We’re living through unprecedented times. Beyond the fact that there hasn’t been a pandemic of this size and scope in living memory, the efforts to contain it have crippled our economy. People are staying home either on government order or at the CDC’s guidance, and that means normal commerce has stalled out, putting businesses across the country in peril.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 23: The shuttered Hayworth Theatre displays the message ‘Social … [+] Distancing We’re In This Together…Apart’ on the marquee, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, on March 23, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Governor Gavin Newsom issued a ‘stay at home’ order for California’s 40 million residents in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
As tempting as it might be to panic, the best thing to do now is plan for the crisis and keep moving forward, because it’s not as impossible as it seems, and the alternative is giving up. But how do you plan when nobody even knows what tomorrow will look like? Well, that turns out to be something we do have some experience with. If you were running a business during 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis, you know how rapidly situations can change: head-spinningly so. So let’s draw from the lessons we in the business world learned during those calamities. I want to focus on three: stay calm, cut costs, and innovate.
Stay calm. Before anything else, it’s critical that you remain calm. There are plenty of things to worry about right now, so don’t put anything else on the pile. Right now, your focus has to be on keeping the business up and running with as few layoffs as possible, and if you’re prone to catastrophized thinking, it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed by the endless churn of the pandemic news cycle. It’s okay to be scared—most of us are—but in these extraordinary times, we have to summon whatever strength we can to keep things running.
I remember both 9/11 and the 2008 collapse; both felt world-ending at the time, and both required critical decisions to be made in vastly reduced time spans and with an uncertain future in store; who could predict what tomorrow was going to look like when things were changing so quickly? But if you’re the calm within the storm, you’ll be better able to look at what’s happening around you and adapt to it. Do so thoughtfully, with a vision of the next day, because we can’t do triage by simply reacting to each individual problem as it unfolds. We’ve got to focus, think ahead, plan as best as possible for the worst-case scenario, and be ready to make major decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Get your costs under control. How is your cash flow? I suspect that right now, those numbers don’t look great if you aren’t in the business of manufacturing ventilators. And even if they do, don’t wait for things to get bad. Now is the time to study those numbers hard and see where you can trim any and all fat. Your staff can’t come into the office; so renegotiate your lease or if possible end it entirely. Account for the overhead you no longer have, like heating/air-conditioning and electrical costs. Don’t spend money that you don’t absolutely need to spend, and do spend money on things that will cut down on costs or improve profitability in other ways. That may mean investing in work-from-home solutions and work management software like Jira for your team to help everyone stay on target. By staying goal-focused and nailing down your priorities, you can plan for tomorrow without sacrificing today. The important thing is focusing on the long-term as best you can, which may mean running lean in the short term.
And while the landscape is rapidly changing under all of our feet and your first priority is to survive, there is an invaluable opportunity here to prepare for what happens once we’re finally out of the woods. Thoughtful leaders should utilize this time to position their organizations to thrive once the pandemic is behind us. If you’ve ever wanted to make bold changes, there may not be a better time than now.
Innovate. Pivot and be nimble. What opportunities are there, right now in the midst of all of this, to do business? What needs can you be filling? How can you help your clients and customers get through this? Examine where the market actually is, what commerce is actually taking place, and figure out where your company fits into the pandemic economy. Think of the automobile factories that started producing warplanes during the Second World War. Hanes, for example, is re-gearing much of its productive capacity to manufacture medical face masks, which are in short supply and desperately needed by healthcare workers. While perhaps not particularly profitable, it’s enabling Hanes to be a part of the solution and continue to do business—and stay in business, preserving thousands of jobs—by recognizing who their customer is at this moment in time.
So now’s the time to ask yourself how your business model can adapt to these strange days we live in. New problems mean new markets and new opportunities. Take stock of them and how you can fit in, from development, deployment, and support of information systems to manufacturing capacity to distribution networks to food and supply production. The businesses that come out of this stronger are the ones that lean into the economy we have rather than the economy we want. Use any extra time you have to come up with new ideas, anticipate future client needs, and prepare to hit the ground running once this is all over. With great adversity comes great opportunity for innovation. The market only stops if we let it.