Every Monday I start my week with an early morning Reformer Pilates class. It is a lesson in vulnerability and personal strength as I manipulate my body in challenging new positions that I thought I would never have been capable of. This morning the only thing preventing a spectacular fall from the machine was a fluffy band and my will and strength not to embarrass myself. I saw this as a metaphor for life right now, particularly business life. I don’t know if my body can do the exercise that I attempt because I have never done it before. The outcome is unpredictable, but I try it anyway. We are running our businesses in this strange time with a level of vulnerability we have not seen before. To succeed we must trust in our own strength and instinct.
I am sure COVID-19 has taught us all many life lessons and it is going to teach as so many more as this pandemic lingers as a disruptive force to our life for many years to come. One thing that it has taught me more than anything is that life is completely unpredictable and trying to learn to deal with this unpredictability is a critical new skill to learn.
I think we all find comfort in predictability, even those who like to think of themselves living an “unpredictable” life. In business, predictable is a necessary thing. We create budgets, make plans and decisions all based on the fact that what we know from the past will be recreated into the future. Right now, it feels that some of that has gone out the window. As a business owner this can cause stress and anxiety, particularly for those who are working in an industry that has been highly impacted by COVID-19.
One of my husband’s favourite sayings is “let’s just see what the tide does”. While I love this reference to surf culture and a free lifestyle sitting on a beach somewhere, it is can also be rather infuriating for someone like me, an accountant. While there are unpredictable elements of my job, overall we know that our workflow goes in cycles and we can set out targets based on these cycles.
We are fortunate in that at this stage our work has only become more intense as a result of Jobkeeper and the other stimulus measures. Compared to so many businesses out there we have nothing to complain about, but even with a level of predictability we are having difficulty making business decisions. We are not sure how many of our clients will survive. We are not sure how many of our clients will be able to afford to pay our invoices. We are not sure how long it will take for those invoices to be paid. In the back of our minds we are also concerned about staff getting sick and the impact that will have on us meeting our client’s needs. There is definitely an element of “seeing what the tide does” in our business at the moment.
This, however, is no excuse not to plan. If anything, it means planning is more important that ever. Planning now needs to account for unpredictability as well as predictability. Your “what if” analysis has a whole bunch of new factors to consider. Now is the time to be savvy about your business, to tighten your procedures, to enhance the customer experience and introduce better technology to give you a competitive advantage.
As a starting point take 15 minutes to write down your concerns about your business in this unpredictable time. This may include loss of customers, staff unable to work, your customers going into liquidation meaning higher bad debts, or the fact that you simply cannot work as the government has closed your business. Then start to formulate a plan to tackle this if the worst does happen. We are fortunate to have some government support at the moment but this is not going to last for ever. We need to be making plans for a business life after the support drops off. That business life may look different to what it has looked like in the past.
No one knows where this pandemic is going to take us and honestly, it is OK to be looking one day at a time right now. I am sure no business plan written in 2019 factored in a global pandemic. What is predictable is that we will survive this and one day life will return to normal, even if that normal looks different to what we have known in the past. People will still need to eat, be entertained, be clothed and housed. Trade businesses are still going to be in strong demand. Taxes are still going to need to be paid and most business owners will need someone to help them prepare those taxes. What that will all look like into the future we do not know, so we need to adapt as the new models for doing business emerge. It will be survival of the fittest, so be the fittest. This means you need to be nimble and have great systems so you can adapt.
Tomorrow is unpredictable, and so is the day after that, and the day after that. Unpredictable is starting to be predictable itself. Strong business owners will learn to live with this and find ways to make the most of it.