"Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."
—John F. Kennedy
Gone are days when superior quality of product or being the best of breed was a sufficient barrier to entry and protect market leader positions. Nowadays, there is increased reliance on the softer aspects of business such as building brand awareness/ brand loyalty through marketing communications strategies, establishing strategic partnerships, keeping product features fresh, new and relevant; all while leveraging innovative platforms such as social media.
In these modern times of technology, rapid gratification and labor market mobility, organizational change is a way of life. This change could mean any number of things from shifting organizational culture, to operational processes to strategic directions. One needs to learn to expect it, and plan for it. Microsoft has created a plethora of great examples for dwindling companies that did not prepare for change. Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect were all at the top of their game when a little known company called Microsoft entered the market with Windows/Office. These companies underestimated the competitive landscape and now they are struggling relics of the information age.
Much as this is true for large businesses, it is also true for small businesses as information savvy consumers will now gravitate towards competitors who are able to offer the best value for money and/or a differentiated buying experience. In order to protect your financial bottom-line, you need to be able to understand the rhythm of your market, separate out the urgent from the important, and build in enough flexibility into your system to be able to change with market needs.
I love the quote, "Without a destination, it is difficult to know which road to take." When you know what to change, putting the ball in motion becomes the easier part. Some of your change will be a result of internal growing pains e.g. evolution of your product and story, and some of it will have to be driven by your competitors. There has been an explosion in small business growth as, in addition to the traditional groups, several laid off workers have struck out on their own. It is becoming a busy, and noisy, marketplace. With consumer knowledge at an incline, it is imperative to understand competitive positioning so that you can react and change direction when needed. Monitoring competitors’ pricing, product features, sales strategies and anticipated strategic directions are key in prioritizing areas of change.
If there is one thing you need to instill in your organization’s work habit, it is the ability to separate the urgent from the important. Business execution and putting out daily fires is necessary but not sufficient. In doing so, you are probably inhibiting your growth as it becomes difficult to anticipate opportunities, let alone prepare for it. If need be, enable the appropriate employees to take on the lower priority tasks while you shepherd the strategic direction for your company. This means establishing well-understood processes that give employees some degree of freedom to make responsible decisions. Their solution may not be your first pick, but ask yourself, ‘does it get the work done?’ and if so, move on. This sense of ownership of problems will bring efficiency of epic proportions, and will help build a workforce ready to react.
Cash strapped small businesses are often forced to run a lean operation, leaving very little financial wiggle room to react to necessary changes. This can be managed better if you can develop the discipline of differentiating between a ‘need’ versus a ‘want’. Even question the simplest of things such as the purchase of an extra stapler. It is a fine line between seeming miserly and seeming focused on creating good business habits, but it is a line you have to walk to set good examples with your workers. Imbibing the culture of living like a true entrepreneur will set the stage for sustainable processes. You will quickly see that creating necessities such as financial and operational buffers, investing in business development and creating strategic partnerships at all layers of your company become easier because everyone will understand that a dollar saved is a dollar available to build your business for the longer term.
Having the ability to react constructively to change is an intangible asset in modern times and the only way to navigate the ever-changing ecosystem for your business. I would not make it more important than developing your product, but those of you with a maturing product must focus on these buckets - to build in flexibility into your organization so that you can quickly steer it in a direction of opportune growth. Only you have the power to choose between being a steady boulder or flowing like the raging river.