cutting corners

…Winter slumps are often the result of corner-cutting.” This diagnosis wasn’t offered to explain why so many businesses continue to struggle today – but it should have. The quote actually comes from a write-up in this past Sunday’s New York Times sports section about the Dallas Cowboys‘ 15-27 record in December over the past decade.

The writer attributes the fabled team’s late season struggles to summer corner-cutting, saying “A half-hearted July weight session becomes a December pulled hamstring. A lazy special-teams practice in the pre-season becomes a 79-yard punt return touchdown by the Giants.” The analysis made me think about the way some leaders have operated their businesses during the economic downturn of the past year. Taking cost out of the business has been an important focus, but in cutting costs, some may also have cut corners.

The impact of such decisions may not have been obvious at first. The sports writer explains, “Players and coaches must develop discipline six months before they start talking about it.” In the same way, earlier this year business leaders needed to make decisions with the longer-term consequences in mind. But some may have gotten so desperate and fearful, some made decisions that seemed necessary to survival in the short-term but have set them up for prolonged struggling.

Tell-tale signs include:

  • A dry innovation pipeline – Companies which cut R&D budgets 6 months ago are now grasping at straws to find new news to promote.
  • A burnt-out and de-motivated workforce – Many companies implemented drastic lay-offs and didn’t bother following them up with efforts to reward, focus, and inspire remaining employees. They now face a tired and bitter workforce with many employees chomping at the bit to leave the company as soon as other jobs start opening up.
  • A promiscuous customer base – By focusing solely on sales and discounts to drive traffic, some companies failed to engender the loyalty of their existing customer base.
  • A skeptical supply chain – Companies which broke purchasing promises and instituted unfair payment terms may find themselves with reluctant suppliers.
  • A weak brand – Understandably companies focused their marketing budgets on short-term promotional tactics. But they overlooked the need to continue to build their brand power and increase their brand value — things they could have done even with limited budgets (see Building Your Brand Without Breaking Your Budget, an article I penned for the AMA last Spring.)

Given this kind of summer folly, it’s no wonder it’s been a tough 4th quarter. But there still may be hope.

According to the NYT piece, the San Diego Chargers are just as guilty as the Cowboys in having lacked the foresight and discipline they needed last summer. But I’m happy to point out that the Chargers beat out the Cowboys last week (20 to 17!) They did so with what the San Diego Union-Tribune’s sports commentator Tim Sullivan calls, “persistent improvement and [focusing on] the task immediately at hand.”

Likewise business leaders can make up for their previous short-sighted decisions by aiming for continuous improvements now and making focused investments in the 2 or 3 things that are going to deliver topline growth. Those who do have a better chance of succeeding than the Cowboys have at making it to the Big Game (sorry, I couldn’t resist a little trash talking on behalf of my hometown team!)


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  • Great post Denise. Those brands that continued to invest (and survived) will certainly be in better shape coming into January and February.

    While it’s been tough for most businesses, just because you chose to focus on short-term promotions doesn’t mean that you can’t ween yourself off these tactics. The key will be in balancing these tactics that your customers are now used to, with added value and new product development. The goal should be to rebuild perceived value that may have been stripped away in the last 6 months.