutions are among the companies that have announced layoffs. A year ago who would have figured that such high tech giants as Cisco Systems and Nortel would have been tottering? Who could have predicted the meltdown? Small businesses have been particularly hard hit. I personally know of two consulting firms that have been struggling after over a decade of success.

Survival is the name of the game in this economy. It's tough out there so it's not hard to understand why a show that enacts these dynamics metaphorically would appeal to such a large audience.

What's a Company to Do?

So what's the answer? Truth is there are no magic answers. Just some strategies to consider. To survive this economic crunch requires a change in mindset. It involves recognizing that what worked last year may not be the right strategy for today. It will take the courage to try something different, a lot of support from suppliers, partners, and employees and, lots of prayer.


Yes retreat. It's impossible to come up with innovative solutions when you're charging around putting out the latest fire. It doesn't have to involve going to a resort for a few days. Save that for the party to celebrate your survival. If you really feel you must get away, it's best to trim it down to one day at a location within 30 minutes driving distance from your office. Skip the golf and save by not forking out cash for hotel rooms. When the market is shifting so quickly, a weekly 2 -3 hour session where you zero in on a key area is probably a better plan anyway. Kick it off with a day off-site if you like but it's important for your senior management team need to get together to really analyze your strategy in 4 key areas:

* recruitment and deployment of talent
* customer service
* market intelligence
* talent retention

If you have the skills to facilitate these sessions yourself, then go for it. Otherwise, take one of your senior facilitators out of the training room for a while, invest in facilitator training or hire a professional. It isn't always best to go with the big guys. Remember, when you're forking out $3500 a day to a large firm, a huge chunk of that is overhead. Are they charging you senior consulting rates and then sending you a rookie who they're paying $600 a day? Then, you're helping them solve their survival challenges, not yours. A consultant from a smaller firm who has regular and first hand exposure to what it takes to win the survival game is more likely to bring you the expertise you need at this time.

I can hear you asking "are you for real?" Absolutely! If you can't free up at least 3 hours a week to focus on strategic issues because the latest technical glitch, customer or employee complaint keeps landing on your desk, it's a huge red flag that you can't afford to ignore. You need a super strong team at the director and management level that's competent enough to handle the latest crisis and keep you informed. If you don't have that, then you've just identified your first area of focus for your survival strategy sessions.

Talent Recruitment is not an HR Issue

During an economic downturn, companies often overlook the importance of a solid talent recruitment strategy. This is not the time to become complacent. An effective team will be your important weapon in your fight for survival.

As a result of the downsizing that's going on, a growing pool of qualified, talented people is available on the market. We haven't seen this in years. Organizations have the opportunity to thoroughly screen and assess candidates to ensure appropriate skill level and corporate culture fit. Pinpoint the key competencies that you require in your management team. Clearly define your requirements. Incorporate behaviour based interviews, rigorous reference checks and work samples into your talent recruitment strategy.

Apply the same diligence to your promotional decisions. This is not the time to let the old boys' network come into play. You need top talent who will produce results and help you through these uncertain times. Sometimes this means looking at people who don't quite fit the mold in terms of sex, age and race. Remember, you're running a business and the name of the game is survival. If you want to surround yourself with people who can play golf and laugh at your jokes, join a country club.

Employ or Outsource

In an uncertain economic climate, the decision to expand your team should be weighed carefully. Is there any point in dramatically increasing your employee base to respond to new projects? An unexpected change in the financial stability of even a few of your key clients can mean a bunch of layoffs a few months from now. Hefty payouts for benefits, severance and vacation pay can substantially trim your bottom line. There is a pool of freelance and contract talent available to handle challenges at all levels of the organization. Ask yourself:

* Does this project really have to be handled by an employee?

* Is outsourcing a viable option?

* Would we gain more flexibility by responding to this increase in business by using freelancers or contract workers?

* Can tele-commuting be used as an alternative to increasing overhead in the form of office space, furniture, and computer equipment?

Ask your HR team to provide you with an analysis to compare the full cost of filling a position with an employee vs a contractor. Factor in the costs if there is a need to lay the employee off. The results may surprise you.

Be Compulsive About Customer Service

When times are tough, you can't afford to lose even one customer to the competition. If one customer has a negative experience with a member of your team, that customer will tell dozens of people about it. This can gradually erode your customer base and trim your profits. This is not the time to cut back on training your front line employees. You need to ensure that they have all of the training, tools, coaching and support that they require to deliver top notch service to your customers. That is what will give you the competitive edge in this market.

