30 July 2009 • 7:00 am

Hunkering Down, or Seizing the Day?

Newborn gazelle hunkering down for safety, Serengeti, Tanzania

Newborn gazelle hunkering down for safety, Serengeti, Tanzania (© Erika Bloom)

Reading blogs, scanning headlines, and staying in touch with old friends, it seems to me that right now there is a lot of hunkering down going on. Hunkering down, like dodging bullets and any port in the storm are vivid metaphors for the actions of people when there is danger about. During a global recession, individuals naturally think about protecting themselves and their families from the risk of unemployment, investment failure, and other threatening stuff.

Organizational behavior is a ‘soft’ science that begins with the premise that organizations exhibit collective behaviors. This too is natural. Fish and birds move in unison. Bees, ants, and other insects live in highly-ordered societies that act in concert. Wolves hunt in packs. Evolutionary biologists explain these behaviors as adaptations not just for the survival of the group, but the survival of the species.

Human organizations behave this way as well, but there is no apparent species being protected by organizational behavior, just the organization itself. Some organizations are risk-takers, while others are more prudent about risk. Right now, risk-taking seems at an all-time low.

As we slowly emerge from the depths of economic decline, we’ll likely see tipping points inside organizations as those advocating seizing new opportunities hold sway over those who want to continue hunkering down. National and global economies will reach tipping points as well, when optimism outweighs fear.

Economic downturns perform a function akin to forest fires – clearing the dense underbrush to enable vigorous new growth. Some companies, and perhaps even some industries may not survive the flames. But those that will survive have the best opportunity to thrive by acting before the tipping points. This isn’t just speculation, it is a pattern that has been repeated following previous downturns.

Many of my clients over the past several years have sought to foster more risk-taking as part of larger cultural changes, and have even gone so far as to codify this objective in their strategy maps. But is has been far easier for leaders to express a desire for more risk-taking than to actually take more risk for the organization.

I expect that in a few years, we’ll be reading and writing the case studies of those firms who even now are focusing on seizing new opportunity. They’ll have to act early, and act quickly. Is your organization going to be one of them? Does your organization have the capacity and the will to change?

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