In 1998, Dr. Spencer Johnson published “Who Moved My Cheese,” a business fable that would remain on the New York Times best seller list for almost five years. Its message is as relevant today as it was when it was published over 20 years ago, and it remains a very popular business book having sold over 26 million copies worldwide in 37 different languages. The central theme of the book is change . . . particularly about how we react to change. Do we hunker down and wait it out in the belief that the change will pass and we’ll get back to life as normal? Or do we embrace change as the “new normal” and look for opportunities that the new normal may bring? Considering the international business conditions many of us now face . . . trade wars, embargoes, tariffs, etc. . . . change seems to be an especially appropriate topic right now. Like it or not, we all live in a global economy, and our business fortunes are inextricably tied to those of other countries all over the world. Even those of us who have no obvious ties to international markets, probably have customers or suppliers who do. For more on change and how we deal with it in the 21st century, please read on.
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” ~Will Rogers
Complacency is a disease that will kill us more quickly than just about any other disease we can think of. A little paranoia, on the other hand, will keep us on our toes and force us to continuously scan the horizon for the next approaching threat. In fact, in a very real sense, identifying the changes coming at us and devising defenses against them are the two most important duties any of us have as company owners and CEOs.
So what sorts of changes are we guarding against?
We need to be alert for any and all changes that could threaten the company, its mission, or its goals, but in general, such changes will fit into the following broad areas:
Competitive changes. A new, bigger, better-financed competitor enters the market (think a local hardware store suddenly faced with Home Depot entering the market). Or maybe an existing competitor comes out with a new, revamped product line with functionality your products can’t match. Or maybe an existing competitor launches a new pricing strategy that requires a response from you.
Technological changes. A so-called “disruptive” technology enters the market making your products or services, if not obsolete, at least less important that they were previously. Or these could be production technologies that allow a competitor to produce at higher quality standards, higher tolerances, or higher volumes than was previously available.
Governmental/Regulatory changes. Even if you’re not in a regulated industry, you can still be impacted by governmental policies, tax structure, and judicial rulings. OSHA inspectors can walk through your door anytime they choose whether you’re in a regulated industry or not.
Social changes. Could you face a public relations problem if your workforce is perceived to be insufficiently diverse in terms of ethnicity and/or gender? What if your pay scales do not provide a “living wage?” Could you fairly be accused to perpetuating a toxic environment for women and/or minorities?
Financial changes. We are struck by either a depression or a recession. Think 2008 all over again. Or maybe it’s less dire, but interest rates are high and bank financing is increasingly harder to get.
So how do we effectively keep an eye on these various sources of change?
- Stay close to your customers and suppliers. Talk to them regularly about developments they see coming. Whatever forces impact them will eventually impact you as well.
- If you belong to a trade association and/or chamber of commerce, make sure they have resources to monitor government activity at the local, state and federal levels. Make sure they are attuned to issues important to you and your business.
- Stay abreast of advances in technology that could impact your industry. Again, a trade association could be helpful with this. If not, an outsourced IT service may be able to be your “early warning” resource for emerging technologies that may be important to you.
Change can be good. It can open doors to opportunities that didn’t exist before. But you can’t allow yourself to be blindsided by important changes that catch you unaware. Be guided by the “Doctrine of No Surprises.” Make sure you have systems and eyes and ears positioned in such a way that surprises are unlikely. Grant yourself permission to be a little bit paranoid. Just because things seem to be rolling along with no apparent threat, a threat is out there . . . it just hasn’t become visible yet.