Remember that customers come in all shapes, sizes and colours. You need to make it clear to all members of your team that their biases and hang-ups belong at the door. Every customer and every employee deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

Talent Retention

In this turbulent economic climate, there is a misconception among some senior management teams that they no longer need to worry about talent retention. Even and especially if you have had to consider such drastic action such as layoffs, taking proactive steps to maintain the loyalty of your best talent is critical. If you treat some employees harshly during downsizing, then your most valued employees will wonder if they're next. Their tendency will be to jump ship. Frank discussions with your team about the direction of the company, it's challenges, and prospects are important. It's best if employees hear the latest news, good, bad or indifferent, from you. Otherwise, the rumour mill will work overtime and undermine your efforts. Companies also need to shape and mould an employee friendly culture so that your best people will remain loyal to you until things turn around. During the last recession, companies that took advantage of the situation and made unreasonable demands of their team, sowed the seed of talent recruitment and retention challenges that plagued them for years.

Market Intelligence

When there is a downturn, marketing is often one of the first areas to be cut. Remember, Eaton's, a Canadian retail giant, went out of business because its senior management team lost touch with their customers and marketplace trends. To survive this economic crisis, you need regular and accurate data about your customers and your market.

What marketing strategies have been most effective in bringing your new business?

* Focus on those areas,

* Save money by eliminating efforts that haven't been paying off.

What are your competitors doing?

One of the contributing factors to the problems in the telco industry is that too many companies have been focusing on the same narrow market niche creating an over supply in the market.

The real estate market is setting itself up for a similar problem by building too many luxury condos for the upscale market.

What new market niches can you target?

* The ethnic market is growing dramatically in North America but you would never know it when you look at most advertising campaigns.

* The internet has literally opened up a world of opportunities, even for small businesses. If your traditional markets, are stagnating, look to areas of the world where there is growth and an increasing demand for your products and services.

Re-think Your Offer

Pinpoint your core areas of expertise and do some brainstorming to identify other areas in which you can apply it.

Bill Margeson, CEO of Markham based, CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. used to re-furbish and repair hard drives. A drop in the price of hard drives resulted in reduced demand for his services. Bill applied his expertise to data retrieval. In 2000, the company generated a profit of over $1,227,000 and was ranked by Profit Magazine as the 89th fastest growing company in Canada.

Harness the Creative Drive of Your People

Earlier I mentioned that there are no magic answers. However, frontline employees who interact directly with your customers are in an ideal position to give you some clues. By involving your people in regular brainstorming and problem solving sessions, you can collect a lot of valuable information and ideas to help you resolve some of the issues you're facing. For example, your frontline employees should be able to help you generate strategies to streamline your processes and reduce your costs. This could significantly boost your profit margin. Concord Idea Corp. ( number 42 on the Profit 100 ranking ) is able to produce memory at 33% of the cost of its competitors. Its 2000 profits were in excess of $800,000. It would be a shame to overlook this virtual gold mine within your organization.

The Bottom Line

Survival involves:

* getting a clear picture of where you want to go,

* building a management team that shares your vision and communicates it clearly,

* getting your team to pull in the same direction and generate valuable ideas and solutions.

You'll reap the rewards in the form of:

* high morale,
* reduced turnover,
* a committed team focused on your goals,
* an improved bottom line.

When the economy recovers, we hope that some of these strategies will help your company be a survivor.

The Rules of Survivor

The goal of the game is to survive. The last player to remain on the island at the end of the game wins $1,000,000. The game begins when 2 teams of strangers are left in a rough terrain. There is no opportunity for planning before the game begins. Each team has minutes to gather whatever supplies they can grab and trek across rugged terrain in search of their campsite. Exhausted and hungry, they must work together to construct some make shift dwellings, get a fire going (without matches) and figure out what they're going to eat in the middle of nowhere. The inevitable jockeying for position and politicking begins almost immediately.

? 2005 Executive Oasis International - All Rights Reserved

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Anne Thornley-Brown is the President of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto based firm offering executive retreats and executive consulting for rapidly changing organizations in Canada, Jamaica and Asia. Their executive retreats include powerful Survivor style simulations such as Marooned on Horseback in Jamaica's Cockpit Country, Desert Survival: Stranded in the Dubai Desert, and Arctic Survival: Stranded on Snowshoes in the Canadian Arcitc.

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