The fates have a way of mocking our plans, which is rather unfortunate given that nothing gets done without them.
The fashionable response is to be agile and fail fast, but that’s easier said than done if you’re not a deep-pocketed technology company. Some investments take time and can’t be iterated, but that makes them no less necessary.
So what do you do when events move on, the market turns and your plan no longer seems like such a great idea?
When CEO Andy Lothian decided to invest in a new headquarters for growing leadership and development company Insights Group, he had no idea the global financial crisis was just around the corner. Losing money fast, he decided to crack on with the building anyway, and not to try to protect his team from how serious the situation was.
Their response surprised him.
"Our business started out in some rooms attached to the Palais de Danse in Dundee, which my grandfather used to run for many years. We’d rented some open-place office space after that, but I wanted us to have our own headquarters. Aside from creating a better environment for the team, it would be a statement that we were here, that we were real and growing and had somewhere to bring our customers.
"We’d been working on the plan for our new headquarters for about 18 months, before we broke ground. That was in September 2008.
"By that time we knew things were going to get very, very hairy. There are three things organisations tend to do when times are tough - they stop investing in building great things, stop investing in marketing to tell people about them, and stop spending on people development, because they think it’s an easy way to save money.
"The great businesses don’t do that. They keep investing in a recession, they keep inching forwards. We could have pulled out of the building - it would have been painful because we had committed financially - but it was my belief that the best way to handle a recession is not to participate in it, so we decided to crack on.
"It got tough, especially around the time we moved into the building, in November 2009. There was a five month period when we were losing £150,000 a month. We had no cash because we’d invested it all in the new headquarters. There were times I’d lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking we were going to lose the whole thing over some managerial ego project.
"I decided to be totally transparent with everyone in the organisation rather than trying to protect them from it. There were about 110 of us then. We couldn’t promise we wouldn’t let people go, but we made a commitment not to sacrifice anyone. For about 18 months, we didn’t hire, but we didn’t let anyone go either.
"The response we got from them was just amazing. We must have had a thousand ideas for helping us through, from not using so many paper clips to brilliant - and in hindsight, obvious - things like asking existing customers exactly where they were struggling and seeing if we could help them.
"You may think as a leader you have all the answers, but the answers exist in the organisation. On the back of their ideas we reinvented the business.
"We ended the 2009-10 financial year with £2m pre-tax profit, despite carrying forward a £750,000 loss from earlier in the year. We came out of the recession stronger than before, and now there are 600 of us. Bad times will pass, but you’ve got to keep inching forward, and you’ve got to take your people with you."
Image credit: Insights Group