Lessons learned in Greece

Patrick Gray travels to Greece to deliver a speech but learns more there than he expected.

I was in Greece last week to deliver a speech about building flexibility into your IT organization to an audience of local business owners and CEOs. I've given scores of speeches around these topics to similar audiences, but never in the context of a crippling economic disaster. Unless you've completely unplugged from world news, you have likely been exposed to news about the economic uncertainly facing Greece and several other European countries. While I understood the news at a cerebral level, and was appropriately shocked by images of protesters in the streets, spending a few hours speaking with those living in the midst of it all was frankly a gut-wrenching experience.

The people I spoke with mentioned a raft of challenges and concerns ranging from wondering how they'll afford massive tax increases, to considering how their business can even survive, to planning on packing up their family and leaving their country in search of better opportunities. Many mentioned that the possibility of total economic collapse and anarchy are distinct possibilities that they're trying to plan and prepare for, a particularly stark outlook. While none of this is new news, talking with people living through it and attempting to mentally put myself in their shoes was mind boggling. I came away feeling I had perhaps learned more than I had taught, and would like to share these highlights:

Pack your umbrella

A recurring theme I heard from the Greeks was that many of their problems were self-made, and they knew a time would eventually come when they had to pay the piper. Many expressed outrage that their government, countrymen, and they themselves had continued to ignore the signs of economic calamity, and were now having many decisions being made forcibly by external parties ranging from French, German, and EU politicians to international banking organizations.

While delaying these painful decisions may have been sound politically, or expedient at the time, Greece is being faced with an exceptionally high price. While immediately unpopular, planning for and tackling tomorrow's problems today can make the future far less painful.

Focus on what you can control

We've all heard people lament external factors outside their control. Everything from economic conditions to changes in the weather has cost jobs, fortunes, and lives, yet the external factors are generally outside of our individual control. Some of the Greeks I spoke with were still pointing fingers at local or EU politicians, or "the other guy," but most were surprisingly sanguine about what they could and could not control, choosing to focus on their business rather than blaming others.

One could spend a lifetime blaming everything from organizational politics to international conspiracies for undesired outcomes, but focusing externally renders us powerless. If every decision and outcome were subject to an outside factor, it's likely we'd never accomplish anything. By effectively ignoring external factors and focusing on what you can control and influence, you maintain control over circumstance rather than just hanging on for the ride.

Call in the cavalry

Another interesting comment I heard was around the zeal for outside expertise. While it may be an inherently biased source, many of the conference attendees expressed a sentiment that their old ways of working were no longer appropriate. The old rules of operating in Greece had essentially been thrown out, and Greece was looking at external expertise for inspiration and guidance for building flexibility into their businesses, and exploiting opportunity engendered by crisis.

There's a risk in any environment that you can grow insular, and outside expertise can provide a breath of fresh air that can reinvigorate your business. That expertise can take many forms, from reading an article like this to a full-blown change initiative, but in all cases an independent third party can provide a shock to an existing system, help influence internal change, or even provide a cadre of content-area experts to help complete an initiative at a commodity price. One silver lining to the economic crisis impacting many parts of the world is the availability of high-quality expertise that can be acquired on an as-needed basis.

I certainly don't envy the citizens, workers, and politicians in Greece, where it seems like most decisions are a matter of choosing the lesser of a multitude of evils. One remark from my speech that seemed to resonate with the audience was that Greece has the unfortunate honor of being the first to go through this type of crisis. While their circumstance may be different from that of the average CIO or citizen of another country, there are certainly lessons to be learned from their experience that are broadly applicable.