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Making business decisions in tumultuous times

February 04, 2020
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I recently returned from a trip to Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa that is unknown to most Americans. Those who are familiar with the country know it mostly because of its poverty, corruption, and the high incidence of terrorism and fatal violence.

People in the know were incredulous that I traveled there voluntarily—with my husband and children. There are weekly terrorist activities in the country; the literacy rate is the lowest of all African nations; and the average life expectancy is only 55 years (compared to 80 in the United States).

But here is the thing about upheaval – it doesn’t touch everything. We traveled to Burkina Faso for a wedding that was joyous and free of violence. We met people who were expecting babies, building houses, and starting small businesses—all normal life things. In times of uncertainly, even war, life goes on.

12 Article Marlisa
Marlisa and her family at a wedding reception in Burkina Faso.
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I returned to the relative stability of the United States via a stop in the equally wobbly UK. The magazine headlines at the airport newsstands were overwhelmingly offering predictions and advice for navigating 2020 and much of it was dark and dire.

With the red dust of Ouagadougou still on my shoes, I was keen to put “the sky is falling” tone into perspective for everyone, particularly business leaders. Leaders often want to stop and do nothing or wait until they know exactly what to do. This makes sense since stakes are high. But what I realized in Burkina Faso is that often there is nothing to wait FOR.

There won’t be one single day when the jihadist cells there call it quits and kids can start getting to school unimpeded. Nor will the actual day of the UK’s exit be the actual day that Brits stop acting like EU citizen. Both will be a subtle and organic re-norming, not unlike other ebbs and flows in our lives.

"There is no game-theory exercise or scenario planning model that will produce a definitive recommendation."

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To this point, leaders must recognize the same thing in business and stop waiting for the answer about how to proceed. There is no game-theory exercise or scenario planning model that will produce a definitive recommendation. I realize this isn’t particularly helpful or reassuring, so I offer you three specific supplemental tips for navigating your business in tumultuous times.

Look for things to amplify

Rather than trying to anticipate what new thing will disrupt business because of turmoil, look at what is happening or evolving that turmoil will amplify. An example of this is location independence — the trend toward virtual offices, remote computing and video meetings that is increasingly influential to how we conduct business. We can anticipate climate events or safety situations or other chaos that will make it difficult for people to get to an office and conduct business as usual. This would indicate an opportunity for a leader to amplify the company’s ability to conduct business as remotely as possible. Of course, storefronts, manufacturing facilities, and distribution centers, etc., are less able to be virtual. But how might technology –drones, autonomous cars – become the norm in a seemingly unstable world? Noticing the things already happening and making investments to harness the amplification is a good thing.

Forget about playing defense


It’s common advice that leaders should be aggressive during rocky times — to make big bets or go for broke. Playing strong offense during tumultuous times isn’t bad advice. But I would add that this isn’t a time for arbitrage or hedging. Now is a good time to abandon defensive strategies. Unfortunately, when things go seriously south, the safety nets in society sometimes fall into chaos as well. An example of this is insurance. Insurance is built on a portfolio of well-placed bets. But when the world acts atypically, insurance companies are less able to operate well, possibly leaving the institution unable to meet its coverage commitments. Question any significant investments you have with third parties paid to protect your assets. Reconsider other safety measures as well as prepayments and deposits. Walking away from the types of investments our caring dads probably encouraged seems counter-intuitive, but times have – or may be—changing.

Double down on trade

Speaking of dads, my dad was wrong when he used to say that nothing is certain but death and taxes. Among many things that are certain—in both tranquil and chaotic times—are that people will continue to eat, form relationships, and trade. Trade is where businesses can predict and protect themselves by drawing inspiration from the past (think Native Americans and French fur traders) and present (Venezuela!) If your company only operates domestically, might you explore expanding into international markets? If you only sell in one channel, could you add more channels? If you only accept receivables by check or ACH transfer, could you start to use Apple Pay or Venmo for a portion of your receivables? Or go analog and accept cash or community dollars? Could you start to barter? It isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

Managing a business when the world seems topsy-turvy can be paralyzing. Leaders tend to seek that lightning bolt of decisiveness or indisputable trigger. Not finding it, they too often stop right in their tracks.

My advice is to keep doing what you are doing. Live your life and actively run your business, but with increased effort in identifying opportunities to amplify, go on the offense, and to rethink how to conduct trade .

Or in the words of the UK government during World War II – “Keep calm and carry on.”

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