Senior Leaders' Effective Strategy in a Recession


Given the current economic climate, how do you retain a viable strategy in the face of what many feel has become an upside-down business world? It is sadly the case for some individuals and organisations, that the certainties of the last decade or so have come crashing down on them. In this article we explain how organisations can best make their way through turbulent times by employing a clear strategy.

A fundamental starting point is to view your organisation’s strategy as a process which helps you manage a changing business. As such it is an ongoing one, a regular conversation with key stakeholders, rather than a fixed plan that is set in stone, or one that is reviewed rarely, say once a year at budget time.   Viewed in that light, it provides a basis for making better decisions, in response to what is happening in the outside world and against the resources at your disposal. A strategy can help to give a frame of reference or a compass.
Global forces outside our control?

Businesses go through periodic cycles of boom and recession and some commentators are seeing this recession as an example of the dip in a cycle which will inevitably come back up. However steep this cycle, there will always be winners and losers in these circumstances. For example, we know recently that the discount supermarkets are booming because people have shifted down.  There is evidence that holidays in the UK may benefit, at the expense of holidays abroad.
Having accepted cyclical realities, how should businesses respond as business turns down? One of them is to cut back on costs. This should not be the starting point - this should be done against a clear set of strategic priorities, or intelligent cost reduction.
Intelligent cost reduction

Realistically most firms in a recession engage in some forms of cost cutting.   Those that think for the long term do this intelligently: rather than undertaking across the board cost cutting; they look at options such as reduction in temporary positions, not replacing those that leave or by selective redundancy, reducing hours or taking a pay cut across the board.

It is more difficult to carry out this form of cost reduction, but if you are going to come out of the recession in good shape, then it is vital to avoid cutting into those parts of the business which you need for the recovery.   Examples where the effect is not immediate, but will damage the long term include R&D, people development, business development activity and market research.   Before going into across-the board reductions, ask yourself how these decisions will affect your organisation in the future. 

Reformulating your strategic plan

A process of questioning in a structured way will help you come to a better conclusion on whether your business plan needs an overhaul. In particular, you need some high quality conversations involving stakeholders –customers, suppliers, marketers and finance people, for example. A strategy takes a view of the future, based on what is known now. In today’s circumstances a plan will have been devised in more certain times, but even in less stable times unforeseen events can blow a strategy off course.   The answer may be to involve key people in quality discussions and dialogue.

At one extreme you could find flaws in your current strategy, because it is based on outdated assumptions. This then requires you to revisit your strategy. However, be wary of being panicked into too many and rapid radical changes of direction –you will spend a lot of time an effort in the process. At the other extreme, you could find that the plan is still sound, and the strategy still makes sense in the new climate, but adjustments need to be made, for example, to the timing of investments.

IT company Dell, for example, is reorganising to focus the business on sales.  It is looking to refresh its brand, moving away from its image as a provider of cheap entry level computers to one of a “cool” brand.  A more colourful and edgy marketing campaign is supporting this approach, together with initiatives such as making XPS and Inspiron products available for purchase at Tesco stores, to gain significant exposure for the company’s brand and products.
At hotel chain Premier Inn, analysts believe that owner Whitbread’s success is down to having a “well-defined value proposition” at a time when hotel guests are looking for cheaper accommodation. Its emphasis is on value for money.  In the current necessary climate it is looking to add 4,000 rooms to its chain, it has carried out a refurbishment programme, improved booking systems and tailored marketing efforts to boost weekend trade.

Typically a strategy review dialogue can focus on your strategic position in relation to:

  • Competitors
  • Customers
  • Cost base
  • Capabilities

At the present it is timely to revisit the assumptions behind your strategy. It is easy to become unchallenging and therefore complacent in this process. Perhaps some of the most telling questions come from seeking an external perspective.

For example, what do your customers think? Do new hires have this view? Does data support this?

With this challenging mindset, ask EXTERNAL questions such as:


  • Who are our competitors?
  • How substantial are they?
  • Have they got deeper or shallower pockets than we have to take advantage of the recession?
  • Do we understand what customers think of our competitors’ services or products?
  • Do we know our competitors’ costs bases, particularly in relation to ourselves?
  • Which competitors therefore are the biggest threats and why?


