SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Surviving extreme life situations requires dealing with the most pressing life-or-death needs first, then building on incremental success at critical intervals and battling unforeseen challenges to make it through. Business leaders can apply the same strategies to guide their organizations through the pandemic and survive for the long term, says Maryland Smith’s Oliver Schlake.
Survivalists – the kind who enjoy practicing bushcrafts – break intense situations down into time chunks based on the rules of three, says Schlake, a management professor who also teaches survival training. (He has even taken Maryland Smith students into the woods to teach these strategies.) That means prioritizing the most basic need first: Breathing. You can’t live without air for more than three minutes, so in a disaster, getting oxygen is the top priority. Then, the rules continue: Shelter. You can’t survive more than three hours without shelter in bad weather conditions. Water. You can’t survive more than three days without water. Food. You can’t survive three weeks without food. Companionship. You can’t survive three months without companionship.
Schlake says the concept can be adapted for the corporate environment, where organizations are trying to survive the economic upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic and figure out how their markets might change for the future. Break decisions down into chunks of time, he says – today, this week, this month, this quarter, next year, the next three to five years.
“For each of these time segments, you need to define what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and what information that time group will deliver to the next group,” he says. “An executive can initiate these timeframes and give them some input, but especially at the lower level, you need to have people in place who can operate without immediate leadership, who are trained to operate based on the company culture.”
If a company’s culture is to put the customer first, in an emergency everyone knows to focus first on customers, says Schlake. Employees who deal directly with customers daily will then need to deliver information about what they expect to happen next week so that the managers who are looking at things in weeks can organize supplies and personnel. Then the people in charge of the month timeframe can take that information and make decisions about staffing decisions. Likewise, those in charge of quarterly decisions can get an idea of supply chain and personnel needs to plan the coming quarter. The higher up you go in leadership, the longer the time horizon, says Schlake.
“As an executive, you need to be looking at next year and beyond – if your business model is still sound, whether the market you serve will still exist, and how your key customer needs may change permanently.”
At each level, having people to make sure needs are met and information is passed up the chain isn’t just important for survival. It will also help an organization thrive in the future, says Schlake. Here are his tips for keeping a pulse on your organization now and creating a lifeline for the future:
Listen. Ideally, your organization’s culture is such that people with new ideas are heard. “You don’t want to squash people’s creativity and problem-solving motivation. Naturally, we all try to inform ourselves about change to our environment, even if it’s subtle change because that is a natural survival skill.”
If you want employees to contribute, foster some sort of forum. In a small organization, it could be just a white board or a shared Google Doc where people jot down ideas. The traditional corporate way, says Schlake, has been to suppress ideas or information that would be difficult to address and highlight ideas and information that are convenient or easy to deal with. “New information should be treated with care, like a seedling,” he says.
Ask different questions. Companies often ask the wrong questions, Schlake says. Don’t just ask consumers what they want; uncover the needs they can’t articulate so you can meet them. Brainstorm new ways to get the information you need. Industries have a tendency to mimic the behavior of other industries, often following a similar pattern. Are their clues elsewhere? If you can, look to international markets to see how an industry has developed there to anticipate it when the change comes to our shores.
Think about future needs. There’s no point in looking at the current market if you want to be ahead, says Schlake. People who are 16 years old now will be 20 in four years. Companies who want to know what their market wants in the future shouldn’t ask the people who are in that market right now. “Whatever your timeframe is, ask the people who will be in that market in the future.”
Run more experiments to collect more data. Good organizations manage ambiguity by trying more initiatives, says Schlake. Run experiments. Create a hypothesis, try things out, and gather data. It is not about failing fast, it is about learning from experiments. “When you have more data, you can make better decisions if you are willing to learn from it.”
Encourage speculation. Read into the data you collected. Some people are just naturally more curious and comfortable with ambiguous information, says Schlake, so encourage them to speculate and share their ideas about the future. Not everyone in an organization needs to be like this, just as not everyone has to do accounting, he says. Schlake has trained corporate clients and government agencies to combine data, tools and learning with reasoning and instincts to discover critical trends earlier than their competitors.
Keep your options open. Any survival scenario could play out in multiple ways, so leaders should come up with alternatives for their organization’s future and keep them viable until making a decision is imperative, Schlake says. “You still have to make a decision, but until the moment that you do, it’s extremely beneficial to keep two to three options alive. As you get more information, you’ll have more clarity on which option is the best.”
Business leaders can anticipate a lot because humans are predictable and industries tend to follow patterns, says Schlake. In any survival scenario, anticipating what could come next is important, but not as critical as making it through the next challenge with what you learned from the last one.
“You may never get it right, but if you continuously collect data and make it a practice, you can create a picture that clarifies itself over time. Once you have that information, you can do one of two things: You can make an earlier decision so you can gain market share or competitive advantage. Or you can decide later because you’ve had more time to prepare the decision. You can create a better initiative.”
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