Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War,” was a military strategist and tactician who lived thousands of years ago. He is arguably one of the most studied individuals by military minds, business leaders and coaches, who leverage his countless principles and theories to drive success. While there are many barbaric and insidious strategies in Tzu’s mantras, the quote “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” strikes a chord in these challenging times.
While it most likely refers to a military force striking an enemy during a time when their forces appear in disarray, we can all use this refrain as businesses attempt to craft a new strategy amid today’s turbulent environment. COVID-19 has taken so much from us all—whether is it the loss of life and millions of sick individuals or the deeper economic ramifications of the shutdowns and delays related to the pandemic that continue to evolve.
Given our druthers, I am sure every human would opt for a year on which no pandemic altered life so greatly. However, Tzu’s quote might have a deeper meaning for the world. English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller had a similar notion that “the darkest hour is just before the dawn.”
Great leaders recognize the pain and agony of any horrible situation, but it is the greatest of them that have the capacity identify the positive and create opportunity.
Jay Bowman, principal and leading researcher at FMI Corporation, has used another descriptor that may provide context for future strategy: “Bears and bulls exist in all economies.” Bowman references this quote when examining the last recession.
His thesis is that even during the Great Recession, there were markets that thrived and grew. So much of the first half of 2020 has been focused on playing defense, whether it be against COVID-19 or simply battling the market forces.
Strategies are tested all the time, and markets are hardly static. In fact, there will be opportunity for nimble and agile businesses to be successful in the new normal. However, the great businesses do not sit still and wait for the market to come to them. There is no crystal ball that will help these businesses predict the market outcome for the coming 6 to 12 months, but the successful ones will act decisively and with purpose.
Two inalienable truths have become evident in 2020—a deeper appreciation for statistics and hygiene. Early on, as the world learned about distribution curves (and flattening them) it also become keenly aware of hygiene principles that we probably should have had long before the coronavirus pandemic. That said, the construction industry has seen an amazing forced metamorphosis over a short period of time.
Starting a day’s work has been supplanted with a new set of rules related to hygiene and distancing. On the surface, the tedious, yet necessary, steps could be viewed as productivity killers. However, businesses are refocusing on elements like crew size, proper planning and activity prioritization that are more deliberate.
Countless times, the phrase “activity does not equal productivity” provides a subtle reminder to field teams that ambling around a jobsite without purpose is costly. The rules will require businesses to rethink their cost structure, but it will also help create more opportunities for improvement. Not to mention, we probably needed the refocus on the jobsite cleanliness anyway.
It is a safe assumption that the world is ready to get back to more sociability and fewer virtual meetings. However, as bandwidths were taxed to the hilt as town halls, production meetings, webinars and trainings were being leveraged, the construction industry learned a valuable lesson. Technology has a place and, when done right, teams can be as or more productive than traditional means.
In fact, these collaborative tools are just the tipping point for other advancements to enable better productivity, better quality, safer projects and a better experience for all. While the desire is to get back to normal, organizations should also be more focused on making that a better normal that ever before.
The balance sheet is another financial instrument that leaders have more regularly consulted recently. As businesses hunkered down, controllers and chief financial officers poured over the data to explore the firm’s resiliency. How long and how deep could businesses thrive, surviving on the cash in the business? Additionally, collecting outstanding receivables was another area of focus. For some readers, these last two statements appear ordinary.
Put another way, should we not have been doing this all along? Similar happenings occurred during the last recession. Businesses become hyperfocused on cash flow and cash reserves. This is an opportunity that should persist long after the pandemic is over. It shouldn’t take something like this for businesses to forget the basic tenets of healthy best practices.
Expansion & Growth
Finally, it is clear that some businesses will thrive while others may languish. Some may languish through no fault of their own—victims of horrible circumstances. When examined in totality—markets, productivity, technology, cash flow—best-in-class firms will be poised to leverage opportunities either created by businesses exiting a sector, geography or niche or capitalize through acquisition, assuming there is something marketable in a target.
In the end, the market will continue to have opportunities, and the firms that maintain their agility and wherewithal will be in the right position to come out stronger. Survival of the fittest will dictate who succeeds, and those firms who find the upside in the upside down will come out victorious.