  • Do we have up-to-date information on our key customers in particular?
  • Does our view of how much we add value line up with our customers’ views?
  • Does this vary by type of customer?
  • Do we know enough about the current processes and influences of customers’ buying patterns?
  • Do we understand sufficiently the future prospects for our clients – how much competitive pressure they are under, how much are their costs rising?

Ask INTERNAL questions such as:


  • What are our distinctive core capabilities?
  • How have we made use of these capabilities, by line of business?
  • How can we better capitalise on these?
  • How can we enhance and develop our use of resources and capabilities?


  • What are the main variables of our costs and how we can better control and manage them?
  • How are our cash flow trends?
  • What are the short, medium and long term prospects for our costs. What actions can we take for the longer term which will help put us on a stronger footing?

The best of times, the worst of times?

Overall, having formed a view on what are your core capabilities and how to improve how to service your customers in an effective way, it is valuable to step back from our stock-take. One of the most striking aspects of this recession is the way in which major business decisions have been based on unchallenged assumptions. The implications of central strategies have never been seriously questioned and the knock on effects considered of ‘What if this all goes wrong?”

Scenario planning can be a valuable means to consider strategic options based around what might happen in the future. Given that the future is unknowable it is important to collect opinions and data about possible futures.   You should aim to come up with at least two scenarios –optimistic case, pessimistic case. These are not forecasts, more a story of what could happen, so don’t just look at easily measurable data consider data in the round, using experience available and judgement.   This will help open your eyes to new possibilities and understand the critical forces at work. In the end this can inform the translation process into a workable strategy.
Companies such as BP, for example, regularly use scenario planning to help it keep abreast of potential market changes.  IT company Cisco, for example, is able to product trends six to eight years ahead even in a highly volatile technology market.  To capitalise on market shifts the senior leadership team decided to move from a hierarchical style of management to one where collaborative decision making was key.

Build in adaptability and experimentation

When times are tough, it is tempting to go back to basics and take no risks. But there is a place for taking some planned risks, otherwise there will be stagnation or decline. Such experimentation might not involve high cost expenditure, for example by extending your core product range by developing a ‘lite’ version, forming new alliances for a wider complementary product offering or streamlining operations for greater efficiency. Cinema chain Vue Cinemas, for example, are continually looking to innovate and attract new customers, not just through new film content but via enhancing the customer experience by such innovations as 3D viewing.
This requires an organisational climate which permits people to experiment, using the results to gain good quality feedback and learning. To accompany this process, it is important to monitor the environment well, to try to pick up weak signals that might presage the development of potentially significant major trends.   This means setting up the means to listen effectively; to sense the environment and to channel such knowledge and information into the right ears.
Innovation at Nike, for example, is seen as being vital to its continued success.  Consequently, a strong emphasis is planned on strategic learning and creation of strategic knowledge.  Nike’s leaders encourage its employees to think creatively and there is a strong but informal team based work ethic.

The outcome should be greater adaptive capability, so that it can cope with the kind of turbulence we are seeing now -too many organisations have paid the price of maintaining an inappropriate strategy in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

The strategy process should be an exploratory and an adaptive one, to help you build your future, even through turbulent times. An overly formalised or rigid, narrowly analytical process will not do this.


Recession has exposed weaknesses that have been masked during better times. However, with careful management through a healthy strategy you can  build for the future, developing the business from its core strengths. If the experience of past recessions is a guide, some firms have grown stronger, through seizing opportunities that recession presents –it can sap the vitality from competitors and open up new needs. Others have been damaged, sometimes fatally. It often comes down to deploying resources strategically, with a keen eye on future trends and understanding and exploiting the changing needs of the customer.

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay.

Sarah Cook is Managing Director of the strategic leadership and customer management specialists, The Stairway Consultancy.
Sarah can be contacted by email on; tel. ++ (44) 01628 526535.

Steve Macaulay is a Learning Development Consultant at Cranfield School of Management, Steve can be contacted by email on;  tel.++(44) 01234 751122.

© The Stairway Consultancy               May 2009

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