Scenario’s after the crisis

Consider some results of the McKinsey Global Institute’s research ( “The credit crunch and the real economy”).

This research, focusing on the United States, the center of the storm, suggests that if capital markets rebound quickly, GDP would be 2.9 percentage points lower than it would have been if trend growth had continued over the next two years. If financial markets take longer to recover, as the_ middle two scenarios envision, US GDP growth could fall 4.7 to 6.7 percentage points from trend over the same period. At the “long freeze” end of the spectrum, Japan’s “lost decade” shaved 18 percentage points from GDP compared with its previous growth trend.

Regenerated global momentum

In the most optimistic scenario, government action revives the global credit system—the massive stimulus packages and aggressive monetary policies already adopted keep the global recession from lasting very long or being very deep. Globalization stays on course: trade and capital flows resume quickly, and the developed and emerging economies continue to integrate as confidence rebounds quickly.

Battered but resilient

In the second scenario, government-wrought improvements in the global credit and capital market are more than offset—for 18 months or more—by the impact of the global recession, which leads to further credit losses and to distrust of cross-border counterparties. Although the recession could be longer and deeper than any in the past 70 years, government action works, and the global capital and credit markets gradually recover. Global confidence, though shaken, does rebound, and trade and capital flows revive moderately. Globalization slowly gets back on course.

Stalled globalization

In the third scenario, the global recession is significant, but its intensity varies greatly from nation to nation—in particular, China and the United States prove surprisingly resilient. The integration of the world’s economies, however, stalls as continuing fear of counterparties makes the global capital market less integrated. Trade flows and capital flows decline and then stagnate. The regulatory regime holds the system together, but various governments overregulate lending and risk, so the world’s banking system becomes “oversafe.” Credit remains expensive and hard to get. As attitudes become more defensive and nationalistic, growth is relatively slow.

The long freeze

Under the final scenario, the global recession lasts more than five years (as Japan’s did in the 1990s) because of ineffective regulatory, fiscal, and monetary policy. Economies everywhere stagnate; overregulation and fear keep the global credit and capital markets closed. Trade and capital flows continue to decline for years as globalization goes into reverse, and the psychology of nations becomes much more defensive and nationalistic.

Leading through uncertainty

These descriptions are intentionally stylized to enliven them; many permutations are possible. Scenarios for any company and industry should of course be tailored to individual circumstances. What we hope to illustrate is the importance for strategists of considering previously unthinkable outcomes, such as the rollback of globalization. Unappealing as three of the four scenarios may be, any company that sets its strategy without taking all of them into ac_count is flying blind.

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So executives need a way of operating that’s suited to the most uncertain business environment since the 1930s. They need greater flexibility to create strategic and tactical options they can use defensively and offensively as conditions change. They need a sharper awareness of their own and their competitors’ positions. And they need to make their organizations more resilient.

Most companies acted immediately in the autumn of 2008 when credit markets locked up: they cut discretionary spending, slowed investment, managed cash flows aggressively, laid off employees, shored up financing sources, and built capital by cutting dividends, raising equity, and so forth. While prudent, these actions probably won’t produce the short-term earnings that analysts expect, at least for most companies. In fact, it’s time they abandoned the idea that they can reliably deliver predictable earnings. Quarterly performance is no longer the objective, which must now be to ensure the long-term survival and health of the enterprise.

More flexible

Companies must now take a more flexible approach to planning: each of them should develop several coherent, multipronged strategic-action plans, not just one. Every plan should embrace all of the functions, business units, and geographies of a company and show how it can make the most of a specific economic environment.

These plans can’t be academic exercises; executives must be ready to pursue any of them—quickly—as the future unfolds. In fact, the broad range of plausible outcomes in today’s business environment calls for a “just in time” approach to strategy setting, risk taking, and resource allocation by senior executives. A company’s 10 to 20 top managers, for example, might have weekly or even daily “all hands on deck” meetings to exchange information and make fast operational decisions.

Greater flexibility also means developing as many options as possible that can be exercised either when trigger events occur or the future becomes more certain. Often, options will be offensive moves. Which acquisitions could be attractive on what terms, for instance, and how much capital and management capacity would be required? What new products best fit different scenarios? If one or more major competitors should falter, how will the company react? In which markets can it gain share?

As companies prepare for such opportunities, they should also create options to maintain good health under difficult circumstances. If capital market breakdowns make global sourcing too risky, for example, companies that restructure their supply chains quickly will be in much better shape. If changes in the global economy could make a certain kind of business unit obsolete, it’s critical to finish all the preparatory work needed to sell it before every company with that kind of unit reaches the same conclusion.

