Three Ways to Thrive in a Recession

By Patrick Gray

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We have all been deluged with suggestions on how to survive during the current economic slump. From admonishments to "weather the storm", which, in the extreme, advocates hiding behind an equipment rack whenever the CFO was about and selling the conference table to save a few bucks and hoping to come out the other side of the recession able to tell the tale.

Other recommendations resort to the tried and tired techno-trap of advocating “solutions” as saviors, suggesting that merely mentioning things like SaaS, virtualization and ITIL will win the CEO to your side and cause waterfalls of scarce cash to fall into your lap.

Either of these tacks, even in less extreme forms, are a recipe for disaster. In the first case, the best scenario is that you arrive in happier economic times with a decimated budget, skeleton crew staff, and the image of a commodity that can be trimmed to the breaking point. In the second, techno-babble and a litany of IT “solutions” relegate you to irrelevance and garner glassy-eyed stares from your peers in the C-suite. What is needed are solid tactics for not only weathering a recession, but coming out in a better stead when times improve; ready to accelerate to even greater heights rather than starting to pick up the pieces of a shattered organization.


A down economy is the perfect time for action. From the pundits in the press predicting increasingly horrible economic woes to “solution providers” peddling the technical equivalent of IT snake oil, there is no shortage of theory and concept. Talk is cheap. In tough times a premium is put on measurable results and the person that can deliver them is vastly more respected than the blowhard pundit.

We in IT have all talked about mercurial concepts like alignment and strategy, and now is the time to start showing how we are delivering on these concepts through action that generates measurable economic results. Rather than talking with your peers about your latest plans for increased alignment or how some new technology will save the day when it matures 18 months in the future, sing the praises of your recent project successes, or work closely with a counterpart to deliver a joint business and IT project.

Turn your project management office from an administrative entity to a group that can quickly and transparently articulate where IT is spending its money, what returns are being generated, and what risks have been assumed. Target your performance evaluations on where your senior staff are delivering measurable results and admonish them to talk less and do more. If some concept cannot be translated into a defined plan with measurable economic results, scrap it and allocate the resources elsewhere.

Less Green, More Greenbacks

When times are tough there is little tolerance for projects heavy on goodwill but light on actual cash generation. Saving the environment is a noble goal, but is likely not going to justify millions in data center upgrades or provide enough goodwill to offset the CEO’s task of laying off swaths of employees ("Sorry we had to axe you Joe, but the CIO really needed to buy that new ‘green’ server.”).

Think of every project you undertake as a miniature business. There are costs to start the business, resources to be allocated, and returns to be garnered. If you cannot articulate each aspect of the venture, especially the costs and expected returns, then the project is a bad idea no matter how many IT rags advocate the technology or how many industry leaders run the same software.

While Green may be pie in the sky for the time being, recycling is an excellent option. I am not referring to separating your green glass from the clear glass, rather the fact that you probably have reams of opportunities to deliver economic results with minimal investment based on systems and process you already have in place. Every project leaves behind a list of items that were great ideas but could not be implemented due to time constraints. There are also likely systems that were implemented for one department that could be extended throughout the company for minimal cost with compelling financial impact. You might not be able to justify a new system or major upgrade, but if you seek out these “freebies” you can deliver results merely by completing the last 10% of work that has largely been done.

Vendors and Partners

You might wonder if vendors and partners are the same thing. After all, everyone that walks into your office with a pitch talks about being your “trusted partner” or some variation of the same theme (as if the word “vendor” has some inherently negative connotation). At the end of the day, vendors provide a defined service. That service may be as simple as keeping the copier full of paper, or as complex as a multi-year international ERP deployment, but in both extremes and everywhere in between, you want vendors who are competent, capable and provide the service at a competitive rate.

Partners on the other hand provide advice and guidance; essentially the thinkers rather than the doers. Rarely can the two roles be played by the same party without an inherent conflict of interest. When all your vendor wants to do is talk about being a partner and all the wonderful ideas that he has, all of which can be implemented (by him of course) for a low hourly rate, you have a problem. If your vendor has really great, kind people and a marquee brand name to back them up, but they are just not delivering, it is time to see who else is out there. Similarly, when your partners are trying to sell you implementations, hardware or software, you have a problem.

In tough times, ensure that your vendors are doing what they should be doing: providing exceptional service at the right cost. Your thinkers should be providing actionable strategies and plans that you can successfully execute. If one is not delivering what you need them to deliver, or attempting to stray too far outside their territory, seek another vendor or partner. The great thing about a recession is there will likely be lines of people waiting to fill the failing vendor or partner’s shoes at a competitive price point.

While most prefer a sunny day to a deluge, the storm of economic uncertainly does not mean there are no opportunities to deliver strategically important, high-return results from IT. The CIO that not only weathers a recession, but thrives when times are at their toughest will be seen as a valuable asset; putting to rest any questions about whether the CIO and IT are trusted partners, aligned with the business, or whatever other questions might arise about IT’s capability.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.  Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.