Navigating uncertain times

A former colleague, after a few drinks at a recent retirement celebration, leaned across to me and said, ‘well you always were a control freak’. This bothered me for a bit and no doubt it is worthy of further psychological investigation, but then a more positive interpretation struck me.

Is that why I obsess about the things I can control, and do my best (often not well enough) not to worry about the things I can’t?

Clearly there are many things that I cannot control in the current virus infected environment and it would be easy enough to retreat into a victim mentality. Nothing I can do so I will do nothing. But supposing we all focused on what we can control?

In my earlier article (Back to normal?), I posed four sets of questions one of which was:

Will the new world offer more challenges and opportunities than the old? Will there be a new normal?

What if we invested the latter part of our lockdown time in addressing what our new normal is likely to be and prepared as best we can for the inevitable uncertainties. Obvious stuff, I hear you say, of course we are preparing for our future, it’s what we are paid to do.

But less obvious might be the elements for focus that we can be certain about or gather data to inform our decisions. And because they will be generated from our own data, these are the factors that could lead to our future competitive advantage.

What can we deduce from the past?

Before lockdown we were trading profitably, or at least deliberately fuelling our chosen business model, keeping investors, customers and our people satisfied (probably) with the status quo (or with declared improvement plans). We may have noticed trends in our industry and we may have started to react to them, but were we fast enough? Here lies the first question, for which we will all have the data, even if we may need to be rigorous in dealing with the little voice that was telling us ‘oh it’s just a blip, it will go away’. Some examples:

  • Will the trend to paying by plastic rather than cash increase after lockdown? A lot more people have been forced into debit and credit card use during the pandemic, will this new habit sustain?
  • Now we have seen how much we can get done by video calls, how important will business travel be?
  • The high street was struggling before and the slide has been accelerated by the need for on- line purchasing. ‘Late adopters’ will have learnt new habits and they may not want to revert to the pleasures of the weekly bulk shop. Are we going to be impacted by the change in footfall?
  • Could it be that we have found that people can genuinely be more productive at home in certain tasks? Will the trend to flexible working change our view of our working environment?

What could we have done differently?

What has been different in the pandemic, that we didn’t see coming or hadn’t contingencies in place to deal with? Foresight might have led us to more exacting discussions with our insurance providers, but there may have been other insurance elements that we could have addressed. Some examples:

  • Should we have strategic stocks of PPE and other ‘what if’ stores?
  • More generally, should we have more inventory cover, at least to cover strategically important parts?
  • Do we need more agility in our supply chain? Would it help to source some of our essentials locally?
  • Did we mobilise quickly enough? Did we react to the early signs of the crisis, or did we wait until we had to act?

Are things happening in the lockdown that are surprising us?

Undoubtedly, there will be things that have happened, or are happening, that you would not have guessed. Would I have anticipated the levels of energy that have been released in our business for new concept development, reaching out not just to clients but to the wider business community and adapting to a virtual environment? Some things worth logging:

  • How did our key relationships act? Our people, our customers, our investors, our key providers. Did their reactions surprise, delight or leave us concerned?
  • The speed of adaptability to new conditions?
  • The way priorities have changed?

New data that is available through observation and will be able to help future planning.

Has our culture helped or hindered our way of operating?

(I appreciate that at this point my reader is either saying, what’s the soft and fluffy stuff got to do with managing in a crisis, or yes, this will be a significant factor in our time to recovery, nevertheless…)

I had a call with one of our long-standing clients who proudly shared the core message that he was using to guide his publicly owned company through a period when his revenues all but ceased. Front and centre: the purpose and values which has shaped their culture and way of operating through the good times and, now, the bad. Yes, they have had to restructure, but making sure their fair-minded culture enabled them to protect as many jobs as was possible. Some questions:

  • Are we clear about the reasons why we exist (as well as to make money) and our principles and have we lived them through the crisis?
  • Did the stress applied by the crisis suggest we need to revisit how we express the culture?
  • What may need to be emphasised during our period of recovery?
  • Did our behaviours align with the expressed culture?

Our experience is that a strong and healthy culture will speed recovery with people and key external relationships feeling that they can rely on consistency and constancy of behaviours.

Have we spotted new needs from our market?

I am aware that in my neighbourhood, local and community has been boosted in importance. With travel restrictions, so comes new reliance on people close to us. And so does our view of supporting others in the community. So the local brewery offering hand sanitiser on a buy one and donate one to a good cause, or the Indian restaurant that has started a personal delivery service (who needs Deliveroo?). And what value the local butcher, baker and the corner shop? And this 3D printing, could it help to deal with outages in my supply chain? Could it be that there are these changes that might stick post pandemic?

Could it be that now I have had a chance to reflect, I can see new offers that my business could make in a changing market?

And what do we do, and have done in the past, won’t change?

What have we discovered that our customers value in what we provide and the way we operate? And what have we discovered that our people value? Yes there may be changes, but it will be just as important to ensure that the core is protected and even strengthened.

To get the right answers to each of these, we will need to be honest with ourselves, or get someone to challenge us to think differently, so we get an objective view of the reality of our situation.

Tackling the unknown: the external environment

Of course, there will be a lot of factors beyond our control, but we should at least be able to identify where future uncertainty may lie.

These external factors will contain opportunities and threats and it may be more difficult to find answers, or where ‘only time will tell’. For example:

  1. Do we need to re-contract with investors to deliver against new expectations?
  2. Have our customers’ behaviours changed? Are there new needs or will they revert to previous buying patterns?
  3. Have our suppliers’ behaviours changed? Do we need to repair the supply chain? Are there ways that supply could be improved?
  4. Are there new expectations from other stakeholders: government; community and similar

And what’s the likelihood of the organisation having to face another crisis, virus induced or otherwise? Perhaps we should take a closer look at resilience in another article.

And finally, some areas for personal reflection

It’s fair to say that this has been a major jolt to the way we live and work. I have managed to hold off from saying unprecedented until now, but sure it is. It will need strong leadership to get our businesses back to strength and so, some personal reflections might be needed:

  1. Have I got the energy to revise the business model to take advantage of new opportunities?
  2. Do I want to lead our people into this new world, or should I be looking to bring in someone else (internal or an external hire)?
  3. And is now the time to ensure that we have captured the learnings from this incident so that we can improve our future survivability?

I suspect that there will be a proliferation of checklists and advice on what businesses should do to ‘get back to normal’. But the truth is that the questions as well as the answers will be different in each sector and for each business. Some will change out of all recognition, either by choice or force; others will remain to flourish in an existing more traditional mode. It will only be the leaders of each organisation that will be able to chart their way through the inevitable uncertainties when facing the future. Posing the questions and striving to find the answers will help to create some clarity on future direction. Addressing the internal ‘knowns’ will help us to address the external ‘unknowns’ and (so far as possible) stay in control.

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This is one of a series of articles that will address the questions raised in a previous article ‘Back to Normal?’

1. Will it be possible to repair the damage to our finances?

2. How can we get back to viable operating levels quicker and steeper than others?

3. Will the new world offer more challenges and opportunities than the old? Will there be a new normal?

4. Do we need to review our business model to build in more resilience?

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