As a nation, we look to the economy to answer our basic questions about the future. What will fluctuations in global markets and supply chains bring? How will the dollar recover from the circumstance of a stalling consumer market? And what impacts, if any, will change the way we do business? As spring approaches, the anticipation around these questions builds. We watch for signs of our shuttered economy lurching back into motion.
Businesses, much like individuals, have coping mechanisms when faced with a crisis. There are ways to build a business contingency plan, even with unforeseen challenges. Some industries have not dusted off their plans since the financial crisis of 2008, and there is anxiety around what it means to enact it. But the truth is: business contingency plans are built precisely for moments like the spread of COVID-19. And while words like "unprecedented," "alarm," and "volatility" rule headlines, reactivity is not how businesses run. It is through preparedness and foresight. It is with a business contingency plan.
While no leader takes comfort from enacting their company's plan, the ability to swiftly empower crucial business functions with ease is possible. Uncompromising company and financial data security and work-from-home procedures are not mutually exclusive. A bit of knowledge is required to migrate an office environment to the home without opening new vulnerabilities.
Dividing and conquering is the oldest trick in the book for any opportunist looking to damage their business. Security hackers and other ill-intentioned opportunists look for times of organizational chaos to strike. They trust that business leaders have overly-divided their attention and that employees will not adhere to traditional protocols for data security or safe treatment of sensitive information.
There are also a substantial number of leaders who will focus on the uncertainties of the future, preventing them from seeing vulnerabilities that are right in front of them. This, of all things, means that many companies and their leaders must know the enemy is not the distractionary dips and dives of the economy, but the complexity of an organization that prevents it from responding elegantly to uncertainty. Military strategist Sun Tzu of The War of Art provides insight into how we should prepare for battles with the unknown:
"Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril."
Having a business contingency plan is only the beginning. Redraw your battle lines when uncertainty strikes, and you will unmask the hidden areas that need better strategies.
Your employees will not naturally intuit where the new boundary lines exist. Spell it out so that everyone is on the same page. Barring in-person meetings, you may need to host a company-wide Zoom call with a panel of C-Suite leadership to reassure, set new expectations, and answer questions.
Most importantly, leadership should use this as a chance to gather further information. Seek out the experiences of those who serve your customers directly to get their perspective. How are customers responding to the shift? What are their emerging needs, and is there a niche there that your industry can uniquely fill? Keep your company's ears to the ground.
In environments of economic hardship, businesses with leaner operations and less organizational drag do better. Cutting out redundant manual processes is crucial to eliminating complexity. A business contingency plan will help enact the first line of defense for your business. However, this is not all you will need. The second wave of reinforcements is crucial to keep your business advancing through times of uncertainty.
Automation is your greatest ally in this fight. Now is the time to abandon stale processes. If they're manual or paper-based, requiring cartons of messy file work or repetitive wet-ink signatures, its time to rethink. Lean heavily on electronic AP solutions, which can clear up the bottlenecks choking out crucial supply chain relationships.
Never in history has the value of a swift and reliable supply chain been more evident than now, as hospitals face shortages of both personal protective equipment and crucial medicines. Industries are re-learning a valuable lesson: that while necessity is the mother of invention, the cost of waiting to innovate can be incredibly painful.
This year is unlikely to offer many sunny prospects in the realm of profits. Yet cost-cutting initiatives will provide the kind of stability a company needs to make impressive cumulative gains in the coming years. What does this mean? Playing defense isn't your only strategy. You can also cut costs to preserve the liquidity you do have.
With electronic tools already up and running for staff communication or remote meetings, it's time to ask yourself how you might unburden other areas of the office from slow performance inefficiencies. What is sending through the mail that could be automated? How might making payments to suppliers electronically cut back on paper check costs? Explore every avenue for cost savings. There are many electronic solutions at the ready to lift manual-based work with minimal if not zero downtime for your business. Now is the time to employ these solutions and not hold back when better-designed options exist.
Everyone at this point could do with one more great IT hire, but the point of a business contingency plan is to be resourceful with what resources do exist. Making quantum leaps from the office to a remote setting is much easier for companies who have already made steps toward digital transformation.
Instead of losing more time to processes like answering phones, getting approvers to hand-sign checks, and sending paper mail to closed-up company headquarters, make them digital, with greater control and traceability. Fraudsters' potential access to your systems diminishes when you have greater visibility and fewer cooks in the kitchen. Higher thresholds for security mean that problems or threats are identified in real-time and careless or lagging processes fall by the wayside.
It's tempting to lose steam during a crisis and consider it the wrong time to try creative solutions, but the logic doesn't stand. Now is absolutely the time to try new things.
Since volatility has introduced new stressors into the equation for your business, the target has shifted. A brand new segment of the market may have just locked into place in the form of potential customers. You have the potential to attract them by showing that you understand their needs quicker than anyone else in the space. This requires agility and a bit of risk, but it's a risk worth taking, even under present circumstances. Innovation isn't an optional advantage in times of plenty. Innovation is essential to the survival of every business.
In the words of Sun Tzu, "In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity." Do not take advantage of the chaos, but respond with resilience to its demands.