Tue Jul 27 2021 Michael McQueen

Downturns and hard times are often perceived as a curse in business. When lockdowns hit, sales dry up and market share dwindles, leaders often long for the former glory days of growth and prosperity. However, in the same way that nature has seasons, industries have cycles that serve an important purpose. The key to surviving, thriving and achieving enduring relevance in the long-term is to work with rather than war against seasons and cycles – especially the adverse ones.

Speaking to this point, economist Harry S. Dent suggests that the late 2000s great recession was far more than the consequence of poor management by corporate lenders or government regulators; it was an inevitable ‘season’ that companies and world economies needed to go through.

Economic winters, according to Dent, force companies to pay down debt, adopt new technologies and strive for greater efficiencies - after all, even poorly run companies can experience enormous success when times are good.[1] In the words of Warren Buffett, ‘It’s only when the tide goes out that you realize who’s been swimming naked’.[2]

Crises provide a prime opportunity to refresh the systems and processes in place in order to rebuild a brand into something more robust, tested and lasting. “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis,” says former Intel CEO Andy Grove. “Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.”[3]

Here are three ways you can refresh a business:

1. A fresh perspective

The revolutionary effect of a single new perspective in an industry is epitomised in the example of Elon Musk. Positioning himself as an innovator in the face of aging traditions in technology, health, finance and automotive industries, Musk has seen his initiatives break through into the future by unapologetically shedding the past.

Both Tesla and SpaceX were ground-breaking at their advent and have continued to push the limits of their relative industries by overturning tradition with bold future vision. Having disrupted the space exploration industry with radical new thinking, SpaceX hold much promise to continue breaking new ground with goals as lofty as sending 8 citizens around the moon by 2023, and ultimately colonising Mars. [4] Similarly, Tesla has consistently exceeded the limits of the automotive industry. When the COVID hit and thousands of companies and individuals were sent into economic panic, Tesla’s stock price went up 700% – an indicator of the power of perspective in times of crisis.[5]

Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink is breaking new ground with the innovation of microchips placed in the brain which will enable a new era of human capacity and thinking. Having recently planed a chip in a monkey’s brain with successful results, Musk envisions a future where a computer-brain interface will enables for the undisrupted flow of information within the human mind. Characteristic of Musk’s visions, his long-term goal breaks into science fiction territory with proposals of telepathy and prolonged human life.[6]

With ambitions that themselves seem to come from the future, Musk embodies a mindset of shedding past approaches and assumptions to make way for the new. What we see in his is example is how radical a simple refreshed perspective can be when harnessed in the midst of tradition and crisis.

2. A fresh product.

A simple way of refreshing a business is with a fresh product line. However, in order to effectively produce this, it is essential to trim away the products that have unnecessarily proliferated and convoluted the brand.

The former CEO of engineering and electronics giant Hitachi, Hiroaki Nakanishi, recognized the importance of pruning the old in order to make way for the new. When the late Nakanishi took the reins of Hitachi in April 2010, the company was in the worst position of its 102-year history having experienced massive losses for four consecutive years. In response to these challenges, Nakanishi set out to turn things around.

His first step was to dump Hitachi’s mobile phone, computer parts and flat-panel TV businesses. This was done to enable the company to focus on its more profitable infrastructure projects like power plants, rail lines and water treatment facilities. The effects of this pruning exercise were swift and stunning – by the end of 2011, Hitachi was back in the black with a $4.35 billion profit.[7]

When faced with financial crisis, Hitachi recognised the need to refresh its products by trimming away the extra weight and focusing on what worked.

3. A fresh process.

When the COVID crisis hit, all retail providers needed a radical refresh of traditional processes, and fast. Purchasing a car online may once have been an unviable option, but when faced with lockdowns the automotive industry was left with little choice but to implement new processes.

The online car sales company Carvana is a case-in-point. This disruptive new player allows customers to do a ‘virtual inspection’ of vehicles online using 360-degree rendered images. They can then apply for finance and have their new car delivered to their home or to one of Carvana’s legendary multi-storey glass-walled “vending machines” near the customer’s home. Carvana’s sales boomed during the pandemic as customers proved to themselves (and the auto industry more broadly), that purchasing a car online without driving it first is in fact a viable option and could be the way of the future.[8]

Indicative of how seriously the auto industry is taking this trend, General Motors has now ramped up its Shop-Click-Drive program whereby customers can get trade-in estimates, apply for finance and arrange for home delivery of new vehicles without ever stepping foot inside a dealership. While this initiative was launched well before the pandemic, GM report that sales increased 40% over the course of 2020 and almost 9 in 10 dealers have now implemented the program to supplement their traditional sales models.[9]

In the words of Winston Churchill, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. As we slowly emerge on the other side of our health pandemic, leaders would do well to take stock of the vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic and refresh their businesses and brands for tomorrow’s world.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1] Kash, R & Calhoun, D. 2010, How Companies Win, HarperCollins, New York, p. 223

[2] Rigby, R. 2011, Business Thinkers who Changed the World, Kogan Page, London, p. 23

[3] Carroll, P & Mui, C. 2008, Billion Dollar Lessons, Penguin, New York, pp. xviii-xix

[4] Valdes, A 2021, ‘Elon Musk’s 8 Greatest Accomplishments to Date’, MoneyTalksNews, 24 March

[5] Valdes, A 2021, ‘Elon Musk’s 8 Greatest Accomplishments to Date’, MoneyTalksNews, 24 March

[6] Shead, S 2021, ‘Elon Musk says his start-up Neuralink has wired up a monkey to play video games using its mind’, CNBC, 1 February.

[7] Wakabayashi, D. 2012, ‘Hitachi President Prods Turnaround’, The Wall Street Journal, 10 May

[8] Naughton, N. 2020, ‘The Pandemic Has Pushed Car Buying Online. It’s Expected to Stick’, The Wall Street Journal, 20 June.

[9] Naughton, N. 2020, ‘The Pandemic Has Pushed Car Buying Online. It’s Expected to Stick’, The Wall Street Journal, 20 June.