What does it take to play and win in the current business environment? Five years ago, when the new economy was in full force, winning was all about thinking fast and taking risks. Three years ago, when the recession hit, winning was all about adapting fast and finding profits. Today, the game has changed yet again, but we're still facing the same question: How do you play and win in the New Normal?
The New Normal is about business after the bubble and beyond the bust. It's about where we've arrived — and where we're likely to stay for the next five years: a slightly awkward, slightly odd place that, in some ways, calls for the best attributes of both bubble and bust. To win in the New Normal calls for fresh thinking and for smart adaptation, for a focus on relentless execution and on solid performance. The New Normal also calls for a steadfast approach to business that reinforces the cardinal virtues of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. So what does it take to play and win in the New Normal? This issue offers you an executive briefing on the strategies, tactics, and tools that winners are using to build a portfolio of success for the next five years — and whatever comes next.
The term New Normal was first coined by Roger McNamee, one of the smartest, most successful, and most knowledgeable technology investors in the world. He introduced the phrase in our IdeaFest package last January (FC 66), and we found the term and McNamee's explanation of it so intriguing that we went back to him for more ("The New Normal," page 74). True to character, he sees the New Normal as a time of solid opportunity — if you know how to play the game. Everything takes longer now, so the new mantra has become, Get rich slow. And while great ideas still matter, you won't change the world with a PowerPoint presentation and venture backing — so focus on great ideas and great execution. And as far as leadership is concerned, says McNamee, the New Normal spells the end of executives-as-celebs: the CNBC CEO. From his vantage point, McNamee sees plenty of places to make money and to grow your company, if you respect the new rules.
Far from McNamee's technology playing field is Billy Beane's ballpark: the Network Associates Coliseum, home of the Oakland A's and a place where the New Normal has been part of the team's "philosophy" since 1982. If you're looking for an industry that epitomizes the cycles of boom and bust, then Major League Baseball is the poster child: The game is bracketed by big-budget, big-market, big-winning teams and small-budget, small-market, no-winning teams. It's feast or famine — except for Beane and the A's. With the keen eye of a baseball arbitrageur, Beane has built a business strategy that wins more games than any other team with a similarly sized budget by, very simply, doing more with less ("How to Play Beane Ball," page 84).
Another master of the New Normal is Libby Sartain ("She's Helping Yahoo Act Normal," page 92). After 13 years spent working as the head people person for Southwest Airlines, Sartain made the move to Yahoo at a time when its employees were facing the challenges of economic uncertainty and corporate downsizing. What do you tell your people when they first begin to confront the New Normal? Sartain's answer: the truth. People still want to believe in their company and find meaning in their work, but, as Sartain knows, honesty and commitment must go both ways.
The last part of your executive briefing takes you to the scene of the crime. If there is a business address that has been the most shaken by the New Normal, it is Wall Street, where reporting requirements and business practices have undergone a traumatic shift. A new way to work with Wall Street is needed, and Rich Wacker, General Electric's man on the Street, is at the forefront of the new transparency ("GE [Re]Does the Numbers," page 90). GE, one of the world's most complicated companies, has adopted a set of measures designed to reassure the investment community. For example, the company now breaks out its financial results for 21 business units instead of for just 8. It's another part of the New Normal, where integrity, authenticity, and visibility all make for a clearer path to the future.
Welcome to the New Normal. We'll be here for a while, so learn how to play this game — and win.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.