Could 2009 be a year of innovation?
Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, says if the current crisis is a failure of the imagination, perhaps that points the way forward  07.01.2008

Now is the time that all good pundits and commentators dig out the crystal ball; mine is currently displaying the words “Parental Guidance Required.” 2008 could be summed up as a year of trying to put the most positive construction on a confusing and increasingly bleak outlook. Now we are at least spared the pain of doubt. Unfortunately, it turns out that a one-way ticket to Hell on the Oblivion Express isn’t quite as much fun as those heavy metal bands made it out to be.

I’ve lived through many a recession, and would say that one of the things that marks this one out is not just its global nature but the swift, decisive and coordinated action that governments around the world are taking to combat it. The fact that this action seems so remarkably ineffective so far leads one to ask whether we would be in that much worse a state if we’d done nothing. Or should we have used all that money to do something useful or fun, like a solar plant covering the Sahara or a mission to Mars?

Personally I think the problem is that we are using real money to counter a largely conceptual problem. There’s no point in getting your chequebook out at the end of Peter Pan and offering to pay for Tinkerbell’s medical bills—you have to get to your feet with everybody else and proclaim your belief in fairies. The current situation was neatly summed for me over Christmas by an exchange between Slade lead singer Noddy Holder and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop on Have I got News For You?

Holder: So where did all the money go?
Hislop: It never existed in the first place.
Holder: Well, that’s alright then, isn’t it?

So if the current crisis is a failure of the imagination (or at least, of pantomime logic) perhaps that points the way forward. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by human ingenuity—I’ve only just got tired of boring people with the £17 gizmo I recently bought that turns my laptop into a television. That’s incredibly clever, but couldn’t all that cleverness have been channelled into something a bit more socially useful? At the other end of the scale Microsoft have probably ploughed more man-hours and brainpower into Vista than it took to build the average mediaeval cathedral—but I doubt many people will be using it in a thousand year’s time.

I have written before about how the pragmatic turn the consultancy industry has taken should serve it well in the coming terms. The trick, of course, is to persuade clients to take of the expertise on offer before they start blindly cutting back on everything: too many businesses end the first months of a recession looking like someone whose been on one of those Christmas crash diets that leave you fatter and more out of shape than ever.

But this pragmatic focus and attention to cost needs to be tempered. The best clients—the very best clients—will have realised that the time to get a grip of costs is while the sun is shining. All too many organisations get too carried away with success—and the prospect of future success—to worry too much about consolidating internally. I heard the sad tale recently of one highly successful young brand that has grown massively from a standing start and yet was on the brink of collapse even before the downturn really kicked in. The reason: there isn’t a single business process in the place.

The danger is that these cautionary tales, while valuable, tend to have the effect of scaring people away from innovation in tough times. But I would argue that in these tough times it’s more important to be creative than ever before. The one thing we know for a fact is that things aren’t going to be like they were before. A lot of companies will be going into survival mode—and let’s face it, a lot of companies will also be going into non-survival mode.

That opens up opportunities. Take retail for example. I don’t doubt that I’ll be reading a lot of “death of the high street” type articles over the next months, as one retailer after another succumbs to lack of demand. Our high streets could end up resembling a row of rotten teeth, with only pound stores and charity shops filling the gaps. Or we could see the emergence of totally new retail concepts, some of which might fail, some of which might emerge as new paradigms.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but the hypertrophied monkey-brains that put cameras in mobile phones ought to be able to think of something interesting to go where Woolworths used to be. We could be in for a very interesting year, albeit with rather a lot of grim and boring bits. Happy New Year to you all.

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: