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Innovate your way out of downturn in your sector

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

A bison eyes up the herd (Thinkstock)

A bison eyes up the herd (Thinkstock)

For the next six months, Martin Kastner will be climbing trees on the remote Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. He’ll net birds and collect eggs and perhaps track a rare reptile or two. 

It’s all part of a diploma program in species recovery, and there are few better places to do it than Mauritius. Once home to the extinct dodo bird the island still has one of the most diverse collections of plants and animals in the world.

Kastner, a 27-year-old who recently earned a graduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, plans to use the next six months to dream up ways to help endangered animals. He plans to return home and try to save bison, a majestic beast that was hunted to extinction in Canada but remains in small numbers in the US.

“It will definitely require innovative and novel approaches to bring the bison back,” Kastner said. “It’s exciting to think about reintroducing bison and getting them thriving again.”

It isn’t easy to spot an opportunity in disaster, but the ability to do is a crucial trait great business leaders master and use to make their companies stronger. It’s true in species recovery, and it’s also true in business, where an industry decline or a broad recession doesn’t have to mean office depression.

“It’s human nature when in a downturn to say, ‘Let’s circle the wagons and wait until it passes,’” said Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School. “But while everyone else is doing the same thing, you need to push yourself in a new direction.”

The first step to capitalising on a dry spell in your industry, Birkinshaw said, is to take stock of the bigger things you’re trying to achieve. Be sure the downturn is something your company or department can weather, either by making cuts or putting more emphasis on the things that are most profitable.

Then, turn that recession into an opportunity. No, that’s not impossible consultant-speak. Study ways to change what you do and be primed to emerge from the slump — except on rare occasions, most slumps do end — with an approach that’ll put you ahead of competitors.

Perception matters

It’s not just the survival of your company that’s at stake but also how you’re perceived as a manager, said Yih-teen Lee, associate professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona.

“In good times, everyone can look like a good leader,” Lee said from Taiwan where he is on holiday. “In times of crises, we can see how well a leader can lead.”

Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 firm or the boss of a small department, a downturn is an opportunity to set a new direction. If you can get your employees to buy in to your new approach, they will no longer be talking about the dip in revenue and fearing for their jobs, scrambling to protect themselves; instead, they’ll put their energies to your new strategy.

If all that sounds unbelievable, consider the companies that have pulled it off. Tata Motors launched the low-cost Nano in 2008, at the height of the global recession. The Indian company adopted a novel no-frills approach, like two identical front seats instead of the standard left and right variants. While sales have been lackluster, their innovations have influenced car manufacturing worldwide.

Then there’s Victorinox, maker of the iconic Swiss Army knife, which faced an entirely unforeseen downturn after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The company could no longer sell their knives in airports, and fewer people were buying . By the start of 2002, sales of pocket knives had fallen 30%.

Victorinox was committed to keeping all its workers, so the company looked for how it could innovate. It replaced pocket knives at airport shops with thumb drives and “jet setter” pocket tools without blades. Then the company put more emphasis on other products, including clothes and luggage, and expanded into new markets, like Russia and China. While Victorinox is a private company, it has claimed steady growth since.

Crisis or opportunity?

Lee says the Victorinox example is repeated at companies the world over, like the Japanese firms that have survived the long recession there and the Chinese companies that have learned to innovate during downturns.

“In the Chinese language, the word crisis is also often used to mean opportunity,” Lee said.

Martin Kastner said he's learning innovative approaches to bring the bison back to Canada. (Courtesy Martin Kastner)

After Kastner returns from his six months in Mauritius, won’t be alone in trying to turn the bison catastrophe into a new opportunity. Canada has already started reintroducing the hairy beasts to the Great Plains by importing animals from the US.

But it isn’t as easy as just leaving herds in fields and hoping they’ll thrive, Kastner said. Consider the effects on ranchers and farms with fences that weren’t built to withstand a charging buffalo bull.

Kastner hopes his training in Mauritius will teach him new ways to marry the modern world with the preservation of endangered species.

“When you bring back a missing component to an environment, it’s both exciting and very intimidating,” Kastner said. “There are so many issues that can arise from bringing bison back, and hopefully I can find ways to make it work.”

The lesson from Canadian bison is simple: novel ideas in a time of crisis just might save your business from extinction.

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