I love American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” program. Early every morning, I download the previous evening’s podcast onto my iPod and listen while I get ready for work.

A segment on the Thursday evening program particularly intrigued me…host Tess Vigeland interviewed London Business Professor Donald Sull about how businesses can survive the financial crisis.

Professor Sull indicated two broad strategies organizations can employ, and he used an intriguing boxing metaphor to bring those strategies to life:

Organizations could employ an agility strategy, bobbing and weaving and dodging and parrying, looking for the opportune moment to make a quick strike – think Muhammad Ali.  Make targeted investment with resources and energy.

Or organizations could employ an absorption strategy, using available resources to weather the blows – a la George Foreman (prior to entering the world of kitchen appliances).

The punch line was that organizations need to do both, choosing correctly in what arenas to be agile and optimistic, and in what arenas to absorb the body blows, to hold as steady as possible.

The metaphor captured my attention, not just for organizations, but for individual leaders.  I’ve been reading about and watching people’s varying responses to downsizing…whether they are ones who lose their jobs, or ones who remain at an organization after a RIF.

I see people across the spectrum – some Alis, some Formans, some both.  I also see effective and ineffective application of these strategies across that spectrum.  The challenge is to correctly determine what actions will be most effective, given the unfamiliar landscape.  The right opportunities in which to invest energy, to sting like a bee, are no longer obvious.

Revisiting long term goals should be a top priority.  Those goals may require a serious recalibration to reflect what may be a years-long societal shift.  The good news is that those goals will help achieve relative clarity about where to exercise agility (and how), and where to absorb (or prepare to absorb) blows.

Many thanks to Marketplace, Tess Vigeland, and especially Professor Don Sull for a useful reframing of the challenges of our times.

Do you find yourself more drawn to agility or absorption?  How are you deciding when to do which?

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