Saturday, August 15, 2009

Give Up Hope

A popular business quote and book title, as well as a phrase that has been repeated by various politicians, including Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, is "Hope is not a strategy."

It wasn't until about a year ago that I changed my perspective on hope. I used to view hope in a purely positive light, that it was a force that kept us moving forward, the belief or faith in the idea that somehow things would work out and everything would be okay in the long run. So just hang in there.

Then I read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. In this book she said, "This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope -- that there's somewhere better to be, that there's someone better to be -- we will never relax with where we are or who we are."

Throughout my personal and business life I have used hope as a means to view present unpleasantness as a temporary setback, that I'll get through it to the other side and I'll look back on it later as a "growth opportunity." While experience has generally proven this viewpoint true, this perspective has also allowed me, by taking the long view, to avoid fully engaging in the present situation. It is a fact: all situations are temporary; knowing this can provide comfort in the present moment. But taking this comfort can also let me off the hook here and now by allowing me to take refuge in the hope that "getting to the other side" provides.

In bad economic times, the long view becomes the mantra: "We just need to ride out the storm, keep our heads down, keep moving forward until prosperity returns." While I know based on experience and as history teaches that everything is cyclical, boom and bust, growth and recession, what if history didn't apply this time? What if this time it didn't "get better?" What if this time the future held nothing but continual economic decline, contraction, an unending depression, and continually increasing unemployment not just for years, but generations -- an end to which we would never see in our lifetimes? While this is unlikely, it could happen. I wonder how well the hope created by a "long view" perspective would serve me in this scenario.

But isn't it negative "stinking thinking" to give up on hope? When I look deeply, the opposite is true. If I adopt the perspective that things as they are are as good as they're going to get, then I can adopt strategies that are reality based. I can see each moment as the "new normal." If I adopt strategies that set me up to succeed now, not "someday when the economy improves," then I don't have to place blind faith in the hope that at some point I'll get to the other side.

Acting on hope that comes from the long view or historical perspective can be limiting and ultimately lead to business failure. Adopting a business strategy based on the "bunker mentality" -- i.e., we'll "ride out the storm until prosperity returns" -- isn't necessarily wise. It usually leads to decisions such as stopping new projects, freezing sales travel, cutting back on marketing, hording cash, cutting staff and being risk averse. If the "boom" returns, maybe this strategy will seem to have worked; if not, a downward spiral will begin.

Imagine a survivalist with 5 years worth of canned food in the fallout shelter who realizes when the cans run out that it's still not safe to go outside. What then? If the survivalist had considered "what if this is the new normal," then he might have strategized a way to produce food indefinitely in the shelter.

Perhaps there is no "other side." Abandoning all hope that there is can be liberating and, ironically, a good basis for strategic leadership.