Hindsight is wonderful and immediately accurate. Foresight is difficult and tentatively successful. Prediction is a scapegoat and not really valuable. What can we learn from a COVID-type event to better equip us for the future? What lessons from the Greeks can we learn?
Period 1: What we already know
Cast your mind back to August 2019.
For many of us in Australia, we have just completed our assessment of how the new financial year has kicked off, and how the numbers in the business are tracking.
For companies delivering consulting services, including DB Results, we are examining the forward engagements and resource planning. For the businesses who use consulting services, we are examining the account management numbers and tracking against project deliverables. We are looking forward to what we can achieve by the end of the calendar year.
We have completed the new 2020–2021 business plans and begun to lock in the activities that will see us drive and improve our businesses across our operations, geographies, administrative and product/service categories.
It all looks pretty good, all things considered.
A few months later, the new financial year period has come and gone and there are rumours that a new virus may be about to suddenly disrupt some international supply chains, and some contingency planning may be required.
Before we can collectively reassemble the dealt cards on the table, all hell breaks loose.
Even if the WHO has not yet classified the virus as a global pandemic, the business lines and actions have already escalated far beyond what was being considered in Plan B.
In fact, Plans C, D, and E have also being swamped by the sheer speed and size of the shifts in global commerce, goods movements, financial market assessments, travel, tourism – almost everything is affected. We enter the December holiday period with lots of unanswered questions.
In the new year there is suddenly a new three-letter acronym is on everybody’s lips – WFH – and another seismic shift takes place as we all leave our offices and workplaces. Retail panic grips sections of society.
Then the borders close. Countries lock down. People begin to suffer.
Period 2: What we are experiencing
Now jump forward to August 2020.
So, how’s that 2020–2021 business plan and forecast looking? A bit beaten and bruised, but generally OK? Smashed, broken and barely being held together? Or totally abandoned and replaced with a string of reactionary, tactical decision points that take account of the daily changes in business circumstances?
Looking at the daily swings in the ASX, S&P 500, FTSE, Hang Seng, and related indexes, it’s clear that “volatility” has taken on a whole new definition.
We have all instituted new work, supply chain management, production and demand management practices, and radically altered the basis upon which we develop procedures and processing mechanisms across our delivery lines. Does “agile” now refer to the way your business operates, not just a way to deliver projects?
Sales and marketing initiatives have become virtual events, along with almost all facets of the customer engagement lifecycle. Telecommunications, while important pre-COVID, are now an essential and vital part of the business arsenal. Some of the things that we now rely upon to conduct business are truly shared resources: Australian internet congestion has increased generally, but Melbourne and Canberra are affected more than any other Australian capital.
Other online activity had such an uptick in traffic due to the lockdown that serious adjustments had to be made. Both Netflix and YouTube reduced their quality metrics in order to save bandwidth. What exactly will happen when they return to service as normal remains to be seen.
Some industry segments actually saw an upswing in activity and sales in the early days of COVID-19 lockdown. Office suppliers, especially those selling home office equipment – chairs and office tables, computer monitors, webcams and headsets, printers/MFDs and consumables – got an initial boost of up to 800% normal activity, resulting in a supply drought for many of these items. (COS, Winc, Officeworks and associated mega chain stores, as well as specialist online IT suppliers, all had their boats lifted by the rising tide.) Of course, PPE for the home and office has never experienced a period like this before.
Other industry areas shut down, stood down or mothballed entire facilities.
Seemingly overnight, entire service industries went offline. Commercial property rentals and space managers reported increased activity – all of it associated with stopping, suspending or cancelling agreements. Coupled with some of the powers enacted from governments at all levels, a swath was cut through some traditionally stable enterprises.
We have all collectively become much more attuned to the minute vibrations in the symphony of business. Objectives have been recast, not to fundamentally alter the “what” but certainly to change the “how”. Communication across and within businesses has generally gotten better. Monthly and quarterly updates have become twice a week and monthly. The democratisation of communication and ideas has settled into a new normalcy. We meet each other much less, but “see” each other much more.
In many cases, this has forced the digitisation of business by necessity rather than desire. To the surprise of many, this did not haemorrhage many businesses, and in fact improved things noticeably. However, it is still early days for a number of the changes that have been forced upon many businesses.
Period 3: What are we thinking about
Now leap ahead, Back to the Future style, and consider August 2021.
With the lessons that we have been taught over the past year, what are we now doing differently?
Business agility is no longer a trite phrase used in management-speak to sustain the progress of an activity without a detailed plan. Business agility is now the fundamental lens through which organisational management at all levels assesses and actions change.
Based on the businesses that are forging ahead and prospering, there is a tendency to analyse and copy what appears to be working – follow in the footsteps of the successful. Only some will lament the businesses that did not make it through the year and have closed.
According to a market-driven economy with Darwinian competitive forces, only the fittest are meant to survive.
However, simply mimicking the changes and approaches that have worked for other companies provides no assurance that the same elements will work for your organisation.
There is a phenomenon defined as survivorship bias that may very well be working against your best intentions and actively harming your organisation’s ability to flourish.
Survivorship bias is, in summary, the review of data that characterises a collection of elements that have survived an event or situation, at the exclusion of the data for the collection of elements that did not survive. Simply put: you ignore the failures.
Survivorship bias was likely what Diagoras of Melos (a Greek poet and sophist of the 5th century BC) was referring to when he purported to have replied to an enquiry relating to the depiction of shipwreck survivors: "Look, you who think the gods have no care of human things, what do you say to so many persons preserved from death by their especial favour?" to which Diagoras replied, "Why, I say that their pictures are not here who were cast away, who are by much the greater number." Again, the mistake was to only look at the living and ignore the situation of the dead.
At DB Results, we have a specialist innovation team that examines the basis of bias and actively seeks to ensure that every solution we craft for our customers is theirs alone. We take a holistic view of our customers’ business needs and objectives, assess the specific circumstances that they are in, examine what has and, crucially, what has not worked for other organisations and develop a truly individual response to the challenges that are presented.
That is one of the reasons why DB Results has customers that have been with us for our entire existence, and why new customers keep coming back. We understand what it means to be in that exclusive club of survivors.