Blast from the past — how companies behaved in 2008 is how a lot of them are behaving now

Rita McGrath
6 min readJun 1

In October of 2008, I wrote about a company that had a reputation as a paragon of good management that was its own worst enemy when it came to sustainable efforts to innovate and transform. With economic uncertainty in the air, a lot of firms are falling right into those same old patterns.

Self-Inflected Wounds

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 triggered a severe global financial crisis. It led to a worldwide recession, financial market turmoil, and a massive government bailout of banks and financial institutions. This brought the speculative world of Wall Street right to Main Street’s doorstep and left a lot of people angry and disillusioned.

Businesses, unsurprisingly, responded then as they are responding now, by pulling back on non-core activities, making cuts, and halting their innovation efforts. It is particularly painful for the tech sector, which rode high on the “free money” period of the mid 000’s and are now coming back to earth. I commented on this pattern back then, in a blog post about a company I was working with.

Here’s what I wrote back then, about a company that made Fast Company’s list of the most innovative companies for 2010!

“I am spending today (October 08, 2008) with a very well-managed, large company. Even here, the long fingers of the economic slowdown are creating more obstacles to innovation-led growth than in more ‘normal’ times.

I asked a group of company leaders to articulate the most common barriers and obstacles to growth that they observed in their organization.

The issues they raised included:

  • The “de-risk” mode that many companies have gone into which makes anything even remotely unpredictable look dangerous.
  • A lack of a global mindset that leads to local optimization of investment and cuts off more promising corporate projects.
  • Brand conflict — when a new project isn’t a great fit for the existing brand.
  • Churn among the managers and leaders involved in innovation projects.
  • Silos within the organization.
Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.