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A crisis tends to surface options—such as how to slash structural costs while minimizing damage to long-term competitiveness—that organizations ordinarily wouldn’t consider. Unless executives evaluate their options early on, they could later find themselves moving with too little information or preparation and therefore make faulty decisions, delay action, or forgo options altogether.

More aware

As problems with credit destroy and remake business models and market volatility whipsaws valuations, companies desperately need to understand how their revenues, costs, profits, cash flows, risks, and balance sheets will fare under different scenarios. With that information, executives can plan for the worst even as they hope for the best. If the recession lasted more than five years, for example, could the company survive? Is it prepared for the bankruptcy of major customers? Could it halve capital spending quickly? The answers should help companies to be better prepared and to recognize, as early as possible, which scenario is developing. That is critical knowledge in a crisis, when lead times disappear quickly and companies can seize the initiative only if they act before the entire world understands the probable outcome.

Better business intelligence promotes faster, more effective decision making as well. Companies can often gain insights into the potential moves of competitors by weighing news reports about their activities, stock analyst reports, and private information gathered by talking to customers and suppliers. Such intelligence is always important; in a crisis it can make the difference between missing opportunities to buy distressed assets and leaping in to snare them.

To get this kind of business intelligence, companies need a network, typically led by someone with strong support from the top. This executive’s mandate should include creating “eyes and ears” across businesses and geographies in particular areas of focus (such as the competition’s response to the crisis), as well as gathering and exchanging information. A network is critical because information is most useful if it moves not just vertically, up and down the organization, but also horizontally. Salespeople in a network, for example, should exchange knowledge about what’s working in economically distressed regions so that employees can help each other.

Assembling bits of information, facts, and anecdotes helps companies to make sense of what’s happening in an industry. Say, for example, that a supplier says it has no difficulties with funding, though first-hand knowledge from other sources indicates that the company is struggling to meet its payroll. Such warnings can allow executives to get a full picture much more quickly than they could by sitting in their offices and interacting only with direct subordinates.

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More resilient

A crisis is a chance to break ingrained structures and behaviors that sap the productivity and effectiveness of many organizations. Such moves aren’t a short-term crisis response—they often take a year or more to pay dividends—but are valuable in any scenario and could help a company survive if hard times persist. Although employees may dislike this approach, most will understand why management aims to make the organization more effective.

This may, for example, be the time to destroy the vertical organizational structures, retrofitted with ad hoc and matrix overlays, that encumber companies large and small. Such structures can burden professionals with several competing bosses. Internecine battles and unclear decisions are common. Turf wars between product, sales, and geographic managers kill promising projects. Searches for information aren’t productive, and countless hours are wasted on pointless e-mails, telephone calls, and meetings.

Experience shows that streamlining an organization to define roles and the way those who hold them collaborate can greatly improve its effectiveness and decision making. When jobs must be eliminated, the cuts mostly reduce unproductive complexity rather than valuable work. As Matthew Guthridge, John R. McPherson, and William J. Wolf point out in “Smart cost-cutting in the downturn: Upgrading talent” (available on December 4), Cisco took that approach in shedding 8,500 jobs in 2001. When the company redesigned roles and responsibilities to improve cooperation among functions and reduce duplication of effort, talented employees were more satisfied in a more collaborative workplace.

In fact, many functional areas offer big opportunities: greater effectiveness, lower fixed costs, freed-up capital, and reduced risk. This could be the moment to redefine and reprioritize the use of IT to increase its impact and cut its cost. Other companies could seize the moment to control inventory; to reexamine their cash flow management, including payments and receivables; or to change the mix of marketing vehicles and sales models in response to the rising cost of traditional media and the growing effectiveness of new ones.1

As customer preferences change, competitors falter, opportunities to gain distressed assets emerge, and governments shift from crisis control to economic stimulus, the next year or two will probably produce new laggards, leaders, and industry dynamics. The future will belong to companies whose senior executives remain calm, carefully assess their options, and nurture the flexibility, awareness, and resiliency needed to deal with whatever the world throws at them.

One thought on “Scenario’s after the crisis

  1. I read your article with interest. Given how frequently the fate of BI in the current economic crisis has come up, I have created a WordPress category for it. The link is as follows: http://en.wordpress.com/tag/bi-and-the-economic-crisis/ I would like to encourage the owners of other WordPress blogs to use this category for pertinent articles, so we can bring together as many people’s perspectives as possible.

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