Time for Some Rational Optimism

 Turning Point

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of playing defense. It seems we’ve been in a crash position—head between the knees, bracing for impact—too long. Almost every conversation starts with, “How’s business?” and “It’s terrible, the worst I’ve seen it.”

Once again, I see a pendulum action at work here that reflects equal amounts of over exuberance in good times with extreme pessimism when times get bad. Well, I choose to opt out of the gloom using rational optimism.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m no pie-in-the-sky optimist nor am I advocating we blithely roll along ignoring the reality of the mess our economy is in. My experience tempers pure optimism with a dose of cynicism. That said, however, I do believe that it may be time we all consider sitting up straight, being ready to move forward when this thing ends.

Our economy is volatile, so it’s a good idea for business not to get too entrenched in the current status quo, but realize that the system can turn very quickly positive as well. We all got caught pretty much flat footed last year with the speed, severity and breadth of this downturn. It may be possible (here’s a bit of optimism) that the climb out may be as surprising. We need to cultivate those “green shoots.”

At this point in the economic cycle, we owe it to ourselves to at least consider making a case (even if it’s only to ourselves) for optimism. The fact is, we have little control over the macro economy, but we have total control over our attitudes toward it. With the spate of better economic news of late, I’m feeling a little better about business ongoing.

I was reading a Business Week article by Peter Coy, who writes, “Prudence says to prepare for all possible outcomes, including good ones.” I agree with this premise. None of us knows what comes next, but bad times can and do create potential opportunities if one is able to spot them.

Recessions are the business equivalent of a paleontology great dying—when for one reason or another mass extinction hits the biosphere. Think dinosaurs. Industries have dinosaurs, and when times are good, these heavy, slow and mediocre businesses plod along doing what they’ve always done.

Then suddenly—wham—a meteor wipes them out. It wasn’t really their fault, but the end result was the same.

This recession is going to cull some business dinosaurs. It’s just a fact. Whether critter or company, the failure or inability to evolve results in a vulnerability to change. And most recessions are agents of change.

Carrying this metaphor a little further, extinctions create opportunities for those spared. The dinosaur demise gave rise to mammals and other creatures that were able to adapt to the new world. Likewise, those businesses left standing after this recession ends will find a new environment in which their ability to change will be rewarded.

Another reason I believe now is the time to engage the optimism gear is that recessions tend to unleash creative energy within those companies that realize it is survival time. Rather than shake a fist at Wall Street or the Fed, they look inside their businesses at ways to weather the storm and be ready to move quickly when the sun comes out.

Shops I’ve seen in this recession have reduced hours in order to save their valuable people. Most have continued to invest selectively with internal funds, if possible, or with loans or credit lines from local banks. This strategy is working for many.

The nature of the investments being made also reflects the situation. Some are choosing to take the slower business as a time to upgrade equipment with automation or more productive software and control technology. One shop I recently was in invested in a new, sophisticated tool presetter so the jobs they did have in-house could be changed over faster to improve productivity now and in the future.

I submit that it is time to make moves that will move your shop forward, reflecting rationally based optimism.