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How To Map Your Company's Future

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If any evidence is needed that businesses bear a responsibility that goes far beyond concerns such as bottom lines and the happiness of investors, one could do worse than consider the case of Flint, Michigan.

A town whose rise and fall mirrors the arc of GM's presence there, Flint has become something of a byword for what can happen not only to people, but concepts such as community and the local economy when a company shuts up shop. Not to worry, though: this isn't another article excoriating GM for poor leadership or ruthless decision-making—that's surely been done to death. Nor is it an analysis of the void left behind in Flint when GM left-that's also been done before (notably in the documentary Roger and Me by one of Flint's most famous sons, Michael Moore).

No, this is about the town attempting to do what can often be so difficult, both in corporate and public life: looking forward, taking tough decisions, and planning for the future based on a realistic assessment of where they are today, and where they'd like to be a few years from now. It's a tale that was told in this recent New York Times piece, and one that has lessons that can be applied to businesses seeking to survive in the current economy—even the likes of GM, as it faces its current challenges.

Take stock

According to the Times article, Flint's current population is around 110,000, down from the 200,000 of its (and GM's) heyday, when the town's politicians were making plans to expand based on projected population growth of more than 50 percent. Of that current population, meanwhile, "about a third" live in poverty, while housing stock has become so superfluous that garbage crews are reporting making just one pickup on certain blocks. Elsewhere, sidewalks are crumbling as the city struggles to fund repairs on a town that's far bigger than it needs to be, given its current population. Not that anyone would be advised to try the sidewalks anyway, given Flint's crime rate.

Identify savings and opportunities for growth

The garbage routes alone, says a city official cited in the piece, could realize savings of $100,000 a year just by becoming more efficient, while eliminating the need for so much repair work and territory to be policed would also shrink budget drainage drastically. On the flip side, the city's depressed housing market could only benefit from any attempt to improve anything about the town—a move that would surely bring increased tax revenues in its wake.

Take action

If all of that seems to be leading somewhere, that's because it is—towards a concept known as "planned shrinkage." Similar to the concept of a firm identifying under-performing units and selling or eliminating them, Flint's politicians are currently floating the idea of moving people out of its worst neighborhoods and allowing the areas to be "returned in large measure to the forest primeval." A bold measure for sure, but one that—should it move beyond the mere planning stage—has the potential to rejuvenate other areas of the city: under the plans being floated, residents of undesirable areas would be given equal or better accommodation in other areas of the city, an idea that would ideally rejuvenate those areas even as it allows others to be removed from the city's list of responsibilities.

Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report
Your Job, Your Life | A CNBC Special Report

Mapping the future

The parallels for businesses and their leaders in all of this are obvious. Reducing spending on areas that drain resources for little return is a good idea at any time, but one that seems even better at a time of crisis. For anyone struggling to identify those areas within their companies, maybe it's time to start looking at your firm like Flint's leaders are looking at their city: by laying it out on a map, and identifying the good and bad neighborhoods. The next step, if possible, is to focus on moving as many good people out of the bad areas as the good ones can hold. After that, it's just a matter of erasing some neighborhoods from the map.

Result: a smaller territory for sure, but one that's primed to take care of itself, and maybe even begin expanding again in future.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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