Should we even try to plan for 2021?

As a guy who has spent a good bit of his life either planning projects or helping others plan their businesses, I’m struggling with what to do in 2021. Last year was challenging enough trying to figure out what the future had in store. With the virus, the racial unrest, the drop in oil prices, and a record hurricane season most of us wisely focused on the short term, asking ourselves “What do I know now?” and “What can I expect in the next couple of weeks?”

With the development of several vaccines and the recovery of oil prices some began to talk optimistically about “returning to normal.” I’m not so sure. After anticipating the arrival of a vaccine for months, we seem to have failed to use that time to plan for its distribution. Further, we didn’t launch an information campaign to educate those wary of the vaccine that it would be safe for them and their family to take.

The end result is I think that “normal” is an illusion not to be realized very soon. Some of the changes we have implemented will be long lasting and not return to what they were. Therefore, I am left thinking we need to take a different approach to planning for 2021. Rather than a traditional Strategic Planning approach, I see a number of potentially productive things we can do to not only deal with the short term but to harden us and our operations for dealing with the long-term future. It may make more sense to not focus on the results, but rather on how we plan to perform.

Resilience

Where I have come to in looking at the planning options for this year is that we need to focus on personal and organizational resilience. While we may not be able to predict what is coming our way, we can use our past experience to determine what tools, capabilities, and characteristics, both personally and as a team, have prepared us to respond quickly and decisively to protect ourselves, recover, and capitalize on the opportunities presented to us in the past.

Individually, we know how to build personal resilience. We exercise, eat right, take our vitamins and, these days, meditate to manage our anxiety. But building resilience in our businesses is not as immediately obvious. The necessary capabilities and characteristics will vary from company to company and market to market. They do not exist in a vacuum. Each team will need to collectively identify what they will need to work on. I envision a process not unlike a strategic planning process, but with a very different focus. In the meantime, we can focus on a couple of obvious areas.

Customers

I think organizations today have to first focus on their customers more intently than they have in the past. Customers have been patient and understanding as we have “weathered the troubles” collectively. But their patience will wear thin, if it hasn’t already, and they will want value for their payment.

Further, what customers want, and need, is not the same as it was in 2019. To determine what interests them, means talking to them. Automated systems likely won’t get it. (Listen carefully as our menu options have changed). Personal service will be valued more now than ever. And, I think, it will be enthusiastically rewarded.

Employees

To satisfy and make your customers happy you will have to be taking care of your employees. The old saying holds true now more than ever, “If you want happy customers, you have to have happy employees.” And given the stress they have endured, that is no easy task. It won’t be achieved overnight and is likely to be a moving target.

Part of the organization’s challenge will be to help employees develop their own personal version of resilience. It will involve both physical and emotional components, some of which haven’t had to be dealt with in the past.

As the vaccines are slow to be distributed and the case count increases, the physical and emotional toll will be varied and, in many cases, not insignificant. Determining how to help them protect themselves and their families will be an evolving process and not for the faint of heart. But it can’t be ignored. It is real and if you want happy customers who come back and are happy to spend money with you, you HAVE to take care of your employee’s needs.

Communication

As part of any resilience plan, the company must include an aggressive communication component. Communicate with customers, of course, but also communicate with employees. In both instances, it will mean speaking without perfect knowledge of the future and without the ability to promise them that the things being described will stay that way. However, I think honesty will be rewarded.

There is a lot of misinformation being broadcast right now and some of it is calling the real news “fake.” When communicating with employees and customers one has to be using reliable sources, because without trust from both groups the company will suffer.

Suggestions

As I have discussed these ideas with several people two things were mentioned that I want to pass on as a way to help think about what I am suggesting. One friend said that he was focusing on a short list of “practices” that were things he wanted to make sure he was doing every day that had paid off for him in the past. Another suggested the approach of a successful CEO who reminded his team to focus on the “inputs” not the “outputs.” Both of these suggestions are a way of emphasizing that, in the midst of fluid environment, we have to rely on ourselves first.

Feedback

Lastly, I ask for your feedback on the ideas I have presented here. I think we are in the midst of a fundamental shift in the way we do business, how we plan for it, how we take care of customers, and how we take care of our employees. It may be that we never go back to “normal,” but that we develop a whole new approach to being successful. I would like your thoughts and observations that I can include in a future report on this endeavor. Please let me know what you are seeing that is working and what you are learning about being resilient as we plan for the future.

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