Anticipate the Unexpected—Create a Proactive Workforce
Headlines frequently tout stories of companies that failed to see warning signs.
In late 2022, Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights due to severe weather. Consumers and regulators blasted the airline for failing to anticipate and prepare. Southwest then purchased more de-icing equipment, added staffing during extreme weather, and optimized call centers to help customers reschedule flights.
Mattel's iconic Barbie doll inspired 2023's big summer movie. Yet, Mattel's track record with the toy includes missed competitive threats from Bratz dolls, changing ideas about body image, and cultural diversity. However, Mattel responded, and Barbie generated worldwide sales of almost $1.5 billion in 2022.
There are countless tales where major companies failed to see and act upon warning signals. Some, like those mentioned above, recovered from the events. Others are no longer in business.
Senior leadership's role is to constantly scan for potential natural disasters and economic and competitive threats to the business. They need to address these possibilities and develop contingency plans. Most importantly, they also need to establish a company culture where employees routinely look ahead and anticipate issues, whether on a macro level, such as natural disasters or in managing their workload.
Develop Leaders with Peripheral Vision
Preventing issues is always better than fixing them. Southwest would have saved significant money and public relations backlash had they planned better for weather disruptions. Companies benefit when employees solve problems before they happen by anticipating future issues and planning for contingencies. As Susan Cramm observed in Harvard Business Review, "The leader's job, in a world that is never simple or predictable, is to build safety nets so that when problems occur, they can be quickly reported and dealt with."
Great leaders often have well-honed skills for identifying risks and solving problems. They are proactive. They emphasize prevention over solutions. Part of their skillset reflects experience. They have worked through many expected and unexpected business issues. They did postmortems after experiencing setbacks to determine what went wrong and what signals were missed. They create "early warning systems" to help identify trends and factors that could indicate problems.
These executives also examine what happened in other industries as well as in their sphere. They ask, "What if?," as in, "What if that happened to us?"
In rolling out new products and processes, savvy leaders perform "what if" scenario planning. They consider what could result from their decisions. They develop an action plan for every contingency.
Scanning the periphery for risk can lead to a competitive advantage. An article in Harvard Business Review says organizations that do so can recognize and act on opportunities more quickly.
"They can avoid being blindsided. It takes skill to do this well, but as the environment changes more quickly and becomes more certain, the payoffs from peripheral vision may be greater than ever."
Further, the authors noted,
"A survey of 140 corporate strategists conducted by the Fuld-Gilad-Herring Academy of Competitive Intelligence found that fully two-thirds had been surprised by as many as three high-impact competitive events in the past five years. In addition, 97 percent of the respondents said their companies lacked an early warning system."
Leaders must revisit past blind spots and assess what is on the horizon. They should track social, technological, economic, environmental, and political changes. These changes may be in and around their industry. The IT arena alone is fraught with concerns. HBR's Cramm noted, "Anticipating problems is the only prudent course in a world where every company has data issues, buggy software, and security incidents."
Channel partners, industry experts, and rank-and-file employees each play a role. They can help leaders determine whether warning signals warrant attention. They provide objectivity to managers who might otherwise feel their business is untouchable. They can also contribute to brainstorming future channels, technologies, and competitive threats.
Some companies incorporate risk management in their organizational structure. Banks and financial services firms have senior risk officers and risk management committees. A risk officer researches and manages regulatory, operational, competitive, and other risks.
During the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the media reported that the bank had been without a chief risk officer for eight months. The venture capital market, one of SVB's key markets, was experiencing difficulties during that period. While one cannot say that filling that role would have stopped the bank's collapse, it likely was a contributing factor.
Encourage a Proactive Mindset
All employees regularly encounter problems. Some issues are routine and easy to address; others are novel and untested. Some workers excel at fixing problems, yet it is better to avoid the issue by being proactive. Solving problems often requires more resources and takes time away from employees' regular responsibilities. This, in turn, creates stress as employees juggle their workload.
Encourage employees to think on a proactive rather than a reactive basis. Help them think about how to mitigate recurring problems. There may be a process that repeatedly breaks down and needs to be re-engineered. There could be a system vulnerability, a necessary upgrade, or a vendor's impending labor strike. It might be simply managing the recurring busy time at work.
As Uniwraps CEO Atul Garg noted in a LinkedIn blog, "The secret to solving every issue, no matter how big or minor, is planning." Have employees research best practices and seek information from others who previously dealt with similar issues. They can then create a plan for either preventing the problem or minimizing its impact.
Encourage employees to work ahead. Procrastination may be the modus operandi of many workers, yet it just creates more disruption when the inevitable roadblocks occur. Last-minute rush is one of the biggest causes of employee error. It can even contribute to safety issues. If employees work ahead of schedule instead of at the last minute, there is more room to deal with inevitable emergencies.
A Culture of Proactivity
Risk management committees and what-if scenario planning are great tools. But the best way to emphasize proactivity is through your company culture. Create a culture where people are comfortable speaking up about perceived warning signals. Not all anomalies are indicators of potential problems. Yet employees should be willing to approach their managers with their concerns.
Company culture reflects employee behaviors. Examine your culture to ensure it includes the following behaviors:
- Speaking straight. Employees at all levels should be direct and honest with each other but always in a way to move the business forward. Front-line workers generally know firsthand what is happening with customers and products. They should keep their managers updated.
- Listening to understand. Employees genuinely listen to one another. They don't wait for the other party to stop speaking so that they can have their say. They are curious and respectful of people's opinions. Managers should listen carefully to concerns raised by front-line employees and customers. They also need to review employee and consumer forums posted on the internet to see what issues are discussed.
- Collaborating. When employees from various departments collaborate, they see how processes knit together. Likewise, they see where processes and departmental hand-offs may break down. Getting input from employees in other departments may help detect possible future problems.
- Documenting everything. Learning to anticipate problems includes remembering what happened in the past. When situations arise, document what occurred and the resolution. Include a discussion of unsuccessful approaches. Record any unexpected side effects. Note who worked on the issue; they may need to provide advice should a problem recur.
- Intelligent risk-taking. In new product or process introductions, ensure adequate training and testing. It's better to uncover any hiccups before full rollout rather than doing damage control afterward.
- Embracing diverse perspectives. Include employees from various disciplines in risk assessment and project meetings. Make these meetings safe so that people will speak up and share their prior experiences and concerns. Be sure to include people who may be new to the company or industry. They may have seen similar issues elsewhere and can provide counsel.
- Checking the ego at the door. It's not important who saw the issue coming or who came up with the solution. Leaders must be mindful that warning signals may be spotted by employees far down in the organization. As noted in an inc.com blog, “Employees touch aspects of the organization that supervisors and managers may never see, so it’s important to leverage their insights for the benefit of everyone.” Leaders need to be responsive and open to feedback.
All employees need to look ahead and prepare for the unexpected. This applies to balancing their workload as well as preventing significant competitive threats. Consult culturewise.com for resources on how to emphasize these behaviors in your organization. Then schedule a call with one of our specialists to learn more about building company culture.