If your business was in Whitewater in March, the last five months have likely been brutal. Stuck between Fun and Predictable Success, you didn’t have the agility or the depth to weather the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The timing of the crisis was terrible. Your business was tantalizingly close to achieving its ability to scale, but now five months later, that seems like a different lifetime. You may be wondering if the business will exist this time next year. If you’re there, I totally understand. Whitewater is incredibly challenging in the best of times.
The good news
However, the good news is you’ll be ok and that this will be an extended interruption more than a business-ending event. A chart of your business revenues will likely look much like the stock market, except that the V’s depth was likely deeper and the breadth likely longer.
Still, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve got enough steam in the engines to pull through with the right strategy, and that is precisely the goal of this article: to give you a clear perspective to make sense of what just happened, right the ship, and start making progress again.
The silver lining is that while all of this may have felt forced upon you, it could be the very thing your business needed to dramatically reduce the time you will spend in Whitewater and get into Predictable Success as soon as possible.
Despite their impressive 6-foot wingspans, bald eagles are only capable of lifting prey that is about 25-50% of their body weight. While most fish fit well within this range, there is the odd chance that the eagle’s catch will exceed its ability to lift it out of the water and return to its nest. This quickly becomes a big problem, because the eagle is unable to retract its talons unless it is standing (on the ground or in its nest, etc.).
In an instant, this glorious creature becomes a rather pitiful sight as it is forced to swim to the water’s edge. It’s been captured a few times on video. You can see it here:
In a few seconds, the eagle swoops down and latches on to its prey.
Then it painfully struggles for a solid 2 minutes to reach the shore.
This is probably a lot like what you’ve experienced. Like the eagle, your business grabbed on to more than it was capable of executing well. You need to stop trying to fly, and, instead, make the slow swim to the shore, and reset from there.
Your path forward
Enough of eagles and anecdotes… What does this mean for your business?
Here are the three phases of what I believe is the best strategy for you to regroup and get your business back into winning form.
- Take the hit
- Find your footing
- Go on the offensive
I’ll walk you through each of these phases.
Phase 1: Take the hit
If your business was in Whitewater, here’s the bad news: there is no going forward without first taking a step backward.
Chances are you got into Whitewater by opening up a new location, launching a new product or service, expanding your market, or taking on a large new client. You may have done this in the past (maybe even many times). But, for whatever reason, this time, it was one time too much.
Your business just couldn’t handle the added pressure. This is Whitewater. Under normal circumstances, you would push through Whitewater by implementing systems and processes throughout the organization from the inside out. It’s too much work, and, quite honestly, it is a bad idea in the middle of an economic recession.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve already experienced that step (or two or three) backward. Hopefully, not because it felt good, but because the faster you can accept that reality and take the hit, the quicker you will find your footing and be ready to move forward again.
If you are still holding on now, five months in, you need to recognize the fight that you’re up against. We are past the point of waiting it out, and it’s time to make what is likely going to be a tough choice.
You need to choose to take the hit, step back, lose the location, lay off some of your staff, or put that new product/service/initiative on hold. Whatever it is, it’s not going to feel like a win. But that’s ok. It’s not your fault, and even if it is, the best thing you can do is accept it and change your strategy so you can preserve the rest of the business.
Phase 2: Find your footing
Once you’ve taken that step back, you have to work quickly to find your footing. Your remaining staff will really struggle in the uncertainty, especially if their jobs are on the line.
This is where clarity is so important. It is natural to wait for certainty to create clarity. It’s when novice investors buy high and sell low. Unfortunately, in times of uncertainty, it is the riskiest strategy.
You, as the leader, have to find a way to create clarity for your team. How you do this is up to you. You can go away for two days, have a leadership team meeting, or just plain make a decision. Whatever it is you need, if you haven’t already found your footing, you need to do it now.
As the leader, you also need to be aware of a very real, very destructive pattern that emerges in times of pressure. Visionaries can go into overdrive. In the Synergist model, the word we use to describe the “Dark Side” of a Visionary is an Arsonist.
