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Marginal: The Other Crisis

Although there are Herculean efforts underway at Ford, General Motors, and a host of supplier companies to solve the financial crises that they are currently confronting, at the risk of adding to their burdens, I would like to suggest that they are in the midst of a crisis that is evident, visible, and probably not noticed by them.

Although there are Herculean efforts underway at Ford, General Motors, and a host of supplier companies to solve the financial crises that they are currently confronting, at the risk of adding to their burdens, I would like to suggest that they are in the midst of a crisis that is evident, visible, and probably not noticed by them. This crisis, if not addressed in a timely and effective manner, will be more undermining than the monetary mess.

Simply: There is a crisis of creativity.

No, I’m not talking about ethereal, imaginative issues. It is more fundamental. Chances are, some of the women and men who are working for the companies in question—people in design studios, people on the factory floor, people who have committed time and personal interests, people who have invested themselves into the organizations—are probably not feeling encouraged about what is going on. They are seeing leaders who are not leading and friends and colleagues being unceremoniously shown the door; they are learning how benefits and investments are being withdrawn or plummeting in value; they are witnessing things that they undoubtedly feel ineffectual to change. The consequences? If they can’t leave, they’re going to keep their heads down. The idea is to be not seen, not thought about; if they’re not thought about, they won’t be eliminated. Who is going to come up with a new idea under these circumstances, whether it is a new product or a new way of doing things? Not someone with her or his head down, that’s for sure. Consider: When people are working in a crisis mode, the last thing they want to hear is the idea of doing something differently. The managers of the company are busy dealing with other issues and they surely don’t want to spend time even considering something different. “Different” may cost something, even though it could (1) ultimately save money (i.e., if you change the process, there will be a return on the investment for the change, but an ROI mandates that there is an I in order to get the R, and who wants to elevate the need for an R when it is all about cutting?—even managers are keeping their heads down) or (2) ultimately make money (e.g., through the development of a new product that people will actually pay non-incentivized money for). Doing something different will certainly change the way things are done, and the operative mindset seems to be to continue doing what has been done even if there are far fewer people to do it. Change necessitates new behaviors, approaches, processes, and those who are in an ostensible crisis mode certainly don’t want to think about that.

Above I suggest that this crisis is “evident” and “visible.” While there are certainly structural issues associated with the financial straits that some companies in the auto industry are enduring, here’s a simple question: If any of these companies were selling products that they were actually making money on, would there be a problem? We all know the answer to that question. But there will be a flurry of objections raised: The other companies don’t have the legacy costs or the health care costs or?.?.?.?But customers don’t care. Customers want good products. Many of those products that are out there with giant incentives aren’t necessarily products that they want to buy; they are buying them purely for the deal. What do they want? Products of creativity. And where is that going to come from? Not the companies that are actively ignoring it. Therein is the bigger crisis. 

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