The day-to-day demands can be so overwhelming and time consuming that most small business owners are thankful to have overcome their challenges of the hour – never mind the ones that are coming around the corner.
So it’s not surprising that forecasting industry changes and problems for your company before they surface is a challenge for small businesses.
Yet, it is crucial for a business owner to carve out time in his or her schedule to think ahead and to foresee what is going to happen next or what hypothetically could happen, said Jacqueline Sousa, Director of Business Operations of Florida International University’s Executive and Professional Education.
Depending on the business and level of activity, this could mean dedicating on your calendar one or two hours each week – or each month – to review the status of projects or personnel, to think about next steps and possible obstacles in taking those steps, said Sousa, who formerly directed Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center within FIU’s College of Business.
“It requires good old-fashioned ‘time to think’ and following a process that creates outcomes. It’s not just time to think alone, but also time to think together with your team, making sure to give a voice to even unpopular opinions. For this to work, the company culture needs to be one in which everyone – from the CEO to the floor sweeper – feels comfortable speaking honestly,” Sousa said.
Tak Takasu, a strategy analyst and consultant with SBDC at FIU, also believes involving the whole team because there is power in numbers. She says small business owners can read the signs in the market – indeed, they are close to their market and likely talking to customers every day – but they are so busy putting out fires it’s not always front and center in importance.
Takasu believes the challenge for small businesses is about how to be agile and act upon intelligence as it is emerging, such as new technology on the horizon, a regulation making its way through approvals or a competitive threat. Reactions could range from creating a new revenue stream to rethinking your business model.
“For small businesses, a lot of things are in the business owner’s head but as long as it’s there the team can’t help you. Pull out your hunches, your intuition, what you are seeing it in the market. Start writing it down so you can share with your team and advisors and begin connecting the dots,” said Takasu.
She suggests setting up an intelligence collection system, for rumors, observations and possible trends about the market. Share and seek input in staff meetings because perhaps your finance or sales person knows something from a different perspective.
“This creates a systematically interactive way to track trends. Log in rumors, because you never know what could be emerging that is worth evaluating,” she said. “If you start jotting down those little nuggets, that will start a more formal institutionalized process to pick up on what matters so you can take action on a timely basis. … As long as you can spot what is happening and come up with a way to take advantage of it, you are really in a good position.”
Small businesses may be even better positioned for spotting and reacting to market shifts than large corporations because corporations can become comfortable — and complacent – therefore missing the bigger picture, said Takasu, who spent years consulting for large corporations. “For a small business, if you do that, you’re dead.”
But even the most forward-thinking small business owners need help from their employees, customers, suppliers, bankers and consultants. “Founders might think it is all in their head but the power is in numbers,” Takasu said.
Sousa agrees that company leadership should be communicating and discussing the big issues of their industry and business. She suggest regularly scheduled strategy sessions and retreats. “In a fast-changing industry, doing this once a year is not enough. It may need to happen twice a year or quarterly. Also, bringing in outside perspectives is extremely important. These meetings can be an opportune time to invite outside consultants or experts to share their views,” she said.
Businesses that have a strong culture of collaborating are in the best position to react swiftly to whatever comes their way.
“Even with good, consistent communication and feedback, businesses are going to encounter unforeseen problems. Regular communication helps in these cases as well,” Sousa said. “Even if the team did not foresee a problem, the consistent communication often helps teams collaborate better – allowing them to quickly unite and overcome unforeseen challenges when they do arise.”
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