Sunday, August 30, 2009

Which Side Are You On?

Here's where we are:
It looks now as if the economy has bottomed out. What appeared as a possible melt-down of capitalism has turned into a disastrous global financial crisis--as if averting the melt-down is enough reason to declare victory. And there are even some indicators that suggest that maybe, just maybe, things are starting to turn around. It may be a jobless recovery. It may be a long and slow recovery. But the collective sighs of recovery are enough for a world that is willing to take recovery on almost any terms.
At the same time, with recovery comes a new question--and how you answer the question tells you which side you're on.
Here's the question: Was the downturn just cyclical, and with recovery will come a return to business as usual?
Or was the downturn a sectoral change, the kind that happens when tectonic plates shift, the kind that signals a fundamental alteration of how business works, how organizations run, how careers develop, how we all behave as workers, consumers, and citizens?
Over the last month or so, I've heard voices on both sides of this divide. In the magazine industry, there are business leaders who're convinced that, once the recovery takes hold, we're all going back to the way it was before. Advertising will come back; readers will come back; the old business model will re-assert itself.
In the world of big-time corporate lawyers, there are many who see it the same way. Prior to the financial melt-down, law firms in the U.S. enjoyed 7 straight years of booming profits and lucrative earnings. Why shouldn't it all be that way again?
Leaders at ad agencies are making the same argument, as are people at the top of retailing, entertainment--even some at the U.S. Post Office.
And then there are those of us on the other side of the great divide.
We say the changes are deep, lasting, and unrelenting. We agree that there will be a recovery, and recovery always brings back some of the business-as-usual practices that worked before.
But the cracks that have emerged, the ruptures that have split old business and old industries--those will never be sealed, never be repaired.
We're seeing a whole generation of business leaders, government leaders, non-profit leaders who have been seared by this economic crisis. Old assumptions have been proven not to work. Even Alan Greenspan was forced to admit in front of Congress that business leaders made decisions that were not part of his old economic philosophy, that didn't fit his academic model.
But it's not just philosophy or academic models that need re-thinking. It's practices and methodologies, mental maps and personal values that need to undergo a deep and serious re-think.
It would be great if we had time to re-calibrate the teachings in the business schools across America--I'd welcome a longer conversation about what a new curriculum needs to look like.
But right now, we need to make our own changes, learn our own lessons, and come to new practices without the luxury of an MBA re-education camp. We need to ask new questions, sponsor new conversations, and challenge each other to new answers that respond to the new circumstances we're in today, circumstances that will last for the foreseeable future.
That's the reason I wrote Rules of Thumb. It's a field book for leaders who are being minted in the crucible of today's challenges. It's a work book that you can use to take your own notes, generate your own rules, and share them with me, your colleagues, and everyone else who's on our side of the great divide.
Here's the question: Which side are you on?
If you agree with me that things are not going back to the way they were, if you agree with me that we need to re-think, re-work, and re-write the rules of work, business, and life so this crisis is the last one we ever have to confront, let me hear from you.
Go to and give me your view, your insight, and your own Rule of Thumb.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb