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Managing in Turbulent Times

Kent Olson, Extension Economist

Given all the uncertainty of the future in the macroeconomic, politics, and the world in general, I decided to re-read "Managing in Turbulent Times," Peter Drucker's classic book from 1980. Even though Drucker was writing for a time period different in many ways from ours today, he still writes a core set of ideas that are pertinent to today's manager.

1. First task is survival. Do what needs to be done to survive today in order to be in business tomorrow.

2. Manage the fundamentals. Pay attention to the traditional measures and do what needs to be done to maintain liquidity and financial strength. Drucker adds, "Liquidity by itself is not an objective. But in turbulent times, it becomes a restraint. It becomes a survival need."

3. Manage productivity. Make the right choices to maintain and increase productivity of all resources: capital, physical assets, time, and knowledge. The productivity of each of these is managed separately with overall productivity being the ultimate goal.

4. "Tomorrow is being made today." In turbulent times, earnings made today should be used to pay the costs of staying in business tomorrow. This phrase is also the recognition that the changes that are part of today's turbulence are creating the business environment of tomorrow. So paying close attention to all the changes today will enable a manager to understand the foundations of tomorrow's market.

5. Concentrate resources on results. This means having to say, "No." Evaluate the business and the market to determine what is making money and/or establishing a base for tomorrow. If part of the business is not producing the needed results, start to let go of it. Drucker says, "Feed opportunities, starve problems."

6. Slough off yesterday. Drucker says the manager should ask, "If we weren't in this already, would we go into it knowing what we know now?" Tradition is a strong force, but if the foundations are changing, what was profitable and successful when it was started may not hold the key to success in the future. If the answer to Drucker's question is, "No," a manager should start looking at how to get out of that activity or at least asking how to stop putting additional resources into it.

7. Growth shifts to new foundations. Managers need to identify where the growth areas are that match their strengths and to start shifting resources to where the new opportunities can be found. Drucker's analogy is that business needs to distinguish between "muscle, fat, and cancer." He adds, "The rules are simple: Any growth which, within a short period of time, results in an overall increase in the total productivities of the enterprise's resources is healthy growth. It should be fed and supported. But growth that results only in volume and does not, within a fairly short period of time, produce higher overall productivities is fat. A certain amount of fat may be needed; but few businesses suffer from too little fat. Any increase in volume that does not lead to higher overall productivity should be sweated off again. Finally, any increase in volume that leads to reduced productivities, except for the shortest of start-up periods, is degenerative if not pre-cancerous. It should be eliminated by radical surgery - fast."

Even though they are 30 years old, Drucker's points are still valid today.

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