Save Your Business from the "Big Rut"

Before a company falls into a big rut, there are warning signs. Know what to look for and protect your business.
August 16, 2012 Here in Chicago, I was on the Blue Line train reading Les McKeown’s book, Predictable Success. The book came recommended by about a dozen people I respected, and so far it hadn’t disappointed me. Then I got to the part about the "big rut" and stopped cold. My business had been in a rut before, and I believed it would be in one again. I thought I was powerless to stop it.

Now I realize this: Not only can I stop it, but I can recognize the characteristics that got me there in the first place. According to McKeown, four changes occur to push an organization into a "big rut":

1. Key personnel leave. After a certain period of mind-numbing stability, the first people to get frustrated and move on are the entrepreneurial and creative types—taking with them the organization’s ability to be visionary.

2. Initiative and zeal die. Risk taking is actively discouraged, and compliance and consistency are rewarded. Decision making becomes a formulaic, tortuous process and the business begins to lag behind its competitors.

3. Customer interest is replaced by internal interests. The business adopts a paternalistic and condescending attitude. It becomes so focused on its own needs that it loses sight of any real dedication to the customer—even as the marketing department says otherwise.
4. Frustration is replaced by complacency. Management is comfortable with where the business is going, happy with their lot and unconcerned about the future. Such complacency can be driven by a monopolistic market share, a cash-rich status, or the changing of the guard in a family business.
I don’t know about you, but when I thought about the past of my business, I recognized three out of the four.

Take Bold Action or Lose Everything

McKeown says that there are only a few ways to get out of a big rut. You can arrange for an acquisition—replacing the management and rejuvenating the organization from top to bottom. You can be forced to snap out of it by facing down some massive societal development that threatens the existence of your business. Or, you can hope that someone in your organization will come up with a product or service so compelling that it reignites a sense of purpose and action in the organization. 
In my opinion, though, McKeown's final suggestion is the only reliable way out for small-business owners: See the big rut for what it is and be willing to do whatever it takes to turn things around. 
It might be the toughest thing you ever do. You will have to use every ounce of power and authority you have, and this may mean firing people, changing processes, and up-ending your brand and your culture. It may mean consulting outside experts and listening to their advice, and even coming to terms with your failings as an owner.
Intervention of this nature can be violent and unwelcome. Some attempts to reverse the business’ direction may be thwarted, so you’ll need to hold your ground and be patient. Believe me, it’s worth it; the alternative to getting out of the big rut is to eventually run out of resources and die. And you have worked too hard to have that happen.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to SuccessMoney magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.