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Full Steam Ahead or Time to Heave To? Uncertain Times for SMEs

The need to think laterally in order to bring about change

A situation we’re probably all familiar with: A new project gets under way. At first, everything seems to be going fine and things are running smoothly. But sooner or later along comes the first stumbling block, slight problem, or minor catastrophe. No choice but to think again and set a new course. But this usually isn’t the only minor catastrophe. Another spanner ends up in the works and the time to make that crucial final decision looms nearer. The author of this edition’s Steinbeis Swipe!, Uwe Haug, sees two options in such situations. Either bite the bullet and go for it – come what may – or heave to quickly and stop dead in the water!

Unfortunately, for many companies there’s actually no choice. Processes, next steps, binding delivery contracts have been put in place. Everything is signed and sealed, waiting to be delivered. Yes, but what if it’s about more than actual projects? What if there’s been a quick succession of huge changes in circumstances, if our entire business model needs to be questioned? What sort of shape are we in as a company in such situations? What should we do if that’s the big challenge? Leave the sails up – keep the engine on? Not always the best thing to do. To make a technical analogy, the machinery might overheat and it could do more damage than good. And when you’re going full steam ahead you miss important clues – warning signals and even no-entry signs. And then it comes, that inevitable moment when there’s not enough draft under the boat – ten meters till you run aground.

Now heave to? Despite all the warnings, you ease the sails to stop and think? That takes courage, real determination, and a clear vision that actually, this will get you somewhere. If this is about a whole company, it’s usually a longer process, but it’s more balanced. Completely stopping would mean halting what’s underway, but then going full steam ahead again as soon as something new comes along. So is it actually possible to do both?

What if neither were a feasible option? Imagine you’re sitting in a train and you see something on the line ahead – something the train will collide with if it’s going full speed. You can’t see the emergency brake anywhere. There’s no way back. There’s absolutely no way to stop the train you’re sitting on. Or as Jethro Tull once sang in Locomotive Breath: “Old Charlie stole the handle and the train it won’t stop going, no way to slow down.” What now? Jump off at full speed? Well, looks like we’ll just have to remain a bit more agile, despite all the changes going on around us. Agility entails a lot of important factors: business models, co-workers, training, networks, and technologies. So it’s obvious what comes next: We’ll need some lateral thinking; we’ll have to look at everything from another angle and turn everything on its head. In our own minds, we’ll have to heave to and shape a new course. This is when previous experience based on previous situations will be important, but by itself, it won’t be enough. The problem is, as an individual business, making changes on this scale is usually extremely difficult. Our networks might help, but only to a certain extent. They’re still “inside the box.” In the same way that the human brain seeks new ways to connect synapses after damage to the nervous system, it’s time for us companies to develop an ability to remain proactive even with all the change going on around us.

From experience we know that this ability usually only develops under certain stress situations. So the challenge is to actively manage potential risk and know how to manage it. We need to be more involved and face up to things – and not just gather information. Of course there are always some factors that can be influenced (with proper planning). But if we’re honest to ourselves, things are so much more volatile these days and this has an impact on our actions as a company. And things are getting worse, not better! Standing still (even if notionally) can therefore be a means of moving forward if it opens new doors and unveils new ways of doing things.

Without question, we have once again reached a turning point. But this time it won’t be enough to simply appeal to people to think differently. We’re quite simply confronted by the task of leading our companies through a revolution – nothing more, nothing less! And given the number of things that are changing at the moment, it will no longer be enough to keep doing what we’ve done until now and make yet another improvement – what we should be doing is throwing ourselves at change so we can be part of this change, to facilitate something new! Don’t worry, there’s always one or other option. But sticking your head in the sand or backing down isn’t one of them.

Now, more than ever, it’s down to every one of us. Decide for yourself.


Uwe Haug
Steinbeis Headquarters (Stuttgart)