When the going gets tough

How will your business survive the storm-tossed seas of the economic depression? E&T reviews a bullet-point management 'how to' manual that pulls no punches in its approach to surviving against the odds.

One of the metrics used by economists to define a recession is that of two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the economy. Doubtless there are plenty of people who would argue with this - I sat next to a City analyst on a flight to Frankfurt recently who told be that the recession was a myth. But as engineering managers, whose source of economic information is probably no more sophisticated than the business pages of the Daily Telegraph, it's the one we're most used to, and we should probably stick with it. However, you know when you've been entrenched in economic recession too long when, instead of reading about it in the broadsheet dailies, you're reading about it in books.

Books have notoriously long lead-times, and so having a management 'how to' book written specifically to aid survival in the "current economic climate" landing on the welcome mat made me wonder if perhaps the recession has been with us for longer than strictly necessary.

Called 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times' and subtitled no less alarmingly "How to Maintain Business in Difficult Economic Conditions", I originally thought that this offering from consultants Patrick Forsyth and Frances Kay might be a reprint of a book that had been prepared in the early 1990s. But no, it's a new book, and with entrepreneurial flair not normally associated with the trade, the authors and publisher, Kogan Page, have managed to get a book to market that is relevant, timely and, mostly, useful.

I qualify 'useful' because it's one of those truths not universally acknowledged that the people who read management books are, by and large, those who don't need to. And so sensible managers who care about the welfare of their staff, suppliers and customers, and who are looking to gain a competitive edge to help them through the recession will turn to 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times' and come away feeling that they already knew it all.

It's a sad fact of life that the managers who most need training in management skills are the ones who declare themselves too busy to read books like this, and it's a shame because I know several managers who really do need a copy of this book under their pillow. It's going to be like that until the end of time so there's no point getting annoyed about it, but I just can't help feeling that the worthy Forsyth and Kay are unfortunately preaching to the converted.

However, it is worth turning to 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times' for more than a superficial skim, not so much perhaps for the advice, but more for the tone in which it is offered. Not for Forsyth and Kay the touchy-feely business school language of inclusivity and polite suggestion. This is a broadside assault on the business senses, leaving the reader under no illusion that if you're to make it through the recession and come out the other side in one piece, 'hoping for the best' is not an option. You need to do something, say the authors, and do it now, even if you do it wrong, because if you sit on your hands or twiddle your thumbs, you'll go out of business.

Survival of the toughest

Given that the central tenet is so apocalyptic it hardly comes as a surprise that some of the advice given is pretty ruthless. But then again the authors explain in their introduction that they aren't going to pussyfoot about. For example, in their list of how to deal with unwanted mountains of paperwork the authors recommend that any task requiring a disproportionate amount of your time is a waste of time and the task should be delegated. But isn't that just wasting somebody else's time? Tough. Go back to the title - these are 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times.'

Why waste time, ask the authors, travelling to see a client, when the client could equally come to you? Well, yes, but isn't that a waste of their time? Tough luck, say the authors, these are 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times'.

And so it goes on. When chasing up payments over the phone, stand up and don't sit down. Why? Because you'll be more assertive (read 'aggressive') and instead of apologising for the inconvenience you'll cut to the chase, demand your money and you'll be back in business before you can say Jack Robinson. And if that lacks some of the citizenship values required by business in the civilised world, then tough… you get the message.

What's interesting about Forsyth and Kay's approach is that they are not recommending the use of bullying or rude tactics. In fact they explicitly make clear that they do not approve of strong-arm tactics. But what they are saying is that times are tough, time is money, so don't waste either.

I was particularly impressed by one piece of advice they give on how to prioritise and rationalise your impending tasks. Write a list they say, and grade your tasks 'A' and 'B', where A-tasks are the more important. Then carefully tear off the B-section before crumpling it up and tossing it into the waste-paper basket. Although part of me would like to think that this piece of advice is poetic imagery and that no one would ever take such a cavalier approach to tasks that are after all on your list, the logician in me likes this uncompromising approach a lot. 

It may sound obvious, but if you only have time to do half of your jobs, make sure the half you get around to is the important half. "Become a list freak," they say; well, believe me, if you follow this advice in public, your staff will be calling you names more colourful than merely 'freak'.

Underlying the book's strategy of course is the assumption (an almost certainly correct one) that we are all prone to wasting time and that none of us is as adept at time management as we'd like to think. If the book's delivery is a little on the staccato side then this can be justified by the idea that today's busy manager is too busy managing to read management books.

Fly business class?

But even so, this bullet-point approach to complex issues can run the risk of over-simplifying something that does not deserve to be expressed in black and white terms. For example, in the section about cutting costs on travel, the authors take the sensible view that air travel is an overused resource. Interestingly, their only concern is the cost in financial terms and nowhere do they consider the environmental consequences of overseas business travel, but we'll let that pass (as the authors might say, "it is outside our brief").

Don't fly business class, the authors advise, because that costs more and will cause resentment elsewhere in your organisation where the chocolate biscuits have been axed. Well, yes and no. Firstly your business is not a democracy, while the whole point of business class is to allow managers to work while they are in transit, so maximising their benefit to the organisations they report to. 

If you spend a seven-hour flight from London to New York sitting in economy where you can't open your laptop, what profit is there in that? In business class you might on the surface appear to be quaffing bubbly on the company's tab, but this is of small importance if you've just completed a 2,500-word strategy document while airborne.

The real question is not how expensive your flight is, but what your reasons for travelling are. Too many flights are taken on a flimsy pretext say the authors, because of the bogus status executives feel accrues to them from having a passport filled with exotic entry visas. But Forsyth and Kay have that neatly covered - let them come to you. That way they pay the airfare and you work while they travel.

At the beginning of 'Tough Tactics for Tough Times' the authors have included an epigraph from the American comedian Lily Tomlin that reads: 'Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.' It serves as an important marker for the tone of the text, which unequivocally says that, for things to get worse, all that is required is for you to do nothing.

Having said that, within a few pages we're referred to another comic writer, Douglas Adams, who is famous for continually urging us not to panic. Remarkably, these two ideas are probably the soundest elements of advice in the book. It's one of those 'if you only read one thing' moments and the authors are entirely correct in deriving much of their 'tried and true' advice from this point of origin: stay calm and do something about the situation you are in.

That 'something' say the authors depends on who you are, what type of business you are in, who your customers are and what are the prevailing business conditions. But if you sit there hoping that things can only get better, you'll soon find yourself up a certain creek without a certain implement of propulsion. Now that is good advice.

'Tough Tactics for Tough Times' by Patrick Forsyth and Frances Kay (ISBN 9789749455217, £9.99)

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