Strategy in Turbulent Times

Published on: 13:04PM Mar 29, 2011

Three years ago, none of us could have imagined what would transpire over the next three years in our dairy and agricultural industry or in the general economy. I have been referring to this as TURBULENCE X TURBULENCE.

Since there is no indication that either the dairy/agriculture economy or the general economy will return to anything approaching stability, it is important that we consider whether these changes mean we should view strategy differently. I think the answer is “yes.”
Jim Dickrell, Dairy Today editor, wrote an article in his AgWeb Blog titled “The New Normal.” In that excellent article, based on a speaker he hadheard, he used three words – uncertainty, volatility, risk – to describe “The New Normal.”
In this article, I want to extend Jim’s insightful analysis in two dimensions. First, I would argue that the new normal is that there is no normal. Based on this turbulence and the increasing diversity of factors facing each farm business, I argue that it is absolutely essential that each farm business (and agribusiness) develop its own unique strategy.
Secondly, let me suggest that the three works are too much alike and also paint far too negative an image of the future. Uncertainty, risk and volatility have very different statistical properties but refer to a similar idea.
Let me begin by asking you to think about the three words that you would use to describe our turbulent future:
1.       ________________________________
2.       ________________________________
3.       ________________________________
The three words that I choose are Change, Urgency and Opportunity. They are used in the diagram below that captures my suggested approach to developing strategy in turbulent times:
Embrace Change + True Urgency = Opportunity
Embrace Change
Our tendency is to think that change is something we respond to. That view of change is a reactive response. To thrive in turbulent times, we must view change more proactively as described by embrace change.
The proactive view of change should be applied both to how we view change that is external to our farm or agribusiness and to change that is internal to our business. We will leave a more extensive discussion of external change for a future article.
The surprising conclusion of those who research change is that we as human beings have only two patterns for response to change – one when we perceive the change to be a loss and a second when we view the change as an opportunity. Without going into detail about the patterns, we can conclude that we would prefer our workforce perceive change as opportunity as opposed to change as loss.
We as leaders are the one that set the tone for everyone in our business. If we embrace change and view that change will create opportunities for our business, our partners and employees will be much more likely to view changes we introduce as an opportunity and enter the change as opportunity pattern.
What then, besides setting an example, can we do to increase the likelihood that others will view the changes we initiate as opportunity:
·         Involvement: The more we are involved in planning the change, the more likely it will be viewed as a change as opportunity. Do not spring change on your employees. At a minimum provide them with a preview by seeking their ideas for improving your change plans prior to finalizing everything.
·         Control: The more we view that we be in control of our responsibilities and success, the more likely we will be to view the change as opportunity. Be certain that everyone understands why the change is important and that they will be provided the training, support and coaching they will need to succeed after the change.
True Urgency
John Kotter, world renowned change expert, argues (in an insightful book titled A Sense of Urgency) that change starts with a sense of urgency. The problem is that most businesses facing financial pressure have either complacency or a false sense of urgency. 
True urgency both in Dr. Kotter’s and my experience is rare but feasible. Review the signs of complacency, false urgency and true urgency in the table below.


False Urgency
True Urgency
More pervasive than realized
Pervasive, insidious but not true urgency
Rare but necessary
Roots are in real or perceived success
Created by failures and short-term problems
Emanates from leadership
“I know what to do, and I do it.”
“What a mess this is.”
“Great opportunities and hazards are everywhere.”
People are content
Everyone is anxious, stressed and often angry
The workforce has a powerful desire to win
Actions change little, opportunities and hazards are ignored
Frenetic activity, people are running around “like chickens with their heads cut off.”
Urgently focused on important activities; fast moving, externally focused decision; relentless purging of the irrelevant
All is well; nothing can hurt us
We are in trouble; more and more with less and less
We will overcome; do more of what is important and less of what is unimportant
Blaming, anxiety, stress
Focus, determination, informed


Farm and agribusinesses wishing to develop a true urgency culture must first clearly identify what is important – mission, values, strategies, objectives goals – and then focus on them every minute of every day. The phrase above “relentlessly purging the irrelevant” has resonated with farm managers learning about strategy in turbulent times.
Two ways to quickly begin moving toward true urgency are:
1) show urgency yourself by focusing everything on the important, and
2) lead by example by always setting and meeting deadlines and by always meeting your commitments.
Remember: Embrace Change + True Urgency + Opportunity


Contact Bob MIlligan at 651 647-0495 or [email protected].