Monday, August 3, 2009

The Frogger Economy

By Garold L. Markle

Remember the 1980s computer game with the animated frog whose mission was to cross several lanes of fast moving cars? To do so successfully, he had to hop forward twice then move quickly to the right, jump back a space, leap twice forward, sashay to the left and then scurry forward two more spaces – or some other derivation of this frenetic pattern. If the person with the joystick in his hand failed to move fast enough or made an untimely decision to leap left instead of rumble right, the frog was crushed. He was sent back to his place of origin and allowed to start again, this time with big scars and bad memories. A few more of these sad scenarios and the game ended for him completely. And, as you may recall the reward for navigating successfully across five lanes of speeding traffic was more of the same – a whole new set of obstacles traveling at an even faster pace with ever more opportunity to get crushed, drown or die.

Welcome to the Frogger Economy! And this time, the game is for real.

It seems that the economic landscape has changed so completely in the last few months that the primary objective for this game of Life has become survival. Prosperity is not even a stretch goal. Most people, along with the majority of companies that employ them, are not trying to get rich. They’re literally caught in a life and death struggle to stick around long enough for the game to change back to something less scary.

The problem is most of us don’t realize that we’re playing Frogger. And if we do, we don’t know the new rules of the game. Like a deer in the headlights we deal with rapidly approaching danger by freezing in our tracks. If we can’t continue to do what we’re used to doing, we freeze and await our inevitable oncoming destruction.

So, how does one deal with the Frogger Economy? More importantly, how is the leader of a business supposed to act with such a massive rules change? Here are five ideas I’m trying to follow and recommending to those I counsel. I’d be delighted to hear yours.

1. Think small. When big things don’t sell, consider selling lots of little things. What do your customers/prospects want? What can they afford to spend? What have they been asking for that you’ve neglected? Is it possible for you to scale things so that you can sell less to more? Ten $5,000 sales produces the same revenue as one sale at $50,000. Granted, it’s a much different business model, but if no one is buying the large items, moving in this direction might keep you alive until the bigger market returns.

With budgets for training and development being slashed along with headcount a good number of our best prospects for consulting work have been forced to delay bringing us in to help them. Rather than curse our bad luck we decided to offer a train‐the‐trainer program to teach them to install the program themselves. We’re also working on ancillary products that will aid in their home‐made training endeavors. When the market changes, many will have us come back in to help them take their programs to another level. In the mean time, we’re busy and our clients are able to reap the many benefits of our program. Most importantly, we’re not dead in the water. And who knows, we may come to find that this method of introducing our program will allow us to achieve much broader market penetration when more of the traditional consulting work returns.

2. Find Near Money. In a Frogger Economy you don’t have time for a complete business makeover. You certainly don’t have time for R&D. Going to the bank to beg for money will likely consume more resources than it is likely to produce. You need to pick a plan and execute. The primary objective of the plan should be to free up cash flow. Spend less. Make more. Find things to sell.

My daughter, Shanna, is the proud owner of a new restaurant. That’s the good news. Bad news is that she took ownership during the slow season in an area hit hard by the economic downturn. Rather than devoting substantial time to creating a business plan to appeal for operating capital from a local bank (which she may or may not be able to get), Shanna is focused on ways she might create more money now. To supplement her normal traffic, she created a series of “Meal Kits” that allow homemakers to prepare healthy and nutritious meals at home in half an hour or less with minimal fuss and no leftover ingredients. In the same week she conceived of the new product line she had professionally produced commercials running on the local radio station telling everyone all about it. And she traded the radio advertising for a hosted business meeting in her restaurant. Her objective is to find enough Near Money to make it to springtime when business should pick up again. Hop! Hop!

3. Keep your cool. Realize that amidst the danger is endless opportunity. Tight rope walkers don’t look down. They certainly don’t count the jagged rocks below and calculate how long they’ll be lying unconscious before their bloody corpse quits breathing. Rather, they face forward and focus on their happy destination. Glory comes to those who cross the chasm with sense of humor intact.

As most of you know, I speak to a lot of CEO groups. I recently had the pleasure to perform workshops for three Wisconsin TEC led by a savvy veteran chair, Mr. Emeran Leonard. When I asked Emeran how he managed to keep his three groups full during such a turbulent economy, he replied, “They have never needed the group more than in these uncertain times.” In each group Leonard had a sign posted that read, “We elect not to participate in the economic downturn.” Any question why Emeran has full groups?

4. Rally your troops. Don’t toil in obscurity. Don’t fret in isolation. If you go down and your business goes down, so do the people that work with you. Let them share the sense of urgency and understand what is at stake. As Marcus Buckingham says, the best leaders “rally their people toward a more optimistic future.”

When I met with my own staff to discuss the obvious challenges that we and others are facing I couldn’t help but draw an illustration. I drew a stick figure of myself in a small boat rowing furiously upstream away from a fast approaching waterfall. Then I drew three other people in the boat with me who would go over the falls if we didn’t make it. We talked a little bit about what we all had at stake before Gail (my wife and our webmaster) insisted that I put oars in the hands of my boat mates. The picture alone provided a sense of relief. You may be the leader but you certainly don’t have to go it alone. Harness the good ideas and energy of your whole team to significantly increase your chances of survival.

5. Move! Get Hopping! Take your best shot and go. This is no time for slow decisions. Survey the land, assess the dangers and haul froggy tail. As in competitive chess, no move is a move. When time expires your competition takes over. Do something! Do something now!

Whether you like the new game of business or not is irrelevant. You can curse the skies and damn your luck, but that doesn’t increase your likelihood of making it safely to the other side. One day we’ll look at all this drama in the rear view mirror and say “Wow! That was intense!” Hopefully, we’ll be doing that with a feeling of happy nostalgia. We’ll be regaling our grandkids about how we survived the most challenging times in American business history by playing a silly game involving a hyperactive frog.

Garold Markle is author of Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review and No More Performance Evaluations! Gary is also founder and CEO of Energage, Inc.

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