For Whom the Economy Tolls

The correct answer is: It’s the economy.

That is the correct answer to which of the following questions?

1. What was the campaign internal tagline of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign?
2. What is the reason for declining attendance at conventions and workshops?
3. Why are companies and associations seeing some product sales drop off in volume?
4. What is causing many people to seem more despondent or lacking in enthusiasm?

If you believe questions 1-4 can all be explained away by the economy, than you would mirror the responses I’ve heard many the past few weeks in a variety of committee meetings, planning sessions, and informal conversations. Seems the ol’ economy is now the failsafe scapegoat for anything that isn’t working in corporations or associations.

I have no doubt that economic uncertainty is indeed a major factor in why we are seeing drops in attendance, purchases, and involvement. What concerns me is that it is all too plausible as an explanation. Say “the economy” when asked any of the above questions and everyone nods their head in knowing agreement. And then the questioning stops.

That is the problem.

The economy may be a factor in the challenges many organizations are confronting, but it is not necessarily the only factor, the most important factor in all situations, or the factor that will most powerful affect the long-term relevance or viability of the organization’s products or services. But it is such a logical explanation, that it causes smart people to quit thinking about the other factors, to dig deeper and peel back the surface layer of financial considerations.

Perhaps conference attendance is off and product sales are down because members and customers don’t see enough value in what is being offered when push comes to shove and the bill hits their desk. Perhaps what organizations need to be talking about is this question: “Given that many people are experiencing significant economic constraints, what additional value could we provide that might encourage them to make a purchase or attend a meeting they would otherwise opt to skip?

Or take the opposite angle. Maybe the level of attendance and sales currently being experience reflects the true value individuals associate with what an organization is offering. When the economy was stronger and discretionary dollars more plentiful, maybe people were purchasing products they didn’t really need and attending conferences that were not essential to their professional development.

Their choices then may have been “icing on the cake” or value-added decisions, not ones made because of an enduring or essential need. Companies and associations, however, began to use these stronger sales and higher levels of attendance as their new benchmark for success, falsely believing they had really earned a longer-term commitment and loyalty from members and customers. And now they are trying desperately to implement strategies to regain a volume level that might not be an appropriate target to pursue. Do you really know if your more successful days accurately the value your target markets associate with your efforts?

Or maybe a little truth can be found in both of these perspectives.

The important thing is to not let “it’s the economy” be a response that sounds the death knoll for continued strategic thinking and conversation in our organizations. When times are tough, most organizations retrench and stop trying new things. But the business literature is filled with case studies demonstrating that this approach easily cedes competitive advantage to those who take what seems like the riskier position. Those organizations ramp up their efforts, albeit in more thoughtful and strategic ways.

You have to decide what is the right approach for your efforts. But do it only after vibrant conversation about what might be the underlying reasons for your current conditions and passionate debate about alternatives you might implement to advance your mission and vision in this more difficult financial environment.

Remember, organizational success is rarely a multiple choice test like the one that started this essay.