Follow the Rat and Trim the Fat

By Andrew Grant

A lesson in hope, luck and creativity for a great year ahead

By now most cultures have celebrated their official start to the New Year - often with ‘hope’ for good ‘luck’, which is a great start, but these may not be sufficient for the year ahead... Just how tough will this year be? Will large doses of hope and luck get us all through? With a ‘recession’ or ‘slow down’ being predicted, many organizations may already be battening down the hatches and preparing the lifeboats. No matter how serious the economic fallout is, 'trimming the fat' is bound to be somewhere on the agenda for most companies around the world this year. It is a pattern that repeats itself with monotonous regularity in line with the ongoing international economic cycles and fluctuations. Many companies will do this by making simple cuts in human resource development, as this is usually perceived to be a 'soft' area which doesn't directly impact the core business. Irrelevant training and seminars, extravagant conferences, junket weekends, feel good team bonding exercises - these will be the first to go, perhaps justifiably so - but it will be important this time around to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Good quality and focused development will, in fact, need to be seen as essential to survival through the tough times. When the going gets tough, positive workplace motivation, superior leadership and team skills (leading to more effective and efficient workplace performance) and the ability to solve problems creatively and innovate become more critical than ever. In tight financial times companies can't afford to waste time or money with dysfunctional teams and ineffective and dated practices and processes. A dose of good luck to get through the year without practical development support won't equip the average worker to be able to cope and won't motivate individuals and teams to work faster and smarter.

The real cost of ignorance

This year, of all years, is when companies are going to need 100% commitment from their teams - along with a clear vision, good leadership, plus and efficient work processes. Strength in these areas will ensure goals can be achieved more effectively: quickly, economically, and to a higher quality standard. Ironically, cutting back can only be effective if leaders and teams are truly equipped and empowered to be creative in the way they work. Those companies that think education is too expensive will need to see what happens if they try the path of ignorance. ‘Trimming the fat’ will require the use of precision surgery with a sharpened knife, not hacking away with a chain saw.

Running just to stand still

What we have discovered is that maintaining the status quo at times like these is no longer enough. Survival now means staying ahead of the pack, no matter what the external pressures. No excuses. What was acceptable last year may not even get you to the start line this year. Proactive team innovation now needs to be seen as a core competency and an essential part of the business. Before you know it, the lead your organization may have had may be as useful as a typing pool in an age of computers. Take Western Union, for example. Western Union started off transferring money on horseback from city to city in the 1800s, but they have managed to continually adapt to keep up with rapidly changing conditions. For over 100 years they have built a strong business and maintained a strong presence through drastically adapting the products and services they originally offered, while still holding onto their core values. They changed their marketing concept from being a 'telegram company' to 'sending so much more than money'. It has only been creative thinking that has enabled them to thrive through the challenges.

Reactive trimming - too little too late

It will be necessary to continue to 'trim the fat' as an ongoing proactive process to keep the organization lean and ready for high performance at all times. A sudden reactive trim, triggered by the fear of a recession or a one-off crisis, only scares employees - adding to the media fear frenzy related to all things negative, and leading to even lower motivation levels and paralysis. How can employees come to work each day ready to give their best when they are wondering what will become of their jobs or whether their conditions will change? A 6 star hotel we have worked with has shared with us how for years they had enjoyed great success. Guests simply continued coming through their door without much extra sales and marketing effort. But although they enjoyed high occupancy rates and fees, no one stopped to ask what had made them so successful. It took a crisis and a sudden drastic reduction in business for them to start asking these important questions. A clear case of too little too late.

Creative collaboration

Creative Collaboration (the theme of the Davos 2008 conference) should be the theme for the new year for all organizations. Creative ideas that lead to progressive innovation through a focused team process will be vital. Innovation should be both a long term process and goal. Alan Nobel (Google Australia) believes that Google's success can be attributed to innovation. He advocates that, “Innovation should just be there, it's like the air you breathe - you innovate to survive, there's nothing to systematize, it's just what you do.” It will take a great vision, a clear and focused company culture, and empowering leadership to reach Google's level of success, but you have to start somewhere. It will not be worth betting on ‘hope’ and ‘luck’ to get stay ahead.

'Better, faster, cheaper' requires creative problem solving

A leading machine lubricant company we have worked with recently was stuck with a problem. Although they had a great product, customers weren’t using the product properly, with detrimental results. It was a user rather than a product problem, but customers would inevitably blame the product. A 'creative collaboration' team workshop process Tirian has devised encouraged the team to find creative new ways to ensure this wouldn't continue to happen. The team came up with a new design for the product that effectively eliminated the user problem. They had produced an outstanding practical solution to what had been a very costly problem in both fininacial and reputation terms. In another simple example, an airline saved hundreds of thousands of dollars when flight staff team realized how much caviar was being wasted in first class and designed a new process to reduce this unnecessary wastage but still keep the passengers happy.

Who should be more creative?

Unfortunately, the people that are most likely to have the creative ideas are those who are on the coalface with direct customer contact, as they are able to recognize what is needed most. For those few companies who recognize the need for creative development, most will start at the top levels. However, without specific practical focus, creative development can end up as a bit of a ‘groupthink’ exercise where established ideas are reinforced, which rarely reflects what is really going on in the organization or reaches the whole organization. Trying to move ‘better, ‘faster’, and ‘cheaper’ without making clear links to the creative process can be counter-productive or even destructive. NASA found this out the hard way when they tried to adhere to this philosophy with the ill-fated space shuttle launch. In this case the pressure to keep a fast pace of progress on track without taking the time to really analyse the problem from all angles led to disaster.

The creative rat

The Chinese believe that the rat won his position on the Chinese zodiac by being creative, rather than through any other great physical skill. The image of a rat going into a race or a strength test against larger animals is humorous. But the concept can parallel how many organizations may feel when facing a recession. In the story the Chinese tell, the rat was able to find a way to not only compete successfully, but also to actually win. He succeeded in outwitting his friend the cat to enter the race, and during the race he rode on the back of the Ox. Just when the finishing line was approaching, he leapt from the Ox's back to reah first position. By working smarter, not harder, the rat was able to stay ahead of the pack. Creativite thinking helped the rat to focus on and reach the main goal. The Academy Awards nominated movie Ratatouille also tells the story of an optimistic rat that finds a creative way to reach a goal. The clever culinary-inclined rat, Remy, partners with a human to produce exceptional food. Limited by his inability to actually cook the food, Remy and his human partner (who is physcially capable of cooking but an incompetent chef) realize each of their limitations and found a solution through 'creative collaboration'.

Make your own luck

As 2008 is the year of the Rat (according to Chinese Astrologists), and that the Earth Rat brings ‘hope’ and ‘luck’ for all other zodiac signs, there is great inspiration to follow the lessons of the rat. A positive mindset (hope and luck) are important ingredients, but we shoud believe in our ability to make our own luck through creative collaboration. Let's make this a year of not just survival, but of breaking through - no matter what the challenges. ©2008 by Andrew Grant
T-Thoughts articles may be reproduced with written permission and must also be acknowledged with a web link back to the Tirian pages.

One Response to “Follow the Rat and Trim the Fat”

  1. japan style says:

    I do agree with all of the ideas you have presented in your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too short for newbies. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post!!

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