In times of crisis, when they are under stress, Visionaries can pivot so fast they give everyone else in the organization whiplash. The Visionary feels in control; They’ve got their hands on the reigns. Everyone else feels out of control, and an enormous amount of energy gets wasted as the business tries desperately to get in sync.
If you are a strong Visionary, you have to resist the urge to pivot too much or too frequently. (If you are curious about your primary leadership style, you can take the free assessment here.)
The best way to resist the urge to “over-pivot” is to harness your energy to give your team clarity. I wrote a series on this called Fighting the Fray. If you’ve not already read it, I will encourage you to do so. I outline the following 7-strategies you can use to give your team clarity and help them find their footing so you can all move forward together.
- Paint a clear picture of the horizon
- Reinforce your values
- Focus on active prioritization
- Celebrate every win
- Meet 1-on-1 regularly
- Structure Your Meetings for Consistency
- Encourage open disagreement and require absolute commitment
Phase 3: Go on the offensive
The net effect of all that you’ve done in phases 1 and 2 is to pull the business back to its core team and core business. This could be slightly (ok very) depressing if you’re a hard-charging, up-and-to-the-right kind of leader. You’ve had years of growth, and a setback this big is a bitter pill to swallow.
However, by swallowing the pill, taking that hit, and finding your footing, you are now able to fight back. And this is where the Fun begins (ok, I’ll admit, some pun intended).
You effectively have returned back to the Fun stage. I’m sure it doesn’t feel anything like Fun. Setting the word aside, you’ll recognize the advantages of a Fun organization in times of turbulence.
I talked a lot about these advantages and outlined a strategy for Fun businesses in my article Rebuilding Your Fun Organization Post COVID-19.
You have an abundance of Operators
Operators love to finish and fix. Mix that with your ability to start and solve, and you’ve got a recipe for ingenuity, profitability, and growth. Give your Operators clear instruction and wide borders and let them go to work. Try out new ways of getting the job done. Give your sales team a little more latitude. And do it all in the context of the focus you created in phase 2. Sure, you will probably have to pivot once or twice more, but doing it with the whole team will give you your momentum back quickly.
You have an above-average tolerance for risk
Even though this can be a challenge (remember that whole arsonist thing?), it can also be a huge advantage. While the world is still struggling to make sense of things, you’ll be pushing ahead. Take risks for your clients, especially for the biggest (who are paralyzed right now) and the smallest (who are likely getting tossed around). You may miss one or two of those risks, but opportunities abound if you do your job well.
You got your agility back
In Whitewater, things slow down. I’d be willing to bet March and April were pretty brutal. But here, now, you’ve already paid that price. It’s time to cash it in. Move quickly together. Take advantage of the short feedback loops from the front-line to management and move faster than everyone else.
The advantage you have over Fun businesses
In some ways, you were at a disadvantage relative to business who were squarely in Fun at the start of the year. However, if you really focus on getting phases 1 and 2 right and then hitting phase three with all your might, you could create some absolutely incredible growth and breakthroughs in the coming months.The distinct advantage you have over those Fun organizations is that you have more experience. You have more experience winning in your current market. You've probably had more experience failing in other markets as well. Click To Tweet
The distinct advantage you have over those Fun organizations is that you have more experience. You have more experience winning in your current market. You’ve probably had more experience failing in other markets as well.
Combining these experiences, you’ll have a much better understanding of the guard rails and early warning signs that indicate Whitewater is ahead. You’ll be able to push it off further than others and experience more of the benefits of Fun for longer.
I hardly have to tell you all of this, so think of it more as an encouragement than an instruction. It’s been a tough year, but your business is far from over. You’ve had some setbacks, but you also have some incredible advantages. You’ve struggled, but so have most businesses.
Now is not the time to stop. Now is not the time to “wait it out.” Now IS the time to push hard with the wisdom that only comes with the slight aftertaste of failure. You’re in a prime position to move your entire company forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you looked back at this time in a year or two and count it as one of the greatest blessings to your business.