The shock of crisis is nothing new. Anyone who expects things to stay the same forever obviously hasn’t paid any attention to history. Good times are followed by bad times and good times again. Booms and busts are eternal in free market economies but crises don’t affect everyone equally. Some people drown in a crisis while others float right through. Some businesses fall apart while others set up empires.
Whether it’s just your team or your business in crisis, or the economy as a whole, surviving a crisis requires accepting that you can’t fight change and uncertainty. Instead of clinging to the past, embrace crisis as a force for creative destruction, cutting out what doesn’t work and leaving what does. Do things right and you can lead the way with your own creative and innovative skills, becoming part of the change as it happens and primed for growth when stability returns.
Crisis and Stability Move in Cycles
Much of human society appears to flow in cycles: famine and plenty, war and peace, growth and decline. Most people would rather avoid famine and war and decline but it is during these times of change when new ways of organizing society often emerge. The post-war prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s was earned in the crucible of war and crisis, forcing leaders to form new international institutions and treaties. And when those systems failed during the oil crisis and the Nixon shocks of the 1970s, more changes led to prosperity in the 1980s and ’90s.
Crisis forces changes that aren’t possible with incremental tinkering, because without fundamental changes during a crisis the only alternative is failure or collapse. Crisis forces people to think outside the box with new creative and innovative solutions because nothing in the box is working.
New problems require new solutions and the people that come up with those solutions will be valuable and powerful when stability returns.
Treat every crisis this way and you’ll find yourself a much more resilient, productive and creative person. Change is inevitable, so don’t let it hit you unaware. Stay current, find solutions to problems and fill needs. Make yourself valuable and indispensable to the people that rely on your skills and expertise. Put yourself in a position ready for the growth.
How a Business Crisis is an Opportunity
Businesses and their employees have to watch out for both broad socioeconomic crises and localized crises within a business or industry. For instance, during the booming economy of the 1920s, Ford dominated the growing car market with its revolutionary low-cost Model T. This forced General Motors to try new creative approaches in sales and design, preparing them for the future. The 1930s Great Depression still hurt General Motors but it almost destroyed Ford. While General Motors had been busy innovating to deal with a mini-crisis of its own, Ford was complacent until it was almost too late. (Alfred P. Sloan: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management)
If you run a business and see signs of your company or the economy falling apart, don’t just wait for things to get worse. Play defense with offense. Take the signs of crisis as an opportunity to get ahead of the game. A crisis is a moment to dislodge stale ideas and old processes and to question the foundations of your business. In Japan, some companies use a crisis as an opportunity to drastically reform their business, with some managers cutting teams by half to break them out of stale work routines. (When Lean Enterprises Collide: Competing Through Confrontation)
If you’re an employee in a business that’s in crisis, remember that the most valuable people will make it through. Crisis is the moment to suggest changes to practices that you’ve always known are inefficient but everyone else considered good enough. It is a time to force out your most creative and innovative work, to take that stress and put it to use instead of fretting. Make yourself indispensable.
When treated as an opportunity, the crisis is the moment when all those old intractable problems can finally get solved, not through incrementalism but through the forced compromise and creativity of new circumstances. A crisis sets up a new and better future, as long as you don’t let it drown you in despair before you get there.
Take Comfort in the Coming Calm
Times of crisis are often highly contentious. In large societies crisis often ends in war, at least historically. In business, crisis often leads to bankruptcy and dissolution. But a certain degree of argument and discussion in business is good as long as it remains positive. Business leaders who stifle their teams in during a crisis, making everyone afraid to rock the boat, won’t be able to draw out creative and innovative solutions.
Remember that periods of calm follow periods of crisis and remind your team that if they succeed in developing new creative solutions, the future will be bright. You may have to suffer through a long period of constant change, reassessment and relearning but by treating the crisis as an opportunity you can make it through to the coming calm unscathed. If you’re lucky, poised to succeed well beyond your current abilities.
Let crisis make you stronger by taking the problems of the new system head-on, looking for an advantage in any place you can find one. Get ready for the future, because it’s coming whether you like it or not. Either you can grow with it or die in the past.